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Ordinary Citizens

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By David Howard Davis
June 26, 2015

By the time a public administrator lays hands on a program it has been through a long process of initiation, debate, legislation, enactment, assignment and court challenges. But we must remember these programs often started as the ideas of ordinary citizens. Environmental programs offer many examples.

In 1870 a few ranchers and settlers from Bozeman, Montana, ventured south into the headwaters of the Yellowstone River, eventually leading to the first national park anywhere in the world. In 1940 women of Pittsburgh’s Civic Club and its League of Women Voters began to agitate to control smoke, eventually leading to the national Clean Air Act. In 1978 a 27-year-old mother in Niagara Falls, New York, worried that her son’s school was built on a toxic waste dump, circulated a petition in her neighborhood, eventually leading to the Superfund. Many of the first instigators were quite humble, without wealth, higher education or connections.

As Americans, we are not always aware that some of the most interesting instances of ordinary citizen initiation occurred overseas. In India, local people in Uttar Pradesh were angered in 1973 when the Forest Department sold their ash trees to a sporting goods company to manufacture tennis rackets. They demonstrated against the sale by literally going out into the forest and hugging the trees. These tree huggers took the name chipkos. Popular protest had a long history in India, exemplified by Mohandas Gandhi. Gandhi, in turn, had ties to America getting his inspiration from Henry David Thoreau and inspiring Martin Luther King, Jr.

In Brazil, Chico Mendes was a poor, illiterate rubber tapper, that is, he earned his livelihood by going into the Amazon rainforest to collect latex from wild rubber trees. Mendes was outraged by the destruction of the rain forest by ranchers and industry. As a youth he and his buddies would fight the loggers and vandalize their equipment. As he matured, he organized his comrades into the Rubber Tappers Union, in time expanding throughout Brazil. Mendes was assassinated in 1988 by a rancher.    

The 1960 decision by the U.S. Navy to station nuclear submarines at the British base at Holy Loch in Scotland generated immediate protests by the Scots. Each Polaris submarine was armed with 16 nuclear missiles. Nearly three thousand citizens rallied in protest, the beginning of years of marches and demonstrations. In turn this inspired citizens of Denmark to protest. In 1961, 30,000 marched in Copenhagen against nuclear weapons and nuclear plants to generate electricity. These were popular outpouring of ordinary citizens against their own governments.

In Communist countries during the Cold War citizen movements were ruthlessly suppressed, with a few exceptions. Small environmental groups were occasionally tolerated. When in 1957 the Soviet government announced plans to construct a cellulose plant on the shore of Lake Baikal in Siberia, local fishermen and farmers howled. The lake is one of the purest in the world. The government withdrew its plans. Over the next three decades the Communists granted a mild toleration to ecological groups, and a few others such as those for preservation of ancient icons or historic buildings. The Socio-Ecological Union was an umbrella group. Party members steered clear of them.

In Czechoslovakia, a large environmental youth group named Brontosaurus was tolerated because it did not threaten the Communist regime. By 1989 they fed into the fall of Communism in the country.

Another Communist state, China, offers less encouragement to ordinary citizens. Although the People’s Republic has the formal trappings of such groups, they are tightly controlled. For example “non-governmental” groups must be sponsored by government agencies. Moreover citizen groups cannot have branches so they must remain local. While there are thousands of small protests every year, most rally against seizure of land and houses and have limited success.

Although it is a well honored principle of political science that wealth, education and connections are major resources in advancing a policy, these cases from America and abroad illustrate they are not absolutely necessary. Ordinary people can prevail, resulting in new laws and programs.


Author: Davis teaches public administration at the University of Toledo. Some of these vignettes were taken from his book Comparing Environmental Policies in 16 Countries. Email [email protected]

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