Geographic Perspectives on Sustainability and Human-Environment Systems



Our discussion of sustainability thus far has made it clear that many people, or groups of people, disagree about what constitutes sustainability, and how to achieve it. This sort of disagreement is very commonplace in our society, about a wide range of issues related to the environment and just about everything else. This makes decision making much more difficult. If we all agreed, then we could just do what we all thought was right! But when we disagree, what should we do? That's what we're considering in this last section of Lesson 3.

Let's first note that we're working within the realm of procedural justice because we're considering how decisions are made, not what decisions are made. There are many different ways of making decisions. Here we're going to discuss one of the ways, which is very common in our society: democracy.
(To clarify what democracy means, we can look at where decisions are made not in a democratic way. For example, soldiers take orders from their superiors and their superiors do not need to consult with their subordinates.)

We are probably all familiar with democracy, given its prominence in our lives. We have probably voted, or at least followed elections. We have probably also seen many discussions of the civic issues that our elected officials work on. Perhaps we have contributed to these discussions ourselves, via contacting our representatives, writing to newspapers, talking with our friends, or via some other means. Contributing to these discussions is known as using our voice. Voice and vote are two core ways of participating in democracy. They are also important aspects of human-environment geography.


When we speak out on civic issues, we are exercising our voice. We do this for several reasons. We can be letting the government know what our views are so that it can take our views into consideration. We can be arguing for our views so as to persuade our fellow citizens to agree with us. Or we can be providing information that we think is relevant to an understanding of the issue.

Voice can be a powerful factor in environmental issues. These issues are often highly complex and full of many different views. Without people speaking out, all these different facets of the issues could not be untangled and understood. Many organizations are dedicated to exercising voice on environmental issues. One of these is the Sierra Club, which is the oldest environmental non-profit organization in the United States. It was founded in 1892 by John Muir, whose ideas we read earlier in this module. The Sierra Club is very active in helping people speak out on environmental issues, as seen on the Actions page of the Sierra Club website. Another organization that is active in exercising voice on environmental issues is the American Petroleum Institute (API), which is a major trade organization for the oil industry. API funds several lobbyists whose job is to argue in favor of certain government actions. An overview of policies and issues that API is interested in can be found can be found on API's Policy and Issues page.

As a citizen, and in particular as a Geography 30 student, you have an important voice to add to civic discussions of environmental issues. The topics that we're learning about in this course are very central to many issues, and it is important for them to be considered in discussions of the topics. Your own interpretations, ideas, and opinions on these and other topics are especially important. As you formulate your views on the issues, you should think through the ethics underlying your views, and then argue for them.


The process of discussing civic issues is ongoing, but, periodically, decisions must be made. In a democracy, the decisions are typically made through voting. Voting raises two major ethical questions. First, how should we vote? Second, who should vote, and how should the votes be counted? The first question, how we should vote, will, of course, vary from issue to issue. The second question raises some important and fundamental procedural and geographic questions worth considering in more detail.

Since who votes and how votes are counted is often determined by very well-established procedures, we often take these procedures for granted without questioning them. However, none of the procedures in use today have been around forever. At some time, decisions were made on these matters. In some places today, the decisions are still being made. These decisions are quite often very contentious and controversial, and thus should not be taken for granted.

In the United States, one of the contentious decisions concerned how members of the House of Representatives and the Senate were to be allocated. The large states wanted members allocated by population, whereas the small states wanted a fixed number of members per state. In what's now known as the Connecticut Compromise of 1787, the states decided that the House would allocate by population and the Senate would allocate by state. This means that one citizen's vote has different meaning depending on which branch the vote is for. Also, for senators, the vote will have different meaning depending on whether the citizen is in a small state or a large state.

Voting procedures often have a very strong geographic component. This is perhaps seen most visibly in the practice of gerrymandering. To gerrymander is to create an electoral district that is in a strange geographic shape so as to achieve some desired result. Often the result is to keep incumbents in office or to diminish the power of certain segments of the population. It is named after a districting scheme devised by former Massachusetts governor Elbridge Gerry; the scheme included a district which looked like a salamander:

Political Gerrymander cartoon: satirizes the bizarre shape of a district in Essex County, Massachusetts as a dragon.
Figure 3.2 Gerrymander Cartoon: The caricature satirizes the bizarre shape of a district in Essex County, Massachusetts as a dragon.
Credit: Work found at Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

Voting procedures are very important in many environmental issues. Within the United States, views on environmental issues often vary from region to region around the country. Midwestern and Appalachian states have a lot of coal and often favor pro-coal environmental policies. Southeastern states are exposed to hurricanes and favor policies that offer protection from or insurance for hurricanes. How votes are allocated across regions can have a large effect on which policies are produced.

Internationally, the effect of voting procedures can be even stronger. Many international or global environmental issues are products of decisions made at the national scale in which the foreigners affected by the decisions have no vote (and often also no voice). This violates a basic principle of procedural justice, but it occurs nonetheless quite often. Meanwhile, when international agreements are made, there is no established procedure for aggregating votes from different countries. International agreements are often formed mainly by certain more powerful countries, though recently many other countries have been more successful at shaping the agenda. The situation is further complicated by the fact that some countries do not have democracies, or have democracies that disenfranchise large portions of their populations. How should the world's disenfranchised citizens be represented in global environmental policies? This is an important question, but it has no easy answer. At least, we can be aware of it as we approach the environmental policy process.