Home  »  About  »  Mission & Philosophy  »  Environmental Subsidiarity

Environmental Subsidiarity

The Ocean River Institute is first to practice environmental subsidiarity.  ORI members, “Stewards,” support and assist in the ongoing observations and work by people and communities closest to the resource and wildlife. ORI stewardship efforts may be lasting “like a name engraved with the point of a pin on the tender rind of a young oak.”

“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 are 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.”

–Thomas Paine, Common Sense, January, 1776


White oak in old growth forest, Mt. Wachusetts MA, possibly a young oak when Paine published Common Sense

With global environmental challenges assaulting us in many forms and urgent needs for multiple solutions, now is a most opportune time for an American environmental subsidiarity. Thomas Paine made clear the principles of subsidiarity in Common Sense published January 1776. 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.

Ours continues to be 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. Since Earth Day there is a growing realization of the power citizens have, and the responsibilities borne by all levels of government. The practices of environmental subsidiarity become more effective, more significant, with each action and with every day.

Aristotle wrote about the philosophical concept of subsidiarity as government serving the very center of social life, the free citizen.  Government is formed to support the needs of citizens.  It is secondary and finds legitimacy in being subsidiary to the citizens.  Like democratic government, environmental management must also have greater proximity to the citizens.  Environmental decision-making begins at home in family and in community.  Environmental subsidiarity calls for developing a union of citizens, an environmental ‘demos’, in which all voices can be heard. Time for the principle of “think global, act local” to be applied most to the areas of environment, atmosphere, climate and economics.


View with oak from old growth forest on Mt. Wachusetts

For an American environmental subsidiarity, to paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, government must do for an 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 to then bear the burden of responsibility broadly, environmental subsidiarity betters, makes more democratic and competent, the work of environmental stewardship.

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.

–Abraham Lincoln, 1854