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The Social Construction of the Environment.
Ecological Rationale and Self-Sustainability of Anthropical Processes


Publicado en: Autores Varios: Theory and Practice of Self-Sustainable Planning in Italy, Kluwer,Dordrecht, The Netherlands

Marco Giovagnoli


1. From Sustainability to Self-Sustainability

In the social sciences, the concept of sustainability is used, at times, in a manner which generates misunderstandings over the delicate question of who the involved subject-actors are. This question addresses the epistemological foundations of that which we could already define the paradigm of sustainability, because it seeks to determine which, between the couple, human being-natural environment, is the ‘strong term’ which defines the other.

If the stronger term is ‘natural environment’, then the problem of sustainability can be intended in a minimal sense, placing a priority on conservation in respect to intervention. It will therefore be necessary to operate in a manner in which the environment will not have to support human activities, insustainable by definition to the extent that they alter the equilibrium of ecosystems (Kapp, 1991). The conservationist approach can follow two principal paths: either stabilizing a territorial dualism between areas "lost" to nature, ‘enclaves’ with a high rate of naturalness, or opting for a progressive, more or less complete, return to a "state of nature." Similar approaches are visible in much of the ecologist and anti-development literature, as in the highly conservationist politics of some large environmental organizations. If the stronger term is ‘human being’, i.e. the anthropic community, the question becomes determining, from time to time, on a qualitative and quantitative basis, the level of activity that the environment can support without some of its characteristics, already determined, deteriorating.’ Because human activities interfere in any case on the natural environment, either one decides to expel man from the environment (and it can be done by creating naturalistic ‘enclaves’ or arresting development) or it is necessary to work on the definition and the criteria which have to guide the anthropical activities in respect to their effects on nature; but not only this, it is also necessary to define the criteria for the management of the opposite relationship, or the relationship between nature and man when, for example, a "protection" of the natural environment is placed on a territory.

It is in this context that problems concerning a correct attribution of sustainability are hidden: it is evident that speaking, for example, about "sustainable development" means, in reality, speaking about "anthropical activities that produce territory in a sustainable manner for systems of vital support (i.e. for natural systems)." In other words, human activity is regulated within parameters that limit it in accordance with a choice on the value of living in a natural environment that maintains characteristics determined from time to time. But, we confirm that it is essential to underline the character of ‘choice’; an anthropic community chooses a healthy environment as a value, it adapts its activities based on criteria and parameters, and endows itself with instruments (institutional) that render it capable of modifying ‘all’ the conditions necessary for continuing to pursue the satisfaction of the ‘need’ of a healthy environment. In this sense, one can speak of ‘social construction of the environment’, first of all because contexts and characteristics are differentiated and therefore the perception of a "satisfactory" environment varies: second, because that variation is made possible by the determination of some minimum standards for the natural environment; and finally, because the satisfaction of the fundamental need for a healthy, natural environment is the result of a ‘choice’ (without which, for example, one slides easily into problems of "ecological imperialism" already observed) and from a consensus reached through discourse.

Attributing sustainability to ‘objects’ (the environment, the transformed environment) instead of to subjects (anthropic activities) of the process has too often shifted, in our judgment, the attention from one fundamental aspect, i.e. ‘the machines of choice and social consensus’, to a reference on the natural environment, but in a manner that somehow leaves the former out. An anthropo-centric definition is called for in defining the stronger term in the couple natural environment-human being that will lead us, at least in the social sciences, to reflect upon the processes that take place within the anthropic community, before that of the external environment. It is evident that this definition can exist only in the moment in which relief is given - and this is our definition - to the environmental question (otherwise we will fall back into the pre-sustainability reflection, saying nothing new.) In other words, to say that the anthropic community (the human beings) is at the center of our interests would not indicate anything but a confirmation of a historic position, for example, of the anthropo-centric Christianity (that had a strong influence on, among others, the fathers of scientific change such as Bacon, Descartes, and Liebnitz) or of classic Marxism, or, without doubt, of liberal economic philosophy. The "taking part" (in the processes) for human beings is in our case a pragmatic, but not reductionist, choice, because if, from a certain point of view, the principal objective remains the minimization of human suffering, that can not be set aside from the environmental component, which is instead a part of that same process of minimization.

It is in this change of perspective that we utilize, in the environmentalist context, the concept of ‘self-sustainability’, referring to the processes through which anthropic activities come to be defined and materialized, ‘the mechanisms of social choice with which one decides to act and to continue to act in an autonomous manner’ in the direction of compatibility between human activity and the natural environment. The attention is shifted to the social actors: it is the anthropic community that sustains itself, so that, as a result, the natural environment can support it in its actions. In some ways, it could be said that between the term sustainability and the term self-sustainability, there exists a fundamental, and in some ways paradoxical, difference: self-sustainable development can be considered apart from the environmental factor because, as was already affirmed, the mechanisms of social choice are at the center of attention. If there is no development without environment, and there is no environment without development, it could be added that neither development nor environment can be set aside from the self-sustainability processes that produce both of them today.


2. The Defensive Nature of Sustainability

The inherent danger in the hetero-direction of the sustainability processes derives from the often defensive nature of positive actions with respect to the environment. In fact, it must be noted that these actions, as much those that act on the natural environment as those that act upon the transformed space, are directed towards a "stationary ecological state," that is nothing if not an attempt to restore compromised circles, circles being intended as much in the physical sense of the environment as in the sense of a rapport between man and nature. The protection of territory can be seen as a particular case of the more general redistribution of the costs of well-being, especially when the protection advantages primarily those that do not make up the target community of the interventions. In fact, it is clear that many of the actions undertaken to guard territory, in particular those actions that are heavily conservationist, make up a sort of compensation for imbalance elsewhere. In these types of actions, it is almost always possible to single out a decision-maker and a target group (that for the purposes of this reflection will become, respectively C- center and L- location): complex and contradictory aspects can emerge in the development of the underlying logic of these two polarities, aspects often traceable to the challenges resulting from the materialization of compensatory actions of the type indicated above.

In other terms, the actions of reconstruction-reconstitution of the environment (physical, anthropic, or a mix), to the extent to which they are perceived as compensatory actions, neither solidaristic, nor one-way solidaristic (that is to say, dominated by interests, therefore not solidaristic), will most probably result in resistance or strains that render the actions either difficult to realize, or very different from original objectives (in terms, for example, of "social sustainability," to quote Ignacy Sachs)(Sachs, 1993).

One can think of a paradigmatic scenario: the coast-inland imbalance. An accelerated development on the coast (in terms of industrial development, touristic development, settlement increases, the construction of infrastructure, etc.) can cause an environmental deterioration (sometimes relatively rapidly) that decisively alters the characteristics normally presumed of a healthy and enjoyable environment. It is the price of development (of economic well-being and of relative security) and often it has to be paid. But the enjoyment of a healthy environment, if requested, will be pursued where development has not completely displace the fruits of a healthy environment: the forgotten heartland, under-populated, still relatively intact from a natural point of view. This territory will be protected in a trade-off between well-being and naturalness. But the protection will be to the advantage primarily of those that possess the fruits of development (well-being), but do not want to pay all the costs of it, that is to say those that do not live on the protected territory. The population that lives on the protected territory pays, so to say, this shifting of costs, in terms of greater restrictions, or an influx on cars, or other similar costs. We are setting aside the benefits of this protection, that surely do exist, for the reason that, in this case, it weighs upon us to highlight the principle of the situation. Incidentally, it must be noted that this "perverse effect" of environmental protection is also to the disadvantage of weaker groups, which do not have equal possibilities of movement with respect to those with greater economic (or physical) possibilities (Kapp, 1974) and leads to a commercialization of an element that, theoretically, can not be commercialized, i.e. the enjoyment of nature (Hirsch, 1981). As this also represents a problem of equality (right of access), it seems to be an unavoidable consideration (Kothari and Parajuli, 1993).


3. Towards a definition of ecological rationale in man-man and man-nature relationships

It behooves us, therefore, to define some characteristics of the relationship between two subjects, as above, that we could define, for heuristic convenience, C and L, which allow "environmentalist" interventions to have some possibility of success. These characteristics, set down by J. Dryzek (Dryzek, 1989) but "bent" to our ends, mark the limits of that which can be defined an ecological rationale in the relationships between the anthropic "subjects," and between these subjects and the environment (even the non-natural environment). In this hypothesis, the ecological rational leads to sustainability (of the anthropic activities in regards to the natural environment) and to self-sustainability (of the subjects and their activities). The key concepts are ‘negative feedback’ and ‘coordination.’ In our hypothesis, negative feedback settles in between subjects and then between these subjects and the environment. It is indispensable for the vital support systems to support humans: it has to be underlined that the negative feedback must occur ‘in primis’ among the subjects that put the actions into being, which are as much actions of compensation as other types of actions. With regard to coordination, this should occur among the agents within a collective action (and this is also true for the subjects separately), but, above all we believe, it should occur among collective actions: ("the solution of a local pollution problem should not be limited to shifting the consequences of that problem somewhere else," (Dryzek, 1989, p. 64) intending with that, at its limit, also the constitution of new protected areas). Obviously, coordination defers to a series of problems in the relations between actors or groups of actors, which have been examined beginning with the Prisoner’s dilemma and continuing from there; it is in this context, in the following points, we will use the concepts of consensus and trust/mistrust as some of the instruments for constructing an ecological rationale. The other characteristics requested by Dryzek refer to sturdiness or flexibility, where the first refers to stability in variable conditions, and the second to the capacity of acting in the presence of variability; it is clear that within the mechanisms of social choice, it is the second characteristic which prevails: in the case of relationships between C and L. The final characteristic required for an ecological rationale is resilience, or the ability to return to normal conditions of operation in the presence of serious alterations of the state of equilibrium. That is a characteristic of ecosystems, but translated to the anthropic level, it indicates self-sustainability as one of the methods of escaping the degenerative impasse of relations between the Location and the Center- obviously in the presence of the characteristics listed above. It is in fact, internal reliability, that a subject uses to respond in the face of degenerative crises, even serious ones. In Anglo-Saxon circles, this is defined "self-reliance" (Galtung-O’Brien-Preiswerk, 1980). Negative feedback and coordination are, according to Dryzek, necessary conditions for an ecological rationale and, together with sturdiness or flexibility, are sufficient, it being understood that to remove serious imbalances, it is necessary to add the requisite of resiliency.


4. Towards Self-Sustainability in ecological rationale: trust and mistrust between Centre and Location

Therefore, mechanisms of social choice and relations between diverse subjects that want to be environmentally sensible have to possess an internal ecological rationale. A reflection on the possibilities of establishing ecologically rational relations among subjects that operate in the environment (as a prerequisite) and between the subjects and the environment itself can not fail to incorporate an exquisitely social question such as that of consensus- faith within and among these same subjects. It is evident that this reflection is only a beginning contribution, nonetheless important in a our judgment because some of the characteristics previously introduced - and coordination is certainly one of these principles- require a passage of this type. It is even clear in the words of Fred Hirsch that the question of consensus-faith is pressing when he singles out, not in the technical instruments, but in the collective acceptance - necessary for them to function - the highest priority for change (Hirsch, 1981).

The diffusion of the environmental question and the "necessity" of an ecological management of the territory call for, among many others, two question: the role of the community and the role of consensus. The concept of community recalls the couple center/location, while that of consensus recalls the alternative trust/mistrust. Within the limits of our intervention, ‘community’ indicates the prevalent locus of the ecological question; where the actors, questions, and relations within the ‘locus’ are easily identifiable: the ecological question can be introduced in the community from outside (for example by the center) or it can arise as a particular problem (location): the presence of a consensus on the question, a consensus born of a communicative rationalization (Habermas, 1986 ; Dryzek, 1989) rather than by coercion-deception, is configured as trust between the communities and the outside and within the communities themselves, while its absence (or the presence of an "extorted" consensus) indicates the presence of mistrust.

A scenario constructed in this manner is supposed: on a background (made up of the environmental sustainability of the anthropic processes) we can single out four dimensions: the exterior (that can be a center, a peripheral institution- outside the community, or an internal, but separate, institution); the interior (that can be the local community in its non-institutional expressions); trust and mistrust (between the two preceding dimensions). Trust can be intended in connection with reciprocity as an organizing principle of social exchange (Tarozzi, 1996). If there is reciprocal trust, the actions of one of the two parts will never be suspected of being dictated by an opportunistic orientation (free-rider) and the consensus on these actions will not be conditioned by immediate advantage, or worse, by expectation of a disadvantage. In this case, distrust takes over (the social capital is "privatized") and a tactic founded on behavior visible as negative aspects of "the prisoner’s dilemma." The horizon is the self-sustainability of anthropic processes at the local level. There are obviously four possible combinations, in this simple scheme with purely heuristic finalities: (f,f) ; (s,f) ; (f,s) ; (s,s).

The (s,s) case is the location of insustainability: communicative relations between C and L do not exist, or are interrupted; a picked pact is configured between vandalism of L and a crisis of legitimization for C, the result of which is, in the terms which we have introduced, an ‘ecological irrationality.’ C has no interest or capacity to initiate positive actions towards L, who acts in a substantially anomic context: mechanisms of negative feedback (i.e. of correction) do not exist, nor does coordination between agents or between collective actions. Robustness becomes a negative attribute (rigidity) and in the general degradation, methods of escape are not visible or seen. The (s,f) case indicates a situation where expectations (on the part of L) do not correspond to reality: L trusts itself to an intervention by C, which does not seem to meet L’s hopes: C, in fact, does not have, just as in the first case, the interest nor the capacity to intervene in an ecologically rational manner (i.e. can not/does not want to coordinate its action with L, and does not receive the signals coming from L), for which two outcomes are profiled: on one hand, the expectations of L transform into requests for relief (the case of passive actions of environmental guardianship, for example the grand infrastructures or emergency interventions, which C, in the absence of active policies, applies willingly); on the other hand, a crisis of consensus is opened, deriving from the absence of response to their expectations, the existence of which can not be other than a back-slide towards the first configuration ([s,s]).

The (f,s) case is interesting because C is able to elaborate sustainable strategies and entrust them to an L that does not respond, in a clearly unequal situation. The perseverance of C configures a situation of failure of policies imposed from on high and of the ecological ideology: in this case, even sustainability policies that do not activate and/or look for mechanisms of self-sustainability in L are able to re-enter the scene, and therefore preserve a strong imbalance in favor of the hetero-direction of the processes. In this sense, negative actions lead to a sliding towards the case (s,s), while positive actions can lead to the following case.

(f,f) is the location of symmetrical relations, equal and free of dependence. The social choice occurs through processes of communicative rationalization and the final outcome is self-sustainability. The positive actions of C (in the first place, the renouncement of the total hetero-direction of the sustainability processes) are paralleled by the will/capacity of L to organize itself for the maintenance of these same processes through mechanisms of social organization. C and L coordinate their actions, trusting that the changes and transformations will occur reciprocally and simultaneously (a fact that can not be taken for granted a priori), or, in other terms, the policies of C are met with the expectations and necessities of L to be "self-sustainable in sustainability;" the signals, exchanged reciprocally, are received and lead to an eventual correction of positions and projects (a transformation first internal to the subjects, then reciprocally externalized) in the presence of flexibility. If the departure point is a run-down are to be restored, C can not act correctly if L, as its part, does not activate mechanisms of self-trust, that then implies self-organization, self-coordination, etc. Self-sustainability is market out once (f,f) is stabilized as the dimension of reference: it is worth saying that in other situations, the call to themselves can become indifference (the situation [f,s]); reliefism (the situation [s,f]); or even anomia, self-reference or autarchy (the situation [s,s]).

The self-sustainability and transformation capacity of L are consistent with the introduction of meta-planning (Dryzek, 1989): that is to say, they provide the initial graft of mechanisms that facilitates the change, even radical, as a structural characteristic. Meta-planning is indispensable so that the ecologically compatible change is then socially sensible, for this can not occur in decentralized conditions, pushed and coordinated, without the risk of falling back into non-(f,f) situations, as discussed earlier. According to Dryzek, "The fundamental problem of meta-planning is identifying the forms of social choice that will facilitate their own surrender, not with a collapse...or with the degeneration into a bureaucratic gerarchy.., but through the exercise of collective, self-aware social choice" (Dryzek, 1989, p.276).


5. Conclusions

Our contribution centered on the question of a correct practicableness of environmental policies in complex social systems. The two principle words utilized, self-sustainability and trust, are placed in the center of the same policies, in contrast to a conservative "modus operandi," with particular reference to the creation of protected natural areas. The possibility of creating wilderness areas is not excluded where this has an effective interest. However, this possibility is confined to a relatively scarce number of areas, and holds less interest for the social scientist, as compared to the problem of the feasibility of safeguarding in areas heavily populated such as those that are found in most of our country (Italy). Beginning with a declaration of an effective interest in the construction of a ‘healthy’ environment (i.e. from an environmentalist’s position), we proceeded to outline the elements of success or failure of an environmentally oriented policy. It is maintained, on one hand, the necessity that the positive actions regarding the environment occur in reciprocity (between decision-makers and interested actors), where the social exchange takes place in a non-"market-ized" context of trust. On the other hand, trust permits an "autonominization" in the sphere of action, without which it is not judicious to speak of sustainability, at least in the ‘social’ terms of I. Sachs (1993). In this case, the reference is made to self-sustainability because without autonomy (synchronic and diachronic, because it has to be put in place and then maintained) the positive actions in regard to the environment transform into dysfunctional, ecological diktat (dictates) to the same environment (the conflict that results, for example, in the forest fire or the abandoned river that, abandoned, floods). The entire question seems relevant to us, as one example, in the context of impact evaluation, where often (and justifiably) one concentrates on the ‘expected’ negative consequences of a project, but rarely, on those that are ‘unexpected’, especially if the project is supposed as intrinsically ‘good’ like, for example, a project of environmental guardianship.



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Marco Giovagnoli, Institute of Sociology, University of Parma





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