Seeing the Woods

A blog by the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society

Environmental Knowledge and Environmental Politics in the “Post-Truth” Era

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by Jonathan Clapperton and Liza Piper

Nearly one year has passed since we wrote the introduction to the recently released RCC Perspectives volume titled “Environmental Knowledge, Environmental Politics: Case Studies from Canada and Western Europe.” At the time, we wrote in an atmosphere of environmental and progressive social activist optimism: the Paris Agreement had just been signed, US President Barack Obama had recently put a halt to the Keystone XL pipeline proposal, and, for those of us living in Canada, newly-elected Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had broken a decade of Conservative party rule, promising during the election campaign that the Liberal Party would be good environmental stewards, implement a “renewed relationship” with First Nations, and revive the value of academic research in making knowledge-based decisions. Oh, how times have changed.

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Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion protest, Vancouver, BC, on 19 November 2016. Photograph by Christopher Porter, available under a CC BY 2.0 licence, via Flickr.

Since then, Trudeau has given the green light to the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion, which will ship crude oil from Edmonton to Vancouver; simultaneously, he declared that Canada remained a “climate leader.” Trudeau maintained that this was an evidence-based decision. The problem with this stance, according to Thomas Gunton, director of the Resource and Environmental Planning Program at Simon Fraser University, is that the government’s own Ministerial Panel on the Trans Mountain Pipeline concluded that there are six key questions that needed to be addressed before the government could make an informed decision. These questions, including how the pipeline could actually be built in the face of significant opposition (such as was mobilized in North Dakota) and how the expansion of transportation infrastructure could be squared with Canada’s commitments under the Paris Agreement, remain unanswered.

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“Elder Addressing Crowd,” Dakota Access Pipeline Native American protest site, on Highway 1806 near Cannonball, North Dakota, 15 August 2016. Photograph by Shane Balkowitsch (Own work), available under a CC BY-SA 4.0 licence, via Wikimedia Commons.

Elation over the halt of the Keystone XL pipeline (a decision which US president-elect Donald Trump’s government may yet reverse) disintegrated as daily violent confrontations began taking place in North Dakota in September. Construction on the Dakota Access Pipeline, which, if completed, would ship light sweet crude from North Dakota to Illinois, has faced the organized, staunch, and peaceful resistance of Native Americans, notably the Standing Rock Sioux, and their supporters. The approval for the Dakota Access Pipeline, similar to that for the Trans Mountain Pipeline, was granted by the US Army Corps of Engineers under the pretext of being evidence-based, despite the fact that an environmental review was not fully carried out and in full opposition to requests from the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of the Interior, and the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation for a formal Environmental Impact Assessment; instead, the Corps approved the construction permits under a “fast-track” option. While the Corps denied a permit for the section of pipeline that would go under the Missouri River on 4 December, in an against-the-odds victory for the water protectors, it seems likely that the incoming president Donald Trump will approve the project once in office.

Finally, the election of Donald Trump as US president, along with Republican majorities in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, has called into question the US commitment to the Paris Agreement, and indeed any effort to address anthropogenic climate change. Trump has denounced climate change as a Chinese “hoax.” China’s vice foreign minister Liu Zhenmin responded to this claim at the Marrakech climate talks by schooling the president-elect in the history of climate negotiations, originally launched by the Republican administrations of US Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush in the late 1980s. China is now being touted as the best prospective global leader in the fight against climate change.

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Credit: Joe Dator, The New Yorker Collection/The Cartoon Bank, 5 December 2016. © Condé Nast.

The trend towards “evidence-based” decisions that are based on scant evidence, or for politicians of all stripes to be rewarded with positive election results for campaigns that play fast and loose with the facts—pro-Brexit leaders during the UK’s referendum on EU membership and the US Republican Party during the recent presidential election being notable examples—appears to be gathering pace. Plucky entrepreneurs, seeing a business opportunity, have turned “fake news” into an industry, and Facebook (among other platforms) served to spread these, reaping massive profits in the process. Oxford Dictionaries named “post-truth” the 2016 word of the year. The definition reads: “relating or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” Responding to the decision, Amy Wang of the Washington Post did not mince words: “It’s official: Truth is dead. Facts are passe.” As academics striving for accuracy and research excellence, and as teachers who seek to impart to our students a critical eye towards all evidence, the atmosphere wherein qualified professionals increasingly have less weight than people’s “gut” instincts—Trump was after all, as his many supporters could often be heard repeating, “simply telling it like it is”—is, to say the least, disheartening.

But, taking a historical perspective, politicians and others (including academics) peddling what Benjamin Tallis describes as “outright lies, empirical falsehoods, and misleading associations … in the service of their own interests and the interests of those they represent, either officially or unofficially” is nothing new; despite some suggestions to the contrary, “post-truthers” are not a novel phenomenon in this election cycle. Inderjeet Parmar, analyzing the 2012 US presidential election, asserted that the United States had already fully embraced “post-truth politics.” Going further back in time, historians Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, in Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming, demonstrate how scientists, politicians, and industry purposely misled the public about well-established scientific knowledge. And of course any historian could point out the power of deception during the time period in which they specialize. Lying is nothing new; how scholars approach this situation in order to maintain relevance and have the power to persuade those beyond the university campus, however, may have to change.

Andrew Jamison, in The Making of Green Knowledge: Environmental Politics and Cultural Transformation (2001), argues that producers of green knowledge, including activists and large environmental organizations, civil servants, and academics, need to network and collaborate. We echo this call. Specifically for scholars, this includes publishing in non-traditional forums, such as non-peer-reviewed journals, newspapers, and blogs to complement their peer-reviewed publications (and choosing peer-reviewed forums that are open-access), and presenting to the public in addition to the regular round of conference attendances. While there are constraints to such activity—such as promotion and tenure requirements that still privilege the traditional outlets for academic knowledge—it is essential if we hope to counter the spread of misinformation and fake news, and to stay relevant. There is a need for greater community engagement and dissemination of findings beyond the ivory tower and periodicals that rarely make their way to the public sphere in order to compete with the ever-growing chorus of voices that have little or no expertise in the field. This is not to discount all of the movement towards community-engaged scholarship over the past decades, but rather to suggest it needs to be amplified. Moreover, any engagement with public discourse needs to directly confront, as Tallis argues, “post-truth” politics. Many of the articles in RCC Perspectives, including our issue, do—or are products of doing—just that.

This issue of RCC Perspectives had two goals. The first was to think through approaches to understanding the connections between environmental knowledge and environmental politics: how environmental knowledge is acquired, constructed, and deployed to make political claims on or for the environment. Second, we aimed to show specific examples of how environmental knowledge is embedded in grassroots, national, and international political efforts to find solutions to environmental problems. We think such exercises are more necessary now than ever.

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2 thoughts on “Environmental Knowledge and Environmental Politics in the “Post-Truth” Era

  1. Pingback: #EnvHist Worth Reading: December 2016 | NiCHE

  2. Pingback: An Evolving Conversation: Environmental History and Current Events | NiCHE

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