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Saturday, January 19, 2013

EPA: a Highly Principled Agency

Many thanks to John Parker for alerting me to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA's) request for comments on its published draft principles for advancing environmental justice among Indian tribes and other indigenous groups.  Below are my comments, just sent to EPA, along with the URLs by which you, too, can access the principles for review.

I am writing to comment on the Indigenous Peoples Environmental Justice Principles and Sub-Principles you recently published on the Worldwide Web, per the instructions in your "outreach letter" ( and

You asked that we respond to five questions, arrayed below with my responses.

Question 1: Do the introduction and background sections clearly explain the rationale (etc.)?

Answer: More or less, but they convey no evidence of appreciation for the urgent needs that exist for actually addressing the concerns of indigenous people about impacts on their environments, which are being effectively ignored by most if not all agencies of the U.S. government (presidential, secretarial, and other official rhetoric to the contrary notwithstanding).

Question 2: Are the draft principles and sub-principles the appropriate approach….?

Answer: No. The principles and sub-principles are so vague and abstract that they provide no basis upon which anyone can develop expectations about actual EPA actions. They strike me as a smoke-screen, designed to avoid and deflect criticism rather than actually to accomplish anything.

Question 3: What, if any, changes … should be considered?

Answer: Cut the self-congratulatory gobbledigook and give us some assurance that EPA will actually use its authorities to do something. Particularly in its role vis-à-vis federal agency compliance with NEPA, EPA could do a great deal of good for indigenous people and their environments by vigorously promoting EJ principles and the principles of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (neither of which need further definition, thank you). You ought to develop the staff and other resources to do this, and get on with it, rather than wasting your time and the taxpayers' money formulating and reformulating abstractions.

Question 4: What recommendations do you have on how to best implement these principles…?

Answer: Stop splitting infinitives, but beyond that, see above.

Question 5: How should progress and success be measured?

Answer: They can’t be, because the principles and sub-principles are too vague and abstract. You could do almost anything short of flooding Indian Country with toxic wastes and still be “successful” under these principles.

Thank you for the opportunity to comment.

Thomas F. King

The Mob Revisited

2013 Introduction

The Explorers Club, of which I'm a member, is considering denying support to underwater archaeological projects that include a commercial ("treasure salvage") component.  Expressing a saddening herd mentality, the Club's committee on the subject assures the Club's members that "archaeologists" as some kind of unified body oppose such work.  In gathering together documents to support a doubtless futile effort to demonstrate that a few of us have the capacity for independent thought on the subject -- in which the mainstream profession and the world's governments firmly avoid participating -- I came upon the following posting from 2007, either from this blog or from ACRA-L, which I thought might be worth revisiting.

The Mob

November 1, 2007

Well, the mob is out in full cry, brandishing its pitchforks and cudgels, howling for the blood of heretics.

Or to be a bit less picturesque, the archaeological societies of the nation are joining together to expunge from the discipline all those who might be tempted to work with "traffickers" in artifacts. The latest convert, to judge from the Society for American Archaeology’s latest Archaeological Record (September 2007, p. 10), is the Register of Professional Archaeologists. I suppose RPA can't really help itself, since it's the creature of such mob leaders as the Archaeological Institute of America and the SAA. And the RPA's leader, Jeff Altschul, told me in a recent email that there is "overwhelming support" in his organization for a change in the RPA code of conduct to prohibit registrants from participating in commercial ventures. The new language goes like this:

An archaeologist shall not be involved in the recovery, buying or selling of archaeological artifacts for sale or other commercial activity, or be employed by or contract with a company whose stated purpose is to recover archaeological artifacts for sale or other commercial purposes.

No doubt RPA will join its constituent organizations in thundering against commercialism, and then pat itself on its corporate head for its ethical superiority. Maybe this is a good thing; it is at least consistent with the Register's primary purpose of making its registrants feel good about themselves. The fact that it will almost undoubtedly accelerate the destruction of archaeological sites is probably beside the point.

Prohibition is a blunt instrument, particularly when wielded by those with no power to enforce it. We all know what happened when the U.S. tried to prohibit the consumption of alcohol. Many of us have had first hand experience flaunting the continuing prohibition on the use of recreational drugs. These prohibitions have had the full force of the state behind them. I wonder what makes archaeologists think they -- with no power whatsoever -- can prohibit the commercial traffic in antiquities.

If forced to answer this question, I imagine an honest supporter of the RPA prohibition would say that it is not meant to prohibit commercial traffic, only to prohibit archaeologists from participating in it. But if that is so -- if it isn't designed to stop the practice that is actually destroying archaeological sites and data, but only to keep archaeologists from documenting those sites and data as they are destroyed, does this not suggest a degree of counterproductivity?

Nations and international organizations -- no more immune to hysteria than professional bodies -- have of course enacted laws and issued declarations against artifact trafficking, and based on their own statistics may be able to report a measure of success. A collection is intercepted in transit here; an artifact is repatriated there; a dealer or digger is prosecuted someplace else. But are these actions making a dent in the international antiquities market? Since we have no real data on that market, we cannot know, but to judge from what we see in the popular media, it appears not. We're told that antiquities looting is rife in Iraq and Afghanistan, in Peru and Chile; it certainly continues throughout North America. Those looters are not looting just for the fun of it; they have people to whom they sell the stuff, and there is -- must be -- a voracious cadre of collectors who make it worthwhile for such dealers to deal. Prohibition of antiquities trafficking, I suggest, has been no more effective than prohibition of alcohol consumption or the puffing of marijuana.

But who cares, really? What's important to a mob is not whether its cause makes rational sense, but how pursuit of the cause makes its members feel. In generating feelings of propriety, the imposition of ethics like that of the RPA are doubtless highly effective. Everyone can feel so good about themselves, so professional, and that's really far more important than the condition of the archaeological record, isn’t it?

When prohibition of alcohol consumption didn't work, governments re-legalized it and sought to control it through various forms of regulation. Some regulatory measures work pretty well; others don't; there's room for productive argument about how to tweak the rules and systems. The U.S. is gradually shuffling its way toward some kind of similar accommodation with regard to recreational drugs. Debate continues about how best to control access to firearms and regulate abortions. Why, I wonder, can't we try something similar with regard to the private ownership of and commerce in antiquities?

I have no way of verifying it, but I suspect that a substantial percentage of the people who collect antiquities would prefer to do so legally, and would more highly value an object with documented provenience than one without. If this is so -- and again I stress that neither I nor anyone else knows whether it is so -- then it ought to be possible, to some extent at least, to co-opt the commercial market, to dry up the market for illicit artifacts by creating one for those gathered using archaeological methods. But such a market could be created, of course, only if we actively engaged with the traffickers, rather than prohibiting such engagement.

Would engagement be a perfect or complete solution to the problem of looting? Of course not -- any more than engagement with those who traffic in booze is a perfect solution to alcohol abuse. But however shocking and saddening it may be to the moralists at the head of the mob, that's the way the world works. Even with things on whose prohibition there is broad popular agreement -- murder, rape, incest -- we find ourselves having to make nuanced distinctions in order to accommodate the shades of gray with which the real world presents us. Is it all right to kill in self-defense? In war? When is sex consensual and when is it not? How closely related can a given couple be, in a given society, and still be acceptable sexual partners? As ostensible social scientists, we ought to be able to work within such imperfect human systems to achieve our goals. But we are not; we are just as simple-minded as any other mob.

So the RPA will doubtless join its fellow acronymous archaeo-organizations --SAA, AIA, SHA, et al -- in prohibiting its members from dealing with commercial interests, and things will go on as they are. Except every now and then some poor dope who thinks he or she can relate to the real world and still be called an archaeologist will get pilloried. The rest of us, I suppose, will just have to call ourselves something else. Or maybe we can just drop the second “a.”

Monday, January 14, 2013

CRM, EIA, and the NRA

I'm working on a new book -- co-authored with Claudia Nissley -- on consultation in cultural resource management (CRM) and environmental impact assessment (EIA).  The final chapter, as currently configured, comprises tongue-in-cheek guidelines for people who want to avoid meaningful consultation.  By sheer coincidence I was working on a piece of this chapter today, and was inspired to write the following:

Expand Alternatives

On the other hand, it’s sometimes helpful to expand the range of alternatives thrown on the table – not for extensive, expensive consideration, but just for discussion – so those that might actually work get lost in the noise generated by impossibilities.

Outside the cultural resources and environmental arenas, the National Rifle Association in the United States is, as we write this (early 2013), giving us a fine example of alternative expansion. Faced by massive popular revulsion at gun violence in the wake of the massacre at Newtown, Connecticut, the NRA is proposing improved mental health as the solution. It’s hardly debatable that improved mental health would reduce the number of nutcases with guns, but fixing the nation’s mental health is a big, complicated job. By shifting the focus from the relatively easy task of banning assault weapons and high-capacity magazines to the near-impossible job of curing the mentally ill, the NRA is skillfully muddying the water and, in all probability, once again preserving its members’ ostensible right to own whatever kinds of weaponry suit their fancy.

Now if I could just figure out a way to apply this principle to CRM and EIA.....

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

No More &^%$# TCPs!

Guest post by George A. Cluster

The National Park Service (NPS), thank goodness, is finally re-thinking its “National Register Bulletin 38,” and inviting people to comment on “traditional cultural properties” and their eligibility for the National Register of Historic Places. Well, here’s my comment, NPS: get rid of them! Jettison the whole idea!

The idea of recognizing TCPs is wrong, inconsistent with the basic principles on which the National Register is based. Forcing federal agencies to think about such places, and worse yet to consider PROTECTING them, just confuses government employees and distracts them from their real work – writing incomprehensible guidelines, enforcing obscure standards, patting each other on the back, winning awards, preparing for retirement.

The trouble with TCPs is that they’re important only to PEOPLE. Just plain people, with no special social status or government position whatever. Oh sure, some of them are important to a LOT of people, but in most cases they’re still just ORDINARY people, in ordinary communities. And Bulletin 38 doesn't even demand that a lot of people care about a place, or that the people be parts of any elite.  Indian tribes and Native Hawaiians have especially beaten their drums about TCPs, which just shows you how far outside mainstream American thinking the whole idea is.

Look, it should be obvious that the National Register is not designed to recognize places important to ordinary people. The whole idea of the Register is to recognize places important to the SECRETARY OF THE INTERIOR, based on the judgment of his PROFESSIONAL STAFF – archaeologists, historians, and architectural historians, and of the PROFESSIONALS in the State Historic Preservation Offices (SHPOs). That’s why it’s the SECRETARY who maintains the Register, and sets standards for listing places on it. That’s why you have to hire PROFESSIONALS to prepare the paperwork to nominate places to it. This is important: the Register makes WORK for these professionals, who might otherwise go unemployed, living under (historic) bridges! Keeping elites and professionals comfortable is the PURPOSE of the Register!

Come on, people, this isn’t rocket science. NPS shouldn’t have to concern itself with the “cultural” interests of ordinary people, in ordinary communities – who probably don’t really have any culture anyhow. NPS and the SHPOs and the preservation professionals in the federal agencies and consulting firms ought to get back to their real work – writing great thick historic context studies, discussing how many pony truss bridges belong on the National Register or how deep an archaeological site needs to be to reach eligibility under Criterion D, and carefully crafting Memoranda of Agreement to file and forget.

Let’s start the new year right by getting back to first principles: historic preservation is about the values of the ELITE, the EDUCATED, the CREDENTIALED, and most especially those residing in NPS and the SHPOs. And it’s about making sure that we elite, educated, credentialed professionals – in government and in the consulting firms -- stay employed and make it safely into secure, untroubled retirement when our times come.

This shouldn’t be a hard call for NPS at all. What to do with TCPs? Forget about them!