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Responsibility based environmental governance

Denis Salles
Eric Duchemin


Due to their specificity, environmental problems are difficult to govern using standard policy tools. The transgression of the traditional political scale, the intersectorial nature of the problems, and the desynchronization of the impact of human activity on the environment, have resulted in the emergence of policies that champion co-responsibility (inter-territorial, intersectorial, intergenerational). This tendency is evidenced by politics which reinforce explicit interdependencies between territories, and by devices which serve to make social actors aware of their responsibilities (in regards to the environment). These environmental devices represent a new and increasing trend in the regulation of collective environmental problems, in that they place greater emphasis on shifting the social practices of individuals (alternate forms of consumption, travel, etc.). This text exposes these mechanisms aimed at making people more responsible. It explores the range and the limits of environmental governance.

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Editor's notes

This article has been reviewed by two anonymous referees.

This paper is a revised version of an article originally published by [VertigO] -La revue électronique en sciences de l’environnement (Salles, 2009).

Full text

1. Introduction

1Who is responsible for preventing and fixing today’s environmental problems? “It is each and everybody’s task” seems to be the standard answer to that question. Indeed, in the environmental as well as in other fields (health, education, security), the appeal to a principle of responsibility has become the systematic answer to the decrease of the central role of the state, the intrusion of the commercial sphere into politics and the emphasis put on the individual action capacity of consumer-citizens. The reliance on mechanisms of institutional, public, private, collective or individual responsibility transfer is currently at the heart of the governance of “post-modern” societies which are confronted with situations of risk and uncertainty caused by their own development modes (Salles, 2006).

2In the field of environmental policy, international organisations and supranational entities such as the European Union play a major role in the promotion of new governance standards, which emphasize consultation and user participation as well as evaluation and control mechanisms (Costa et al., 2001), which are all designed to place responsibility for the result of their actions into the hands of collective and individual actors.

  • 1  « Make someone accountable for an action (fr.: imputer) is to attribute it to him as his genuine a (...)

3The purpose of this contribution is to question the increasing reliance on those mechanisms of attribution of responsibility and accountability1 within the modes of governance of environmental problems. The following four interrogations will guide us through the analysis:

4What are the origins of the process of responsibility transfer? What type of responsibility is included in the recently developed environmental policies, for example in Europe? What shape do responsibility transfer mechanisms adopt? What sense can be given to these modes of governance based on responsibility?

2. The origin of the responsibility transfer process

5The increasing recourse to responsibility transfer in environmental policies can be attributed to a combination of three factors.

6The first factor is the realization that, despite the considerable judicial and normative framework established over the last three decades, the first and second generation environmental policies have not had the desired effect in terms of the protection of environment and resources. Europe is confronted with a double deficit in the application of its environmental directives; one concerns their translation into national legislation (legal implementation), the other concerns the application of the legal principles through operational measures and practical means (practical implementation) (Weale, 2000).

7The second factor stems from the difficulty of governing environmental problems due to their complexity (inter-territorial problems, transversality, temporal uncoupling of causes and impacts, scientific and technical uncertainty) as well as to the limits of public action modes in their ability to respond to multi-scale problems by means of standardized procedures (regulation, contracts, corporate governance). It becomes clear that significant progress in the application of environmental policies can only be reached through an increased mobilization of all the public and private, collective and individual actors (Theys, 2002).

8The third factor arises from the fact that the transfer of responsibility is closely tied to the process of individualization, which represents the contemporary democratic paradigm. The concepts of responsibility transfer, self-realization and individual self-regulation are erected as social, economic and political models (Kaufmann, 2001), in order to favour the self-realization of the social categories richer in social and cultural resources, in order to justify the management of social organization by the “involvement” of actors or in order to substitute the assistance to the least well off by a quest for an identity reconstruction though the autonomy of action.

3. Types of responsibility towards the environment

9The responsibility principle, which consists in “accounting for your actions before others” can be adapted in many ways, be it as a legal responsibility exerting normative constraint, as an economic mechanism, as a moral imperative (Jonas, 1990), or as a governance mechanism (Costa et al., 2001).

10In the practice of environmental policies, the responsibility process is applied in three complementary ways:

  1. through the reinforcement of co-dependence and shared responsibility between territorial institutions (territorial multi-partnerships…);

  2. through the multiplication of consultation and concertation mechanisms (public debates, citizen conferences, user committee, discussion forums, etc.) which also translate into operationalization mechanisms (contracts, voluntary agreements, charters, etc.) and evaluation mechanisms (follow-up committees, scorecards, observatories, etc.); and finally

  3. through the emergence of responsibility transfer mechanisms for individuals (markets, communication, technical objects, etc.).

4. Reinforcement of interdependence between actors

11The different types of interdependency (territorial, temporal, sectoral) linked to environmental issues give rise to new cross-institutional cooperations and knit multilateral partnerships. This dynamics produces co-responsibility with regard to public policies and to their results. A perfect example for this is water management in France. The necessity to preserve water sources destined for human consumption has become increasingly clear during the last decade. Several factors make further delay untenable: the need to reverse the degradation of the resource by contaminants (nitrates, pesticides, new contaminants); the need to provide sufficient water to an increasingly urban population and the need to respect the environmental obligations set for 2015 by the European Water Framework Directive (EWFD). Since the war, drinking water management has relied on a communal and inter-communal organization. Lately, however, the framework has tended to shift towards an increased responsibility of territorial actors (decentralized administrations, water agencies, local authorities) in shaping water policy.

12The obligation to protect drinking water intakes, inscribed in the law on water of 1964, has been reiterated in the law on Public Health of 2004 for the 2010 horizon. The analysis of the spatial configuration of water intake protection (Barraqué, Garin et Salles, 2006) shows that in most cases priority is given to the establishment of a grid of drinking water distribution units, in order to prevent the risk of water shortages caused by a decrease in water quality. The interconnection of sometimes remote grids has the goal of diluting contaminants and thus guaranteeing the conformity of water quality with standards of public health. The technical cooperation between local authorities has long been part of the political culture of intercommunality.

13In contrast, the evolution of the regulation on diffuse pollution sources in watersheds for drinking water intakes draws up new frameworks and raises new issues in cooperation. One of the emerging issues is the normalization of activities (mostly agriculture) at the scale of the territory as a function of the vulnerability of the resource to diffusive pollution sources. The attribution of public funds is conditional on the obtention of significant results in the protection of raw water supply. This is an example of a mechanism for shared responsibility (farmers/local authorities/water distributors, and when included, environmental and consumer associations) towards the expected result of collective action in terms of health issues, environmental issues and the improvement of water quality. The question will be to see if new political configurations will emerge at every territorial scale, in which relations between states, professional environments (farmers) and civil society will be less hermetic. In this respect, it is through the operationalization mechanisms that the objectives of watershed protection can be achieved (Roussary and Salles, 2009).

5. The multiplication of responsibility transfer mechanisms

14A second analytic viewpoint on the responsibility transfer process is the observation of the multiplication of devices and instruments (Lascoumes and Le Galès, 2004) aiming at the transfer of responsibility to stakeholders, decision makers and other users. Beyond the interrogations surrounding the onset of a “participative democracy” (Blondiaux, 2008), the multiplication of public and user participation processes, as well in the decision making as in the implementation stage, leads to the establishment of a common responsibility. This responsibility with respect to the collective choices and their consequences is shared between elected bodies/decision-makers and local authorities that have contributed to the decision.

15There are a few recurrent principles that guide the logic of the organization of environmental operations. Openness and transparency of the negotiation space, of means and of objectives are the foundation of their democratic legitimacy. Unlike the formalism of administrative rules, pragmatism and flexibility of mechanisms guarantee the fluidity of multi-partner operations and a limit to the constraints on economic actors. The participation of the concerned parties to the establishment of objectives guarantees their adhesion to those objectives and their contribution to their implementation. The legality, in particular with respect to the European regulation, is an increasingly controlled requirement. The efficiency in its turn seems to emerge as an ancillary result of the respect of the ensemble of principles mentioned above. These theoretical principles of “good governance” are in reality far from being applied in the practice of public action in the environmental field (Salles, 2006).

16The operationalization of the EWFD is a good example for responsibility transfer mechanisms put into practice. The EWFD is an innovative policy, based on the articulation of three fundamental and inseparable principles: the obligation to reach goals on the way to a “satisfying ecological condition” of waters in 2015, the internalization of economic costs and the requirement of public participation and consultation (article 14). The analysis of the “EWFD consultation” offers a whole range of observation possibilities. The different interpretation of the notion of public participation in the member countries can be studied; the degree of determination of authorities in the involvement of water users can be measured; the selection of consultation tools and the impact of those choices on the quality of consultation can be observed; the impact of public participation on the orientations and the implementations of the water policy can be evaluated (Notte, 2007). The confrontation of these analyses with the upcoming EWFD deadlines will give a measure of the effects of the implication of the public on the water policy. The highly standardized format of the consultation mechanism via directed questionnaires, the scant use of the free form comments provided via internet, the suspiciousness of elected representatives towards the supposedly negatively biased answers of respondents have allowed water administrators and EWFD operators (administration, water agency) to legitimate orientations already sketched out in their assessment and comfort their Programme of Measures (PDM), required by the EWFD. However, the health aspect has received a more prominent place in the formulation of prescriptions of the EWFD. The experience of EWFD in France is probably too recent (2005: 1st consultation on basin diagnostics; 2008: 2nd consultation on the Programme of Measures) to be able to fully appreciate the effect of seeking citizens’ opinions on local water policy. The argument has not been settled yet between those who see in it a simple rubberstamping of existing corporative policies and those who expect a progressive learning process around citizen participation.

6. The assertion of individual responsibility

17Environmental policies appeal more and more directly to the individual’s responsibility (in his different roles of user, citizen, consumer, voter or tax payer) in order to incite him to personally contribute to the resolution of collective issues. Those initiatives are nowadays less imposed by coercive regulation than arising from a mediation process involving technical measures, communication campaigns and market mechanisms. For example, Electricité de France proposes to participating customers in areas likely to suffer from electricity shortage to alert them on their cellular phone in case of low electrical tension, in order to allow them to adjust their energy consumption in real time. This management scheme, which is deemed to reduce energy consumption and to avoid “undesirable” infrastructures such as power lines and electrical plants, relies on different aspects of individual responsibility: the feeling of being able to act individually and instantaneously on a problem affecting the collectivity; the coherence between ecological values (energy saving) and actions; and finally the financial benefit which is granted by the operator to the voluntary participants. The same reasoning applies to green labels or to measures reducing the space allocated to automobiles in urban centres in order to dissuade motorists from using their vehicle in favour of public transport. In the spirit of the movement of political consumerism, the act of consuming represents an individual political action through which the well-informed and responsible consumer prescribes modes of production more respectful of the environment (Dobre, 2002).

18Within the framework of public environmental action, the individual, in its multiple roles of user, citizen and consumer is placed in a situation where he can expect his choices, decisions and actions to contribute in a tangible way to the resolution of a collective problem. As a result however, the individual becomes responsible and accountable before society of the norms to the establishment of which he has explicitly been associated. This tendency to substitute self-regulation to authority and bureaucratic regulation, while granting individuals larger autonomy of action and decision, leads to placing responsibility for their actions on the social actors. The idea is to have individuals assume the consequences of their choices, even though those choices may be limited by structural constraints.

7. How can the process of responsibility transfer be interpreted?

19After having obtained an overview of the diversity of shapes that the process of responsibility transfer adopts, it is important to better understand its significance. Without claim to a comprehensive explanation, the development of responsibility transfer can be interpreted in the light of three distinct paradigms:

  1. the responsibility can be seen as a government technique and an instrument of neoliberal domination;

  2. the transformation of the political responsibility can be interpreted as a collective response to the governance issue of post-modern societies confronted with a confidence crisis towards the democratic rules and with an increasing context of decision-making under uncertainty;

  3. the responsibility transfer can be seen as a process of identity building and of the creation of new social ties and new forms of solidarity.

8. Responsibility as a neoliberal government technique

20The first possible interpretation consists in seeing the process of responsibility transfer with respect to the environment (but also in a more general way to all domains) as an expression of a new type of domination linked to the adoption of neoliberal principles by politics. The state is considered as the most appropriate vehicle for the extension of the neoliberal rationality to the entire social domain. In the market logic of competition, the territorial institutions and all stakeholders become responsible for their future (and for the environment) and each individual is expected to become a “self-entrepreneur”.

21In this perspective, responsibility transfer is at the convergence between the individualization process of modern societies and neoliberalism. User participation mechanisms would then simply equate to governance techniques (Foucault, 2004; Hache, 2007) aimed at propagating behavioural norms (taking care of health, preserving the environment, commuting and consuming differently, etc.) in society and having individuals assume the consequences of individual and collective actions. The progressive withdrawal of the state over the last three decades goes hand in hand with a transfer of responsibility and arbitrage from the state to individuals (user-citizen-consumer) in the name of the governance principles called upon by globalization and the liberalization of commercial exchanges. Following that logic, public authorities would assume the role of prescribing norms, guide individual choices and increasingly control private as well as public choices and their consequence on the collectivity.

22Thus, the principle of responsibility and the mechanisms of responsibility transfer observed in the field of the environment, which has become “everybody’s business”, converge with an ideology of autonomy of individuals with respect to socializing institutions and with a discourse on the valorisation of self-regulation of individual behaviour and the liberating power of the individual’s ability to determine their life-choices.

9. Responsibility as a response to the governance problem of post-modern societies

23The second possible interpretation of the responsibility transfer process is linked to the transformation of political responsibility.  This transformation is caused by two factors. The first is the search for a new legitimacy of democracy, caught between the ailing classical model of representative democracy and emerging participative models. The second is the growing misadaptation of classical decision modes based on negotiations between the state, experts and interest groups to govern environmental problems, owing to the technical and scientific uncertainty surrounding these problems.

24One of the increasingly important aspects of the renewal of the legitimacy of democracy in contemporary democratic societies is the articulation of the reciprocal relations between governing instances and the governed population. It can be seen as “the responsiveness of governments to the demands, expectations, preferences and opinions of the citizens on one hand, and the political responsibility implying an accountability of the decision-makers for their actions on the other” (Gertslé, 2003). It is hypothesized that both political responsiveness as well as accountability are in full mutation. The responsiveness, often limited to polls and opinion democracy, is now being fed by instruments of consultation and public participation which adopt new and original forms of cooperation such as public debates, citizen conferences, focus groups, round tables, consulting committees or citizen forums (Callon et al., 2001, Blondiaux, 2008, Bourg and Boy, 2006, Sintomer, 2007). These tools aim at creating new social conditions surrounding decision making which escape the classical model built around a triptych of elites, experts and interest groups. These new social conditions allow a transfer of responsibility to the different involved actors for mutually agreed compromises.

25Accountability – hitherto limited to elections – now takes on new forms and responds to a legitimacy of public action based on its efficiency to solve problems. The increase in the number of control and evaluation mechanisms is a tangible manifestation of this new accountability principle. The distrust expressed by voters and the population towards the political class is considered not merely as an avatar, but as an integral part of representative democracy. A modernized approach to political responsibility has to give consideration to expressions of counter-democracy outside of institutionalized frameworks(Rosanvallon, 2006).

26The multiplication over the past decades of collaborative procedures founded on the participation of stakeholders in order to solve environmental problems, can be interpreted as a search for a transfer of responsibility. Those procedures propose to extend the participation from the institutional actors and experts traditionally present, to other stakeholders, target groups and citizens-users targeted by, affected by or simply interested in the decision. The experimentation with new procedures, designed to explore more democratic decision modes as well as to increase efficiency, illustrates a renewal process in political responsibility, which is grounded in a more complex way, on the capacity to bring actors to act together within a democratic framework and on the basis of a responsibility towards the consequences, and hence the efficiency, of their actions (Duran, 1999).

27From this point of view, regulatory mechanisms operate more on the basis of a logic of means than of results. In regulatory action, it is ultimately the administrative authority that is responsible for the result. The administered subject is made responsible for the means by virtue of the sanction he may incur in the case of non-compliance. However, in the case of collaborative mechanisms, the mediation between conflicting interests and the establishment of a shared common interest should be achieved through more direct mediation and negotiation between the responsible actors and the victims of environmental problems. The postulate of collaborative procedures is to make the actors accountable and responsible for their choices and their commitment towards a negotiated compromise, which can be understood as the common interest.

28This interpretation is supported by the analysis of European governance (Becerra, 2003) which concludes that Europe tries to attain a higher efficiency of its environmental policies by favouring regulations through regional stakeholders in order to short-circuit compromises between organized interest groups, ministerial levels or centralized administrative services, seen as corporate gridlocks and places of environmental policy recycling. The involvement of the general public and of the regional stakeholders has the double advantage of granting them a certain autonomy from the political, administrative and political tutelage and of favouring the establishment of reciprocal responsibilities, which at the very least makes the issues more transparent to communication processes and public scrutiny (for example the public consultation in the EWFD), and in the best case makes the actors more responsible with respect to the environmental results on their territory.

10. Shared responsibility as an asset for action and social capacity building

29Responsibility takes on another meaning in the conceptual context of the individualist paradigm. G. Bajoit develops his identity paradigm in the context of his theory of social change by leaning on seven propositions, one of which is concerned with the transformation of social control forms in the “society of individuals”: “the social constraints are only acceptable and efficient because they have a legitimate cultural meaning in the eye of the individuals” (Bajoit, 2003). According to this viewpoint, the invocation of responsibility (individual and collective) in order to protect the environment can be interpreted as conforming to a cultural directive, shared and meaning-laden (in the same way as equality, human rights, right to health and education, etc.).

30If the progress of individualism is seen as a historical step in the modernisation of societies, and not reduced to a product of neoliberal ideology, but seen as a democratic asset which elevates the social individual equipped with a capacity for reflection, criticism and autonomy, then this leads to an increased political status of individual responsibility. This concept of an active responsibility, rather granted to than burdened upon the individual, brings him to constantly question the meaning of his practices with regards to their intended consequences and to the perverse side effects of their behaviour. Responsibility then acts as the “moral correction mechanism of individualism. It is the limit beyond which one cannot afford to be purely individualistic… Individualism and society are not contradictory, the contrary is true” (Etchegoyen, 1999).

31In this context, the meaning of environmental policies must be re-examined in the same way as that of policies arising from individualistic societies (Corcuff et al., 2005). In order to achieve its full potential, this active responsibility is tributary to certain conditions which the public hand has to guarantee: access to information, transparency of the decision making and implementation processes, possibility to participate in the construction of collective choices, and access to the assessment of the results of public policies. In that configuration, the concentration and public participation mechanisms and the evaluation tools would guarantee the exercise of active responsibility, re-establishing a certain symmetry in the balance of forces (economic lobbies, associations, citizens, etc.) (Sabel and al., 2002). It is here that the importance of the “governance instruments” as a means of legitimization and as a measure of the efficiency of environmental governance can be seen. This would therefore warrant – and therein lies the role of social sciences – subjecting the instruments in their entirety to a systematic critical analysis in order to test their robustness with respect to the democratic and environmental objectives that the public actors and society assigns them.

32When seen in this way and viewed as an opportunity rather than as a burden, the process of responsibility transfer appears in another light. The principle of shared responsibility (Bec and Procacci, 2003) stands as a central element of the transformation of social control mechanisms and of the modes of collective establishment of the rules of social life. In modern societies on the lookout for new mechanisms of accountability, elites, political authorities, companies or citizens-consumers are subject, albeit in a different way, to an obligation to exert their responsibility being mindful of the consequence of their actions (Sabel, 1999). From a more formal viewpoint, jurisdiction tends to progressively absorb this evolution and privilege the strength of “responsibility-participation” (Ost, 1995) rather than resort to the rules. “The strength of the legal rules no longer stems from its nature of a compelling order to which all have to submit, but rather from the strength of the consensus in which it is embedded. Such a consensus presupposes that the concerned parties have been involved in shaping it. Preliminary cooperation and participation in the definition of the rule become the guarantee that it is well-founded. Law thus becomes negotiated law, which is the achievement of collective deliberation.” (Chevallier, 2004)

11. Conclusion

33Resorting to responsibility in order to legitimate and equip environmental policies appears to be a significant trend. The multiple forms that mechanisms of responsibility transfer can adopt permeate not only public action, but also markets and cultural practices. Responsibility appears in the form of an increase in mutual dependencies on a territorial level over common environmental issues (water resources, biodiversity, etc.), through an institutionalization of mechanisms for the participation of stakeholders to decisions concerning their environment and through an obligation for citizens-users-consumers to assume their responsibility, via technical, organizational or economic mechanisms.

  • 2 By order of importance, five factors dominate: life cycle (combined effect of age and type of house (...)

34The interpretations of the process are quite radically different whether it is seen as a neoliberal government technique that favours the domination by the dominant culture, as a means of renewing the legitimacy of the politics and governance of situations of risk and uncertainty or as a process of empowerment of individuals. The concept of a “shared responsibility” displaces the paradigm of pure domination, which considers responsibility as a consequence of en egoistic or imposed individualism and as a vehicle of neoliberal ideology. Most scientific investigations underline the importance of economical and cultural determinants crucial for the adoption of new social practices less harmful to the environment2. The hesitancy to move on to action stems from the difficulty of putting alternative practices into place, such as different transport modes, waste recycling or energy and water savings in an environment ruled by the constraints of the organization of labour, life style and consumption modes. Environmental practices are economically and socially dependent on more immediate needs, for example commuting to the workplace, school or shopping centres.

35In order to better understand the question of responsibility in the environmental field, it seems preferable to see the different interpretations as complementary, rather than as mutually exclusive, in an open and pluralistic attitude towards the process of responsibility transfer (Dubar, 2006).

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1  « Make someone accountable for an action (fr.: imputer) is to attribute it to him as his genuine author, put it on his account and make him responsible » Definition from the Robert, cited by Ricoeur (2004).

2 By order of importance, five factors dominate: life cycle (combined effect of age and type of household), residential space, revenue, sex and value system (conservative vs. universalist value system) Maresca (2001).

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Electronic reference

Denis Salles, “Responsibility based environmental governance”S.A.P.I.EN.S [Online], 4.1 | 2011, Online since 26 April 2011, connection on 23 July 2024. URL:

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About the author

Denis Salles

Research Director, CEMAGREF, Unité Aménités et Dynamiques des Espaces Ruraux, Centre de Bordeaux 50, avenue de Verdun – Gazinet 33612 CESTAS cedex, E-mail :

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