Priorities and values in the decision-making process

I wrote about common values across EU countries before. My conclusion at that time was that “common” is not always so common, thus decision-making is not always comparable. These days there is a hot debate in Romania, concerning the gold exploitation of the Rosia Montana area using cyanide, which at an international level is considered in general an abomination, but one that could in some respects bring economic development in this particular case. Or at least this is the hope.

In my case, this situation made me ask a simple question (that turned into a whole bunch of questions), which can be used for the basic understanding of the decision-making process in all similar cases:

How do we weigh two sets of priorities, one regarding the protection of the  environment and one regarding the economic and social development against each other? More bluntly put: when does one trump the other?

The process itself is not my real concern in this article, nor is it the correctness of the project and contract, both of which are of doubtful quality and border on illegal and unconstitutional (as recently proven),  nor the compromised and preferential way in which the legislation was passed in this case. All of these already sparked street protests for some days now.

I’ve already reached the conclusion that national priorities are not always in sync with international ones. The case of Poland vetoing the EU greenhouse gas emission limits in 2012 seems more than relevant to me. It emphasized that this was not a priority, even though at international level we all accept unconditionally that CO2 emissions are a global and important problem. So considering the EU plan for the protection of the environment, the socio-economic context of an area like Rosia Montana – with no jobs or other real prospects – and nonetheless the risks involved in this type of investment and exploitation, which of these is more important?

More of interest to me is how do we decide which is more important than the other considering a long term perspective. Of course the environment will be (and IS!) a priority, not only considering the EU position in this regard, but in terms of sustainable development. It’s our most valued resource, one which we have to protect and exploit in such a manner that regeneration is not made impossible. But when real people, parts of our society are involved and affected, how do we decide? Saying that the environment is more important than people is a dangerous affirmation. In terms of social justice and equality we should all have access to comparable opportunities and should be able to make free decisions when our own future is at stake.

The point I am trying to make here is that even though the decision might seem an obvious one is not that easily made. At state  level, the government is bound to try to improve the life of the people it serves (I am trying to avoid the corruption debate here, however this is also an important factor) but what cost can be decided to be too great in relation to quality of life?

From the discussions I’ve taken part both online and offline I managed to extract a few key points that are to be considered when weighing in development vs. environment priorities:

  • the priorities regarding the protection of the environment are not to be taken as absolute or (should not be) interpreted in a radical manner. The importance of such priorities seems to be perceived as variable under the influence of the dependency triangle formed by: investment cost, end-profit (of the state in this case), and long-term environmental impact;
  • the current state of the environment in the designated site is of major importance. If the site is already deteriorated then priorities regarding the environment lose ground in favour of economic development, which in turn can contribute to the recuperation of the site on the long term, by bringing in the required resources for the latter process;
  • considering the variable importance of the priorities regarding the environment, development priorities also depend on two  major conditions: the profit must be bigger than the environmental recuperation costs; and the long term environmental effect must be minimalized beforehand. If this is done by using the latest technology, waiting for the most efficient technology to be developed, or by simply limiting the scope of the investment it’s a case specific decision, but it should be considered;
  • last but not less important is the contextual agreement that stands at  the base of any exploitation of this size. The facilitator, impersonated by the state in most of the cases, must use all the means at its disposal to insure the exploiter will honour its contract (maybe using money guarantees), and to impose responsible decision-making and problem solving regarding the environmental issues.

It’s clear that we should not jump head first any major investment that promises jobs and revenue. This is not even debatable, especially when the environment is involved. However, saying NO can have the same level of negative impact as saying YES! It is important to weigh in the pros and cons in a constructive manner and limit radical approaches in the decision-making process.

The list above is not to be exhaustive, as not being a specialist in cyanide based gold mining – the process from which this whole article started – I am not able to list a complete list of things to be taken into consideration. But at the same time, we should not be blinded by counter arguments!

The answer is probably, as always, somewhere in the middle, but as always is difficult to pinpoint at the moment. The concept of sustainable development is waved around in the discussion, but as an interpretable concept I don’t know if it can always give us the answer in this type of decision-making and this type of subjects.