Thursday, March 20, 2014

U-M students compile list of top ecological conflicts in US history

This just in:

U-M students compile list of top ecological conflicts in US history

Backstory: Alejandro Colsa Perez walked into my office with a smile last year, and said in his Spaniard's lilting lisp, "Hi Rebecca! I thought I would talk to you about my interests for a thesis or project...see if you have any suggestions?"

I was at a complete loss.

Here was a student who had come all the way from Spain on a Fulbright to learn about U.S. grassroots environmental activism. He was my advisee, and i wanted to offer good guidance. But my own knowledge about those issues suddenly seemed paltry. Sure, I could talk to him about wildlife conservation, conflict minerals, and civil rights in the Congo or Kenya, but how would I guide him toward a goal of building better  bridges between Europe and the U.S. on environmental health issues?

"Ummmm...." I said to him, my weary brain wheels turning.

I had nothing.  Where was the professor in me, able to go on interminably about anything, however constrained my actual knowledge base?  "You're Spanish, right?"

He gave me a patient smile. "Right."

 "Maybe you should do a literature review, maybe look at work by European scholars so you can frame your interests in terms of their current debates....let's see...Joan Martinez Alier, at the Autonomous University of Barcelona, he's Spanish!"

"Who?" Alejandro perked up.

"Surely you know his work on The Environmentalism of the Poor?" I said, suddenly regaining a smidgeon of professorial composure.

" not all..."

"Well, look it up and come see me next week."

A few days later Alejandro popped back into my office with a full fledged plan, hashed out in convivial rapid fire Spanish with Martinez Alier himself, on the long distance telephone. "He wants us to put together a team to review U.S. environmental conflicts for his EU-funded environmental conflict atlas project...and i'm flying to Barcelona next month to meet with him and his team!"

Alejandro had already recruited the keen intellect of Katy Hintzen, who also dropped by my office to express her enthusiasm. Her piercing blue eyes sizing me up, as she eloquently explained how her own childhood as the daughter of an environmental organizer in the Chicago area had put her on a path to studying policy and activism. I could tell they were going to put together a great project team.

"Help!" i said, to my colleague Paul Mohai, one of the catalysts and long time contributors to the "Michigan Coalition" of academic research that has fueled and followed impacts of EJ activism in the U.S.  I implored him: "I know Martinez Alier, and I know these students, and we have an all star team with potential for wide impact; we just need someone who knows, respects, and is respected by leaders of the U.S. movement. Can you co-advise?"

Paul stepped up. And so did SNRE student Sara Orvis, from her background in upstate New York with its legacies of burning finger lakes, an alienated working class, and American Indian communities fighting for the control and safety of their lands.  When the team found methodologically savvy Bernadette Grafton, who had an interest in brownfield redevelopment and the interface of rural and urban environmental issues from her years of study in Ohio, we knew we were ready.

Sure enough, they came up with a winning recipe: start with peer reviewed literature, media and grey literature review, to guide a list of eligible cases. Then, divide the U.S. into four regions and review cases within each region to see which should figure on a survey that requests impact rankings from respondents. Be sure you design it as an adaptive survey instruments where people can rank, comment on, AND add to your list. Get the survey maximum visibility on the EPA's Environmental Justice Blog, to elicit a combination of internet based citizen science and expert opinion. With high response rates and disparities between expert and public responses, use techniques for weighted analysis that also balance media bias in the findings. If you want icing on your cake, you can enhance these quantitative results with follow up qualitative research including semi structured interviews and oral work histories with a selection of respondents from a range of stakeholder categories, to learn about how organizations themselves are changing over time.

In this way, our team has come up with something their European collaborators refer to, shorthand, as the "Michigan Method." It allows sifting through varied national and regional environmental movements and conflicts, to obtain synthetic results about wider impacts, key trends, historical junctures, and networks of actors. It drills down far deeper than a mere "pins on a map" approach, and helps each of those pins represent some combination of breakthrough legislation, organizational transformation, public visibility, and impact on public environmental attitudes and policy action.

This team honors legacies of EJ leadership here at UM's School of Natural Resources and Environment. They have educated me about how environmental conflict, while place-placed and regionally specific, is also a major transnational phenomenon in need of better connection across grassroots  organizations. Such small scale, community-based initiatives across the globe are facing the challenge of how and whether to formalize their status to gain better visibility, and wider impact. Such Environmental Justice Organizations or EJOs are an important counter to what many call "BINGOs" or Big international NGOs, who are almost all linked with sophisticated corporate social responsibility campaigns, corporate donors, or corporate board members.

The team was in Lund, Sweden, and Copenhagen, Denmark in March 2014 to meet with European environmental policy makers and scholars. In the photo, above, Masters students (front center) Katy Hintzen, Bernadette Grafton, and Alejandro Colsa and SNRE Professor Paul Mohai (back left) meet with Professors Joan Martinez-Allier (front left), Beatriz Rodriguez Labajos (front right), and Alf Hornborg at EJOLT and ENTITLE Conferences at Lund University in Sweden.   We have since revised two article, one accepted for publication in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Politics, Groups and Identities, and also in a forthcoming issue of Environmental Research Letters.  And (of course) they did a stint with great tunes and talk on our freeform environmental talk show "It's Hot in Here" on Ann Arbor's WCBN FM 88.3 which aired on April 11 2014 at noon.

Or why not, as they call for on the radio, go further? An Italian team is attempting to implement what they are calling the "Michigan Method" now, but you can do your part, too. Simply log on to and see if there are cases of environmental conflict YOU know about  that should be up there? The work goes on...and the more discussion and debate about which cases, why and where, the BETTER.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

On Interspecies War and African Technologies

Thanks to colleague Clapperton Mavhunga for briefly addressing the challenges to us in even conceptualizing what he terms an 'interspecies war' between humanity and other life forms, playing out at this time on African terrains.

Journalist Kate Brooks does not mince words about why "war" is the right word to use.
see a rough cut of footage from kenya here.

What are the stakes involved in using such words? The question reminds me of a project from several years back, a book on Elephants and Ethics, edited by Wemmer and Christen. It seems prescient, given the current levels of elephant poaching in remaining wild populations:  Barnes and Noble has a nice writeup here

What does interspecies conflict studies look like? Melissa Remis and I visited anthropologist Cat Bolton a few months ago at Notre Dame to present an early version of our efforts at accounting for the ecological costs of current conflict in Central African Republic. While there, she spoke to us of her growing interest in chimp sanctuaries in west Africa. The animal turn in anthropology is moving beyond those interested in emergent phenomena, cognitive and cultural ecology approaches, or science studies. We are starting to see streams of historical, ethnographic and political economic work interspecies interaction. Bravo!

Of course, work on conflict between animals and humans must unfold alongside that chronicling their relationships of intimacy or companionship. When I visited Jamie Lorimer a couple of years ago at King's College in London (he is now at Oxford), he shared a fantastic piece he had writtenon elephants as companion species (you can read the abstract here). For the Elephants and Ethics article, I recall arguing that solidarity among those who share substantial time and energy with these animals would be required to save them; this would connect handlers, hunters, ecologists and others in communities that see high value in remaining populations of these animals outside private hands (material from that chapter can be seen here).

Alas, too much of my time is still spent trying to build better bridges across the divides between academic circles and field conservationists, between social and veterinary or ecological expertise...these battles are far from won. Meanwhile, the more important ones proceed, transforming the world we live in, while we try to get better at working together.

Clapperton's campus, MIT, is hosting a huge Africa Innovate conference in April, looking at technology and entrepreneurship on that continent. Their keynote speakers have successful mining portfolios, e-book companies, and supermarket chains. It is sponsored by Chevron and Coca Cola, among others. I hope that among the tech talk, guns are not forgotten as a technology around which Africa's wealthiest and most innovative minds must do some good work, and fast.