Interview with David Jenkins, Environmental Values Project

June 19, 2001

Environmental Values Project: Tell me something about the research your team has been doing on behalf of the Carnegie Council's environmental values project. You've selected a couple of cases that illustrate the impact of values on environmental policy making in the United States. Why did you pick these particular cases—what kinds of points were you hoping to illuminate?

David Jenkins: We are looking at two cases for this project. The first is oil-field waste disposal in Grand Bois, southern Louisiana, a community with a population of only 318, mostly Cajuns and Native Americans. The second is the development of alternative communities based on "green" building design and "traditional" community ideals in the rapidly growing desert city of Tucson, Arizona, whose population now stands at more than 830,000 persons. Those familiar with the film Erin Brockovich will have some inkling of the situation I'm describing. I was interested to see that Vivian Bertrand, Carnegie Council program associate for the Environmental Values Project, wrote about the similarities between Grand Bois and Hinkley, California, for a roundtable on Erin Brockovich on the Council's Web site. As with the Hinkley case, Grand Bois concerns a utilities (oil and gas) industry, the relationship between state and federal governments, and a small, relatively powerless community that eventually made use of the media and the courts to effect environmental change for the better.

The case of Tucson, Arizona, explores local efforts to sustain economic and population growth despite the constraints of a limited and rapidly diminishing water supply (some studies indicate that Tucson's ground water sources will be depleted in two or three generations). Our study traces the history of the desert ecosystem in the region, the impact of humans on that ecosystem, and the recent emergence of small, alternative communities that attempt to live in a more sustainable fashion. It asks the question: to what extent have policymakers and the general public taken action to stave off the impending waterless doom of life in Tucson?

Both cases indicate that local environmental values are diverse and do not always clearly coincide with or directly inform the government's environmental policies. Policy change often requires legislative reform, litigation, or both—costly actions that are not automatically open to community residents.

Environmental Values Project: How does your research contribute to the field of environmental values?

David Jenkins: Our research suggests that environmental values are rarely about the environment alone. We show in two different locations how other concerns, other values, are directly involved with environmental values. Our contribution to the field of environmental values research is twofold: we enlarge the field with new cases, based in part on ethnographic research; and we provide an interpretation from the perspective of anthropology, which illuminates cultural concerns by studying local meanings. We argue that environmental values become part of conscious discourse when they serve a pragmatic goal-preservation of human health in Grand Bois, sustainable desert life in Tucson. The implication is that each local culture will find different ways to express environmental values, depending upon cultural meanings and practices already in place.

Let me put this slightly differently: water in the desert, like oil in southern Louisiana, leads a dual existence, simultaneously material and meaningful. This is also true of the environmental consequences of their development and use. Ecosystem degradation, the introduction and spread of alien species, changes to the course of a major river, aquifer depletion, and suburb construction, are all material manifestations of human engagement in the natural world, which includes the cultural meanings informing that world. We have tried to understand the meanings in local communities, in order to better understand the relationship between the material and the meaningful, between water and its over-exploitation in Tucson, and oil and its toxic disposal in Grand Bois.

Environmental Values Project: So what are your most interesting findings thus far? Can you draw any tentative conclusions from the two case studies?

David Jenkins: Environmental values inform perceptions of environmental change, the need to address such changes, and the manner in which environmental improvements are made. They also justify actions taken or proposed, as well as justifications for inaction. But the identification and analysis of environmental values is particularly difficult because such values do not constitute a discreet domain of meaning but are dispersed across many such domains, at different levels of explicitness. Environmental values, in other words, do not stand alone; they are often linked to values associated with family, community, economy, and work.

For example, community involvement in Grand Bois to close the waste pits was not simply about the environment. More importantly, for Grand Bois residents, the issues were about human health and community viability, which took the form of environmental values. Environmental concern is thus implicated in concern over health, jobs, and the preservation of community itself. Consequently, environmental stewardship must incorporate a range of culture values in order to be successful.

Environmental Values Project: During the next phase of the project, researchers will be examing themes that cut across all four country studies. Still, the teams have had a lot of interaction through the formal workshops, informal meetings, emails, exchanges of reports, etc. and thus you have gotten to know each other’s work. What are some interesting comparisons that you have noted among the four countries under study? To what extent would the recommendations mentioned above apply to other countries?

David Jenkins: What seems to be the case for all four of the countries in our study [U.S., Japan, China, India] is this: environmental policy is incoherent. Historical circumstances, competition for resources, different management regimes, exploitation, and cultural differences—all of these factors combine in ways that render effective environmental policies very difficult to implement. What also seems to be the case is that local environmental values do not directly influence policy.

Environmental Values Project: Does your research provide useful insights for environmental policy makers?

David Jenkins: Yes. Makers of environmental policy, if they are sensitive to local values—which is not always the case—need to recognize the links between explicitly environmental values and other kinds of values people hold. Policies promoting environmental stewardship need to address values other than environmental values.

But even with the understanding that many values inform environmental stewardship, effective policy is often difficult because of a longstanding western cultural tradition that posits a split between humans and the natural world. Insofar as policymakers see their efforts as promoting only human concerns, they have some justification for minimizing the importance of environmental effects. A needed shift in environmetal policy is one that recognizes a culture-nature link, not a culture-nature divide.

The problem is to see humans and their activities as part of the natural world, and nature as part of the human world. Policymakers should also realize that western styles of environmental management, mediated by economic rationality and state bureacracies, may not be the best means to maintain environmental integrity. An openness to other values and other styles of environmental management should be directly incorporated into the policymaking process. To a limited extent, this has been happening in the US, largely as the result of environmental groups putting pressure on policymakers to be more responsive to public concerns.

Environmental Values Project: Do you have any plans for a follow-up study on values in American policy making once the research finishes? Can you recommend some new directions in which your study can be taken?

David Jenkins: I am currently researching the social and economic consequences of the recent listing of Atlantic salmon as an endangered species. A mere 100 wild salmon are estimated to have spawned in seven Maine rivers last year. Salmon farmers, timber harvesters and others are concerned about the effect of this designation on their business. The governor of Maine has argued against the decision to list Atlantic salmon in Maine as an endangered species, as have many Maine businesses.

Governor King has argued that policy is difficult without adequate science and that with adequate science public policy decisions are self-evident. However, with respect to the listing of Atlantic salmon as an endangered species, there is strong disagreement among scientists over definitions of “wild” salmon and “aboriginal stock” and “native” fish. Much of the scientific debate hinges on interpretations of genetic markers, with some researchers arguing there is clear evidence that Maine salmon are distinct and should be protected under the Endangered Species Act, and others arguing there is no such evidence and that consequently the Endangered Species Act does not apply.

A variety of values appear to inform the debate over salmon restoration, not just scientific determinations. Little research has been done to illuminate those values. My expectation, based on my work on water resources in Tucson and oilfield waste in Louisiana for the Carnegie Values Project, is that a local constellation of meanings and values inform the debates over salmon in Maine. I am conducting basic anthropological research in order to understand the local values that are in play, and to better understand whether those values influence policy.

Environmental Values Project: Since President Bush took office in January he has made some decisions on environmental policy that have upset environmentalists. Could we ask you to comment on this from the perspective of someone who is primarily interested in the relationship between values and policymaking? What do you think are the prospects of the new adminstration comprehending and acting on the need to consider values in the formation of their environmental policy?

David Jenkins: Recently, Vice President Dick Cheney, in outlining the Bush administration's 2001 energy policy, explicitly opposed personal values and public policy. "The aim here [of energy policy] is efficiency, not austerity," he said. "Conservation may be a sign of personal virtue, but it sufficient basis for sound, comprehensive policy." Why not? What keeps conservation, as or social from becoming policy? many commentators have pointed out, measures such raising fuel economy standards light trucks would save more oil that can extracted beneath currently protected areas Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska--an area Bush administration like to see developed an source.

Cheney's statement is emblematic of a disjuncture in American society between environmental values and policies that have environmental effects. Typically, governmental policies are instrumental: they seek to maximize the use of a valued resource. Environmental values do not always or even frequently inform such policies, especially when values are at odds with the instrumental rationality of the state. As our studies of Louisiana oil-field pollution and southern Arizona water exploitation show, the disjuncture occurs in different social contexts. It is not unique to the current federal administration. It may well be characteristic of American culture.

Environmental Values Project: How might your research help policy makers better address America’s environmental problems?

David Jenkins: In the US, government policies guide and limit how people engage the natural world, but not the diversity of meanings that inform it. Policies define a set of environmental values by allowing for their practical implimentation, which local people can then accept or try to modify. But this does not mean that policymakers understand local cultural concerns as they make policy. Adequate understanding of local environmental and associated values requires cultural research, just as understanding genetic relationships between salmon populations requires scientific research.

The problem in both realms is that clear and unambigous answers are seldom forthcoming, especially when a complex ecosystem is at issue, or a complex cultural system. Our work highlights the cultural system, in an attempt to better understand the relationships between values, policies and environments. Policymakers should recognize that environmental problems are not always solved with technological solutions, and that a better understanding of local cultural concerns may provide a better basis for sound policy.

Related Links:

Oilfield Waste Site Communities in Louisiana: Report of a request for Technical Outreach Services for Communities (TOSC) assistance from the University of Louisiana, filed by the Louisiana Branch of the Sierra Club and the Louisiana Citizens for a Clean Environment on behalf of the residents of Grand Bois.

Civano Description of Civano, a community based on sustainable living principles in the Sonoran Desert.

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