Theory & Science (2001)

ISSN: 1527-5558

A Turn To Scientific Analysis And Democratic Deliberation In Environmental Policy:
Political Risk, Legitimation Crisis Or Policy Imperative?

Margarita Alario
Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign


Dominant methods of policy analysis based on costs and benefits cannot accurately assess the value of resources not traded on markets, yet environmental policy must rely on them. From this perspective, environmental policy is fraught from its inception with risk for those who oversee it and for the natural areas encompassed by it. To complicate matters, environmental policy has been burdened by criteria not imposed on other regulatory areas, such as national security or economic growth. As I argue in the present paper, analytic deliberation is an alternative model for addressing the realities of environmental policy making and ensuring the implementation of sound science via democratic vigilance. Building on the insights of sociological theory, this work purports: 1) To assess the strength and weaknesses of specific social theoretical perspectives to shed light on the environmental policy paradox; 2) to explore the function of scientific input to the overall analytic deliberative model in policy making; and 3) to evaluate policy outcomes and their implementation given specific case studies.


Decisions about environmental policy have long been dominated by cost-benefit analysis with serious consequences to biodiversity assets not traded on markets. Against this background, environmental sciences have intensified their role in public discussions about environmental policies. A case in point is the National Council for Science and the Environment (NCSE) that has been working since 1990 to expand the advisory role of sciences in the making of policies. A decade later, enough work has been accomplished to embark on the first National Conference on Science, Policy and the Environment (National Academy of Science, WDC, December 7-8, 2000), and to schedule future ones. The reports, however, do not reveal understanding of the “risks to the politics” inherent within environmental policy decisions. To put it bluntly, even when state agencies act in order to avoid alienating environmental supporters, the ecological measures expand the matrix of possible regulatory failures, what in turn, adds fuel to the legitimation crisis or political risk to elected governments. This helps explain government’s reluctance to unilaterally tackle ecological risks. Unlike science, the political rationale dwells on the fact that invariably, costs outweigh benefits, scientific knowledge carries uncertainties and ecological risks are not fully averted. This is not just a theoretical point, but a politically vital insight addressed by sociological theory. The sociological works of theorists such as Jürgen Habermas? Legitimation Crisis (1975) and Richard Münch?s Risikopolitik (1996), respectively, are two cases in point. The amalgamation of these two fields of knowledge, scientific and sociological, then, seems of essence to the overall understanding of environmental policy. To this aim, the integrative function of an analytic deliberative model facilitates combining scientific and social theoretical inputs.

What derives from this integrative model amounts to more than a viable alternative to the dominant cost-benefits analysis. The emphasis on analysis and deliberation structures creates an opportunity to filter viable policy outcomes on at least two accounts: If the analytic phase represents environmental sciences at work in their regulatory capacity -- including the assessing of risks, costs, and benefits -- the deliberative democratic component safeguards the process from setting priorities and goals on solely bureaucratic or economic grounds (Alario, 1998; 2000a), thus averting the potential political risks identified by sociological theory. It is viable, then, to avert excessive dependence on scientific advice at the cost of democratic discussion. This is in congruence with the fact that after all, sound techniques for achieving environmental policy goals are selective goals within a range of competing interests and value preferences that cannot be legitimated by referring to scientific arguments and measurements, alone. Conversely, the input of science constrains decisions solely determined by political expediency or economic interest, but lacking scientific soundness. The appeal to visualize the analytic deliberative model as the two faces of one coin may help grasp its overall structure.

Environmental policy as the outcome of analytic deliberation is not simply a normative claim, but a model that finds empirical support in the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 that introduced scientific and public inputs to the body of environmental legislation. Unlike NEPA’s lack of stipulation of time limits per decision unit, the shift to an analytic deliberative model presupposes setting environmental performance targets coupled to specific timetables for their achievement. This is in full recognition of the political hazards to regulatory actions or inaction. This is the more relevant as environmental risks have turned out to be both a decision forcing situation and an action forcing event

What Theoretical Insights: Legitimation Crisis, Political Risks or Policy Imperatives?

To some of those who work on ecological problems and environmental policy responses from the sociological perspective, the idea that Habermas’ Legitimation Crisis (1975 promises analytic insights may come as a surprise. After all, the field of environmental policy remains a marginal consideration to the overall work of Habermas. Yet, extrapolating from the notion of legitimation crisis is useful to the overall understanding of environmental policy particularly when coupled to Münch’s Risikopolitik (1996). It is in this work where environmental policy comes into view as a risk to the politics. The insights gained from these theories carry a sobering message to the function of regulatory sciences (Alario and Brün, 2001) in general, and the recent effort of NCSE in particular. Concurrently, such understanding adds weight to the impetus of democratic participation in policy making.

The sociological treatments of issues that concern the legitimacy of the social order have been expressed in different ways. The roots of this trend in its most recent history, dates back at least to the work of Habermas’s Legitmation Crisis ([1973] 1975). Most of the sociological work in this tradition raises the question of “legitimation crisis” emphasizing the challenges of the state in maintaining its authority by minimizing economic risks and maximizing economic performance, (see Habermas 1973, 1975; O’Connor 1973; Offe 1985; Block 1987).

The Habermasian line of analysis is concerned with the structural dilemmas of modern states in relationship to the capitalist market economy: Whereas economic vitality discourages regulating economic actors, the prevention of extreme social inequalities demands the firm hand of the state in order to avoid a crisis. In essence legitimation crisis signals the contradictions of the political administrative system and its need to simultaneously secure the legality of private capital accumulation and assume the external costs of market dysfunctions to assure support for governmental activity (1975, p. 50). Far from being the only type of crisis tendency, Habermas develops a full typology that includes economic, rationality and motivation crises (1975, p. 61). To avoid a domino effect from crisis to crisis, the state must steer society away from the conflicts generated by the economic system, including a host of natural environmental problems. Thus, it is compatible with Habermas’s to consider the possible metamorphosis of environmental crisis into a legitimation crisis. This is a theoretical insight that carries political administrative consequences when we think about field of environmental policy.

If the economic analysis dominated the legitimation crisis approach in the 1970s, by the mid 1980s the Habermasian thesis had shifted. The attention was put on the challenges to the legitimacy of the state now being censured for its role as risk manufacturer and sponsor of high-risk technologies (see Alario and Freudenburg, 2001). To this day, the sociological work on risk has accumulated sufficiently to discern different macrosociological lines of analysis (see Short, 1984; Perrow, 1984, Giddens, 1990; Beck 1992; Freudenburg, 1993; Alario, 1995). To the body of work that had already identified risk to the “social fabric,” to use Short’s concept (1984), Münch introduces yet another twist: environmental policy as “risk to the political fabric.” If crisis describes an unstable condition and decisive moment of change, risk pertains to the potential loss, damage, or hazard to the integrity of social systems. High technological innovations have generated a host of environmental risks what in turn called into question our trust in modernity and its developments. In response, environmental policy gained support as a method of risk management. However, the newly acquired custody has not been pursued without certain degree of hazards to the politics. It is this contingency of double political risks what circumvents Münch’s analysis (see, fig 1). When it comes to environmental policy arguably, the gravity of environmental problems makes them imperative. However, the crux of the matter is that, as Münch puts it, in the process of generating risk-control mechanisms, the political system itself becomes at risk (Alario, 1998). As Münch expresses, political risks derive from the intervention of the state and its regulatory failure to protect the natural environment (1996, p.165). This is an important theoretical understanding precisely because it captures the inescapable contradiction of environmental policies. This environmental policy paradox has been exacerbated by the globalization process that challenges anew the regulatory reach of nation states. Suffice here to mention the development of complex system of wireless information technology and the matter of global warming. Though radically different, these events share a common fate: Neither can be effectively surveyed, much less be regulated through the policy mechanisms of single nation-states. Still, I argue, environmental policy inaction is a riskier political proposition, not only on democratic grounds, as environmental policy has support as shown for instance, in the latest global Gallup survey (Dunlap, et al., 1992), but also on scientific and democratic grounds (see, fig 2). It is nonetheless thanks to Münch’s diagnosis that we gain insight into this particular chemistry of the environmental policy paradox.

Science, Policy and the Natural Environment: Nepa’S Unfinished Business and Ncse’S Quandary

The 1969 National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), launched what became known as the environmental decade, setting a course for a comprehensive governmental action (Caldwell, 1998). Two of the innovative provisions enacted by NEPA are the mandatory advice of science and citizens. Within a decade, however, the intent of NEPA had been undermined. The cost-benefits analysis dominant in the anti-regulatory 1980s, soon replaced risk analysis as the main action-forcing criterion. However, what we gain from the sociological analysis is an insight that goes beyond anti environmental political junctures of this decade. The political burden of environmental policy making has only been exacerbated by NEPA’s failure to include a systematic operational statement of performance targets coupled to specific timetables for their achievement. This vacuum has only added vagueness to the fulfillment of a national environmental policy agenda. Consequently, the effort lunched by the National Council for Science and the Environment is a relevant project, but one that needs to be work within the integrative model of policy making, as worked within the analytic deliberative one. In many NCSE is well positioned in this regard, as it has taken upon it self to pare scientific reports on environmental problems and make them accessible to both Congress and the public, at large. But to what end and in whose time? The operationalization of performance targets within specific timetables can only result from the democratic deliberation that takes place both at institutional and extra institutional levels.

Of all the methods of analysis and assessment that emerged, including environmental, socioeconomic, technological, risk, and cost-benefit, environmental impact statements (EIS) became the only one integral to NEPA and subsequent environmental policies. From its inception, EIS refers to the explanatory process to determine conditions through an environmental impact statement, including analysis and evaluation. Environmental Impact Assessment expanded the use of science in policy making and implementation. The sole use of this analytical procedure became the target of much criticism. EIA objectors questioned the validity of environmental science and the cost of the mandatory environmental analysis. The decade of the 1970s is recognized in the United States as a period of legislative environmental activism because of its rich legacy of environmental regulation. The complexity of pressing environmental issues required a highly specialized steering mechanism. Environmental policy was the bipartisan choice to tackle the problems at hand. However, by the 1980s, it became clear that the environmental policy agenda was against a paradox of its own making. If it is true that environmental policies proved to be a rational response to pressing ecological crisis, it was not less true that they were failing to regulate it. In one sense, the intractability of ecological risks had transformed environmental policy into a dubious method, feeding into what Habermas has identified as legitimation crisis and fulfilling Münch’s notion of risk to the politics.

The election of republican presidential candidate, Ronald Reagan, in1981 was a turning point for environmental critiques and ushered in the first wave of attack against environmental policies. Reagan’s successor, George Bush, followed suit in 1988. By 1992, democratic candidate Bill Clinton was elected President and with him, Vice-President and environmentalist, Al Gore. Although soon after, a Republican majority was elected in Congress in 1994, with the promise to roll the environmental state back in, as specified in the manifesto, Contract with America.1 This second wave of environmental policy assault pitted “bad” environmental science and its costly risk analysis against “good” science that would not stand in the way of economic development. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in charge of securing environmental standards, tried to trump deregulation by casting itself as a cancer fighting agency. The tactic worked to a degree. Environmental hazards tightly associated with health, and air and water pollution fared well (Fiorino, 1995). At the same time, the ecological risks loosely connected with well being, such as ecosystem restoration and biodiversity preservation, met a different fate. Implementation of these types of environmental policies could only be justified if they met strict cost-benefit criteria. Events that demanded a different reaction ensued, in Habermas’s terminology a legitimation crisis even if this proved to be a deficit by design.

From the perspective of the present analysis, it is important to remember that economic analysis has played an important, yet changing role in environmental policy making. EPA and other agencies have used different types of economic analyses: economic impact, cost-effectiveness, and cost-benefit analysis. Economic impact analysis uses a simple cause-effect model. Its purpose is to predict the effects of governmental agency actions on the private economic sector. Cost-effectiveness is another analytical tool for assessing the rate of attaining a predetermined policy goal. This analysis is usually subsumed under cost-benefit analysis. The intent of cost-effectiveness analysis is to discern resulting consequences and effectiveness, with cost-benefit analysis highlighting the cost side of the equation. Cost-benefit is the most frequently used and conclusive form of economic analysis. According to Fiorino (1995, p. 124), it includes: a) assessing expected effects; b) assessing dollar values to each category of the equation; c) comparing costs against benefits; d) calculating the ratio of cost to benefits; and d) policy selection.

It is important to recognize that cost-benefit analysis is relevant in the process of public resource allocation. The problem with this analysis is the priority given to it in the setting of broad social and ecological priorities in the ideological battle against environmental protection. For, to what degree can this analysis calculate ecological benefits? To what degree can it assess a value of environmental goods that are not traded in markets? Just to bring the point home, what is the price of preserving the Grand Canyon?

In sum, the neoconservative agendas of the Reagan Administration (Szasz, 1994; Alario, 1997), and later of House Speaker Newt Gingrich tried to radically roll the environmental state back in (Alario, 1997). Beyond these attempts, however, the environmental policy paradox has endured. For, if the historical junctures of the past three decades have created different sets of opportunities for environmental policy, the structural dissimilarities between environmental regulation and other regulatory spheres continues to restrict its steering capacity. Environmental policy may be necessary, but given the state’s priorities, the reach of policies is bound. Conventional methods of policy analysis impose boundaries from the moment of environmental policy design. It is worth noting that there are no comparable ecological cost-benefit criteria for technological military research or for state-sanctioned economic growth. Environmental policy comes as a distant second in the list of the state priorities. If not a set back, this situation is clearly a challenge to the efforts of the NCES to increase its role in public policy debates as it is for the engagement of the environmental community invested in the realization of environmental projects.

An Analytic Deliberative Turn in Policy Analysis

It is too early to make grandiose pronouncements about the triumph of scientific analysis and democratic deliberation over the dominant cost benefits analysis. It is even more complicated the case given the insights gained from sociological theory. It is however possible to peak into reality and make up a cautionary tale about the viability of an integrative model such as analytic deliberation (see, table1).

With the plan set in Agenda 21 2 about 185 signatory nations committed themselves to the goals of biodiversity preservation, ecosystem restoration, and habitat protection. Despite this global commitment, the implementation of such an agenda has remained painfully elusive and agonizingly complex. However, project by project and target by target, biodiversity objectives have been accomplished in some handful of cases. And, whereas scientific goals have been at the mercy of opposing sets of demands and time dimensions -- biological, socioeconomic, and political -- policy implementation has been guaranteed through the vigilance of both the scientific and civic environmental communities. This is compatible with the findings of Stone (1988), Fischer and Forester (1993) which show that policy making is indeed a constant debate and discourse. However, without time frameworks coupled to outcomes -- be it biological, political or socioeconomic—environmental policy is impractical at best, if not entirely a futile project. Forty miles southwest of Chicago sits the former Joliet Army Ammunition Plant (JAAP), today the site of an ecological restoration project part of the 19,000-acre (7,721-hectare) Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie. This project is one in over fifty coordinated efforts of the collaborative venture of the so-called Chicago Wilderness, a consortium of about 130 public-private organizations. The object is to restore biodiversity to well over 200,000 acres in this heavily urbanized region.

Beginning in 1940, the JAAP served as one of the U.S.’ largest manufacturing, loading assembling, and packing sites for munitions and explosives, and later as a storage site for antipersonnel mines and cluster bombs during the Korean and Vietnam Wars, respectively. The construction of the JAAP required the purchase of 14,841 hectares at a cost of $8.18 million and total construction costs of over $81 million. The Joliet Plant is by no means the only such case. In all, 77 such plants were built during World War II to support wartime needs, and later the needs of the military industrial complex of the Cold War. At the time the JAAP was built, it was considered the largest, most sophisticated munitions plant in the world. Over 10,425 people were employed at the plant’s two facilities at peak production during WWII. Of these, the Elwood, loaded over 926 million bombs, shells, mines, detonators, fuses, and boosters. The other one, the Kankakee, set a national record producing over one billion pounds of TNT. In 1945, with operations on standby, the facilities were redesigned into one unit, the Joliet Arsenal. The Arsenal was reactivated during the Korean and again during the Vietnam War, when the facility was renamed the Joliet Army Ammunition Plant. TNT production ended in 1976, and by the late 1970’s, most operations at the JAAP had ceased. At the time it was declared inactive, the JAAP covered a combined total of 9,534 hectares. During the construction of the JAAP, 45 percent of the landscape was modified to some degree. Most of the JAAP’s buildings remain standing, however, the majority have been idle for 20 years. Over 1,000 of its 1,462 buildings date back to WW II. Other remnants of the Arsenal’s heyday include 322 kilometers of roads, 267 kilometers of railroad, and 392 “igloos” that were used to store ammunition and explosives. The site also is enclosed by nearly 60 kilometers of 2.4 meter-high chain-link fencing, topped with three strands of barbed wire. Now that TNT production has ended, Grant Creek has recovered and exhibits the highest biological diversity on the property. But, the chemicals involved in the manufacture of TNT still contaminate the top few meters of soil in the 1,620 hectare-area where processing took place.

To make a long story short, the environmental legacy of the JAAP lingers in the landscape. Against this background, The Chicago Wilderness Coalition has been actively coordinating the restoration of the area’s ecosystems, including the former Joliet arsenal. The democratic input of restorationists has reached beyond the decisions of elected representatives in setting goals and timetables and in the process, the participation of restorationists and critics alike, have become integral to the policy making process. The same is true for the participation of scientific advisory committees monitoring as well the U.S. Department of Defense completion of clean ups, until the transfer of these ecosystems to the USDA Forest Service for inclusion in the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie. The work is pursued by a growing cadre of “citizen scientists” responsible for collecting data and implementing conservation plans. Their findings are passed to ecologists and land managers, as well as to state and federal officials. Beyond biodiversity goals, the data gathered by this group of volunteers is being used to the develop a along-term plan for metropolitan Chicago.

In the case of Joliet’s restoration project, scientific arguments were not the sole catalyst for pursing such policy. Restoration policy was filtered through much deliberative practices and hearings that took place before any set of objectives found agreement. It is accurate to state that in the end process led to a synthesis of scientifically achievable and democratically agreed upon set of goal. After some initial set backs and mistakes (Freudenburg and Alario 1999; Alario 2000b), the avenue for this synthesis became possible in the context of analytic deliberation from which participants negotiated and influenced decisions. This is consistent with the realities of multiple interests, value preferences, and scientific debates—all characteristics of complex societies responding to complex environmental problems.


The rate of biodiversity loss is both a decision and action-forcing event and environmental policy measures are one way to tackle ecological problems. In its capacity to regulate, elected governments acquire political risks, as sociological theories have pointed out. This scenario is likely to persist, for as much as cost benefit analysis -- not ecological capital in the currency of biodiversity—dominates the field of policy making, scientific knowledge and democratic support can be easily undermined. From this perspective, then, to insist on an analytic deliberative turn in policy analysis is not just a normative democratic claim but one that carries practical implications. Close examination of the Joliet restoration projects support the viability of such analysis, as biodiversity goals can be tangible policy objectives.

In addition, beyond the theoretical foundations, the analytic deliberative model finds support in the institutionalized requirements of decision making specified in the body of environmental policy. As dictated by NEPA and later reinforced in the Freedom of Information Act (1974), policy making must include scientifically informed and participatory public reasoning and on this basis it is fair to say that NCES is well positioned to expand its regulatory influence and the examination of the Joliet restoration projects attest to applicability of such an analysis and the Chicago Wilderness Coalition has made preservation of biodiversity an achievable policy objective. In this context, then, the political risks to the system can only turn into a riskier political proposition, should a regulatory environmental state neglect scientific warnings of biodiversity loss and a democratic public sphere that recognizes protection as one of its unquestionable policy goals.


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