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10.4.06

The Political Ecology of Third World Countries ... Like Montana

One of the longstanding debates in political ecology is how well the ideas and theories developed in the mainstream PE literature, which focuses mostly on rural areas of the third world, can apply to urban and first-world settings. This generally involves a good deal of political angst -- the first-world parallels to the oppressed indigenous peasants of the third world are people like the Wise Use movement, who are too conservative for political ecologists to feel comfortable being in solidarity with. But events on the ground in the US seem to be bringing the two situations closer together.

The US is increasingly following the third world model of big centralized government sucking up to big centralized corporations. This strategy simultaneously entrenches the power of the Republican-Democratic establishment while alienating segments of their voter base. This is particularly notable in conservative natural-resource-dependent communities in the west, where the interests of the big corporations increasingly clash with those of the local population. Efforts to mitigate this split by framing environmentalists as a common enemy* have had partial success.

Ground zero for western conservative disgruntlement with their treatment by the Republican-Democrat establishment is Montana, where governor Brian Schweitzer was recently elected on a populist platform incorporating local power and "rod and gun" environmentalism. Montana has a strong recent history of demanding more environmentally sound practices from its extractive industries. But now it seems the feds are striking back:

Montana Pollution Rules Draw Federal Objections

Federal energy officials are opposing new rules by Montana to force companies that extract methane gas from underground coal beds to clean up the water pollution caused by drilling operations, even as state officials cite an unreleased 2003 federal report that says cleanup costs are relatively inexpensive.

... The Energy Department and the Wyoming congressional delegation are backing companies that are trying to block Montana's new rules, on the grounds that they could hamper energy development. The department submitted analyses by two of its national laboratories concluding that the state's regulations were "unnecessarily stringent" and "inconsistent."


What we have here is a classic political ecology story. A local population attempts to protect itself from the environmental damage caused by the energy industry. But the industry and central government (with the help of other localities that benefit from the energy but don't have to suffer the consequences of its production) step in to stop them.

We should also note -- following the poststructuralist turn in political ecology -- that the economic benefits to the energy industry are probably not the main thing here. It sounds nice and neutral for them to complain about the costs of cleanup, and allows the issue to be framed as a classic cost-benefit balancing question (albeit one where the option of not drilling because the costs to the environment and neighbors are too high is unthinkable). Time and again corporate whining about the costs of environmental compliance turns out to be unfounded -- even if things are tight at the outset, environmental law has proven to be a powerful motor for R&D, and in many cases environmental compliance ends up being a net economic gain.

What's more at issue is power. Big government and big corporations don't like being told what to do. They don't like people demanding things from them, or pointing out that there's a better way they should be doing things. Even if the regulations are (as in this case) not particularly confining on their individual merits, the principle of the thing and the precedent it sets are of concern. Indeed, "you local people can't tell us what to do" seems to be the guiding philosophy behind modern American environmental policy.

* Ironically (albeit not always inaccurately) through demoniznig environmentalists with the same kind of hierarchical sins that the big government-corporate alliance is guilty of.

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