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University of Michigan students compile list of top ecological conflicts in US history

By Prof. Rebecca Hardin (University of Michigan).

Backstory: Alejandro Colsa Perez walked into my office with a smile last year, and said in his Spaniard’s lilting lisp, “Hi Rebecca! I thought I would talk to you about my interests for a thesis or project…see if you have any suggestions?”

I was at a complete loss.

Here was a student who had come all the way from Spain on a Fulbright to learn about U.S. grassroots environmental activism. He was my advisee, and i wanted to offer good guidance. But my own knowledge about those issues suddenly seemed paltry. Sure, I could talk to him about wildlife conservation, conflict minerals, and civil rights in the Congo or Kenya, but how would I guide him toward a goal of building better  bridges between Europe and the U.S. on environmental health issues?

“Ummmm….” I said to him, my weary brain wheels turning.

I had nothing.  Where was the professor in me, able to go on interminably about anything, however constrained my actual knowledge base?  “You’re Spanish, right?”

He gave me a patient smile. “Right.”

 “Maybe you should do a literature review, maybe look at work by European scholars so you can frame your interests in terms of their current debates….let’s see…Joan Martinez Alier, at the Autonomous University of Barcelona, he’s Spanish!”

“Who?” Alejandro perked up.

“Surely you know his work on The Environmentalism of the Poor?” I said, suddenly regaining a smidgeon of professorial composure.

“No…no not all…”

“Well, look it up and come see me next week.”

A few days later Alejandro popped back into my office with a full fledged plan, hashed out in convivial rapid fire Spanish with Martinez Alier himself, on the long distance telephone. “He wants us to put together a team to review U.S. environmental conflicts for his EU-funded environmental conflict atlas project…and i’m flying to Barcelona next month to meet with him and his team!”

Alejandro had already recruited the keen intellect of Katy Hintzen, who also dropped by my office to express her enthusiasm. Her piercing blue eyes sizing me up, as she eloquently explained how her own childhood as the daughter of an environmental organizer in the Chicago area had put her on a path to studying policy and activism. I could tell they were going to put together a great project team.

“Help!” i said, to my colleague Paul Mohai, one of the catalysts and long time contributors to the “Michigan Coalition” of academic research that has fueled and followed impacts of EJ activism in the U.S.  I implored him: “I know Martinez Alier, and I know these students, and we have an all star team with potential for wide impact; we just need someone who knows, respects, and is respected by leaders of the U.S. movement. Can you co-advise?”

Paul stepped up. And so did SNRE student Sara Orvis, from her background in upstate New York with its legacies of burning finger lakes, an alienated working class, and American Indian communities fighting for the control and safety of their lands.  When the team found methodologically savvy Bernadette Grafton, who had an interest in brownfield redevelopment and the interface of rural and urban environmental issues from her years of study in Ohio, we knew we were ready.

Sure enough, they came up with a winning recipe: start with peer reviewed literature, media and grey literature review, to guide a list of eligible cases. Then, design adaptive survey instruments where people can rank, comment on, and add to your list. Get the survey maximum visibility, with a savvy combination of internet based citizen science (with quite a bit of help from our colleagues at the EPA Environmental Justice Blog!). With high response rates and disparities between expert and public opions, finalize your work with with weighted analysis techniques that balance media bias in the findings. If you want icing on your cake, you can enhance these quantitative results with qualitative research including semi structured interviews and oral work histories, to learn about how stakeholder categories and organizations themselves are changing over time.

In this way, the team has come up with something their European collaborators refer to, shorthand, as the “Michigan Method.” It allows sifting through varied national and regional environmental movements and conflicts, to obtain synthetic results about wider impacts, key trends, historical junctures, and networks of actors. It is far deeper than a mere “pins on a map” approach, and helps each of those pins represent some combination of breakthrough legislation, organizational transformation, visibility int he public eye and impact on public environmental preference and action. I could not have felt prouder when the team presented at the SNRE capstone conference last week.

This team honors legacies of EJ leadership here at UM’s School of Natural Resources and Environment. They have educated me about how environmental conflict, while place-placed and regionally specific, is also a major transnational phenomenon in need of better connection across grassroots  organizations. Such small scale, communtiy based initiatives across the globe are facing the challenge of how and whether to formalize their status to gain better visibility, and wider impact. Such Environmental Justice Organizations or EJOs are an important counter to what many call “BINGOs” or Big international NGOs, who are almost all linked with sophisticated corporate social responsibility campaigns, corporate donors, or corporate board members.

The team was in Lund, Sweden, and Copenhagen, Denmark in March 2014 to meet with European environmental policy makers and scholars. In the photo, above, Masters students (front center) Katy Hintzen, Bernadette Grafton, and Alejandro Colsa and SNRE Professor Paul Mohai (back left) meet with Professors Joan Martinez-Allier (front left), Beatriz Rodriguez Labajos (front right), and Alf Hornborg at EJOLT and ENTITLE Conferences at Lund University in Sweden.   They will be publishing book chapters and articles on the basis of their research in the coming year. Or, you can listen to news of their work in the archives of NPR’s  Environment Michigan report airing on Michigan Radio and WEMU FM 89.1.  And (of course) they did a stint with great tunes and talk on our freeform environmental talk show “It’s Hot in Here” on Ann Arbor’s WCBN FM 88.3 which aired on April 11 at noon, as always for your friday lunch hour.

Or why not, as they call for on the radio, go further? An Italian team is attempting to implement what they are calling the “Michigan Method” now, but you can do your part, too. Simply log on to and see if there are cases of environmental conflict YOU know about  that should be up there? The work goes on…and the more discussion and debate about which cases, why and where, the BETTER.



One comment

  1. thanks for posting this; exciting to see the cases go live soon!