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Stewards of the Human Landscape
Spring 2001

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*  New Species at EPA

(image) Illustration of park constituants.

"Environmental problems create winners and losers . . . Losers suffer from lost resources, health, and livelihood. Their powerlessness is often tied to poverty, ethnicity, or religion. "

Barbara Johnston

by Theresa Trainor

A recent article in the Washington Post reported about a practice in West Virginia called mountaintop removal. The process blasts away rocky "overburden," laying bare seams of coal for mining. The rubble, deposited in valleys and hollows, has buried more than 450 miles of stream beds. The practice presumably enables the coal-dependent state to remain competitive and provide jobs for its residents. Eventually, the coal industry "rehabilitates" the mining sites, making them ideal for golf courses and malls. The state's development office says "there's a great need in West Virginia for flat land."

Re-Inventing Environmental Protection

There are many such situations where competing economic, environmental, and cultural values are creating complex challenges for people trying to reach agreement about the best use of our nation's natural resources. Many of today's pollution problems lie in diffuse sources beyond EPA's regulatory reach, like the fertilizer washing down street sewers into our waterways, and the impervious concrete of rapid, often uncontrolled development encroaching on plant and animal habitat. Such pollution is tied closely to human behavior and lifestyle choices, not industry. In dealing with some of these situations, EPA is complementing its role as regulator by re-inventing the way it does business with an approach focused on communities.

Community-based environmental protection provides an opportunity for cultural anthropology. At EPA, within the former office of sustainable ecosystems and communities/office of policy, I worked as the community dynamics team leader in a setting something akin to a "think tank." This setting enabled our team—which included another cultural anthropologist, Michael Kronthal—to experiment with applying the concept of culture and social science methodology to a world of policy, regulation, enforcement, budget cycles, grant programs, and social science naysayers.

We found many public participation tools already in the EPA milieu. We used the social sciences to deepen awareness of the values held by the diverse citizenship in communities across the nation. We advocated incorporating a cultural framework into the agency's approach, as opposed to merely labeling someone a "stakeholder" and calling a public meeting "community involvement."

Overall, our aim was to improve understanding of the ways people perceive the environment. For example, is decapitating a mountain merely a utilitarian decision to sustain a community and keep a traditional industry competitive? How does the practice affect recreational hunters and fishermen, or long-time residents who revere the solitude and beauty of the place and whose identity is deeply rooted in the mountain way of life? These questions suggest the central role that culture should play in environmental planning and management. In fact, during a recent reorganization, Mike and I were welcomed into the office of water, reflecting an increased demand for the social sciences in the agency.

Seeing the Human Dimension

Our strategy consisted of three mutually reinforcing elements: program development, research, and strategic institutional change. Program development included creating the Community Cultural Profiling Guide: Understanding a Community's Sense of Place and corresponding training. The Guide discusses what makes up a community and how to use social science methodology to learn more about it. We provide technical assistance to communities themselves in the form of internships, fellowships, consultant assistance, and workshops through a cooperative agreement with the Society for Applied Anthropology, an international organization concerned with applying the social sciences to contemporary issues. We developed training in consensus building and negotiation that takes into account cultural differences, along with materials on public participation strategies, communicating with the public on ecological issues, and monitoring socio-environmental concerns. Research efforts include encouraging EPA's office of research and development to include more social science topics in the agency's research agenda, such as community profiling. Institutional change has resulted from working with EPA committees, offices, and its partners to raise awareness of the usefulness of the non-economic social sciences. Our efforts include bringing in speakers and cultivating social science sympathizers to review documents and contribute ideas. And, we built a network of social scientists nationwide with whom we consult and link to projects.

The Value Added

Community profiling proved to be one of our most useful tools. Over the past two years we piloted a number of projects, demonstrating to EPA and its community partners the value of systematically collected cultural information. One pilot, conducted with the Nature Conservancy, included focus groups, a survey, interviews, and analyses of local newspapers. In one case, the profiling showed how the Conservancy had misperceived local attitudes toward the environment.

As the manager of a Conservancy property planned for sustainable harvesting of trees, he became increasingly aware of the lack of local participation and land use planning in the community. Initially, the Conservancy had little hope of nurturing a sustainability ethic in one of the poorest counties in the state. However, the profiling showed remarkable support for preserving the quality of life and natural beauty of the place—as well as for sustainable economic development. The results fostered a countywide vision for the future. Said the preserve's manager: "I've lived in Adams County for six and half years and from this one exercise I've learned so much more and realized that preserve managers were making decisions on errant assumptions . . . This process teaches us what we have to do."

Our agreement with the Society for Applied Anthropology has become a real cornerstone in placing anthropologists in the community. Data about values and the links among stakeholders, along with the re-framing of long-standing issues, have demonstrated the value of the anthropological perspective. For example, the outbreak of Pfisteria in the Chesapeake Bay raised concern about the economy, the environment, and the quality of life in local fishing communities. Most federal and state funding in response to the outbreaks was targeted to the hard science side of the problem. Our office was able to fund two anthropologists, an SfAA fellow and an intern from the University of Maryland, to work on the state's lower eastern shore. As a result, the human dimension of the issue was reframed to understand the perceptions and belief systems related to the outbreaks. The findings—which are being shared widely—are targeted to state officials in the hopes of assisting them in developing an appropriate policy and response.

The greatest strides at the government level have been in influencing the agency's research agenda, thus furthering reinvention efforts. We've worked closely with EPA's office of research and development on a number of national research solicitations. One is a $3 million partnership with the National Science Foundation that includes a section on social factors and the environment.

Unexpected Success

One of my first presentations at EPA was called "Anthropologists Don't Just Collect Bones!"—my response to the periodic confusion I encounter when I tell someone I'm an anthropologist. In the early days of my office, there was a great deal of skepticism about what the social sciences could contribute. Isn't working with people just common sense? Given that the science of environmental protection is EPA's business, it has been a slow road toward convincing people of the efficacy and rigor of the social sciences. The greatest challenges remain in demonstrating the difference they can make in achieving the agency's mission.

For me, the anthropological perspective has provided tools for understanding the nuances of government culture and greater patience with culture change.Within the agency, anthropology has demonstrated the relevance of the social aspect of environmental protection. It has shown the value of local versus expert knowledge, and it has provided opportunities to test the applicability of the anthropological approach, with its rich and specific detail, to national policy.

The success of our efforts seems to be based on our grassroots approach to advocating for the human dimension. Instead of focusing on a broad social science agenda, we've built a foundation of projects, tools, and training. We've provided specific examples of how the social sciences apply to, for example, preserving a watershed.Where anthropology may have been viewed within the EPA as unrelated, it is increasingly becoming a valuable perspective, something people in the agency can use daily. The personal interaction with anthropologists has reinforced their confidence in new ideas, unlocked the freedom to use words such as "sociocultural" in their daily discussions, and opened the door to the rewards of working with a new species at EPA.

For more information contact Theresa Trainor, Program Analyst, Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Water, Oceans and Coastal Protection Division, 401 M Street, SW, (4504F), Washington, DC 20460, (202) 260-3009, fax (202) 260-9960, e-mail trainor.theresa@epa.gov.

MJB/EJL