Linked Literature: Land Use Conflicts, Risk Perception and Place Identity and the rural Queensland anti-CSG movement

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Source: Doug Beckers

Wester-Herber, M., 2004. Underlying concerns in land-use conflicts—the role of place-identity in risk perception. Environmental Science & Policy, 7(2), pp.109–116.

Discussions about land-use conflicts have a high capacity for becoming entrenched in polarising caricatures: with the landowners and community being portrayed as NIMBYists whose concerns are both illogical (not based in an appropriate understanding of the scientific risks) and selfish, as their opposition may prevent wider non-localised benefit (i.e. royalties, jobs). Misse Wester-Herber’s work on the role of place identity in risk perception provides a useful lens for considering the growth of the anti-coal seam gas (CSG) movement in rural farming communities in Queensland.

Context

Wester-Herber begins by noting that land-use conflicts often take place within the arena of risk communication,

“where…[the agent responsible for change] involves parts of the affected public or stakeholders and exchanges information about health, safety or environmental risks or information concerning decisions or policies aimed at controlling these risks” (Wester-Herber 2004, p.109).

These exchanges are built on the notion that “if only the public were given the right information, conflicts over risk could be resolved” (Wester-Herber 2004, p.109). However, this approach has not succeeded in reducing land-use conflicts; Wester-Herber argues that it is because risk perception, particularly around environmental change, is a far more complex process that involves more than perceived risks to health and safety (2004, p. 110).

Risk Perception – background

Theories around risk perception attempt to consider why risks are perceived differently by different groups. Wester-Herber focuses first on how the presence of ‘dread’ and the ‘unknown’ increase the perception of risk (2004, p. 110). At a basic level, these factors apply well to community fears around CSG:

  • Dread: the perceived possibility of contamination of the Great Artesian Basin, which would result in catastrophic (widespread and significant) consequences for water resources in Queensland
  • ‘The Unknown’: this dread is amplified by the:
    • Perceived lack of data that disproves the possibility of the above outcome
    • The refusal to disclose the formula of chemical formulas involved in CSG operations

On a deeper level, risk can be considered to be constructed of two parts: hazard and outrage. Hazard refers to the technical probabilities and magnitude of a risk, while outrage refers to non-technical factors, such as fairness, whether the risk is voluntary, or if the risk is seen to be unnatural (manufactured – man-made) (Wester-Herber 2004, p.110). Again, the debate around CSG, particularly for farmers, aligns well with the non-technical factors raised:

  • Fairness: farmers and the community are seen to bear a higher level of risk and impacts; the risk of water contamination risks their very livelihood and in the case of widespread contamination the region’s food security, while the installation of wells disrupts their livelihood.
  • Voluntariness: a considerable portion of the movement has focused on how CSG exploration and extraction on farmer’s land is ultimately an involuntary process.
  • Unnatural: CSG extraction is seen to be invasive and ultimately unnatural – it involves complex processes and chemicals (technologies) that are injected into a natural (literally and symbolically) environment.

Stigma and Risk Perception

According to Wester-Herber,

stigmatisation describes the process where “something is considered to be a risk or hazard turns into… ‘something to be shunned or avoided not just because it is hazardous, but because it overturns or destroys a position condition’ (Wester-Herber 2004, p.111).  Further stigma can be carried over to an individual, where ‘people can suffer damage to their identity just by being associated with a place (Wester-Herber 2004, p.111).

In this way, stigma acts similarly to Mary Douglas’ theory of purity and pollution, whereby contact with the polluted object in turn has the potential to pollute the contactee.  Wester-Herber goes on to note that places are symbolic and the product of individual experience and ongoing social interpretation – often facilitated through media and secondary information (Weter-Herber, p111).

Wester-Herber’s discussion of stigmatisation is of considerable relevance to understanding anti-CSG sentiment in rural areas. CSG extraction is a polluted activity through:

  • The risk of contamination of water resources
  • The crossing of boundaries – the injection urban industrialised symbols into the rural landscape.

Further, considering how people can become contaminated through contact with stigmatised sources has significance for establishing positive relationships with resource actors. Widespread community anti-CSG activity is likely to create social capital based on a joined resistance to this intrusion. This draws important questions of the social repercussions for people who chose to form beneficial relationships with resource actors, such as farmers. In these instances, do they then become ‘polluted’ through their non-adversarial contact with resource actors in the eyes of the broader (but often small) rural communities? Further, does the threat of social exclusion and personal revilement at becoming contaminated through contact present additional barriers to creating mutually beneficial relationships with resource actors? Finally, as Wester-Herber notes, stigmatisation has a continued impact on environments, even after the removal of the source of contamination. This raises the question of how to effectively compensate landowners for the use of surface land for CSG activities.

Place identity

The crux of Wester-Herber’s argument focuses on how place plays an important role for identity creation, and therefore how changes to the physical environment affect ‘place’. The following table aligns a high level view of rural farming identities with anti-CSG rhetoric (where applicable) against three of Wester-Herber’s place driven identity formation principles

Distinctiveness

“Being unique or distinguishing us from others. The importance of place for the distinctiveness of an individual provides…membership to a particular group that provides positive reinforcements” (Wester-Herber 2004, p.112).

A common heurism in anti-CSG rhetoric in Queensland centres around how the area is ‘prime agricultural land’ as opposed to other areas that are affected by mineral and energy resource development.

Further, farming identity is often strongly linked to anti-CSG rhetoric. For example, in my last post about the CSG rally, many speakers introduced themselves as farmers. Here, a farming identity can be seen as a motivation and qualifier for anti-CSG activity.

Continuity

Places can act as a link to the self-identity, and maintenance of this link can provide a sense of continuity to identity…this becomes important in communities where on lives and works on the same land that one’s parents or grandparents did (Wester-Herber 2004, p.112)..

Similarly, many farmers affected by CSG often refer to their continuity with the land. For example, one farmer reacted as follows when he was told there would CSG activity on his land “

I put my head in my hands and I cried. Thirty-five years of Lighthouse, 35 years that I’ve devoted every extra penny that I earn, and it was all coming tumbling down around my ears” (Courtney 2010).

Self-efficacy

The belief of having the ability to respond to different situations. The environment should not prevent but instead facilitate a person’s lifestyle.

That farmer’s identity is strongly related to the self-efficacy of land. For farmers, the land is the ultimate facilitator of their lifestyle – it is often both home and employer/ee – it provides and is ruled over. A common discussion in anti-CSG rhetoric centres on how CSG activity on farming land disrupts and threatens farming activity.

Given the above, anti-CSG activity in rural Queensland is hardly surprising. Further, that scientific discussions are viewed with suspicion or dismissed may not only be related to traditional risk concerns around the unknown and dread, but also be borne from the perceived risks and impacts on rural place based identity.

References

Courtney, P., 2010. Pipe Dreams. Landline. Available at: http://www.abc.net.au/landline/content/2010/s2888078.htm [Accessed September 2, 2012].

Wester-Herber, M., 2004. Underlying concerns in land-use conflicts—the role of place-identity in risk perception. Environmental Science & Policy, 7(2), pp.109–116.