The Anatomy of an Environmental Decision: A Discourse Analysis of Events and Processes Linked to the Grounding of the MV Rena
Galbraith, Philippa Janne
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This research is concerned with the social construction of nature and the environment in connection with the case study of a man-made environmental disaster which occurred off the coast of the Bay of Plenty of New Zealand in 2011: the grounding of the MV Rena. The problem I explore relates to the clash of worldviews embodied in the contested discourses of the resource consent hearing to abandon the wreck of the Rena on Astrolabe Reef, also known as Ōtāiti. The objective of the research is to examine people’s stories and submissions on the resource consent process as discourses that influence the way people think about the environment and environmental justice in twenty-first century Aotearoa New Zealand. Two research questions guide this research. The first concerns the way in which different discourses related to the grounding were made manifest throughout the processes of the Resource Management Act 1991. The second deals with the dominance of certain discourses within the context of the resource consent hearing, and what this means in terms of social change for affected communities and environments. To this end, the research draws on theories of environmental and social justice, deliberative democracy, procedural inclusion and the special forms of psycho-social trauma experienced by communities, particularly indigenous communities, in the wake of environmental disaster. In terms of the development of the thesis, the concept of ‘nature’ as a social construction is considered along with a chronological review of Western ideas about nature and their evolution throughout history to modern times. Then, the issue of the Rena is introduced by way of thematic analysis of interview data. Analysis focuses on the discourses of the hearing, and I adopt a critical approach in unpacking and explicating the effects of the grounding on the beliefs and worldviews of those closely associated with the affected environments, the MV Rena and processes of impact assessment. Data comprised materials from the online archives of the Bay of Plenty Regional Council together with interviews conducted with key participants. Dryzek’s (2013) framework for categorising environmental discourses is used to organise the data according to different worldviews. Specific methods of critical discourse analysis are applied to selected documents as a means of revealing the intertextuality of arguments and the rhetorical, grammatical devices and persuasive techniques employed by discursive agents to position themselves and their arguments in relation to others within the wider discourse of the hearing. The identification of themes within the interviews complemented and strengthened this approach. Significant findings in this research coincide with international research that shows indigenous communities experience environmental trauma and injustice in ways that are much more profound and socially corrosive than for mainstream communities, and that this is compounded by the historical, ongoing and wider environmental injustices of post-colonial, white settler societies. It shows that under the hierarchy of the Resource Management Act 1991, biophysical considerations take precedence over socio-cultural, and highlights the concept of environmental personhood as a means by which enviro-social-cultural considerations might find atonement within decision-making procedures.