Subsidiatiry and Being Place-based

It is the political season and I find myself turning off the news and withdrawing from conversations.  I remain frustrated by the lack of fiscal restraint, the elevation of either the market or the government, and the lack of focus on what really works on the ground.  The rhetoric at both political ends remains at a level that is far detached from the scale at which communities are built and maintained.

In the midst of my discouragement, it was refreshing to recently attend a lecture at Gordon College by Michael Gerson, a conservative, nationally-syndicated columnist for the Washington Post.  He was a speech-writer for President George W. Bush, but also works with Bono, serving as a Senior Advisor to ONE, a bipartisan organization that works to combat extreme poverty and preventable diseases.  Rather than mirroring the rhetoric that we hear in the public sphere, he reminded me of two concepts that have profoundly shaped my thinking—subsidiarity and mediating institutions—and how these two concepts and perspectives have the promise of moving American politics beyond the present political gridlock.
The concept of subsidiarity is a principle for societal design that calls for the movement of decisions affecting people’s lives to the lowest scale of capable social organization.   Under the subsidiarity principle, the higher authority has the burden of proof about the need to centralize.  And the higher authority has an obligation to strengthen the capacity of the lower level institutions to manage responsibilities.  It is about capacity-building at the lowest levels wherever possible (Curry 2002:  Community on Land).
The obligation to build capacity—rather than to take control—leads to the strengthening of what are called “mediating structures, ” the institution that exist between the individual and the state.  Mediating institutions include everything from non-profits, to the church, to community groups.  In my book Community on Land, I argue that the strengthening of these mediating structures is essential for ecological and social health because they exist and work at the scale of many problems, and their solutions are often more sustainable—it is the scale at which results are monitored and observed.  Mediating institutions also emphasize local knowledge and context and build trust across political differences because they reflect a common shared commitment to a place.
I recently spent time conversing with people about these issues and their story of public response to a recent incident when I visited the Bay of Plenty in New Zealand.  On October 5, 2011, the cargo ship, the Rena, a Liberia-flagged 235m vessel, heading toward Tauranga, New Zealand crashed into the Astrolabe Reef, twelve kilometers off shore and within view of the harbor.  The cargo ship was carrying 1900 tons of fuel and 1386 containers (11 of which contained hazardous substances).  Of course, Liberian-flagged ships are common—I think you could argue that the free market leads to a tendency toward the migration of registration toward the countries with the least regulation and cost for registration for cargo ships. 
After the crash, Maritime New Zealand, the government agency responsible for responding to such incidents, attempted to identify the owner and begin to address the potential problems.  In the meantime the anxiety and concern of the local people in Tauranga increased—it was their beach that was threatened.  Soon a slick was seen, stretching like a narrow ribbon.  Dispersants were used but quickly proved ineffective in rough seas.  Four dead birds are found in the water near the ship so a bird cleaning and rehabilitation center was established.  By the third day, heavy oil began to spill into the sea.  The anxiety of locals increases with the arrival of a little blue penguin in trouble on local beaches.  Unease increased as a storm approached with little action to empty the ship. 
The arrival of heavy seas made action impossible and by the sixth day, globules of oil were found on the beaches and foul fumes were in the air.  Many locals were speechless and a local Maori leader cursed official over their lack of action. 
Local people, grieving and upset over the lack of government action to protect their local environment, began to wander onto the beach, ignoring the warnings to stay away. Out of desperation and a need to respond, they scraped up contaminated sand, leaving little plastic bags of the stuff dotted on beaches.  Local lifeguards took upon themselves the responsibility of keeping people off the beach, but soon realized that it was affecting their relationships with their communities.   
Al Fleming from Forest and Bird spelled out what is at stake. 10,000 grey-faced petrels, thousands of diving petrels, white-faced storm petrels and fluttering shearwaters breeding on nearby islands, several thousand gannets, 200 to 300 little blue penguins.  Shorebirds such as endangered New Zealand dotterels, and oystercatchers and white-fronted terns were starting to nest on sandy beaches just above the high tide mark.  There was also danger to finfish, shellfish, crustaceans, filter feeders and other seafloor life.
About the 7th day, Environment Minister Nick Smith told a crowd in Tauranga that oil has been pouring out and would continue to do so for weeks.  The locals asked:  Why have we not been allowed to be involved?  While they talked, a wandering albatross was found dead, so covered in oil it could barely be identified. Two hundred birds had died and more than 1000 would succumb to the effects of the oil.  Debris was strewn far and wide, including thousands of meat patties scattered on one beach.
Maritime New Zealand
Maritime New Zealand
 Finally, Maritime New Zealand began to engage with the public as a partner, coordinated through the Bay of Plenty Regional Council.  An information network was established, volunteers were trained, and community action and engagement was finally allowed to be funneled into positive action.  More than 8000 people volunteered.  This was their beach and their responsibility.  Their story is one that needs to be told more broadly.
Maritime New Zealand
Maritime New Zealand
Maritime New Zealand
Maritime New Zealand
This tragedy occurred in a specific place.  It emotionally and physically affected the community that inhabited that place, a community that collectively felt responsibility for the environment around them.  And decision-makers at each level had to learn to work across scale collaboratively to respond effectively and honor and build the capacity of the local community.
 So why do we get caught in the dichotomy between market and government?  The market needs oversight by government, particularly in the areas of environmental concern that involve the common good, non-market resources such as clean air and water, and in areas that involve the commons.  The market alone cannot protect the world’s oceans and the adjacent beaches from the environmental destruction that comes from the migration of registration of cargo ships to countries with the lowest possible safety measures and training in place.  The market is not a perfect instrument.  But if we put a market price on the cost of oil and included the cost of such accidents, it would certainly help.  The market can help us signal real costs.  The federal-level government needs to work in partnership with local institutions.  Otherwise it can undermine local government, local initiative, and local ownership over the stewardship of its resources.  When it does, it undermines its own ability to fulfill its duty.
Subsidiarity—it is about the responsibility of higher levels of authority to build capacity at the lowest levels possible, leading to the strengthening of the mediating structures that are essential for the sustainability of ecological and social health in the places where we live.  It is about being on the beach and close to the ground when crises strike.

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