Year XXXI, 1989, Number 3, Page 218



The ecological problem is certainly one of the most complex that mankind has ever had to face. This complexity shows in the various interrelated spheres into which it is articulated: the problem of population, agriculture, food supplies, industry, raw materials, energy, urban development, etc.; consequently, also in the theoretical approaches and the categories to be used, which must range from economy to geography, geology, etc.; and finally in the territorial sphere where the problems arise and the relative institutional frame within which effective choices and democratic decisions can be made.
In this brief note we examine this latter aspect, bearing in mind that it is surely the most important, as any technical response to a complex problem is conceivable and applicable only if the decision-making mechanisms find no institutional impediments, such as the lack or inadequacy of centres of power where responsibility and political can appear.
The choice of this approach to the problem is also based on the consideration that all too often we consider ourselves satisfied with having produced a rich documentation and having listed a long series of goals to be reached, or for showing moral sensibility through the proclamation of great ideals and principles. But ideals and objectives derive their value not so much from being declaimed or proposed, as from being put into practice. Failure certainly does not represent any confutation of their worth or necessity, but simply of the way of acting of whoever is pursuing them. Therefore it is not enough to fight: it is necessary to win, and victory depends on the ability to reconcile the just with the effective, in other words to point out the suitable institutional means.
To this end reflection becomes unavoidable on the fact that, wherever decisions must be made concerning a complex problem which involves territorial spheres which are at the same time different and interrelated, the distribution of power and its articulation become particularly important.
When considering ecological problems, one realizes immediately that there is a wide gap between the territorial spheres in which they appear (level of reality) and the possibility of solving them (level of institutions). While some problems can arise at local, regional or worldwide level, at these levels there are no institutions able to take on the full responsibility of making decisions. Each of them clashes with the only centre of power with the right and the force to make and impose decisions: national power.
This means that, both regarding the administration of one’s city or region, and regarding problems that go beyond the boundaries of one’s country and sometimes takes on a planetary dimension, there is no guaranteed possibility of controlling the factors concerning the quality of life.
In an era like the present one, in which the “quality of life” no longer coincides with the “standard of living”, which in advanced societies has now reached acceptable levels for the majority of the population, safeguarding the environment has become one of the most important values and political choices must be based more and more on social and community values, giving them precedence over those concerning the sphere of individual life. But the absence of an active political life at the various levels at which decisions have to be made makes it impossible to concretely exercise individual responsibilities and makes the contradiction and gap between values and facts in the political field increasingly serious.
If it is true that in most of the population in advanced countries what we might define “ecological awareness” is spreading more and more, also thanks to mass media; if it is true that ecology movements are proliferating all over the world, it is also true that to become aware of a problem, of a new emergency, and of the value to be affirmed to face this problem (the paramount value of defending life), this is only the first step. Any further steps, which imply the sacrifice of assuming responsibilities, paying prices in terms of time and money, are usually taken only where there is the certainty or predictable prospect that one’s contribution is possible, necessary or indispensable. The presupposition for overcoming the separation between knowing and doing is that every citizen can really become an active member of the management of the community.
This is not only the condition to bring into activity any available forces, but also the condition to face territorial problems. Territory planning in fact is one of the aspects of community life in which non-bureaucratic management of problems and the contribution of those who well know its aspects and implications are particularly important.
Moments of conflict linked to the juxtaposition of interests necessarily arise in territory planning. But the importance of environmental problems in the society we live in must drive us to find new solutions as regards the decision-making process, to prevent these conflicts from assuming a paralysing role.
Because of the present distribution of power and the consequent political management of social life, it is often just sectorial interests that determine the selection of the political class and which induce certain choices, less mindful of the global interests of the community than of the search for a functional consent to keep power. In a centralized state, the relationship between citizens and local administrators is steadily mediated by the political calculations of the parties aiming at maintaining and increasing their power on a national scale.
Therefore, if we wish to overcome this impasse tied to a permanent state of conflict and its exploitation, it becomes necessary to think over both the decision-making process and the institutional framework in which it can be expressed.
As for the decision-making process, two considerations must be made: 1)Territorial administration has a particularly complex nature and pointing out solutions often implies quite specific technical notions. But it must not be deduced from this that only a limited number of persons (technicians) are authorized to decide. Actually, it is undeniably necessary that the decisions in this field be collective, in other words involve all those that will bear their consequences. 2) The juxtaposition of interests and values is unavoidable, but to avoid paralysing situations or exploitations it is necessary to find the instrument to eliminate the conflict replacing it with mediation.
The first point concerns the problem of the democratic answer to the crisis of power, the crisis of institutions which characterize the society we live in.
The importance of this problem is evident if we consider that the processes now taking place and the proposals suggested to solve this crisis do not exactly represent an advance of democracy. The solutions often suggested or put into practice in fact tend towards authoritarianism when they stress efficiency and in particular the function of experts, considered as the only people able not only to make decisions of a technical kind, but also to point out the necessities and social purposes of territorial planning and defence. In reality, as Lewis Mumford has already reminded us (The Culture of Cities, New York, 1938), the work of the philosopher, of the educator, of the artist, of the ordinary man is no less essential as regards the introduction of values into the choices: as what is required for political life is not simply empirical science, inert in itself, but the ability to transform reality on the basis of rational choices, those on whom the consequences of these choices will fall cannot be excluded from them (unless, of course, we accept the totalitarian alternative). But it is certainly not enough to express the need for participation without proposing institutional solutions in a framework where participation itself becomes a positive fact (democratic) and does not run the risk of assuming a demagogic flavour without any outlets.
The second point concerns the acceptable degree of conflict. Within the present institutional framework, the confrontation of opinions and solutions tends to be based mostly on strategic requirements (that aiming at success rather than agreement between the parts), while reciprocal confrontation based on the need for rationality is rarely accepted and put into practice. The term “mediation” means just this. In this context it does not take on the meaning the present management of power tends to confer to it, in other words the meaning of “compromise” between the parts, but it can and must take on the sense of a new type of democratic dialectics, in a new institutional framework.
The institutional framework is thus the crucial issue. As already mentioned at the beginning, the impasse we have to face (which does not involve only ecological problems, but is however particularly serious if referred to them, due to their complexity and urgency) concerns the articulation of power levels. And one of the levels at which the forces available for the management of social life can be mobilized is the local one. It is the level which has undergone and most undergoes the influence of the national and bureaucratic management of problems and it is the level at which the real and strictest meaning of the term “democracy” (the coinciding of the rulers with the ruled) can show itself.
To activate the community (local) pole, by acknowledging its autonomy and decision-making power in relation to certain competences (which must of course be accompanied with tax autonomy), would create as a result a political framework wherein everyone could consider himself (and consider others) as a subject of rational choices, in other words of choices that answer to the real needs and the values which represent the heritage of the community one belongs to.
One must oppose the community choice to the skepticism concerning people’s ability to govern themselves and, on the opposite front, to the wishfulness of those who consider the need for participation satisfied wherever it is possible to involve people in acts of protest (therefore privileging the conflicting and strategic aspect of social management). Man’s rational abilities, which should stand at the basis of every choice, cannot in fact be denied nor assumed as an undoubtable premise. They are the result of a long journey and are directly proportionate to man’s possibility of learning to use them. And this in turn implies the possibility of thinking and acting in a socially integrated, autonomous and responsible context.
Clearly this objective cannot be achieved by keeping the exclusive sovereignty of the level of national power intact. The only alternative model that offers any prospect of solving the problem of overcoming exclusive national sovereignty, and which at the same time makes the most of both the community pole and the cosmopolitan pole, is the federal model as it is taking shape in those theorizations that have already appeared in this journal,1[1] that is, a model which, starting from an analysis of the first federal experience in history, the American experience, goes beyond it precisely as regards meeting the ever more pressing need to make a participating citizen of every man.
Nicoletta Mosconi

[1] See, for example, Mario Albertini, “Discorso ai giovani federalisti,” in Il Federalista, XX (1978), pp. 51-67; Francesco Rossolillo, “Federalism in a Post-Industrial Society,” in The Federalist, XXVI (1984), pp. 120-133.


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