Environmental Policy-making

Numerous models have been suggested for how scientific knowledge affects policy-making. A case study of environmental policy in the Himalayan region illustrates two such models.

In the so-called rationalist model, the “truth” about the environment (often scientifically produced) talks to “power” (policymakers in government), who then act rationally upon the information given to them and enact policy accordingly. This has also been called the expert-led policy model, since it largely relies on authoritative technical and scientific knowledge rather than on a wider range of other perspectives from society at large.

The other model, which could be labeled “political and discursive,” is much more complex: Not only scientists, bureaucrats, and politicians have leverage in the policy-making process, but also the media, industrialists, trade unions, social movements, and many others. Competing representations of what is important and relevant constitute a range of competing “truths.”

Both models can be examined in terms of how well they correspond to the process by which policy is actually made and should be made. Interesting lessons can be drawn, using these models, when a significant “truth” upon which policy is based falls from favor— as in the case of a theory which helped to underwrite environmental policy in the Himalayan region for many years, and then was shown to be substantially incorrect. Each model also suggests different styles of policy-making and different policy outcomes.


Two Approaches to Environmental Policy

Both models have a descriptive purpose (“this is how policy is made”) and a normative one (“this is how policy should be made”). Under the rationalist policy model, scientists speak about reality to bureaucrats and politicians, who then act rationally to determine policy. This model usually relies on expert and authoritative knowledge, often framed and created by a small group of senior administrators and government research institutions. Policy therefore tends to construct, upon narrow foundations of knowledge, a unique diagnosis of the problem and what should be done about it.


Environmental Policy is Political

Thus, even the rationalist and expert-led model of policy is highly political. First, the choice of problems to be addressed, the way in which they are framed, and the production and selection of scientific information, all suit the powerful bureaucratic drive to control the policy debate. Second, scientific knowledge is, to a greater or lesser extend,  dependent on governments and scientific institutions. Governments fund research organizations to solve problems set by policymakers, and will not as a rule fund research that might undermine established wisdom and the powerful justification for continued state control over natural resources.

This situation is as widespread in India or China as it is in the West. It tends to exclude alternative (and inconvenient) research agendas, including study of the environmental management practices of local resource users. This ensures that the production of “scientific” knowledge is monopolized by the state through exclusive reliance on state-sanctioned and state-financed research. Third, practitioners of this model separate policy-making from implementation, making it possible to blame policy failure on poor implementation, lack of political will, and the interference of politicians, rather than on flaws in the policy itself. In this case, a perception of poor implementation can lead to an even stronger resolve to make fortress conservation work and to defend the Himalayan environment from local resource users. Fourth, as illustrated by the conflict between central government and pastoralists in China, strategic and political factors that have little to do with environmental management can nonetheless strongly influence it.



What can we conclude from this case study of environmental Policy making in the Himalayas?

First, there are many powerful reasons for the persistence of the rationalist/expert-led model of environmental policy-making. These reasons take different forms in different countries, yet have striking similarities. Second, the rationalist style of policy making can suffer from a number of shortcomings. Policy makers may continue to rely on environmental and political narratives (usually of blame) that have been refuted by reputable new research, and may find it difficult to evaluate and act upon new scientific information, especially if it comes from outside the policy-making elite.

Third, policy makers tend to react with hostility to new policy paradigms involving democracy, transparency, and negotiated multiple truths, thereby missing opportunities for policy reform. Fourth, the political and discursive style of policy-making allows a new form of natural science to contribute to environmental management practices that are deliberative, inclusive, and participatory. While this style does not guarantee such “democracy of knowledge,” it makes it possible. We cannot understand environmental problems if we do not incorporate the views of the multiple stakeholders who operate on a landscape. We also have to appreciate that these stakeholders operate on an uneven playing field with diverse abilities to make their knowledge claims known—some voices will speak louder than others.

Fifth, and finally, policies made in the rationalist and expert led style have tended to be ultra-conservationist and top-down. State-imposed tenure regimes and tough exclusionary policies in the name of conservation often produce worse outcomes, in both environmental and socioeconomic terms, than a range of diverse and flexible policies that trust local people more with the management of local natural resources.


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