Where the Sky Is the Right Color: Scale and Air Pollution in the Big Bend Region
This dissertation examines an unlikely set of air pollution controversies in rural west Texas to illustrate the function of the fixing or shifting of scale to gain advantage or build support in environmental conflicts, and to explore possibilities for pragmatic environmental collaboration and problem solving using alternative scalar approaches. Such alternative approaches include, for government environmental agencies, “jumping” higher and lower within a hierarchy of spatial scales in order to match environmental goals, institutional capacities, and political realities; and for activists, forming networked alliances spanning multiple places, in order to scale up local efforts and engage with regulatory agencies and other “big” interests on a more equal footing.
The project brings together two theoretical streams: analysis of the politics of spatial scale, primarily occurring in the geographical disciplines; and theories of problem definition and agenda setting from the political science and public policy realms. Scale is a particularly apt concept within which to conduct this analysis, as it is a primary defining factor not only of the atmospheric phenomena of concern, but also the landscape, human geography and policy venues within which this case study takes place.
The case study begins with a controversy over visible haze pollution in Big Bend National Park in the early 1990s. Staff in U.S. and Texas environmental regulatory agencies initially attributed responsibility for the sulfur dioxide emissions causing the haze to two large coal-fired power plants in the city of Piedras Negras, which together constituted the major emissions source closest to the park. Strong opposition to this attribution of blame by Mexican government representatives opened the possibility of a jump from the “border” scale to the much larger domain of “regional haze.” Subsequent technical analysis effectively shifted the scale of the haze phenomenon to a continental level, showing the polluting particles were emitted from locations far beyond the border. My proposal here is that when a scale jump occurs, the “old” scale does not disappear, but rather continues to frame social phenomena; this suggests a framework consisting of layered spatial scales. This assertion opens the possibility for an adaptive model of scale shifts, which presents the opportunity to engage environmental problems at different scales over time. In the present case, this means that scale jumps are not irrevocable; actors can choose to “try” a scale more than once as the problem’s definition and context continue to evolve.
Meanwhile, environmental activists first emerged as an organized movement within the Big Bend in 1996, taking haze pollution–and its impacts on the region’s spectacular landscape and tourist economy–as their founding issue. In subsequent years, local residents organized to around additional air pollution-related issues, including the siting of a new rock crushing plant. When confronted with these issues, community members conceived that problem primarily as a threat to their fiercely loved home and landscape. This home area had very specific geographical boundaries, with air pollution conceived as a particularly egregious breach of those boundaries– and pollution outside of those boundaries considered marginally more acceptable. However, I propose that activists’ discourses on vulnerability, clean energy and border-area cooperation present an opportunity to form connections with broader activist communities across different locales, transcending the hierarchical state structures of environmental regulation. This type of network building strategy may provide an opportunity for local movements to scale up their efforts and engage more effectively with regulatory agencies, either as partners or as opposing interests.
Finally, I examine scale as one dimension along which science and place-based activism can engage with one another, either through cooperation or conflict. Public agencies hold promise as mediators for this engagement, with the ability to both lead and follow science across scales, take actions and monitor results over time, and yet maintain links to specific geographical jurisdictions and an imperative to democracy.
0477: Environmental Studies
0630: Public policy