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14.5.06

Environmentalists Against Hierarchy

Via the Commons Blog, I found this sobering article on the rampant malfeasance of the US Army Corps of Engineers. The Corps has long been my least favorite federal agency, since my first foray into environmentalism was a 7th grade research paper on the Everglades (which has the distinction of being the Corps' greatest debacle -- and one they're unsurprisingly failing to fix as promised).

The article unfortunately falls into a common environmentalist trap -- seeing any misconduct by the government as being basically a result of government being bought off by corporations. The article notes this happening mostly indirectly, through pork barrel projects in which members of Congress use the Corps to give economic gifts to their funders and constituents. I don't deny that this dynamic is significant and problematic. But we shouldn't focus on it alone as an explanation. The article notes in passing that the Corps itself is a strenuous advocate of bigger and bigger boondoggles, often offering them to members of Congress as potential pork. Here we have the intrinsic weakness of the hierarchical form of organization. The Corps is focused on expanding its own size, prestige, and authority, counting its successes through anemic proxies like the number of dollars appropriated to its projects. Its projects are economic disasters as well as environmental ones -- hardly what you'd expect from a mere pork processor or handmaid of the bourgeoisie.

In Cultural Theory terms, environmentalism has long been an uneasy alliance between an Egalitarian ideological core, and a pragmatic Hierarchist wing. Environmentalism has painted the Individualist market as its main enemy, and therefore accepted the use of Hierarchist means -- regulation, protected areas, etc. But as Galbraith and others have pointed out, modern capitalism is as much a Hierarchical enterprise as it is Individualist. Where I part ways with Galbraith is his desire for better and more responsible hierarchy. Instead, I think environmentalism needs to evolve into an alliance of Egalitarianism and real Individualism. By "real Individualism" I mean something deeper than just "green business" selling us "environmentally friendly" products we didn't need in the first place. I mean a commitment to the Individualist ideals of freedom, responsibility, choice, and decentralization. While the core of environmentalism will remain Egalitarian, Egalitarians and Individualists can find common ground in opposing environmentally destructive hierarchies both in the capitalist system and the state.

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