Greening the Leviathan

Posted: October 11th, 2008 under Green Governments.

“The only way to erect such a [common power to keep the people in awe, and to direct their actions to the common benefit] is to confer all their power and strength upon one man, or upon one assembly of men, that may reduce all their wills, by plurality of voices, unto one will…This is the generation of that great Leviathan to which we owe our peace and defence.”

From Leviathan, or The Matter, Form, and Power of a Commonwealth, Ecclesiastical and Civil, by Thomas Hobbes, 1651

Real green progress, some might argue, can not, in the long term, be accomplished through corporate actions, innovative products, or individual virtue, but only through public laws and regulations.  As Thomas Hobbes explains in the Leviathan, only the government can legitimately direct and command the actions of its citizens to a common benefit, and it may be that the use of such sovereign power is necessary to enact any meaningful change in society.  For “niche” issues, it is fine for individuals and organizations to try to change the world, but when real emergencies emerge — military, financial, environmental, etc. — it is to presidents, kings, and legislatures to whom we turn.

And turn to them we have, to protect our most beautiful landscapes, our air and water quality, our endangered species, and increasingly our climate.  But those government efforts, whether they are the be-all and end-all or not, vary greatly in terms of their content, orientation, and effectiveness.  Some governments may emphasize keeping waterways clean, while others may focus on protecting open spaces.  And they may pursue different means to reach the same green end, and have dramatically different results.

While they may operate directly on environmental problems, governments can also fundamentally affect the environmental performance of both corporations and individuals within their borders.  Strong laws that are well-enforced can incentivize better compliance and greener behavior, while weak or non-existing laws can encourage a “race to the bottom.”  Voluntary programs may have a greater effect on environmental performance when government agencies support them, lending them a sense of legitimacy and authority.  The regulatory environment is a key determinant in environmental performance across a range of scales.

But just as with the iceberg and the grail, with corporate and product performance, how is the greenness of these regulations being measured?  Who is assessing how green the clothes of the Emperor are?  Or does he have any green clothes at all?  A growing number of initiatives have begun to look at how environmentally responsible various levels of governments are, from cities to states to nations to elected officials themselves.  This section of the website will look at these efforts, their methods, and their conclusions, and discuss their implications for the “greening of government” and orienting the power of the Leviathan to build a sustainable society.


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