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Concepts & Trends

Who Rules the Earth?

How Social Rules Shape Our Planet and Our Lives

Paul F. Steinberg Oxford UP © 2015 338 pages

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Take-Aways

Environmental degradation threatens life on the planet.

Governments create and change the civic rules and laws that concern the environment.

Social rules, which determine how people and organizations act, also affect the Earth.

Some rules and laws lead to ecological damage, but all rules are subject to change.

People should unite to change rules and laws that harm the planet. First, take aim at the “super rules” that dictate the making or elimination of other rules.

Governments wield this power. Direct your main efforts at senior and elected officials.

Don‘t rely on one base of power. Build multiple layers of support, so your initiatives don’t evaporate at the first sign of trouble or when the government changes hands.

Enlist the participation and advice of people who know the system and the players, who can navigate the bureaucracy, and who understand how things get done.

Industry often opposes environmental regulation. The toughest rules can generate the greatest benefits by forcing corporations to innovate.

Seek win-win solutions in changing the rules. The more stakeholders who benefit, the easier the path to change will be. People must act big, act together and move fast.

To purchase personal subscriptions or corporate solutions, visit our website at www.getAbstract.com, send an email to info@getabstract.com, or call us at our US office (1-877-778-6627) or at our Swiss office (+41-41-367-5151). getAbstract is an Internet-based knowledge rating service and publisher of book abstracts. getAbstract maintains complete editorial responsibility for all parts of this abstract. getAbstract acknowledges the copyrights of authors and publishers. All rights reserved. No part of this abstract may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means – electronic, photocopying or otherwise – without prior written permission of getAbstract Ltd. (Switzerland).

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Relevance

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What You Will Learn

getabstract Relevance getabstract getabstract What You Will Learn In this summary, you will learn:r1) How social

In this summary, you will learn:r1) How social rules and civic regulations work, 2) Why rules are necessary, 3) Which rules are dangerous and susceptible to improvement, and 4) How to change the rules or create new ones to benefit the environment.

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Review

Sustainability professor Paul F. Steinberg studies social rules and civic governance in terms of how they affect the environment. He alerts readers to something vitally important hiding in plain sight: Nations, regions, local administrations and society itself create and change the formal and informal rules that protect or exploit the Earth. These rules and regulations affect natural resources, deforestation, polluting emissions, pesticides, recycling, water rights, and much more. Such rules don’t appear spontaneously. Organizations, people and coalitions debate and fight for them fiercely. Many rules seem perverse and most citizens believe they can’t do anything to change them. But they can. Rules are mutable and, Steinberg says, people must work to change them in order to save the planet. getAbstract recommends Steinberg’s overview to executives, futurists, concerned citizens, and current or potential activists frustrated with the pace of change.

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Summary

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getabstract “We learn that glaciers are melting and sea levels are expected to rise due to
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“We learn that glaciers
are melting and sea
levels are expected
to rise due to global
warming – and in
response we are
advised to ride a
bicycle to work.”
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“The transition to
sustainability requires
transforming the rules
we live by.“
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Rules Can Change

Organized society would collapse quickly without rules. If you doubt it, try living in a country that has few rules or that enforces them randomly and arbitrarily. Rules operate for good or bad, but you have the power to change them.

Nations, regions and towns create and change rules to protect natural resources, and to prevent pollution and destruction. Such rules don’t appear spontaneously. Organizations, people and coalitions fight for them. Corporations hire lawyers and lobbyists and contribute to political campaigns. People and coalitions protest, write letters and meet with lawmakers. Yet only a few citizens participate in collective activism. Instead, most people take isolated, individual action; they recycle, ride a bike to work or install solar panels. Working in harmony, they make a difference. However, sustainability won’t come from individual actions, but from changing social rules so everyone’s behavior changes. People must act big, act together and move fast.

Are Pesticides OK?

Country doctor June Irwin lives in the Canadian town of Hudson near Montreal, Québec. In 1985, she became convinced that pesticides harmed her patients and everyone else in Hudson. She petitioned the town council and persisted for six years until a sympathetic mayor took office. In 1991, Hudson enacted a municipal-wide ban on nonessential use of pesticides. Lawn care and pesticide company lawyers argued that towns had no right to ban pesticides. Ultimately, the Supreme Court of Canada upheld Hudson’s new rules. Towns and cities across Canada passed similar and even stricter rules. By 2010, legislation keeping areas pesticide free protected 75% of Canadian citizens. “Stunned” by the Canadian court decision, a coalition of pesticide interests in the US convinced “all but a handful” of US states to enact preemptive laws that forbid local governments from even trying to control pesticides. As a result, many American children play in toxic parks and on poisoned lawns.

Who Rules the Earth?

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getabstract “Rules and routines allow us to move through a complex world without subdividing our attention
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“Rules and routines
allow us to move
through a complex
world without
subdividing our
attention to the point of
mental paralysis.”
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“If rules are to
last, rather than be
jettisoned at the first
sign of waning support,
the new rules must
enjoy the support of
diverse constituencies.”
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“The race to save the
Earth will be won or
lost one country at
a time, as a result of
political decisions
made in almost 200
sovereign nations and
their willingness and
ability to implement
reforms.”
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“What we see might
be a farmer in Brazil
setting fire to a patch of
forest to make way for
cattle. But underlying
this seemingly local and
personal decision is
an elaborate system of
national rules shaping
the farmer’s decisions.”
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Who Rules the Earth?

LEED: Improving Building Design

getabstract “Rules and routines allow us to move through a complex world without subdividing our attention

The potential for change is real and substantial. Large-scale social reform is possible. Consider the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design standard, referred to as LEED. Builder David Gottfried wanted to build environmentally friendly buildings. After working with the American Association of Testing and Materials (ASTM) for five years, he left and, with other leaders, formed the US Green Building Council, which developed the LEED standard in 1998. Builders around the world adopted it quickly. By 2010, one- third of all commercial buildings built in the US adhered to LEED requirements.

Five years of effort means spending a lot of time to get something done. People, governments and organizations often prefer not to devote that much dedication and money to matters that benefit others. Persuading people, organizations and government officials to get on board may require offering them incentives or showing how acting to protect the environment would benefit them.

The legacy of existing processes and rules creates a barrier against change even when change makes rational sense. Entrenched bureaucracy, standard operating procedures and habitual behavior prevent organizations from generating reforms or moving very quickly. “Businesses resist change and cling to the idea that ‘we’ve always done it this way’.” Governments institute rules to address one-off problems, but rarely address underlying issues. Despite the tendency of those in power to resist change, reformers can succeed through organized, collective efforts. They must align their desired changes with the self- interests of those who influence or make the rules.

Conflicting Interests Can Stymie Change

Sustained environmental protection needs the teeth of social rules, as well as laws and regulations. Most people, despite their good intentions, can’t keep activist momentum going forever. After successful change, most reformers return to their normal activities instead of safeguarding their gains. Activists must institutionalize changes by establishing rules and laws that may be difficult to pass but that would be more difficult to undo. The visionaries responsible for the US Bill of Rights, for example, saw the need for societal rules to protect citizens’ rights. Enshrining the rules in fundamental law ensured their lasting influence.

The paths of migratory birds, such as the cerulean warbler, illustrate the international tangle of rules that affect birds, people and the environment. The tiny blue warblers journey north from their winter home in Peru through the rain forests of Columbia and Central America, encountering both deforestation and bird sanctuaries, depending on the jurisdiction. By the time they cross the Gulf of Mexico, they form part of a massive cloud of migratory birds – more than one million each day – that cross into the US. There, myriad rules affect the warblers’ environment as they fly to their breeding grounds in West Virginia.

Lax environmental rules there mean sparse tree cover, and that is hastening the loss of cerulean warblers worldwide. Despite a 75% decline in the birds’ population since 1975, authorities in the US won’t enforce existing laws to preserve it. Ironically, powerful industry groups remove West Virginia judges and politicians who fail to protect the interests of powerful, local coal companies.

Innovative Solutions

The odds seem stacked against environmental reform, yet advocates and their government allies often succeed by using persistence and innovation. For example, in the late 1970s, after decades of citizen activism, the US government determined that leaded gasoline

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getabstract “The old adage to think globally and act locally is just plain wrong.” getabstract getabstract
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“The old adage to think
globally and act locally
is just plain wrong.”
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”Placing a solar panel
on your home is a
positive step; placing
a requirement for
renewable energy in
government legislation
is an outright sprint.”
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“Whether we choose
to notice them or not,
social rules pervade
every aspect of our
lives.”
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“Every business and
every community, every
religion and nonprofit
organization, every
terrorist network, taco
vendor and art museum
relies on social rules to
achieve its ends.”
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Who Rules the Earth?

getabstract “The old adage to think globally and act locally is just plain wrong.” getabstract getabstract

drastically harms the environment and people’s health. The government imposed gradually increasing limits on leaded gasoline along with “tradeable permits“ that allowed the producers who reduced their usage most quickly to sell their permits to laggards. This win- win strategy gave producers an incentive to go quickly beyond mere compliance. By using clever incentives and enlisting industry to police itself, the government saved “hundreds of millions of dollars.”

Governments use citizen activism to help enforce environmental rules. For example, in the US and South Africa, any citizen can sue anyone, including government agencies, for violating or failing to enforce the law. Now, US citizens bring three-quarters of all environmental court cases.

Rules Do Work

Good laws enable commerce to operate smoothly, while corrupt governments impede business. In Peru and Kenya, democracy and capitalism struggled for decades. In contrast, professional, capable civil services vaulted Singapore and South Korea into prosperity.

Even in advanced economies, however, rules often create perverse incentives. For example, the price of gas in the US doesn’t factor in the cost of stationing troops in the Middle East to protect oil transports. Likewise, the cost of electricity doesn’t pay for the environmental damage that coal mining causes, including the emissions from burning coal. If consumers paid these costs directly, they would have an immediate, pressing incentive to switch to alternative energy sources.

Oil, gas and other industries fight regulations, arguing that the compliance costs harm them unfairly. But regulations can spur innovation that benefits industry in the long run. New laws may spur fresh production methods that save money and make businesses more competitive.

Who’s Got the Power?

Multinational corporations and international nonprofits play an important role in harming or advancing environment causes, but they cannot match governments’ influence and power, especially national governments, which make the rules that everyone must follow.

Top democracies often perform little better than dictatorships in protecting the environment. A political party or ruler’s length of terms in office matters, because the longer a party or regime retains power, the better the chances are that its environmental reforms will take root. Wise activists enlist the support of many lawmakers and affected populations. For example, officials are more likely to enforce a national government’s regulation of a wildlife preserve if local peer pressure also discourages violators. In such cases, political winds can shift without undermining local support.

Environmental efforts wax and wane as political parties and regional authorities exchange power. In the US, decades of environmental leadership from the 1960s to the 1990s gave way to governments that tend to oppose environmental protection initiatives at home and abroad. The US has become one of the developed world’s worst actors. In other nations, short-term initiatives start and stop based on political realities revolving around gaining and keeping power.

Action and buy-in are necessary on all levels Environmental activists must work to influence their governments. National and international bodies should coordinate with local and regional parties to make sure that good rules are instituted and enforced. However, at

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getabstract “Rules and creativity are not at odds – they are, in fact, close allies.” getabstract
getabstract “Rules and creativity are not at odds – they are, in fact, close allies.” getabstract
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“Rules and creativity
are not at odds – they
are, in fact, close
allies.”
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“Lasting change
requires modifying the
very rules that societies
live by.”
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“Those…who
assume that power
is unassailable
are controlled and
manipulated with great
efficiency because we
impose constraints on
ourselves, relieving
those in power of the
burden of responding
to a coordinated
challenge.”
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present, no international body has the teeth to enforce ecological or climate rulings. The UN, Interpol, the International Criminal Court, and other bodies can’t do very much when nations simply ignore their edicts.

The European Union

As a central government that speaks for 27 nations, the European Union represents unprecedented international unification and cooperation. Its accomplishments include environmental rules protecting the air and water; regulations on food, waste and toxins; and rules setting an allowable volume of emissions. The EU represents the best hope for improving current laws and gaining cooperation among a number of sovereign nations.

Generally, such power resides chiefly at the national level. The growing influence of transnational bodies, such as the EU, runs concurrently with local and regional gains within nations. National governments increasingly cede authority to these governments, so local politics and activism play an indispensable role in conservation and sustainability.

Cooperation Is Critical

Ecologist Garrett Hardin wrote about the “tragedy of the commons” in 1968. He argued that any shared resource – pasturelands or ocean fisheries, for example – invariably suffers depletion. Everyone benefits individually from exploiting a resource while the overall population suffers just as much from its destruction. People grab what they can, as fast as they can, while they can. Hardin ignored thousands of years of successful management of the commons – mostly at the local level – conducted by cooperating citizens who voluntarily adhered to rules and quotas.

In general, local decision making seems to work. For example, in the US, state governments take responsibility for implementing federal pollution standards and may improve them if they wish. Two-thirds of US states voluntarily exceed federal standards, largely because of citizen activism. Where citizens don’t participate, state politicians place much less priority on the environment. Politicians avoid risk, but they crave visible wins to maximize their chances of re-election. As decision making devolves to local governments, local successes will show politicians what’s possible and will inspire more action.

“Controlling the Rule-Making Process”

Super rules determine what political bodies are empowered to discuss and change, and who gets to speak. Before a group makes rules, its participants must agree to super rules that determine the nature of their interaction, what they can discuss and who is allowed to speak. Super rules outline the methods on hand “for bringing about change in the world.” In some authoritarian nations, rule makers imprison, torture or even kill environmentalists. Such governments create rigid parameters to constrain activism. Even in democracies, powerful parties forestall challenges by withholding information or by creating preemptive rules so issues don’t surface. To attain their goals and gain a share of power, citizens must change the super rules.

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About the Author

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getabstract Paul F. Steinberg is professor of sustainability and environmental policy at California’s Harvey Mudd College, where he directs the Social Rules Project. He also wrote Comparative Environmental Politics and Environmental Leadership in Developing Countries.

Who Rules the Earth?

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