A New Model for Environmental Policy, Data and Decision-Making

View, explore, and comment on the interaction diagram: https://miro.com/app/board/o9J_kl7JoVI=/


The creation of environmental policy is based on formative research about environmental problem areas. This policy then guides how decisions are made in reference to natural resources, environmental protection and mitigating environmental damage. While there has been a rise in environmental data, collected by and about people who are most affected by environmental issues, it is not being incorporated into the body of research that informs environmental policies. Therefore the policies that guide decisions impacting communities and their landscape are rarely accurate to the experiences or needs of these complex ecosystems.

The Existing Scarcity Framework

How we engage with our natural and built environment is guided by our underlying values and principles. Generally speaking, in the Western world, these values and principles are codified into a system of law for which rules are executed in an administrative fashion by our local, state and federal executive bodies. Our current operating paradigm for this administrative execution in the United States, and as exported around the world to other democratic nation-states, rests on the “scarcity” approach or “unlimited indulgence” (Wood, 2013). The scarcity approach states there are not enough raw materials to go around and therefore we need economic, political and legal frameworks that divide up the scarce materials among the population that needs them to survive. It allows for the economic engine of the free market [3] to continue its growth on the assumption that the scarcity legal and regulatory market will “check” this force. Implicitly, it also states that we are the sole beneficiaries of the resources on this planet and casts the needs of other non-human species aside. In a globalized world, run by the current system of capitalist incentives, the result is privatization of goods and services usually at the sacrifice of public resources like air, water and land.

A switch from the scarcity framework

In the United States we currently work within the framework of administrative law. Some of the OEDP work will be within this administrative framework and will focus on new ways to work within these systems — such as the critical vehicle that standardized public witness commentary plays in Congressional lawmaking and in ensuring that the rules asserting those laws work for communities.

What might be possible with a generative environment framework

What if we approached rewriting our legal environmental framework with a generative environmental paradigm, which simply put, articulates that with calculated actions there are enough resources to fulfill life for all humans, plants and animals and that our governance system should protect this environmental public good. All human actions under this framework must improve the health of the landscape. In addition, this is a fundamental tenet in various indigenous land ethic approaches and provides a local system of checks to our national regulatory infrastructure. One could imagine this generative environmental approach as a system that “interoperates” with state, national and international environmental policy mechanisms to not only provide a check on how those policy mechanisms actually impact the integrity of the landscape, but also offers a mechanism for a dialogue between the people that live there and the regulation that impacts them. This is the framework we are trying to build and within this spark an innovation ecosystem.

Unanswered questions

The reality of the world today is a system of goods, services and people that are in constant motion from one location of the world to another location in the world. While local economies still exist, the threats to autonomously and generatively managing their resources grow larger every day with the increased globalized flows of raw materials. The concepts outlined in a generative framework require a localized and long-term mindset with regards to the resources underneath our feet, but also in the approach to resources shared within a closed global system like water and air. Some parts of the world are still engaging with ecosystems that have seen very little change (like inner parts of the Amazon) while others are managing a transforming landscape abetted by mechanisms enhanced by climate change (hurricanes in the U.S. Gulf Coast, wildfires in the western U.S.). And then there are the landscapes that have been degraded due to extractive industries. The only way to achieve a generative framework in these instances is intense investment in restoration activities and a moratorium on extractive activities. Each environmental management area (climate change, environmental pollution, land management) requires some nuance of thought in approach, but the core value we are attempting to outline in this framework is to continually assert a generative mindset.

  • How do we collectively agree on the interpretation of natural limits (for example the value of an existing wetland) as they comes up against community priorities to create physical infrastructure?
  • Humans have varying interests and values about the natural environment. How do we build up an innovation ecosystem around this framework that allows for individuals to engage regardless of their environmental ethics?
  • Can we expect local inhabitants to keep the health of the landscape as their utmost priority within a capitalist system that prescribes value only to the dollar?
  • Is it possible to balance community-driven preservation goals and enact watchdog monitoring of polluting industries while also seeking to better families and communities through economic gains within a capitalist system?
  • How do we create a new generative environment approach that mandates simplicity and doesn’t replicate the complexity of our existing environmental legal architecture?
  • Lastly, is dynamic data (and therefore information) really a sub-unit of change for switching our legal and regulatory system from a scarcity mindset to an abundance mindset?


Explanation of the Interaction Diagram

The interaction diagram is a visual representation of how we are designing for systems change within our environmental policy, data and decision-making frameworks. In each section we provide an overarching description of near-term and longer-term goals that will lay the foundation for systems to shift in the way we approach our management of natural resources, conduct environmental protection, and generate healthy communities and landscapes. We will dive into the details of this diagram with a brain trust over the coming months.

Administrative State (left side of interaction diagram)

We begin this journey within the existing Administrative State through which laws, statutes and rules can limit the impact of the free market and its resultant harm on communities and the environment. The Administrative State and the ensuing power vested in branches of government are designed with checks and balances in mind. Between people and their government, and in the U.S., these checks and balances are executed through a representative democracy where the will of the public is communicated through a representative person who is responsible for communicating this to a congress of people that deliberate, write and vote to pass laws. Those laws are then enacted by the executive branch and the executive actions are able to be challenged based on judicial branch processes. This form of democracy can be found in many different permutations around the world.

Generative Environmental Framework (right side of the diagram)

We can either continue working within our existing structures or we can design for the reformation of these structures. We are selecting to do both by engaging with the existing structures and recognizing that they are the result of many critical minds trying to compromise within a historical context AND that there is room to reform and create fertile ground for a new socio-technical innovation ecosystem. The overarching principle for this new system design is that governance principles exist in nested tiers. The argument being that we enact them at the smallest scale, for example by starting with a community of 100 people living within a mountaintop ecosystem. Then these governance tiers are replicated as the population scale grows, to the city, the state, and then to the nation.

Interoperation Layers or Systemic Interaction Opportunities

In this section, situated between administrative state and generative approach, we’ve moved up a population tier (e.g. out of a local context and into the space between regional, state and national systems). In this part of the system we envision a layer of mediating socio-technical approaches that will enable productive exchange of check and balance between these tiers. In the near-term this is where we will design around the involvement of individuals in brokering the check and balance activities between the administrative state and the generative environmental framework.

Environmental Trend Platform (bottom of model)

Currently, the Administrative State approach has little allowance for environmental data coming from non-verified/non-traditional technology (in various forms from analog to digital). This coincides with the increase of low cost and/or open hardware sensors that provide people with the tools to capture quantitative data. The Administrative approach primarily focuses on the necessity of quantitative data in decision-making. This is the case even in places where community input is required or welcomed, and where the combined use of quantitative data from non-verified/non-traditional technology and qualitative data could provide important indicators [6]. We argue that the move towards low cost, community level sensing is going to be an increasing trend and that demand will escalate for its usability. There are clear ways in which agencies can incorporate this type of quantitative data along with qualitative data (and information and knowledge) that provides local and historical experience and observations.

  • Identifying allowances for different sources of environmental data weighted in their quality within current administrative processes.
  • Prototyping how data can serve as a legislative check and balance on environmental rules in action.
  • Creating a way for environmental data on ecosystem services to be beneficial in collaborative and inclusive planning processes.
  • Framing strategies for usability of coordinated data and the applicability of this data in different use scenarios.
  • Suggesting long-term strategies for simplification of government rules and information to allow for easier interaction and autonomous decision making for communities.
  • Prototyping frameworks for qualitative data incorporation and use as an essential contextual component alongside quantitative data.


What’s Next

The health of our communities is in trouble. Our environmental protection and management system, despite best efforts, is failing to preserve, protect, and grow our natural resources. Historically, the free market has not bent towards what is best for the planet and its communities and is currently compounded by an ever-growing human population. Our attempts to correct through legal, regulatory and economic mechanisms are stalling, and the complexity of navigating these mechanisms is leaving us with little space to redesign them for a changing climate and a world that has been so significantly polluted upon that we should now be operating in crisis response mode. Though our legal and regulatory structures may have initially been designed to contain, check and balance unrestricted growth and provide guidelines for decisions about limited resources, there are far too many loopholes for this to happen in practice. Agents of unrestricted growth, such as extractive industries, have built their own structure within this system, but one that is dedicated to navigating and dismantling the force of legal and regulatory frameworks under the value banner of capitalism.

Building environmental hardware interoperability while changing the way data is shared, verified & used. Learn more at openenvironmentaldata.org