Sunday, March 26, 2017

Populism and the Environment: A Book?

The mainstream media these days seems routinely to associate "populism" with the simplistic xenophobia, protectionism, and racism that lurks behind the Trumpista movement in the U.S., the rush to Brexit in the U.K., and anti-immigrant fever across Europe. This strikes me as unfortunate and limiting. 

The definitions of "populist" and "populism" with which I grew up are still to be found in a simple on-line search: Merriam-Webster Online defines "populist" as ""a believer in the rights, wisdom, or virtues of the common people," or one who belongs to a political party espousing such beliefs. Wikipedia defines "populism" as proposing that "the common people are exploited by a privileged elite." It goes on to note that "(t)he underlying ideology of populists can be left, right, or center."

Those definitions resonate with me, and it seems a shame to lose them. I can't do anything to rescue populism from its misuse by politicians and the media in general, but I wonder if there might be something to be done within the little chunk of public policy in which I very occasionally have a modicum of influence -- environmental "protection," management, and impact assessment.

I've long thought of myself as an environmental populist. One of my favorite books on environmental matters is Frank Fischer's Citizens, Experts, and the Environment, ( Fischer applauded "citizens who actively challenge the imposition of expert theories that ignore forms of local knowledge that can help to relate technical facts to social values." He wrote about the need for "environmental politics" to accommodate this kind of populism. 

I've spent most of my career trying to help citizens -- often but not always indigenous citizens and other ethnic and social minorities -- with the assessment and resolution of environmental impacts, with special reference to cultural issues. It seems timely to me, with the 2018 U.S. election looming, to think a little more broadly about populism and the environment. 

Being an old guy, who can't quite get used to the fact that people don't read books any more, I'm driven to imagine doing a book. Not writing it, but maybe helping edit it. A book that picks up where Fischer left off and promotes a kind of environmentalism -- and environmental impact regulation -- that broadly respects local knowledge and "the rights, wisdom, (and) virtues of the common people,"  A book that might appeal to some who lean toward Trump and Brexit -- as well as Sanders, Corbyn, and the various Green parties -- and perhaps to the broader-minded and less compromised elements of the mainstream elite.

Google informs me that there are already some books and journals that deal with environmental populism, but those I've reviewed seem to me altogether too deadly academic. I'm thinking of something short, snappy, and to the point. Chapters of, say, 2000 words each (an arbitrary and capricious number, but the point is, short), on such matters as:

Populism and Air Quality
Populism and Water Quality
Populism and Land Use Planning
Populism and Energy
Populism and Wildlife 
Population and Fisheries 
Populism and Social Impacts
Populism and Endangered/Threatened Species
Populism and Population Growth
Populism and Ecosystem Management
Populism and Climate Change
and of course...
Populism and Cultural Heritage

Plus, doubtless, several more. Each outlining how the "rights, wisdom, (and) virtues of the common people" can and should be factored into environmental management and impact assessment/resolution.

All aimed at maybe getting governments to adopt more humane approaches to the environment than those to which most now give lip service -- approaches that might actually work better than the often nonsensical stuff we now have in place, and that might be supported by a wide swath of the public.

What do you think? Anybody want to grab this ball and run with it? 

Monday, March 20, 2017


I’m grateful to my sister, Mary Nell McCann, for passing along the April 21, 2014 issue of the New Yorker, which contains an excellent article on Stonehenge and the Salisbury Plain by Laura Miller (“Romancing the Stones,” pp. 48-54). It’s a nice portrayal of the Plain’s management issues, and of then-current archaeological findings and conclusions.

What struck me as worth writing about here and now, though, was what Miller said about consultation. Specifically consultation about whether excavated human remains should be exhibited in the on-site museum. She quotes Christine Cleere (I have to wonder if she’s related to Henry) of the neo-pagan/Druid group called Honoring the Ancient Dead, or HAD, as follows:

“the main issue over these displays is about consultation, because they were put in without any form of consultation whatever.”

Miller immediately goes on to ask:

“But why should archaeologists consult Druids about handling prehistoric remains?”

And after a rather simplistic review of how consultation on such matters is handled in the U.S. under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), she goes on to quote University of Bristol archaeologist Mark Horton:

“There’s no genetic or direct cultural connection between contemporary pagan groups and the people whose remains are displayed here. I have as much right to determine their fate as they do.”

Yes, Mark, no doubt you do. And is the converse not also true? Does it not follow that they have as much right as you do to determine the fate of the remains? Is that not the very reason that you and your colleagues bloody well need to consult them?

Or do you think that because you have “as much right” as they do to determine what happens to the remains, you have the right to make that determination unilaterally? If so, why? Because you’re an archaeologist? Not a pagan? Or what?

It strikes me that Horton, and Miller, have fallen into what seems to be the common trap of confusing CONSULTATION with DICTATION (by which I mean dictating an outcome, not reciting words for faithful transcription). This confusion is widespread. Land managers, project planners, and regulators, for instance, exhibit it when they don't consult with indigenous groups or local residents because, in the relevant country’s legal system, those groups don’t have the authority to dictate outcomes. They also exhibit it by "consulting" only pro-forma, getting "input" and ignoring it. Courts exhibit the same confusion when they let government agencies get away with it -- as the Corps of Engineers has been allowed to on the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Thanks to this confusion, consultation has come to be regarded as a zero-sum game; it's all or nothing. If you don’t have the power to dictate an outcome, "consultation" with you can be reduced to mere bureaucratic fluff.

What ever happened to the notion of reasoning together? Of recognizing that different groups have varying interests, and that good public policy demands that we try to achieve meetings of the minds? To practice the fine art of compromise?

Ironically, in the Stonehenge case the folks from HAD, according to Miller, have actually proposed what seems like a pretty reasonable compromise – one that’s NOT acceptable to a lot of comparably situated Native American groups. That is to use faithful replicas of the disinterred human remains in the exhibits, and put the real bones back in the ground. But the archaeologists, apparently, having the power, won’t go along even with that.

British colleagues, can you enlighten us about any of this?