Environmental damage is a by-product of relationships

Abuse of the environment is often seen as an ethical failure – the short-sighted greed of the few abetted by the ignorance and apathy of the many.  In reality, though, behaviours that lead to oil spills and the build-up of greenhouse gases are driven by the kinds of relationships our economic and political systems create between us as stakeholder groups. So there is an urgent need to address active systemic causes rather than simply to call for greater regulation.

The 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is considered the largest in the history of the petroleum industry. Subsequent investigations pointed to defective materials and procedures, implicating BP’s relationship with rig operators and regulators. But the ultimate causes of what a US District Court finally judged in 2014 to be “gross negligence and reckless conduct” on the part of BP can be traced back to plc structures and world oil markets in which relationships to investors and buyers are reduced to economic connections that largely bypass the stakeholders living closest to the rig.

Regulation is only half the answer

It’s often assumed that the necessary restraints to such issues as carbon emissions or felling rain forests can be achieved by means of government regulation. The relational context can then result in incentivization pulling two ways – in the direction of increasing environmental risk for the sake of returning profit to investors, and simultaneously in the direction of reducing environmental risk in order to avoid penalties or improve company reputation. One consequence has been companies and nations outsourcing the environmentally dirty jobs to countries where the regulatory environment remains more lax.   Consciences are kept clean without a significant net global gain in environmental quality.

Scale, control and motivation

Environment is always a shared asset. But smaller scales of organization have the advantage that stakeholders will more easily cooperate to their mutual advantage.  It’s not usually difficult to get the family to spend Saturday afternoon clearing up the yard. At a global scale, however, the relational distance separating stakeholders, including the sheer diversity of interests they represent, can make progress painfully slow. Relational distance not only weakens the motivation to cooperate; it also increases the suspicion that some players are free-riding or pursuing other trade goals through regulatory means. In few places is transparency more important, or harder to achieve.

Participate at every level

The global nature of the environmental debate makes it hard for individuals to participate except through diffuse social media discussions or supporting the personalities or groups who champion environmental causes. Exerting pressure as an investor, voter or consumer is important. But many key environmental goals – avoiding waste, energy efficiency, environmental quality – can also be addressed by engaging locally, where, in relational terms, people are most likely to feel direct shared interest, and cooperate to make improvements happen.