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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Environmental politics after disaster strikes : the cultural dynamics of public participation and mobilization Chewinski, Max


A central goal of my dissertation research is to better understand how cultural dynamics shape environmental politics and generate inequalities in decision-making processes. I draw on the 2014 Mount Polley mining disaster and subsequent water management plans to examine public participation and mobilization in Likely, British Columbia. I use 42 semi-structured interviews, 4,723 pages of documents including emails and letters associated with Mount Polley’s public liaison committee, and 208 news articles to assess the relationship between culture, inequality, and environmental politics. I begin by adopting a procedural justice framework to examine how cultural dynamics facilitate or constrain meaningful opportunities for residents to shape decision-making. I find that strategies of agenda denial (nonrecognition and symbolic placation) prevent residents from meaningfully participating in the definition of environmental problems and their proposed solutions. I develop the concept of manufactured confusion to highlight inequalities in meaning-making resources and capabilities. Manufactured confusion is a taken for granted condition that emerges from three practices: (1) a reliance on a large volume of scientific information (2) insufficient resources to interpret complex scientific data and (3) insufficient opportunities to discuss scientific data. Next, I examine how emotions shape the social relations and practices that structure environmental deliberations. I find that trauma from the disaster and experiences of procedural injustice sparked intense and durable negative emotions including anger, animosity, fear, and frustration. The presence of unmanaged negative emotions influences two related outcomes. First, negative emotions facilitate the emergence of polarization as empathy walls between stakeholders are secured instead of scaled. Second, often linked to the first, negative emotions facilitate disengagement as participants seek to avoid emotional harm. Finally, I shift to examine how cultural context and capacity prevent social movement emergence and channel residents towards quiet mobilization. I find that a cultural disavowal of contentious collective action, the presence of community corrosion, and the absence of formal mobilizing structures inhibit contentious mobilization. In its place, individual and collective forms of quiet mobilization emerge in the face of mounting environmental risks. Quiet mobilization includes civic practices such as writing op-eds, letters, launching public awareness campaigns and initiating environmental permit appeals.

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