Sustainability Seminar delivered on January 19, 2011 by Claremont McKenna Professor William Ascher, "Knowledge and Environmental Policy."
Environmental policymakers rely on a prodigious amount of knowledge from a wide variety of sources. Sometimes available knowledge is technically appropriate and covers the broad range of considerations that policymakers ought to take into account, yet it is easy to identify serious limitations in the generation, transmission, and use of relevant knowledge. Some forms and sources of knowledge are inappropriately privileged over others, narrowing the range of considerations that policymakers ought to take into account, such as practical knowledge and the expression of public preferences. The quest for more knowledge may rationalize shortsighted delays in taking necessary actions. By looking at how these three processes are exposed to both technical limitations and contestation, we can learn why and how knowledge is used and abused in the environmental policy process. The views that more knowledge resolves policy disputes, obviating the need for politics, and that "ugly politics" undermines the contributions of knowledge to environmental policymaking, neglect the crucial role that politics, as contestation over societal goals, has to play. The rejection of the inevitability of politics in the knowledge-policy relationship drives the politics underground, making it more difficult to see where value positions are masquerading as purely technical. Based on this diagnosis, many recommendations for improving the knowledge processes can be devised.