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Subsidiarity: A whale of a pattern of thought and an organizing principle for community-based environmental management

Off the coast of Maine, an explosive exhalation of air swept my attention over the sailboat’s starboard rail.  A broad stretch of hide rose like a pebbled sand bar the length of the twenty-seven-foot boat.  The right whale wheeled forward, sliding into opaque water while I stammered and pointed.

I was alone at the helm steering with three people in the cabin below decks.  One ascended the gangway enough to see on the surface of a passing swell a circle of water that once held a whale.  All my ocean sensibilities had been breached.  My mind, informed by sea experiences and ocean literature such as Rachel Carson’s “Under the Sea Wind,” was wholly altered.  Where did this come from? How could this be? What does such a life mean for an unfathomable dynamic complex system called the ocean?

That experience changed me, and I now wanted to know all about whales and searched the course listing of the five colleges in Massachusetts’ Pioneer Valley to no avail.

The following summer found me not at sea but in Amherst, MA working with a colleague who had been first up to see the whale’s fluke print on the waves.  We worked on a stipend to gain the competencies to teach a course on whales to our college peers.   The college practiced a basic form of subsidiarity by employing two college students and funding a college professor to meet with us frequently.

Subsidiarity is a very old concept and pattern of thought that one does not hear of in America.  It is an organizing principle for community-based governance in concert with larger forms of government.  Just as the surfacing of a whale changed my way of knowing the ocean, I suspect the principle of subsidiarity can change for the better of our practices of community-based environmental management.

Subsidiarity calls for close, respectful partnerships amidst all levels of government, local, regional, state, federal, and international. Working with some deference for those closest to the community, we can restore diverse wildlife, healthy ecosystems, and even our quality of life.

Subsidiarity is a two-fold principle.  First, any task should be decentralized to the lowest level of the organization with the capacity to conduct it satisfactorily.  Second, while the higher level of organization reframes undertaking tasks that the smallest group could perform, it is still responsible for the skill training and competencies of the group carrying out the task to the extent that the lesser groups perform as well as the other.  Credit goes to the grouping closest to the resource while all bear responsibility according to the principle of subsidiarity.

The college practiced the principle by delegating to two students the task of teaching and at the same time, building the competencies needed for the specific task. As a student teacher, I was recognized (and got credit) while the college bore responsibility for the quality of the college courses.

The subsidiarity concept goes back to Aristotle, saying that government should be subsidiary to citizens, meaning secondary.  By this, he meant government must serve the people and not the other way around.  Subsidiarity is silent about specific purpose, direction, or content.  As we shall see, subsidiarity was further articulated four hundred years ago as “a conviction that each human individual is endowed with an inherent and inalienable worth or dignity.”  All social groupings should ultimately be at the service of the individual.

In Europe, early in the seventeenth century, subsidiarity was developed to become a part of constitutional laws and legal doctrine.  Johannes Althusius (1557-1638), writing in the Catholic Church about 1620, developed the principle of subsidiarity in defense of the rise of sovereignty and to maintain local autonomy in a wider federative framework including the rapid growth of the Lutheran Church.  Althusius was a Calvinist theoretician and powerful Syndic of Emden, a city in East Friesland.  Emden had separated from the Netherlands during the Eighty Years (independence) War and became a leading center for interdependent commerce. Emden was one of the first cities in Germany to embrace the Reformed faith.  Amidst the turmoil of the Counter-Reformation, the relative autonomy of Althusius’s city was further challenged by a Lutheran provincial Lord determined to establish a sovereign state in East Friesland.

Johannes Althusius began with the Catholic presupposition that no man is self-sufficient and separate from society.  Through the assistance or aid of others, beginning with one’s family, an individual is made a social being capable of citizenship. One must cultivate and conserve associations at multiple levels, including guild, corporation, city, and state.  None of the associations are self-sufficient; they must cooperate with each other within a universal association.

Althusius wrote of seeking “symbiotics” among associations as the essence of politics.  From the bible, he drew the concept of “foedus,” meaning the alliance or league resulting from the bond between God and men. He secularized it to apply to associations in this world.  The word “federalism” comes from this secular application of “foedus” as he tried to maintain both Emden’s political autonomy and commercial interests.

The word “subsidia” was used by Althusius to indicate the supply of all the necessities for life and association.  It is the “logic of the supply of mutual needs in an interdependent world.” The word was used more loosely by Althusius than the concept of subsidiarity would be applied three hundred-plus years later.  Subsidia presupposes diverse and cooperative groups of people and support of local autonomies within a wider federated framework with an ascending series of contracts.

Althusius strove to bring social order to the multiple levels of family, guilds, cities, and state. At the same time, preserve useful and necessary aids and assistance to maintain autonomy and identities of minority religious and political groups in Emden.  When sovereignty was declared absolute and belonging only to the King, Althusius responded with subsidiarity, insisting that the “ownership of a realm belongs to the people, and administration of it to the king.” Althusius’s sovereignty (paraphrased as “commonwealth”) is instead composed of cities, provinces, and regions, which are populated by citizens of a plurality of associations, i.e., families, guilds, and corporations.  These people come together to form one body that jointly owns sovereignty.

Althusian sovereignty is not only one and indivisible; it is also shareable and limited, not absolute.  Sovereignty is limited not only by the natural and divine law but more importantly, it is limited by subsidia: the logic of the supply of mutual needs in an interdependent world.

Subsidiarity took America by force of reason in 1776 by Thomas Paine, a recently arrived English excise tax officer from Thetford, County Norfolk.  In a matter of months, Paine forever altered the political landscape of the American Colonies from a rebellion against the parliament government to a rebellion for the greater good.  He found the colonists demanding civil rights for treatment by Parliament, for representation before taxation, all the while maintaining loyalty to King George.

Paine changed the debate from reconciliation to national identity by asking instead for an Aristotelian subsidiarity as a natural right with moral certainty government should be in the service of citizens.   He argued convincingly that better than rule by Kings. Sovereign law was natural law, where ordinary citizens assembled and decided what rules would govern. Paine introduced the essence of a democracy that began with a government subsidiary to the people and changed the course of history.

Common Sense was published and distributed as a pamphlet on Tuesday, January 10, 1776, a time when Washington’s command was camped on the Cambridge Common, and regiments were talking about quitting the field to return home to Connecticut, Maine, Vermont, and New Hampshire.  In a span of just 46 pages, Paine successfully conveyed the concept of subsidiarity government as a natural right and inalienable truth that could be backed up by scripture.

Paine succeeded for four reasons: first, he was a skilled and eminently competent political writer; second, he brought to America an indigenous knowledge of and significant experience with the British government; third, he reframed the argument from the picayune of civil rights with Parliament to a big-picture argument for natural rights of an independent nation ruled not by the King but by the people; and fourth, he wrote not for the deliberative men gathered in Philadelphia’s Congress, he wrote instead for the common colonial in a familiar style that was easily accessible and inspirational for all.

Paine called on citizens to cease the local quibbling over civil rights of taxation and the ministrations by government, to instead act globally for natural rights where even small steps would, over time, and for posterity, make a world of difference for the better.

The sun never shined on a cause of greater worth.  ‘Tis not the affair of a city, a country, a province, or a kingdom, but of a continent – of at least one-eighth part of the habitable globe.  ‘Tis not the concern of a day, a year, or an age; posterity is virtually involved in the contest and will be more or less affected, even to the end of time, by the proceeding now.  Now is the seed time of continental union, faith, and honor.  The least fracture now will be like a name engraved with the point of a pin on the tender rind of a young oak; the wound will enlarge with the tree, and posterity read in it full grown characters.

Today, ours remains the “seed time” for addressing environmental challenges.  We practice subsidiarity at all levels of government from the individuals and groups closest to the resources on up.  There is now a growing realization of the power citizens have and the responsibilities borne by all levels of government.  The practices of subsidiarity become more effective and significant with each action and every day.

Environmental Subsidiarity

Environmental subsidiarity combines the organizing principle and pattern of thought (subsidiarity) with the context of environmental studies and natural resource management.  Subsidiarity is the policy design; environmental recognizes the policy choice.

Environmental subsidiarity calls for two actions.  First, give power and authority to the frontline groups closest to the natural resource.  Second, subsidiarity calls for holding all groups behind the front, notably higher authorities, often state and federal, responsible for the competencies and apportioning of powers for all the special forces from front to back.  Subsidiarity averts environmental forlorn hope by giving more control and pride to the local groups.  Despair is thwarted by all stakeholders and interest groups working in coordinated partnerships with diverse groups of multiple and increasing capacities to achieve significant undertakings together.

Abraham Lincoln most clearly evoked the spirit of an American subsidiarity when he wrote in 1854:  The legitimate objective of government is to do for a community of people whatever they need to have done but cannot do at all or cannot so well do for themselves in their separate and individual capacities.  In all that people can do individually well for themselves, government ought not to interfere.

For environmental subsidiarity, to paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, the government must do for an environment, and for that environment’s “community of people whatever they need to have done but . . . cannot so well do for themselves in their separate and individual capacities.”

Credit is due to those who do the most.  Responsibility for environmental management, restoration, and conservation belongs to all, from the most local to the most national, near and far.  By bringing multiple groups with differing competencies from many levels of authority to manage an environment and then bear the burden of responsibility broadly, environmental subsidiarity betters and makes more democratic and competent the work of environmental stewardship.



Replacing King George with President George Washington, the chosen men met in Philadelphia behind closed doors and adopted the European principles of federalism to form “a more perfect union.”  They conveniently left behind the principles of subsidiarity, which are to cultivate and conserve diverse associations, the “symbiotics” at multiple levels of government. Instead of forming cooperative politics fortified by mutual aid from different levels of government, the founding fathers installed a more brittle adversarial politic based on authority, jurisdiction, and power.

In the European Union, the guiding principles are subsidiarity. Perhaps, they knew better, having suffered more from tyrannies than did American colonists. Sovereign nations belonging to the union must also maintain more autonomy than do American states (let alone the U.S. territories of Puerto Rico, Guam, Marshall Islands, and the U.S. Virgin Islands).

The difference between the two governing principles is evident in local media. A Plymouth, UK, citizen active with both the local town forum and a coastal management initiative wrote a letter to his local paper titled: “If I Were Prime Minister.”

Firstly, I would give power back to the counties, including far more responsibility for taxation and spending. I would take the EU at its word and rigorously apply the principle of subsidiarity, giving power to the lowest level of government possible. People would soon start to vote again in local elections if parish, town, district and county councils had more power to decide on the local issues relevant to them.

On the vexed issue of energy and climate change, I would progressively enforce tighter carbon dioxide emission limits but allow communities to decide how these are achieved by conservation, the different renewable sources, with the full environmental costs being paid in each case by consumers.

Finally, I would empower local communities to take responsibility for their futures by giving their parish, town, and county plans high weighting in assessing the effectiveness of the public agencies who carry them out.

Initially, there would be an outcry against these measures. Still, as people began to realize that they were being given back power and responsibility, participation in the political process became more effective.[i]

Across the Atlantic, over the realm of whales, and on these fraught shores, we may still learn more about an organizing principle for community-based management. This policy is more collaborative bottom-up than directive top-down.

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A shorter version of this article was published by SevenSeas Media May 2022  A Whale of a Pattern of Thought and Organizing Principle for Community-Based Environmental Management.

[i] Tom Langdon-Davies, “If I Were Prime Minister,” Western Morning News (Plymouth), May 4, 2005, Section: News; Other; Pg. 22, 246 words.

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