Friday, November 18, 2016

Wielding the 2x4: The Role Alternatives Play in Policy Conflict November 2016 A Part Two

This is a Part Two in the exploration of one aspect of ethical and existential issues that arise when we engage in conflict over public policy, and what consequences we are responsible for when our rhetoric is or seems determinative of ensuing events. In the first part, I offered (this blog 15 Nov 2016) a case study discussing the criticism that advocates of a dam-free Grand Canyon, in particular David Brower as the most public advocate, traded polluting coal-fired electric generating plants for a dam-free Canyon.

Reflecting on that post, I realized that a set of what: — ideas?, assumptions?, pre-conceptions?, biases? — undergirded my puzzlement that this criticism could even be entertained. Part of this, I suppose, is that my personal involvement in the particular conflict was strongly at odds with such a criticism, since advocating for coal-burning plants was not something we did. 

I also see that there is a way of acting in conflict, a way of gathering forces for battles over policy, that, obvious to me, may not be understood by those examining the conflict in later years. Here, I will try to make clear the larger context that makes alien, even irrelevant, the charge of a trade of an undammed Canyon for polluted skies.

To speak of the Theory of Alternatives, or the Philosophy of Urging Alternatives, may seem pretentious, yet to use the label Strategy or Tactic limits the power and scope of might seem a rhetorical tool, but is more grandly a perspective, a stance, a guide to proper behavior. Choice, freedom, analysis and decision-making — all these words point to elements of public discourse that are essential for an open political system. What the concept of “alternative” adds is that choices can, do, must exist and be seen to exist, for there to be such discourse; freedom is constraint if there is only one path; analysis without differences, advantages, and disadvantages, becomes only justification. 

This is hardly a trivial point, as anyone who has dealt with political, governmental, bureaucratic decision-making very quickly learns. Put it this way: alternatives may be an essential ingredient in open, public decision-making, but decision-makers always want to think they can bake their policy under the assumption that their course is the only one possible.

A major question is about the siting of the decision. When and with whom is analysis considered and dealt with? How many arenas with what different interests and perspectives must be considered — how many is too many? What has to be done, what conclusions reached, before action is taken, policy implemented? Who, in other terms, can be excluded; who legitimately consulted; who can veto: Who is inside, who outside?

At some point, I am suggesting, those involved always conclude discussion is done, the decision is made. Were information frictionless and flowed complete and freely, that point might not be a mirage. But within human limitations, and in spite of or because of the great pile of the internet’s information, this is not so. In our system, it is always true that another voice may be raised, and at a later time, claiming it has not been heard, and must be. Conflict, I argue, is endemic. And if conflict is to be overcome or resolved, power will be exerted to override objection or enable agreement.

Consider American federal reclamation policy through much of the twentieth century. The most cursory acquaintance shows a limited web of very intense, mutually reinforcing relations involving 1) local interests —  farmers, cities, e.g. — trying to stabilize or increase their water supply, 2) a hierarchy of like-minded (but quarrelsome) organizations up through the state and perhaps river basin level, 3) acting as provider and referee, the Bureau of Reclamation (within the Department of the Interior), and 4) a quite small collection of federal legislators, who controlled the flow of authorization of work and appropriations for it. There is nothing necessarily sinister about such a “little government”; they exist in all kinds of fields affecting a great many aspects of our lives. A project to distribute water would be vetted by various standards as it made its way toward approval. At certain points, the larger government (the full Congress, or the President’s personal agencies) might weigh in, though often with no more than a yes or no. 

So what happens when some project or policy attracts the attention of or impinges on the interests of others, “outside” of the experts and regulars in that little Reclamation government? More specifically,what happens when outsiders are urging consideration of matters of a non-Reclamation nature, matters that could affect construction and operation of a water storage and distribution project? And then what happens when the outsiders are, naturally, waved off or pelted with fluff or ignored, insiders saying, “Dont bother us; we going about important matters, and you cannot understand.”? 

Now lets travel back to 1965. (This is going to be terribly truncated. For instance, the fight ten years before over a dam in Dinosaur National Monument, and what conservationists concerned with the Park System and other fine natural places had learned, did set what should have been a different stage. Apparently not.) One of the Reclamation rituals, and almost the first official one in public view, is for participants in the project under consideration to come before congressional Interior Committees (their old name) and testify glowingly. And in August 1965, such hearings were being held in the House of Representatives. 

However, this was one of those moments when quarrels surface. The key element was the Central Arizona Project, a long-desired Arizona dream to transport Colorado River water to the region that included Phoenix and Tucson. It was embedded in wide-ranging considerations, so wide-ranging that Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall had produced a grand Pacific Southwest Water Plan. This was necessary because California would cause all the trouble it could unless certain of its demands were met. Now California was not an outsider here, so it had to be taken seriously. In part to meet California’s concerns, the PSWWP rested on the idea of augmenting the water supply of the Colorado River, even possibly by a stupendous waterworks to bring water from the Columbia River. Treading carefully, the PSWWP tried not to upset the Columbia’s northwestern state senators, but not by including them; rather by pretending there was no plan to go that far north, and thus trying to ignore them in the present hearings. However, in order to make the PSWWP’s goals even half-way credible in Reclamation-government’s terms, there had to be revenue above that paid by the water users. And thus, the Plan included two big hydroelectric dams in the Grand Canyon. The profits from these dams would help pay for the CAP, and with other bookkeeping magic, then go into a fund for the “future augmentation”  (not directly authorized of course) of the Colorado — billions & billions and billions of dollars for the Reclamation government to mount water raids in whatever direction seemed appropriate.

Which is where we (friends of the Grand Canyon) come in. Or rather, barged in. We were not discontented insiders like California nor “outside” insiders like the Northwest. We were unwanted outsiders — the quintessential outsiders, objecting to reclamation projects as too likely to do damage to natural places (in National Parks or not) that we and millions of others treasured, and therefore just opposed, in this case to the dams. So the Interior Committee would have kept us out, if possible, and indeed did make various attempts to hobble or make irrelevant our testimony. 

(I realize this summary set-up is too opaque, but my purpose is to get to that testimony, and show how we used “alternatives”. By the way, although I was deeply interested and trying to learn about the dam controversy at this time, I did not start to work for the Sierra Club until January 1966. I did not attend the 1965 hearings, so the events below come from newspaper clippings.)

Going through a collection of such clippings (AP, Arizona Republic, Arizona Daily Star, Phoenix Gazette; 31 Aug & 1 Sep, 1965) provides these basic, and expected, arguments of “outdoors-lovers” (newspaper talk — the articles were not unbiased):
The dams would:
Alter natural scenery;
Affect a National Park adversely;
Make boats trips impossible.
Even repeated with variations by 20 or 30 citizens who came from the West, these did not add up to a case with appeal to a Reclamation-based committee. 
In exasperation, for example, Arizona’s congressman Udall complained, “I can not see how reasonable people fail to understand that the dams give us money for water.” Impacts on the Grand Canyon were not of concern for the reclamationists. 

So the citizens and witnesses from organizations (Audubon, Sierra Club, Izaak Walton League, Defenders of Wildlife, Wasatch Mtn. Club, National Parks Association, Fed. of Western Outdoor Clubs) did try to sound like Mr. Udall’s “reasonable people”, urging that:
Subsidies could come from coal-based power revenues or atomic plants;
Coal-fired plants were cheaper than dams;
The governmentt could go into steam-generated power to finance the CAP (the Sierra Club is specifically reported to have said that).

There were other suggestions: invest money in gov’t bonds, use general tax revenues, raise water rates on high-income Arizona farmers. However, in the newspaper recountings, “outdoors-lovers’” ideas came down to saying, “All conservationists insisted steam-generated power could run the pumps and fill the coffers of the Lower Colorado River Basin fund better than dams.”

Incidentally, the (Democratic) Chairman of the Interior Committee dismissed this, criticizing government coal plants as a “socialist” idea, which is a bit rich, given that the whole shebang of Reclamation was socialism.

Now consider the list of pro-Grand-Canyon, anti-dam witnesses. Were there many representatives from electric utilities, trying to get committee members to let them build coal  plants? Many coal-mining executives? How about the atomic industry; were they well represented? And so forth as far as testimony by those who might truly be described as trying to get the Committee to let them construct some form of generating electricity.

My point, of course, is this: Conservationists were not offering proposals to build coal-fired power plants. They were backing no legislation or licenses for such plants. They were arguing that these other power generation methods meant that the dams were not the only way to accomplish the objective of a subsidized CAP; they were plying the proverbial 2x4 to get attention, trying to get into the heads of committee members that it was not a choice of dams or nothing. They were metaphorically banging the table and yelling: Alternatives! Alternatives! Alternatives! Wake up, dont sacrifice the Grand Canyon to hidebound thinking, stretch your minds: Electric power is electric power (well, it isnt, as I explained in the first part, but …), and can be gotten (along with profits for subsidies) from many sources. 
The Grand Canyon is unique, we said, Leave it out of this.

It may seem like sophistry. But to say: There are alternatives to your specific project that will accomplish your general goals.” is quite different from saying, “Here are my plans for building and financing a different specific project; please authorize it instead of yours.” Offering alternatives is a way to shake up those dominanting a decision-making process, in which they assume they are following the best and only course, and determined to have their way.  (All you have to do is attend or read about the full set of hearings in order to understand just how dismissive the pro-dam legislators were of the pleas for keeping the Canyon dam-free. Clearly, it was necessary to look about for any possible tools to break their deadlocked assumptions about what was possible: As the old saying tells us: Any stigma to beat a dogma.

It is confusing purposes & methodologies to say that the Sierra Club was ready and willing to authorize and build a coal electric plant (interesting thought — what if it could have financed it?) just because it was shaking a wake-up rattle before a bunch of dam-besotted reclamationists to the effect that,  “All conservationists insisted steam-generated power could run the pumps and fill the coffers of the Lower Colorado River Basin fund better than dams.” And such testimony does not make the Sierra Club responsible (even ironically) for such a plant’s pollution if one were to be built, as indeed several would have to be, given the demographics and utility plans of the Pacific Southwest. 

Of course, the reclamationists knew this; they knew the CAP operators would have to buy private utilities’ power (coal, atomic, fusion, natural gas, wind power, whatever) to pump its water. Even if they had cared about their southwestern blue skies, they were still quite willing to sacrifice them to bring in more water to serve the farmers and burgeoning population of central and southern Arizona. 

The argument here was over outmoded thinking that was condemning the Grand Canyon to have inflicted upon it huge physical and conceptual outrage. We said: Think Outside Your Dam Box!  That came out sounding like: Coal-fired plants are quicker and cheaper. The response of the House Interior Committee was: We like our box. 

However, in the end, and because of the particular complex of personnel, politics and history, the Secretary of the Interior was able to say: OK, my Interior experts have figured out how to smash the box, and the dams are in fact not needed. The Committee grumbled and bucked for a year or two, but in the end (and still cherishing their old box) gave up and accepted the Secretary’s new damless box. 

Did it matter that pro-Canyon advocates had talked up thermal generation plants as alternatives to dams? Did that make them complicit in the dirty skies? Even just ethically? Or more, in reality? Is there a high-minded negative judgment of condemnation to be sprayed around? I say “No”. And I believe that my point of view was vindicated shortly thereafter as in 1969, the 2x4 approach was codified into a mandate for federal agencies when the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) was passed. Interestingly, it was spear-headed by northwestern Senator Henry Jackson, who was instrumental in shepherding a damless CAP bill through the Congress for his venerable colleague, Arizona’s Carl Hayden. Not only that, but in part to avoid the Reclamation box rising again to satisfy future demands for the Columbia’s water, Jackson had overseen the creation of a National Water Commission (NWC) to look at all aspects of American water policy. 

(Heres a quickie myth for you: Grand Canyon advocates used their 2x4 to get the attention of that old Reclamation mule. We hit it so hard, it toppled over, and NEPA and the NWC made sure it couldnt get back up again.)

What NEPA did was mandate that alternatives had to be explicitly considered, described, and presented as part of a formal Environmental Impact Study for any significant federal action, project, policy. After 40 years of experience, our cynicism about governmental work may temper any evaluation of how NEPA works now, but in its early years, it was a qualitative change in how that work was carried on as far as public involvement was concerned. 

The point I am making here is that in suggesting alternatives in an EIS, the commitment is to open up thinking, to prevent Reclamation and other such government boxes from being closed and sealed from public scrutiny. A 1965 EIS of the PSWWP — the CAP and the dams in particular — as an official federal proposal, backed by the kind of research that the Bureau of Reclamation did on order of the Secretary in a few months of 1966-7, would have entirely changed the discussion in those House hearings where our soon-to-be-called-“environmental” position was scoffed at and dismissed. 

Perhaps the impacts of thermal plants (air pollution, e.g.) would have been quantized and described, along with the impacts of the dams. Perhaps there would have been a wider ranging and more informed debate about the environment that would result from those plants, that undammed Canyon, a different or even no CAP, and alternatives for all the other projects (including the “little” projects for Colorado offered to buy up the support of well-placed Congressmen). On the largest scale, national policy on electricity generation would have been on the table, along with the central water questions.We would have had to answer questions: Sacrifice the Grand Canyon? If not, at what cost? 

How the debate might have changed; as it indeed did, but only in a slight way, when the Secretary of the Interior picked up our 2x4 and used it as a goad to get Bureau of Reclamation professionals to produce an array of 30 dam-less alternatives for his consideration. 

And may I say, how the history of these events might have been more accurately portrayed if their historians had understood more properly the function of alternatives in public discourse, especially when outsiders are making a raid on the sacred precincts of some hide-bound, in-a-rut policy like the mid-twentieth-century Reclamation box. Had it been trumpeted at the time as the grand strategy of the generals of the Save Grand Canyon army, perhaps historians would have been impressed by the victory and left out their “insteads”. But since all we did was shout in the face of power, “Wake UP!”, the historians, like the reclamationists before them, want to brush us aside. But our shout was heard, and though its story has been kinked in the telling, the Grand Canyon is still there, and still free. 

Well, not quite, but dont give up hope.

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