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Societal response

The final cluster of analysis in our regional case-studies concerns societal responses to emerging environmental degradation. Such responses are central to the environmental futures of the regions as the trajectories of change, as noted above, depend heavily upon the capabilities of society to respond to deteriorating situations and on the actions that are undertaken to mitigate damage and to alter the trajectory. Such corrective interventions can occur at various levels and scales, ranging from individual resource managers to the state and international governance regimes. Further, the interventions may be "downstream," aimed at reducing exposure or ameliorating consequences; "midstream," aimed at reducing environmental stresses or vulnerability to damage; or "upstream," involving interventions into the more fundamental driving forces that generate environmental stresses or shape social and economic vulnerabilities (Kates, Hohenemser, and Kasperson 1985).

Many issues are involved in characterizing and interpreting societal responses to environmental change, and they are described at length elsewhere (Kasperson and Kasperson forthcoming). Suffice it to note here that societal interventions to alter trajectories toward greater endangerment or criticality are typically preceded by growing awareness of the threat and assessment of the causes of environmental degradation (Brooks 1986; Stern, Young, and Druckman 1992). Assessments will need to unravel the complex of natural variability and human causes to identify the bases of the threat and possible corrective actions. Important to such assessments will be "signals" of long-term threat in the midst, catalysts that stimulate action, and the social memory to fashion appropriate responses (Clark 1990; Kates, Ausubel, and Berberian 1985). Issues of political economy will also be central, since many of the most severely affected regions and regional groups may lack the resources and political power to alter the forces that are driving degradation, structuring vulnerabilities, and controlling management systems (Blaikie 1985; Smith 1984). The nine cases amply suggest the multitude of obstacles to more timely and effective response.


State objectives lie at the heart of both the driving forces of environmental change (as noted above) and the societal response in Amazonia. Since the Brazilian state has seen the Amazon as a "frontier" area for development, as an area that needs to be "integrated" into the state as a whole, and as a safety-valve for migration from poverty-prone areas, state concern over deforestation and pollution of waterways has been very muted until recently. And the building of roads through Amazonia will certainly continue to drive the developmental processes that are altering the environment.

Early concern focused on indigenous groups in the Amazon, on the movement to protect rubber trees, and on non-governmental organizations. More recent concern over global climate change and biodiversity has sparked international pressure for remedial measures. The central government has begun to respond, balancing opportunities for debt reduction and remediation of some of the worst damage with protection of its national sovereignty and development goals. The net effect has been to pull down the steepness of the trajectory of change and to begin to ameliorate damage, though the driving forces remain largely intact. Yet, how much of this slowdown is attributable to government policy and how much to longer- term market forces is not documented.

Eastern Sundaland

The patterns of societal response apparent in other frontier areas are also apparent in Sundaland. As in Amazonia and Ukambani, the state is committed to the development of a frontier area (Borneo) for the benefit of the state and the national political elite. The presence of a ready international market and the opportunity to generate revenues support the ongoing timber boom that will soon deplete the remaining primary forests of Borneo. This resource-development thrust is also supported by a central government's policy of eliminating shifting cultivation, based in part on the recognition that shifting cultivators and loggers are in continuing conflict.

Peninsular Malaysia, where industrialization and urbanization have dominated, is increasingly becoming a managed environment. Enrichment planting and plantations are proceeding on a greater scale. Many of the worst environmental problems are being addressed and often ameliorated. The government has also sought to resettle shifting cultivators in reserve areas, with only partial success. While central government policy in the region incorporates greater recognition and more determined response to environmental problems, the policy and institutional infrastructure is still emerging and implementation is still weak. Meanwhile, the conflict between local shifting cultivators and loggers and the growing international concern over deforestation in Borneo are centring greater attention on the trajectory of regional change; nevertheless, restructuring of the pattern of economic gain and the political institutions that support the trajectory is yet to occur.


The state has also been a key shaper of societal response in the Ukambani "frontier" area of Kenya, which too has suffered from many of the problems associated with political marginality. But, unlike Amazonia, the Aral Sea, and the Basin of Mexico, Ukambani has witnessed a continuing series of relatively rapid state responses aimed at mitigating what has been seen as a series of environmental crises. Interestingly, these responses have been driven by the perceived threat that these crises pose to central objectives of the state for the sequestering of land for the social elite and for support of the national economy. Unlike the generally superficial and delayed responses in these three other regions, the responses to environmental degradation in Ukambani have often been broad-based and have addressed such basic elements of driving forces and "proximate" causes as land tenure, enclosure, privatization, type of agricultural system, and livestock numbers. So the "reach" into the structure of causation has been deep.

Unfortunately, these responses have both exacerbated and ameliorated problems. Amelioration of environmental degradation has been closely intertwined with other state objectives, notably those associated with economic development and land allocation. Accordingly, the "problems" of degradation or low productivity have been defined as "overgrazing," "poor cultivation," or an "inadequate cash-crop focus." Predictably, such problem definitions have led to responses that have sometimes compounded problems or created new ones.

As their integration with and dependency upon national and international markets have grown, the Akamba people have sought to maintain livelihood diversity and forms of traditional resilience in the face of the new vulnerabilities produced by top-down changes. The variable effects of these changes, with both winners and losers, raise questions as to the direction of the trajectory of change. Yet, as Mortimore (1989) and Tiffen and Mortimore (1992) note, sombre forecasts by earlier analysts of regional collapse have not been realized.

The Nepal middle mountains

The state has acted as both a driving force of environmental change and a locus of efforts to mitigate environmental degradation and its effects in the Nepal middle mountains. As in Amazonia, the Aral Sea region, and Eastern Sundaland, the primary objective over the past several decades has been resource extraction. State interventions have alienated land and reduced the access of mountain inhabitants to natural resources through the nationalization of forests, the building of roads and industries, and the privatization of common property. Meanwhile, the state has sought, through public investments and subsidies, to intensify production and to increase public revenues. The net effect of such policies and their supply or production orientation, despite emerging national and international concern with environmental degradation, has been to increase the vulnerability of mountain farmers and to cause further environmental degradation.

Various ameliorative efforts have been undertaken in the form of watershed development, forestation, and pasture development. Achieving greater equity in land ownership has ostensibly been a state goal. But vested economic and political interests and ineffective implementation have conspired to continue the problems of landlessness and ownership inequities, to add to the growing proletarianization of the rural peasantry, and to intensify pressures on small and often marginal landholdings. Meanwhile state efforts, and patronage, to provide relief and cushion the human impacts of environmental change have maintained pressures upon mountain resources without enlarging the available resource base. Thus, as in Amazonia, Sundaland, and (even) the Basin of Mexico, environmental mitigation is submerged into basic state policies aimed at a complex of development, growth, resource extraction, and continued concentration of wealth. As a consequence, the region continues to operate close to the limits of the ecosystem.

The Ordos Plateau

Until recently, the attractiveness of the Ordos Plateau as a peripheral area in the Chinese state had been limited. The extensive grazing and cultivation economy attracted little central government intervention until 1978. This is not to say that the region was not significantly affected by national policies, such as the grain-purchasing programmes of the 1950s and 1960s, which extracted food production from the Ordos and produced significant adverse environmental effects, or the settlement programmes of the same period, which resulted in damaging increases in cultivated areas. Most environmental response occurred at the individual farmer level, and it consisted principally of adaptations to climatic variations and the increased pressures arising from national development programmes. The pasture-protection and afforestation programmes undertaken by local governments in the Ordos were too weak and sporadic to have any major role in mitigating environmental degradation in the region.

Since 1980, the state has undertaken more concerted efforts to arrest the rapid course of soil erosion and sandification in the Ordos. In particular, plans have sought to integrate regional development with new programmes of environmental protection aimed at halting overgrazing and restricting the spread of cultivation in marginal areas. Various mitigative measures have been undertaken at the local level. Looming over the Ordos is the prospect of a rapid development of coal resources, with substantial uncertainty as to the controls that will be implemented for environmental protection.

The Aral Sea

Just as the Aral Sea is the clearest case of criticality among the nine regions, it also is the archetypal example of state exploitation of a marginal area and people. As Glazovsky makes evident in chapter 3, the ecological impacts of the diversion of waters from the Aral Sea have been a very secondary consideration behind the objectives in Moscow to develop irrigated cotton production that would generate export earnings and provide cotton for the clothing industry. As warnings appeared from scientists during the 1970s of the dire threats posed by water diversions, the state response was to suppress such reports. Even during the past decade, as the magnitude of the unfolding catastrophe has become clear, effective intervention has not been forthcoming. Indeed, the collusion between the local political corruption involved in the administration of the regional irrigation system and the unwillingness of the state fundamentally to alter the trajectory to criticality has proved too powerful for regional protests to overcome.

Such protests have none the less grown rapidly in number and determination over the past 20 years. Beginning about 1970, scientists pointed out the emerging devastating effects upon the natural systems of the sea. In the 1980s, comprehensive plans appeared for saving the Aral. At the same time, local protest groups carried the fight for heading off the emerging disaster to the media, to regional political authorities, and to government officials in Moscow. Late in the 1980s, the Aral catastrophe was attracting international concern, and the United Nations Environment Programme sent a delegation to the Aral to diagnose the situation and propose remedial actions. By now, however, the scale of needed interventions and the declining societal capacity to respond in the face of the political fragmentation of the region suggest that the regional collapse may be difficult to avert.

The Llano Estacado

The Llano Estacado displays many of the problems of resource depletion characteristic of the frontier regions treated in this volume. A major difference, however, is that this region is of limited economic importance to the state, so that its role in the pursuit of national policies and goals has been relatively minor. At the same time, the regional inhabitants have benefited from various subsidy systems that have propped up the regional economy and in significant measure have accelerated the trajectory to endangerment and (perhaps) eventual regional collapse.

During this century, a broad array of responses has arisen to the long-term depletion of groundwater and soil erosion. The Dust Bowl period in particular stimulated federal studies and interventions. More recently, states have established groundwater management institutions aimed at solving water-allocation conflicts and mitigating depletion rates. For their part, local inhabitants have adapted by shifting occupations or, in periods of great stress, migrating to other areas. Governmental interventions have thus far been largely mitigative in nature. Proposals for more basic changes in economy and nature-society relations, meanwhile, have been debated sporadically but have failed to gather the requisite political support. On the other hand, it is clear that the region and the political system of which it is part have a strong capability for economic substitution, technological change, and mitigative efforts.

The Basin of Mexico

State policy has also played a central role in the emerging societal responses to the growing contamination and precariousness of the Basin of Mexico environment. With continuing rapid in-migration, chronic water shortages, an increasingly unhealthy atmosphere, mounting waste problems, and disappearing open spaces, warnings have abounded of the basin's trajectory toward environmental criticality. Despite the lengthy time-period and numerous warnings, governmental recognition of the seriousness of the environmental problems and the long-term threat posed by the trajectory of change has come only recently. Indeed, the long-standing governmental response, given the established state policy of promoting growth and concentration of wealth in Mexico City, has been either to deny that problems exist or to assert that technology provides ample means for responding to them.

Thus, the story of societal response to emerging criticality in the Basin of Mexico has been one of problem evasion - since confronting the issues would have interfered with other state objectives and more recently of tentative, delayed, and ineffective responses to a trajectory rapidly heading to criticality. Growing political pressure from environmental groups and concerned inhabitants is now stimulating more vigorous governmental responses, including some emergency measures. Demonstrable health effects have provided the most persuasive, and legitimate, evidence. Despite strong scientific capability and societal capacity to respond, problems have grown rapidly worse. Where state responses have occurred, they have focused on mitigating the worst of the damage rather than decisively engaging the driving forces of urbanization, economic growth, economic concentration, and affluence. Indeed, the state has continued to subsidize the causal forces of environmental degradation. The current recognition of the severity of the issues and the substantial national resources provide some reason to believe, however, that increasingly determined efforts may be forthcoming.

The North Sea

Among the nine regions, the North Sea is distinctive in the pattern of societal response as well as in its international, common-pool resource setting. In the midst of a constellation of affluent societies with a well-developed environmental awareness and ethic, the North Sea has been the subject of intensive scientific investigations for over three decades. A series of International North Sea Conferences now appears to be growing into a collective policy-setting institution in which an innovative international regime is emerging - one that capitalizes on the high capability and homogeneity of the rimland countries to explore the limits of existing policy instruments for collective environmental management. Its holistic approaches draw together scientific assessments and "vernacular" science, precautionary principles of intervention that wed science and values, and approaches that push technology in the interest of abating environmental damage. While clearly indicating future pathways for international response to global and regional environmental problems, the North Sea experience also indicates how different the capabilities of societal response to trajectories of endangerment are in the developed and the developing world.

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