A whale of a model of thought: subsidiarity and environmental management

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Right whales off Massachusetts. Credit L NOAA, FlickrCC.

Off the coast of Maine, an explosive gust of air swept my attention to the sailboat’s starboard rail. A wide expanse of skin rose like a bar of stony sand the length of the 27-foot boat. The right whale rolled forward, gliding through the opaque water as I stammered and pointed.

I was alone at the helm with three people in the cabin below decks. We climbed the bridge far enough to see on the surface of a passing swell a circle of water that once held a whale. All my oceanic sensitivities had been violated. My mind, informed by sea experiences and ocean literature like Rachel Carson’s “Under the Sea Wind,” was inexplicably altered. Where does it come from? How is it possible ? What does such life mean for an unfathomably dynamic complex system that we simply call ocean ecosystem?

This experience changed me and I now wanted to learn all about whales and I searched in vain for the course listings of the five colleges in Pioneer Valley, Massachusetts.

The following summer I was not at sea but in Amherst, MA, working with the colleague who had first seen the whale’s footprint on the waves. We worked on a stipend to learn the skills to teach a course on whales to our college peers. The college practiced the most basic form of subsidiarity by supporting two students and funding a college professor to meet with us frequently.

Subsidiarity is a very old concept and way of thinking that you don’t hear about in America. It is an organizing principle of community governance in concert with the major forms of government. Just as the surface of a whale has changed the way I know the ocean, I suspect that the principle of subsidiarity can change for a better understanding of community management of the environment.

Subsidiarity requires close and respectful partnerships at all levels of government, whether local, regional, state, federal and international. By working with respect for those closest to the community, we can restore diverse wildlife, healthy ecosystems, and even our quality of life.

Subsidiarity is a dual principle. First, any task should be decentralized to the lowest level of the organization with the capacity to carry it out satisfactorily. Second, while the higher level of organization reframes the tasks that could be performed by the smaller group, it is still responsible for the training and skills of the group performing the task to the extent that the lower groups perform as well as the lower groups. others. other. The merit goes to the group closest to the resource while the responsibility lies with everyone according to the principle of subsidiarity.

The college put the principle into practice by delegating to two students the task of teaching while developing the skills necessary for the specific task. As a student teacher, I was recognized (and earned credit) as the responsibility for the quality of college courses was assumed by the college.

The concept of subsidiarity dates back to Aristotle stating that government should be subsidiary to the citizen, that is, secondary. By this he meant that the government should serve the people and not the other way around. Subsidiarity says nothing about specific purpose, direction or content. Subsidiarity was defined 400 years ago as “a belief that every human individual is endowed with inherent and inalienable worth or dignity”. All social groupings must ultimately be at the service of the individual.

Today, ours continues to be the “start time” for addressing environmental challenges. We practice subsidiarity at all levels of government, from individuals and groups closest to resources to them. There is now a growing awareness of the power of citizens and the responsibilities assumed by all levels of government. Environmental subsidiarity practices become more effective and more meaningful, with every action and every day.

Environmental subsidiarity

Environmental subsidiarity combines the organizing principle and thought pattern (subsidiarity) with the context of environmental studies and natural resource management. Subsidiarity is the design of the policy; the environment recognizes the political choice.

Environmental subsidiarity calls for two actions. First, give power and authority to frontline groups, the people closest to the natural resource. Second, subsidiarity calls for keeping all groups behind the front, especially the often state and federal higher authorities responsible for jurisdiction and the distribution of powers for all special forces from the front to the rear. Subsidiarity avoids vain environmental hopes by giving more control and pride to local groups. Desperation is counteracted by all stakeholders and interest groups working in coordinated partnership with diverse groups of multiple and growing capacities to achieve significant undertakings together.

Abraham Lincoln most clearly evoked the spirit of American subsidiarity. To paraphrase Lincoln, government must do for an environment, and for the “community of people in that environment, all that they must have done but…cannot do so well for themselves in their separate and individual capacities.” “

Credit goes to those who do the most. Responsibility for the management, restoration and conservation of the environment belongs to everyone, from the most local to the most national, near and far. Bringing together multiple groups with different skills from many levels of authority to manage an environment, and then to take on the burden of wider responsibility, environmental subsidiarity enhances, makes more democratic and competent, the work of environmental stewardship.


Dr. Rob Moir is a nationally recognized and award-winning conservationist. He is President and Executive Director of the Cambridge-based Ocean River Institute, a not-for-profit organization providing expertise, services, resources and information not available at a localized level to support the efforts of environmental organizations. Please to visit www.oceanriver.org for more information.

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