Situating the “What” of Engagement
In engaging with any community, group, or stakeholder, there must be a defined what in the means of connection. In terms of environmental engagement, the what means what environmental issue we are engaging in discussion about. We will be discussing how the what of engagement can be misunderstood, and the troubles of understanding the what in the post-truth world we live in.
We currently live in a political climate that denies the validity of long held truths. Due to the enormous expansion of the Internet over the past 20+ years, citizens have had much more abundant and fast access to vast amounts of information. It would seem that access to more information would help society wrap its head around known and unknown information, but this expansion has done quite the opposite. There is now infinite more room for debate over issues, and what is “true”.
Political bodies, such as the Trump administration, benefit off of this era of post-truth. With money not being an issue in terms of campaigning for the Trump administration, they in turn can spend loads of money and time on fabricating stories or claiming that other people are making up “facts.” Lots of Trump’s rhetoric is him saying untrue and bigoted things about many groups of people gains support due to retro backlash. While Trump has been a major proponent of the post-truth and alternative facts era, there is room for scrutiny of other politicians who engage in similar false smear campaign tactics.
While there are negative effects of living in a post-truth era which affects the entire globe, there is also room created for “encouraging citizen participation in public decision making; introducing new voices to the public debate; fostering the transparency and scrutiny of administrative actions.” Access to more information has created an array of challenges and opportunities in terms of possibilities for engagement. How we respond to these challenges is vital in terms of effective engagement, and in environmental studies we are on a constant search for the truth and creating safe spaces to engage in this honest discussion. We also sometimes see that there are numerous truths, which spark debate about which are the most important. This brings us to the salmon crisis in the Columbia River Basin.
CRITFC, the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, is an organization we are interacting with who works to protect treaty fishing rights of indigenous tribes through legal battles while also actively restoring and protecting salmon, lamprey, and sturgeon populations and habitat in the Columbia River Basin. Salmon in the Pacific Northwest are keystone species central not just to ecosystems, but they are also a key component of its economy and to the lifestyle of indigenous tribes. Research showing the decline of salmon populations and their health has been an especially concerning issue which has sparked heavy debate. In an article by Anna Maria Gillis, she compares this controversy to the spotted owl controversy in the PNW, while noting that this issue is different because everybody is either directly or indirectly affected, it is not just one animal versus one industry. Gillis highlights the different stakeholders involved and examines the debates regarding dams, hatchery harvesting, and climate change, showing both sides of each, and while an older piece of literature, it remains extremely relevant today.
There are many articles with varying perspectives on the state of salmon in the Pacific Northwest, and the Columbia River in particular, but they clearly have different takes on the cause of the issue, as some might focus on genetic health while others might focus on population numbers. The crisis of salmon in the Colombia River is similar to many issues today, as it is difficult to decide how to assess them with different opinions on the cause even when we can agree that the problem exists.
These debates are particularly concerned with the cause of said declines, and the effects of taking action against these causes. Decline in salmon populations and health is said to be due to many things, all of which have truth to them, such as dams, climate change, and introduction of hatchery salmon. Dams can obstruct upstream migration of salmon, the final stage in the life cycle of salmon with the purpose of making it hundreds of miles to their annual spawning habitat, which can also be inundated due to the dam blockage of water flow, becoming too deep for spawning (U.S Fish and Wildlife Service). They are also a long-term source of jobs and clean energy (Gillis, 1995). Even Breitbart News, an infamously conservative media channel, wrote about the damages that dams are potentially causing; however, unlike many articles, they clearly point to the perspective of clean hydroelectric power that dams produce. Next, Warming temperatures are a problem because salmon are cold water fish whose health can be threatened when water temperatures begins to exceed 65 degrees Fahrenheit, and because lower snow-pack in winter months makes for less spawning areas (Hsu, 2019). Lastly, Chinook salmon are said to have lost two-thirds of genetic diversity in the past 7,000 years. Genetic diversity is essential to any population’s health, as it “is often key to enabling a species to adapt to changing environmental conditions” (Service, 2018). Proponents might highlight how they have helped to boost salmon numbers in the Columbia.
With all these articles highlighting different causes, it makes it confusing and difficult for anybody trying to find the most important root of the problem. We know that the state of salmon in the Columbia River Basin is dire, but what do we do? Do we destroy the dams and find new sources of clean power and jobs in the PNW? Do we focus all our effort on stopping climate change? Will stopping the introduction of hatchery salmon be enough to save the species? As we have seen from looking at many different perspectives, this is a difficult question to answer, which is the reason for the diversity of articles on the issue.
Chinchilla, Laura. October 15, 2019. “Post-Truth Politics Afflicts the Global South, Too.” The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/15/opinion/politics-global-south.html.
Edsall, Thomas B. February 12, 2020. “Trump Is Waiting and He Is Ready.” The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/12/opinion/trump-campaign-2020.html.
George, Phil, and William Baillie Grohman. n.d. “Columbia River Salmon, Pacific Northwest: Chinook Salmon.” CRITFC. Accessed March 3, 2020. https://www.critfc.org/fish-and-watersheds/columbia-river-fish-species/columbia-river-salmon/.
Gillis, Anna Maria. 1995. “Whats at Stake in the Pacific Northwest Salmon Debate?” BioScience 45, no. 3: 125–228. https://doi.org/10.2307/1312549.
Horton, Jennifer. November 18, 2008. “What’s Depleting Salmon Populations?” HowStuffWorks. https://adventure.howstuffworks.com/outdoor-activities/fishing/fish-conservation/fish-populations/salmon-population1.htm.
Hsu, Howard. February 8, 2019. “Climate Change Is Cooking Salmon in the Pacific Northwest.” Popular Science. https://www.popsci.com/climate-change-salmon-pacific-northwest/.
Johnson, Gene. October 14th, 2019.“Pacific Northwest Tribes: Remove Columbia River Dams.” Breitbart. www.breitbart.com/news/pacific-northwest-tribes-remove-columbia-river-dams/.
Proctor, James. February 25th, 2020. Class Lecture.
Service, Robert F. January 10 2018. “Pacific Northwest Salmon Are in Big Genetic Trouble.” Science, www.sciencemag.org/news/2018/01/pacific-northwest-salmon-are-big-genetic-trouble.
U.S Fish and Wildlife Service. n.d. “Salmon of the West – Why are Salmon in trouble? – Dams.” U.S Fish and Wildlife Service. Accessed March 3, 2020. https://www.fws.gov/salmonofthewest/dams.htm.