Reassessing Environmental Assessment: The Politics of “Normal” in Regulatory Science

Contemporary debates about issues such as climate change, environmental toxins, and the “Anthropocene” more broadly have pushed environmental governance and assessment into the spotlight. The dry, technocratic, often boring processes of environmental assessment now make headlines and inspire passion, for example with the IPCC reports on global climate change or the decision by Trump’s EPA not to ban the solvent methylene chloride or pesticide chlorpyrifos. For decades, scholars in political ecology, environmental justice, and science studies have shown that these seemingly technocratic environmental assessment processes are always already political, i.e. power laden: even marking them off as technocratic is a political move that hides itself (Blaikie and Brookfield 1987, Jasanoff 1990). Environmental assessments not only have unequal effects, but are rooted in colonial and racist epistemologies, and, as such, they are infused with sociopolitical assumptions and judgments (Vera et al. 2019). Of central concern is not only the politics of what is known but also what is not: questions of uncertainty and even ignorance (Frickel and Vincent 2007, Kleinman and Suryanarayanan 2013). 


In light of today’s explicitly political attention to the politics of environmental assessment, this session seeks fresh perspectives on how such boundaries around science and politics are created, enforced, and challenged, and with what effects. While the session is actively concerned with contemporary practices as they intersect and are coproduced with recent politics (Jasanoff 2017), we are also interested in practices that predate and persist through national administration changes and/or vary across regions, understanding that while we may be in an exceptional moment, this moment is also part of longer, variable, and intersecting histories. 


Papers for the session might address a range of questions, such as:


  • How are ideas about “normal” and “exceptional” (or “emergency”) created and contested in environmental governance and assessment? 

  • How is normal vs. exceptional related to debates over scientific certainty vs. uncertainty? Acceptable risk vs. environmental justice? Expert vs. citizen science? Evidence-based vs. precautionary decision-making? Safe vs. harmful?

  • How do contemporary attempts to frame environmental governance in terms such as these compare and contrast to those of the past? 

  • How do changing methods of assessment (e.g. definitions, calculations, peer review) affect governance outcomes? 

  • How have environmental justice movements impacted assessment practices and responded to regulatory changes that threaten gains?

  • How do discourses of sustainability impact (or not) and intersect with methods of assessment? Where and how have those impacted environmental governance and assessment practices? 

  • How do changes in environmental and health assessment practices extend, complicate, or challenge neocolonial environmental governance practices? 


We are interested in papers addressing environmental governance and assessment from any geographic location, and with a focus on any environmental and human health topic, such as food and agriculture; animal welfare; air, water, and soil quality; toxic substances; climate change; marine environments; endangered species; cost-benefit analysis; environmental impact reviews; etc. 


To participate in these sessions, please send your abstract (up to 300 words) to Jennifer Sedell <>; Katie Clifford <> or Becky Mansfield <> by November 17. All conference participants must be registered and the session finalized by December 1. Please see the conference website for more information:


Works Cited: 

Blaikie, P., & Brookfield, H. (1987). Land Degradation and Society. London: Methuen.


Frickel, S., & Vincent, M. B. (2007). "Hurricane Katrina, contamination, and the unintended organization of ignorance." Technology in Society, 29(2),181-188. 


Jasanoff, S. (1990). The Fifth Branch: Science Advisers as Policymakers. Cambridge: Harvard U Press. 


Jasanoff, S. (2017). "No funeral bells: Public reason in a ‘post-truth’ age." Social Studies of Science 47(5), 751-770. 


Kleinman, D. L., & Suryanarayanan, S. (2013). "Dying Bees and the Social Production of Ignorance." Science, Technology, & Human Values, 38(4), 492–517.


Vera, L, D Walker, M Murphy, B Mansfield, LM Siad, J Ogden, EDGI. (2019). "When data justice and environmental justice meet: formulating a response to extractive logic through environmental data justice." Information, Communication, & Society, 22(7),1012.

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