Tag Archives: George Monbiot

The Political Project of MCRC v. EPA, 2

Second In A Series
Activists Afoot!

In this Greg Peterson photo from the Cedar Tree Institute site, Northern Great Lakes Synod Lutheran Bishop Thomas A. Skrenes blesses one of the trees faith congregations planted on Earth Day, 2009.

In this Greg Peterson photo from the Cedar Tree Institute site, Northern Great Lakes Synod Lutheran Bishop Thomas A. Skrenes blesses one of the trees faith congregations planted on Earth Day, 2009.

As I suggested in my first post in this series on MCRC v. EPA, the complaint filed by the Marquette County Road Commission would have us believe that “anti-mining” forces worked secretly with and even infiltrated the EPA, and the agency’s objections to CR 595 followed a “predetermined plan.” The EPA, it claims, had decided to oppose the haul road even before the MCRC application was reviewed.

This sounds like legitimate cause for concern: permit applications should be reviewed on their merits, not pre-judged and not according to some other anti- or pro- agenda. We certainly wouldn’t want someone in the Environmental Protection Agency to be “pro-mining”; there are enough well-paid mining lobbyists already haunting the hallways in Lansing and Washington, DC. But in this case, the anti-mining label is being used as a term of opprobrium, and to distort and deliberately misrepresent what the Environmental Protection Agency is chartered and required by law to do: in short, to enforce the Clean Water Act and protect the environment.

When it comes to proving the insinuations it makes, the MCRC complaint offers slim evidence.

For example, the complaint makes a big fuss over a November 28, 2012 letter from Laura Farwell, who lives in the Marquette area and is described here as “a prominent environmental activist.”  The letter is addressed to Lynn Abramson, then a Senior Legislative Assistant for Senator Barbara Boxer, and Thomas Fox, Senior Counsel of the Senate Environmental and Public Works Committee, asking them to “weigh-in” with the EPA on CR 595. (Exhibit 1).

EPA must determine whether to uphold its original objections to proposed County Road 595 under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act (“CWA”), pursuant to its supervisory authority over Michigan’s delegated wetlands permitting program. Tom may remember that during the August 30, 2011 meeting at EPA Denise Keehner of EPA’s office of Wetlands, Oceans and Watersheds definitively reiterated EPA’s position and stated that the haul road would not happen.
Thus, this letter is to request, respectfully, that you weigh-in as soon as possible with the EPA on its decision.

The MCRC complains about Farwell’s use of the word “definitively” here and casts the 2011 meeting in a sinister light:

on August 30, 2011, a very different type of meeting regarding CR 595 took place at USEPA Headquarters in Washington, DC. MCRC was neither invited to nor informed of the meeting. In attendance (as far as is known at the present time) were top USEPA officials, Congressional staff, KBIC representatives, and a prominent environmental activist opposed to the construction of CR 595. It further appears that USEPA made no formal record of the meeting.

Without a formal record, it’s impossible to know what transpired at this meeting, and if the complaint is going to rely on Farwell’s memory of the conversation, then it should also take into account her intentions in paraphrasing and recounting it, one year after it took place. The language here — “a very different type of meeting,” “neither invited nor informed,” “as far as is known at the present time,” “no formal record” — doesn’t help in that regard, and it’s meant to suggest that conjurations were already afoot.

It’s clear the MCRC was not included in some discussions at EPA. There’s nothing extraordinary or illicit about that. All concerned parties had been meeting with and petitioning the EPA for several years at this point. The complaint is still a long way from proving that the EPA “surreptitiously met with a number of environmental activists vocally opposed to the road,” and an even longer way from proving that there was anything like an anti-mining coalition assembled in secret at the offices of the EPA.

In an ironic twist, these allegations of secrecy and whispering behind closed doors may come back to haunt the MCRC: at a Marquette County Board of Commissioners meeting this month, the Marquette County Road Commission itself faced accusations that it had violated the Open Meetings Act in planning to bring its suit against the EPA. Public officials who intentionally violate that act are ordinarily fined and incur other liabilities; in this case, there would be some eating of words as well.

By November 28, 2012, the EPA had, in fact, “decided against the proposed haul road,” as Farwell puts it in the email she sent along with the letter to Abramson and Fox. The EPA had entered objections to the Woodland Road Application (in March, 2010) and announced their objections to CR 595 (in March, 2012).  Even so, a Fall 2012 public meeting held by the EPA “in Marquette…for more input” had Farwell worried. She was not at all confident the EPA would uphold its original objections to the haul road.  The matter was still far from being “definitively” settled.

Whatever reassurances Farwell was given at that 2011 meeting — or thought she had been given, or recalled having been given, one year later — were clearly at risk of getting lost in the bureaucratic shuffle. The purpose of her letter is to prevent that.

There is nothing surprising in all this. Those watching new mining developments in the Upper Peninsula are constantly having to chase after the EPA and demand that the regulator step in and do its job.

Jeffery Loman, a member of the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community and a former federal regulator, has repeatedly put the EPA on notice and complained of the agency’s failure to enforce the Clean Water Act.

In May of this year, the grassroots environmental group Save the Wild UP filed a petition with the EPA’s Environmental Appeals Board, arguing that Eagle Mine was issued the wrong regulatory permit. The appeal requested that the EPA require Eagle Mine to obtain a Clean Water Act permit in order to protect the Salmon Trout River and other surface waters from the discharge of mining effluent. The Appeals Board did not contest the facts put forward in the petition, but dismissed it for lack of jurisdiction. They hardly proved themselves to be staunch allies.

So watchdogs and environmental groups, too, have reason to gripe about the EPA and often feel powerless in the face of bureaucratic inertia and ineptitude. Laura Farwell herself seems to have felt that way, and that’s why we find her asking Abramson and Fox for help. The MCRC complaint exaggerates her influence at the EPA when it describes her as “a prominent environmental activist.” The epithet is used here to create the misleading impression that within the offices of EPA Region 5 and the confines of Marquette County there are political opponents with resources to match the power of multi-billion dollar, multinational mining companies.

Laura Farwell and her husband Frank moved to the area in 2006 from Madison, Wisconsin. They are members of the St. Paul Episcopal Church and participate, along with their son Cody, in the church’s Earth Day tree plantings. The couple donated some money to the UP Land Conservancy. Farwell has also organized events for the Cedar Tree Institute, which works to bridge “faith communities and environmental groups.” (She is described on the Institute’s site  as “a concerned mother and local citizen.”) She is thanked for “working quietly behind the scenes” in a 2011 Earth Keeper TV video on the environmental risks posed by the Eagle Mine; and she’s copied along with many other local citizens in a Google Group post dated April 9, 2012, urging people to comment on CR 595 before the public comment period is closed.

Farwell’s commitments to land conservation are pretty clear, and while the complaint asks us to recoil in horror at the phrase “prominent environmental activist,” cooler heads are just as likely to be impressed by Farwell’s dedication to the people around her and the place where she lives. Maybe that dedication is all it takes to be a prominent environmental activist in the view of the Marquette County Road Commission.

Some locals, on the other hand, are legitimately concerned that nationally and internationally prominent environmentalists — like Bill McKibben, George Monbiot, Naomi Klein and their ilk — ignore the current situation around Lake Superior, or fail to give it the serious attention it deserves. National media have barely taken notice. Farwell herself admits that to the great and powerful in Washington DC “the proposed haul road may seem like some little back trail in the middle of nowhere,” but she urges that it will cut through “critical wetlands resources” and “enable the industrializing of this rural Great Lakes watershed by international mining interests.”

Farwell’s letter tries to create some urgency around the CR 595 issue by putting the road in context and specifying whose interests would be served by the industrializing of the region. A serious assessment of CR 595 would significantly widen the lens, taking into account the cumulative effects of all the new mining activities around Lake Superior: all leasing, exploration, development and active mining throughout northern Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Ontario. Otherwise, we miss the big picture, and without that perspective, it’s just too easy to parcel out the land, the water, and the future of the region to the highest bidders.

The MCRC complaint, too, places CR 595 in the context of “mining and economic development in the Great Lakes region” in a few places, but only to make the specious argument that those who oppose or question the road are opposed to mining and therefore opposed to the region’s prosperity. These are the ideological leaps the complaint makes. Those who don’t make these leaps are called activists or anti-mining obstructionists. That is a political, not a legal argument.

It’s never too late to have a serious discussion of what sustainable economic development and true prosperity for the Great Lakes region might look like. How might we best organize our lives together in this place? is a fundamental political question. But at this juncture, it appears, the MCRC can’t afford to let that conversation happen. This lawsuit is an attempt to shut it down and stifle dissent. Where business leads, society must obediently follow. To question this order of things, as Laura Farwell seems to have repeatedly done, quietly, behind the scenes, is to commit some kind of nefarious act.

This is where the attitude on display in this complaint gets worrisome. With this lawsuit, the MCRC pretends to have the political authority to direct economic development in the region (not just to build and repair roads). But that is only pretense, and things in Marquette County are not as they appear. The public still does not know who is funding the Road Commission lawsuit, what they stand for and what they expect in return for their support. The real powers lurk behind the scenes.

Deepening the Dow Conversation

“Let’s take this show on the road,” quipped Mark Tercek, President and CEO of The Nature Conservancy, at the close of Dow Chemical’s Google hangout on “Redefining the Role of Business in Society.” Moderator Alice Korngold guided the panelists, three Dow executives and a few big names in sustainability from the NGO world, through the hour-long hangout without a hitch; audience approval (registered via the thumbs up/thumbs down Applause function) seemed pretty consistently high. Everyone played their part well, and they had reason to congratulate each other.

Still, Tercek’s final remark was telling, a sort of gloss on the hour that preceded it. In fact, if I had to offer just one criticism of yesterday’s hangout — and I intend this to be constructive criticism — it would be that this was, essentially, a show. It lacked the spontaneity and the give and take of conversation, as well as the informality promised by the word “hangout” (and which characterizes hangouts I’ve attended and in which I have participated).

As a result, the hangout was less about “redefining” the role of business in society than promoting a settled definition of that role. Dow executives ran through talking points, and at several junctures even the people from the NGO world seemed to have adopted the jargon that Dow has developed around its 2025 sustainability goals. Where conversation would have uncovered discrepancies in order to work toward new understanding, here was little disagreement or dissent, and nothing like irreverence or skepticism — which are ways that interlocutors withhold assent and keep conversations honest.

For example, no one in the hangout challenged what in most other settings would be regarded as a relatively new and extraordinarily controversial idea: that business’s role is to “lead” society; no one suggested that it ought to be the other way around. The most vocal dissent focused on one small point: Peter Bakker, President of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, said that he didn’t think it would be necessary for Dow to create another sustainability think tank. Maybe he’s right: the world has plenty of talk shops; but in this context, where it was quickly followed by Dow Chairman and CEO Andrew Liveris saying we need “do tanks, not think tanks,” it felt like another way to close the discussion, short circuit deliberation, and declare the matter settled.

I appreciate that this may not have been the appropriate occasion to invite others into the circle, to take live comments, or open bigger questions that couldn’t be resolved in the short space of an hour. I appreciate, too, the effort it takes to bring a twentieth-century industrial giant like Dow into a twenty-first-century online social forum, and the legitimate concerns about everything from reputation to litigation that effort raises. But the broadcast quality of this hangout lent it an air of artificiality and, more importantly, just didn’t seem to jive with the commitment Dow has publicly made to collaboration, dialogue, listening, and building social capacity.

Clearly, the sustainability goals Dow has set for itself warrant a more inclusive and dynamic conversation — where the outcome is not set in advance, and which allows heterodox views, strong dissent and unresolved, maybe irresolvable differences. That’s especially true because Dow claims to be serious about its sustainability goals — this isn’t just window dressing — and what Liveris called its sustainability “journey” has only just started.  At the very least, subsequent conversations should tease out and develop some salient points about this ambitious program and the thinking behind it. Here, I’ll confine myself to identifying just three of these points, based on what was said during yesterday’s hangout.

The first issue concerns the historical roots of the corporate sustainability movement. Two participants in the hangout, Liveris and John Elkington (who coined the phrase “Triple Bottom Line” and has written extensively on the subject) both traced it back to the 1960s, and what Liveris called their “hippy” days.* But, as Elkington came close to suggesting, sustainability thinking also has roots in the reactions of the 1970s and 1980s, which saw the rise of neoliberalism and the idea that markets can offer solutions to social problems, sometimes better, or at least more efficiently, than governments.** This is obviously not just a debate with historical interest; it is a question of the commitments — and the ideas about business’ role in society — that sustainability thinking carries with it.

The second point worth discussing and developing has roots in the 1970s and 1980s as well. This is the idea of natural capital. It not only went unquestioned in the hangout; it seems to have achieved the status of an article of faith. The trouble isn’t just that the figures used to calculate natural capital are made of  “marmalade,” as George Monbiot put it in a lecture on the topic, and reduce the inestimable — the natural, living world, all of creation, if you like — to the merely estimable; but there were several points during the hangout where that trouble lurked just beneath the surface. There are other objections that merit fuller discussion here; namely, that the concept of natural capital:

[harnesses] the natural world to the economic growth that has been destroying it. All the things which have been so damaging to the living planet are now being sold to us as its salvation; commodification, economic growth, financialisation, abstraction…. what we are doing here is reinforcing power, is strengthening the power of the people with the money, the power of the economic system as a whole against the power of nature.

That’s Monbiot again. The point is not that he’s right, though I think he’s got a strong argument here. Agree or disagree, meeting these arguments and others like them when it comes to natural capital would produce a much deeper, more nuanced and truer understanding of the interventions that sustainability thinking requires.

And finally there’s that question of power that Monbiot raises, which I would recast in this context as a set of important ethical considerations that cluster around the idea that you can do well by doing good. At one point, Liveris ran through some impressive numbers to suggest that Dow has figured out how to make sustainability profitable. But there was no mention during the hangout of what agency or power will hold Dow and other companies to account — or oblige them to meet their responsibilities — in case of non-performance.

The unspoken assumption just underneath the surface here seems to be that we are to trust the company, because its intentions are good; or at least the intentions of its executive team are. There’s no reason to doubt that, but if you are rolling out a “blueprint” for society’s future, as Dow says it is, you are also assuming responsibilities toward the people who now live and will live where you plan to build that future. So to get buy-in to the blueprint, earn the trust and engage the energies of all those people, it’s important to enumerate and discuss those responsibilities, to put in place appropriate checks that measure success in society’s terms, not just in business terms, and to prescribe remedies in case of failure.

All this brings me back to Bakker’s suggestion that the world does not need another think tank, and the idea that it’s time for Dow and other companies to partner with NGOs and other social institutions in order to start “doing.” The challenges Dow is trying to address —  climate change, clean water, food security, income inequality and youth unemployment were among the issues Liveris enumerated — are no doubt urgent. But a focus on “solutions” to pressing problems can’t be an excuse to short-circuit discussion or sidestep political process; and we should be careful not to mistake the advance of a business agenda for social progress, or, in our rush to meet the very real challenges the world now faces, confuse the two things. The thing we need to sustain, right now and into the future, is the conversation.

*Postscript, 18 April 2015: The day after I wrote this post, a friend brought this provocative 2006 essay by Slavoj Žižek to my attention. Here, Žižek characterizes professions of “love” for May 68 as a staple of “Porto-Davos” sustainability discourse: “What an explosion of youthful energy and creativity! How it shattered the confines of stiff bureaucratic order! What an impetus it gave to economic and social life after the political illusions dropped away! And although they’ve changed since then, they didn’t resign to reality, but rather changed in order to really change the world, to really revolutionize our lives.”

**Postscript, 14 December 2015 Joe Bakan offers a smart discussion of this point in “The Invisible Hand of Law: Private Regulation and the Rule of Law”. see especially pp. 293-4 and 297-9.