Knowledge is Power

by Jessica Halvorsen

According to the EPA, Environmental Justice can be defined as: “fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, national origin, or income with regard to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and policies[1].” What stood out to me, as I listened to several speakers present about environmental justice at the BASG session on April 5, was the degree to which the concept of transparency featured in each presentation. On further reflection, of course it makes perfect sense. As the truism goes: knowledge is power. For environmental professionals, there is a temptation to think of environmental justice as something “we” do for others. However, with transparency of data and processes, interested people are more empowered to decide whether or not they want to be involved, and if so, in a meaningful and informed way.

The topic got me thinking about the theme of transparency’s role in previous major changes in history. And perhaps because I just finished The Relic Master[2], I thought of the Reformation. As a historical comparison (pardon me historians for any imperfect interpretations here), the Protestant Reformation[3] came about because of, and reinforced, the confluence of the printing press, growing literacy, and the translation of the Bible into local languages. The power of putting scripture directly into the hands of literate laymen and Church dissidents allowed them to directly interpret and, to make the comparison, directly “involve” themselves in their religious practice, as informed participants. Their individual and collective decisions had historical implications that we are still living in today, shaking up established power structures, and launching a multitude of new religious forms. We in Massachusetts live in a society based on “the City upon a Hill[4]” envisioned by Protestant religious separatists who came here in the 1600s.

Would Martin Luther have predicted the Plymouth or Massachusetts Bay Colonies when he nailed the 95 Theses[5] to the Church door in Wittenberg? I’m guessing not. Was the transition to predominantly Protestant religious forms in Northern Europe neat and tidy? Hardly. And that, I think, is at the heart of reluctance to deeply embrace transparency in environmental endeavors. It can be time-consuming and difficult, and makes us accountable for our work and could unleash change that we can’t anticipate. However, that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be embraced. Information, in the form of data or education, is something that environmental professionals (“we”) can facilitate for others as experts, and thereby enable involvement and engagement by environmental “laymen”, as well as the voicing of previously-unheard or underrepresented but nonetheless informed concerns, and potentially creative solutions as well.

This simple consideration allows us to regard our day-to-day work in a different light. As people who hope to change the world, perhaps one of the simplest things we can do for environmental justice is to stop and ask whether our work is empowering others or not. Are we facilitators? We can only do so much on our own; by shining a light on what we know, and seeking to know and share more, we can compound our work and let other voices contribute. The catch is that we can only strengthen our impact this way by letting go.







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