Just asking…

Much of the information relating to local knowledge, public participation, and environmental awareness from this week’s readings seems to be epitomized at my field site in Coweeta Creek basin, North Carolina, a Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) site. The current LTER funding for Coweeta sets aside a portion of the allotment for use in socio-economic studies, and currently our site is one of the major pioneers in melding ecological science and socio-economic input. The sociologists working on this component use questionnaires (similar to those described by Corburn 2005), to assess how the local communities in NC and GA value watersheds in their livelihood. We also use community input to help find sites that we may use to monitor changes to forest and stream ecosystems in the context of local land usages and potential future usage. Economists on our team work with local landowners to put a value on the services of streams and forests (e.g. Sismondo 2010), to better help inform our science at the LTER. While much of the local input at Coweeta does not qualify as “environmental advocacy” (Miller 2009), and while there is still some distrust of our science and the governmental agencies funding us, the community still seems invested in what we do. There are many “Coweeta schoolyard” programs, where young children are given tours of the site, and allowed to identify plants and animals and perform simple experiments. There is also a great deal of hiking, hunting, and tours that occur at the site to help educate and get input from the community. While our model is by no means perfect, there seems to be some positive interactions occurring to bridge the gap in our knowledge and experiences.

On the complete other end of the spectrum, agencies and ‘scientists’ involved in the DC Lead in water crisis could have benefitted from a little public input. Similar to the activists standing up in outrage to environmental damage by industries (Miller 2009), DC citizens stood up to the agencies claiming to hold public health in high regard (Lambrinidou 2010, also see the letter from the national coalition mentioned below). The continued unwillingness of the CDC to remove its erroneous 2004 MMWR from their website (see: Edwards 2010, national coalition letter) says volumes about their trust in the public: they have none. Their behavior implies that they feel their status as a public health agency gives them an ‘expert’ status (Sismondo 2010), where the public can offer nothing of importance to their studies. Even worse is that the CDC is only increasing ignorance in the public arena by not retracting the paper (Edwards 2010, national coalition letter). As noted by Yanna and others, the report has been used by other municipalities to justify doing nothing which only increases the danger to public health. As Dr. Edwards’ letter (2010) to Secretary Sebelius notes, the public is very willing to provide their own input based on their experiences with lead in water; how was the CDC unable to get access to these people? The answer is that they did not even try, it appears.  In the CDC’s talking points attached to the unpublished letter from the national coalition below, the agency seems to suggest that they will attempt to “improve the quality of state and local surveillance data.” All they needed to do was to knock on a few doors and spend a little time talking to residents. The public is smarter than we, as scientists or agency representatives, want to admit sometimes; but when there is a cause (e.g. environmental pollution or lead in water) that can affect how people live their lives, the public will come together to make a stand.

Works Cited:

Corburn, J. 2005. “Street Science: Characterizing Local Knowledge.” In Street Science: Community Knowledge and Environmental Health Justice, pp. 47-77. Cambridge, MA and London, UK: The MIT Press.

Edwards, M., 2010, unpublished letter to the US Department of Health and Human Services (5/27), 2 pages.

Lambrinidou, Y., WAMU 2010 commentary (http://wamu.org/news/10/07/08/commentarylead_in_dcs_wateryanna_lambrinidou).

Miller, N. 2009. “The Growing Sophistication of Environmental Advocacy.” In Environmental Politics: Stakeholders, Interest, and Policymaking, 2nd ed., pp. 74-95. New York and London: Routledge.

National coalition of public health and environmental groups, 5/20/10, unpublished letter to the CDC requesting retraction of 2004 MMWR publication.

Sismondo, S. 2010. “Expertise and Public Participation.” In An Introduction to Science and Technology Studies, 2nd ed., 180-188. West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.


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