Proceduralism and Expertise in Local Environmental Decision-Making

  • Evelyn BristerEmail author
Part of the The International Library of Environmental, Agricultural and Food Ethics book series (LEAF, volume 26)


Among Bryan Norton’s most influential contributions to environmental philosophy has been his analysis and evaluation of democratic processes for environmental decision-making. He examines actual cases of environmental decision-making in their legal, political, ethical and scientific contexts, and, with contextual constraints and goals in mind, he theorizes concerning what they accomplish and how they can be improved. Informed by the political theories of both John Dewey and Jürgen Habermas, Norton’s pragmatist approach holds that appropriate democratic decision procedures will generate broadly defensible decisions. Thus, his view of environmental decision-making is based in—and requires—inclusive, democratic, empirical inquiry. While accepting these criteria, I examine how, in practice, it is difficult to identify when these conditions have been adequately met. I investigate the limitations of Norton’s proceduralist approach through a case study in community-based forest management in a New York State urban old-growth park. I argue that Norton’s procedural priorities are too rigid given the contextual constraints of local decision-making. While they are useful for guiding an ideal, high standards sense of the decision-making process, less rigid Deweyan considerations of social learning and community engagement often provide sufficient guidelines for evaluating success.


Environmental pragmatism Proceduralism Deweyan inquiry Community decision-making Adaptive management 



My knowledge about the case study comes from public meetings, from conversations with Brian Liberti, head of the Forestry Division for the City of Rochester, NY, and from planning documents distributed by the City of Rochester. Thanks go to William Throop for asking questions that directed my thoughts about the case, to Matthew Brown for sharing ideas about Deweyan inquiry, and to Charles Burroughs for encouragement to write about the much-loved Washington Grove. Patient and insightful audiences at Green Mountain College, the University of Waterloo, and an International Society for Environmental Ethics conference in Kiel, Germany made helpful contributions, and Ben Minteer, Sahotra Sarkar, and Paul Thompson improved my ideas and their expression immeasurably.


  1. Bozeman, Barry, and Ben Minteer. 2007. Toward a pragmatic public interest theory. In Public values and the public interest: counterbalancing economic individualism, ed. Barry Bozeman. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press.Google Scholar
  2. Brister, Evelyn. 2012. Distributing epistemic authority: Refining Norton’s pragmatist approach to environmental decision-making. Contemporary Pragmatism 9 (1): 185–203.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Capps, John. 2002. Achieving pluralism: Why AIDS activists differ from creationists. In Dewey’s logical theory, ed. F. Thomas Burke, D. Micah Hester, and Robert B. Talisse. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press.Google Scholar
  4. Dewey, John. 1927/1982. The public and its problems. In John Dewey: The later works, vol. 2, ed. J. A. Boydston and B. A. Walsh, 1925–1927. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.Google Scholar
  5. Festenstein, Matthew. 2008. John Dewey: Inquiry, ethics, and democracy. In The Oxford handbook of American philosophy, ed. Cheryl Misak. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  6. Habermas, Jürgen. 1984. The theory of communicative action, trans. T. McCarthy. Cambridge, UK: Polity.Google Scholar
  7. Higgs, Eric. 2003. Nature by design: People, Natural process, and ecological restoration. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  8. Hildreth, R.W. 2009. Reconstructing Dewey on power. Political Theory 37 (6): 780–807.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Holling, C.S. 1978. Adaptive environmental assessment and management. New York: Wiley.Google Scholar
  10. Minteer, Ben. 2009. Nature in common?: Environmental ethics and the contested foundations of environmental policy. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.Google Scholar
  11. Minteer, Ben. 2012. Refounding environmental ethics: Pragmatism, principle, and practice. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.Google Scholar
  12. Misak, Cheryl. 2000. Truth, politics, morality: Pragmatism and deliberation. New York: Routledge.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Misak, Cheryl. 2013. The American pragmatists. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  14. Norton, Bryan G. 2005. Sustainability: A philosophy of adaptive ecosystem management. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Norton, Bryan G. 2015. Sustainable values, sustainable change: A guide to environmental decision making. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. O’Neill, John, Alan Holland, and Andrew Light. 2008. Environmental values. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  17. Sarkar, Sahotra. 2012. Environmental philosophy: From theory to practice. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Philosophy DepartmentRochester Institute of TechnologyRochesterUSA

Personalised recommendations