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Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Corruption

In a talk in Denver recently, I used the word "corrupt" with reference to today's systems of environmental impact assessment (EIA) and cultural resource management (CRM). A colleague in the audience very properly challenged me to define what I meant by the term, and to say just who I was tarring with the corruption brush. I'll try to do both things here.

"Corruption," according to the Oxford Dictionary, means the destruction or spoiling of anything, esp. by disintegration or by decomposition with its attendant unwholesomeness and loathsomeness. That's what I mean in using the word with reference to the EIA and CRM industries.

The purpose of EIA is to conduct honest, thoroughgoing analyses of environmental impacts, and to put the results of these analyses before decision makers and the public so all can be informed in their judgments about a project’s costs and benefits. The purpose of CRM – at least, that part of CRM in which most of us work – is to do the same thing with reference to the environment’s cultural aspects, in consultation with interested parties. How many of us, I wonder, can honestly claim to perform such analyses and consultations? If we’re truthful, I’m convinced that the number would be very small. Most of us, I suspect, instead see our jobs as being – in the words of an “NHPA game” distributed by the U.S. Army Environmental Center to Army CRM specialists – to complete needed projects, in compliance with (the law), in the least number of moves?

This transformation of our purpose – from that of honestly assessing and addressing impacts to “completing needed (sic) projects…in the least number of moves,” is a corruption of that purpose, and hence of our practice and ourselves. We are well on the way to being spoiled, and as a result are becoming loathsome – or at the very least useless.

But, you protest, the “NHPA game” says that it has to be played “in compliance with the law,” so where’s the problem? The problem is that laws like NEPA and NHPA are not like, say, the highway speed laws. There’s no easy to understand, universally agreed upon, standard for compliance. A speed limit is a speed limit, set down in miles or kilometers per hour, but what is compliance with NHPA or NEPA? It’s easy to say that compliance means following the regulations, but that’s deceptive – first because (in my experience) most practitioners have exotic and ungrounded assumptions about what the regulations say, and second because the regulations really are not very explicit. It’s perfectly possible – easy, even – to produce an environmental assessment or impact statement, or to do something that passes for compliance with section 106, without in fact honestly assessing impacts at all, and without effectively consulting the concerned public. People and agencies do it all the time, and the impulse to get the job done in “the least number of moves,” to advance our clients’ interest in completing “needed (by them) projects,” drives us toward this sort of “compliance.”

It's well accepted that power corrupts, and we've evolved CRM and EIA systems that ultimately are all about power relationships. Clients -- understandably and inevitably -- have absolute power over their contractors, which means that however ethical a consultant may want to be, however honest and honorable, he or she is always beholden to his or her client, and there is powerful, powerful motivation to be part of the client's team. Most of us have accepted this as "the way it is," and have even become comfortable with it, but it can't help but be corrupting. We become interested in seeing our clients' projects succeed, and that can't help but influence the way we define the scope of our work, interpret our data, and interact with others.

I do not mean to tar any particular individual, firm, or agency with the brush of corruption, though I have no doubt that some of each could be thus described. My point is that the system is inherently corrupting, and as time passes with no corrective action, we (and the environment) are bound to suffer accordingly.

What can we do about it? I'm not sure. Third party contracting is probably a good idea, in which the project proponent pays for an impact analysis but some outside party -- a regulatory agency, for instance -- actually supervises the work, but how can that be made to work without creating a bigger, more cumbersome bureaucracy? And what sort of honesty or public accountability have we seen recently from such regulatory and oversight agencies as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Council on Environmental Quality, or the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation?

Or from such state-level bodies as the State Historic Preservation Officers (SHPOs)? If the SHPOs are any example, we can’t expect state agencies to hold federal agencies or other project proponents to high standards. However the section 106 regulations may pontificate about the SHPOs representing the interests of the state’s citizens in historic preservation, all the pressure on the SHPOs seems to be to expedite review of projects, and hang the public. Except the pressure they get from NPS to impose and enforce mindless standards that frustrate project proponents and the public alike.

But there must be a way, and we ought to be looking at alternatives. We ought to be examining what other countries are doing, and constructing and playing out possible options. For starters, we need to recognize that there really is a problem – that minimalist “compliance” with the letter of the law, expending the least possible effort with the intent of speeding projects forward, really is a corruption of the intent of laws like NEPA and NHPA, however uncomfortable it may be to acknowledge it.