Knowing your place in an ever-shifting world

Handbook of Environmental Assessment, Volumes One and Two
February 4, 2000

Does environmental assessment work? John Whitelegg is not convinced.

These two volumes left me feeling very worried indeed about the prospects for a more people-centred and place-sensitive style of environmental management. Together they ooze a comfortable, technocratic view of the world at a not-very-comfortable price, £175. All is well because we have very clever ways of carrying out thorough environmental impact assessments (EIAs) of development projects. Of course, the reality could not be more different.

All is not well, and the period of rapid deterioration documented so thoroughly in the 1999 United Nations Environment Programme survey of the global environment coincides exactly with the rise of EIA as a technical fix to encourage a greater degree of comfort with the development process.

This handbook is an edited collection of 38 essays. Throughout the detailed expositions of every aspect of EIA, there is no understanding or even acknowledgement of the idea that people appreciate the places in which they live and work and are damaged by developments that hide behind a green smokescreen of environmental acceptability.

Appreciation of place is often an expression of love. People often love their home environments and places with strong associations. The contributors assembled here have an uncritical view that the development proposal has a significance of its own that is greater than the feelings of those affected by the proposal.

The chapters on public participation are strikingly neglectful of people's feelings. What do residents think about the way in which experts pile into their area and tell them that their landscape is "only" used for informal recreation or is "only" grade 3 agricultural land?

At the core of EIA is pragmatism and functionality fed by arrogance of expert opinion. The reality of public participation is that it is so marginal it cannot affect outcomes. Public participation often translates directly into public disempowerment as local residents try to cope with an expert-led process and a quasi-judicial procedure.

If the authors doubt this, they should sit through public inquiries where EIAs are discussed. Residents along the route of the Birmingham Northern Relief Road were told that noise and air pollution problems would not arise as a result of this new road. Residents in Broughton (Lancashire) and Kirkby Stephen (Cumbria) were told that the proposed bypasses would not cause environmental problems and would not damage the landscape characteristics that residents value. The point of these examples is that the EIA experience provided a vehicle for overcoming local views and expediting a process of development that was not in conformity with the principles of sustainable development.

This is important. EIA is meant to serve the cause of sustainable development and environmental management but it does not do this. The development process is structurally biased against looking at alternatives, and sustainable development is about the creative construction of alternatives. This could not be clearer in the voluminous EIA material presented to the public inquiries into the second runway at Manchester airport and Terminal 5 at Heathrow airport. In both cases the EIA material has argued strongly in favour of the development because the impacts are negligible and can be mitigated. Arguments from those wishing to present information on aviation and greenhouse gases were rebuffed. There is little doubt that the most significant threat to the global environment is climate change. EIA failed to deal with climate-change issues at these inquiries just as this book fails to deal with the inadequacies of EIA.

The issue of translocation brings the inadequacies of this book into sharper focus. Translocation is the transfer to other sites of plants and animals that would be destroyed by development. The discussion of this practice is flawed in two respects. First, translocation is not questioned. There is an uncritical acceptance that it is a reasonable contribution to successful environmental management and sustainable development. Second, no data are presented.

The first problem is serious. If a habitat or species is so valuable that we have to go to the trouble of relocating them, why are we destroying them in the first place? There is an ethical and a logical dilemma here. The second problem is a scientific one. Does the practice work? We are told that "the relatively few successful habitat translocations tend to have been well publicised, but the failures are less well known". If translocation fails then we need to know exactly how many times and where, and this information needs to be fed back into the EIA process. To do any less than this is to encourage destructive development on the back of a deceit.

This book does bring together a huge amount of information. It covers sustainability assessment, strategic environmental appraisal, cost-benefit analysis, public participation, information technology, screening and scoping, monitoring and auditing, air, water and social impacts, ecological and landscape impacts, risk assessment and cumulative-effects assessment. Volume one deals with EIA in practice, capacity building, quality control and EIAs in Eastern Europe, East Asia, Africa, South America, North America and the EU. Volume two concludes with a discussion of EIAs in waste management, road and rail infrastructure, energy, mining and water projects.

Yet the text is silent on the most important thing we need to know about EIA. Does it improve environmental quality and shift our social, political and economic systems in the direction of sustainable development?

An interesting omission is a discussion of alternatives to development proposals. If we locate EIA within the overall framework supplied by sustainable development, then the consideration of alternatives becomes very important. In waste management we can develop very good science and EIAs to cope with incinerators or the more friendly sounding "waste-to-energy biothermal unit" - but a really efficient recycling system would obviate the need for the incinerator in the first place. High-speed rail routes and airport runways are frequently proposed and built in Europe, but are there alternative forms of spatial organisation that deliver a high quality of life without increasing our dependency on energy-greedy forms of transport? EIA can make a contribution to exploring and explaining choices at the project-definition stage but it does not. Even worse, the book's account of EIA does not pick up the issues raised by the lack of alternatives and the extent to which this leaves us with a tool and an analytical method that can only facilitate environmental destruction.

A rare acknowledgement that developments bring negative environmental impacts can be found in Ann Dom's chapter on the environmental impact of road and rail infrastructure. Sadly this early recognition of the obvious is followed by statements that quite simply cause offence when they are made as part of or in support of EIAs. Dom is of the opinion that physical construction work can "improve the structural aspects of landscape" and that "a positive side-effect of constructing infrastructure is that the excavation works often lead to discovery of new sites of archaeological interest". Putting aside for the moment the curious notion that an intense bout of civil engineering can "improve" the distinctive cultural, historical, physical, geological and ecological assemblages that have developed over several thousand years, the assertion of improvement relegates the role of those who value places to something considerably less than significant.

Proponents of EIA should take a look at Anne Batchelor's article in World Transport Policy and Practice (1995) where she details the human misery associated with an improvement exercise called the M42. The issues raised there were about place and about human rights. The development of a large motorway project destroyed the lives of local people and has now led to another motorway project in the same area (Birmingham Northern Relief Road). The real cumulative impact of the development proposals (and not one addressed in this book) is the likelihood that local residents will have to put up with two or more bypasses, an airfield, an incinerator and a large shopping centre or business park - all of which contribute cumulatively and synergistically to a degraded environment and the use of space, land and local environment as just another consumer product to be used up quickly and then disposed of.

The general editor, Judith Petts, asserts: "There is clear evidence that EIA has ensured that the environment is part of development decisions and that impact mitigation is addressed." This is not the same as demonstrating that the quality of the environment globally and regionally has been improved by EIA.

The British countryside and townscape is littered with the detritus of development that has been given spurious legitimacy by EIA. The photograph on the dust- jacket tells us more about what is going on than much of the text. Enormous damage has been done to a landscape at Twyford Down by a new motorway that was not necessary - the demand could have been satisfied in many different ways. This savage destruction, supported by EIA, mitigation and translocation, is as clear a statement and an evaluation of EIA as one could require.

John Whitelegg is professor of environmental studies, Liverpool John Moores University.

Handbook of Environmental Assessment, Volumes One and Two

Editor - Judith Petts
ISBN - 0 632 04772 0 and 04771 2 and 04773 9
Publisher - Blackwell
Price - £95.00 and £175.00
Pages - 484 and 450

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