Chapter 5




The fate of the Ward Valley is slowly being sealed. The National Academy of Sciences panel all but gave its stamp of approval, and the land transfer has been announced by Secretary of Interior Babbitt. However, the terms of the transfer have not yet been arranged (they may include further tritium testing), and lawsuits remain unresolved in the California courts. Still, there are important lessons to be learned from the fight over Ward Valley, no matter whether the dump is built or not. My analysis of the dynamics of the conflict allows for a deeper understanding of the fundamental motivations behind the conflict. I take here a brief look at the three areas of contention again, to assess the potential for success for the factions, and to tease out the fundamental differences that fuel the conflict.

Proponents of the Ward Valley dump attempted to construct the image of an optimistic narrative about the future of the desert tortoise. Thanks to the mitigation efforts associated with the dump, many fewer tortoises would be killed on the road, and populations would be increased. The dump and the tortoise would live in peaceful harmony and the environment would be that much richer for it.

As an attempt to co-opt environmental concerns raised by the dump plans, this narrative is for the tortoise is likely to succeed. Proponents have done their research well—tortoise fences along major highways are exactly what those who care about the survival of the tortoise would like to see. Recent independent research has even investigated the feasibility of using culverts to allow tortoises passage under roads (Ruby et al. 1994). By successfully choosing a solution that resonates with shared elements of the narrative matrices of tortoise conservationists, "dump proponents have been successful in diverting wider concerns about animals and around the site (e.g., Klasky 1993).

There was, of course, a good reason that the desert tortoise was used as a tool to fight the dump. As an endangered species the desert tortoise provided access to the only legislation that has actual power for stopping land development. Here I do not mean to suggest that people do not genuinely care about the desert tortoise, but rather that it is probably not really the reason that many of them oppose the Ward Valley nuclear dump. Concern for the tortoise is probably in part a proxy for other elements of the narrative matrix that could not, for political and legal reasons, be appealed to in this particular discourse.

Rather than purely concern over the desert tortoise per se, I would suggest that an individual’s opposition to the dump is motivated by dissonance with many other elements of his or her narrative matrix. It is a conflict over the role of technology in society, and the relationship between society and the land. On the one side are those who subscribe to a story of technology righting every wrong and fixing every human problem, on the other are those who are wary of technology and more skeptical about its potential for ameliorating human problems. These are important motivating forces; the desert tortoise and the Ward Valley present legally and politically acceptable avenues through which the positions are debated.

The second example, that of using the medical industry to fight for the dump, similarly has underlying areas of contention. The narrative created by dump proponents is quite clear: if you do not build the Ward Valley dump Grandpa won’t be able to get his chemotherapy, waste will overflow in hospital corridors, the biomedical industry will collapse, and thousands of jobs and lives will be lost. This, too, is a compelling narrative. In fact, were it based on truth, many of the opponents to the dump would rethink their positions. The Committee to Bridge the Gap has offered to support an alternate way to dispose of medical waste only, and the Mayor of Needles was quoted as saying "I probably wouldn’t oppose this thing if it was all medical waste and I was satisfied with the safety … but they haven’t convinced me yet" (La Ganga 1993). These comments reveal that opposition is not over the physical qualities of the waste itself, but over where it comes from. A willingness to accept waste from medicine but not from the utilities indicates a desire to have some say in what technology we use as a society—in this case it is an explicit rejection of nuclear power.

Nuclear power is the issue here, not medicine. Of course Winner/Wagner and Associates is absolutely correct in trying to cloak the dump in the veil of medicine and academia—two sectors with widespread public support. Nuclear power is another issue altogether. To build the Ward Valley dump is to solve one of the large problems facing the commercial nuclear power industry today—low-level waste from power plant decommissioning. Nuclear power needs this escape hatch for a problem that will only get bigger. That opponents of the dump uncover this largely-hidden agenda means that members of society would like to have some sort of say in what technologies are accepted and promoted. Chemotherapy may be acceptable but nuclear power, which produces waste dangerous for 10,000 years, may not be. The nuclear industry is probably afraid of this reaction, which is why it has partaken in such a blatant misinformation campaign. Tactics aside, the added message of this conflict is that people can (and I believe should) distinguish between technologies and would like to influence whether or not a certain technology is used.

The issue of groundwater contamination has become the most hotly debated topic in the ongoing deliberations about Ward Valley. Proponent’s would like the legal bodies to believe that their experts have the true claim to knowledge, and that the scientific method will allow them to find "the truth" regardless of their interests. Ironically, they accuse those who question the science as being politically motivated. Science becomes contested ground, pitting experts from one side against the other, with critics on both sides impugning the objectivity of experts on the other. What the actors fail to notice (or acknowledge) is that science cannot answer the question "how safe is safe enough?" or "Is it right to contaminate groundwater 5,000 years from now?"

Debate over objectivity and experts clouds the underlying issue of the relationship of society to the earth. The decision to dump radioactive waste in a hole in the ground is moral, not scientific. Comments made by residents around the proposed site illustrate this point. Bill DeWitt of Goffs (a tiny town north of the site) said, "I think they’re messing up the desert when they start putting junk like that in" (La Ganga 1993). Fort Mojave Indian Steve Lopez expressed his views this way, "For us to have this unnatural project in a natural land that is sacred to us just doesn’t go. … I’d rather have a nice clean drink of water than a pocket full of gold" (La Ganga 1993). These are statements of value, which can be contrasted with dump proponents who call the Ward Valley "Godforsaken." These comments indicate the differences between the narrative matrices of various groups, especially concerning places. For some, the judgment of radioactive waste is that it "doesn’t go" in the desert—radioactive waste conflicts with that part of their narrative matrix that is concerned with places, specifically the desert. Of course, others would may not share the same narratives about the desert and therefore see no problem with dumping waste there. But rather than addressing those underlying points of conflict, they dismiss comments like "It doesn’t go" as inappropriate for the discourse.

But there is no progress to be made by arguing that someone is wrong for not wanting a nuclear dump in their backyard. The way to further understanding is to actual discuss the underlying narratives that lead to the conflict—in this case, human relationships to the land, the role and prospect of technology, what kind of future is worth having.

What is cavalierly dismissed as a NIMBY reaction is really one of the only areas in social discourse where people can express their views about the risk, place and technology. This is true because the argument is often "not in my backyard" but "not in anybody’s backyard." Real estate developers disparagingly call this the BANANA attitude (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anybody), but the situation is more complex. The Mayor of Needles was opposed to a certain kind of technology, not to medical technology. Others based their position on a respect for the land. The Committee to Bridge the Gap is opposed to nuclear power. The great potential of the energy created by a NIMBY conflict is that these views can find expression. The levels of discussion are many, but one seems to be pervasive—the distinction between natural and technological. Clearly there are those who do not see a future for ever-increasing technological hazards, just as there are those who see them as necessary risks. As I have argued earlier, the choice is one of adherence to certain sets of stories about what good for society is good, so I cannot here claim that one is better than the other. But in conclusion, I would like to point to some of the implications of our relationship to technology, and show the often-ignored side effects of distinguishing natural from technological hazards.

The distinction between the natural and the technological is deeply ingrained in Western culture, so much so that its expressions may seem contradictory. For instance, research subjects shown identical pictures labeled "lake" and "reservoir" significantly ranked the lake as more beautiful (Thayer 1994:64). In another study, respondents found "natural radiation" much more acceptable and less harmful than equal amounts of "man-made radiation" (Reicher et al. 1993). The distinction between natural and technological is pervasive and strong. The question is whether this is merely the result of Romantic idealization of nature or whether it has deeper roots.

There are a number of ideas that try to explain human preferences for natural things. With regard to landscapes there are a set of "evolutionary theories" which try to explain preferences, the human naturalness hypothesis, habitat theory and prospect-refuge theory (Thayer 1994). The human naturalness hypothesis presumes that humans have an innate desire to return to the natural environment of their evolutionary past. Evidence of this thought to be found in the immense effort expended in maintaining plants in everyday landscapes, both inside and outside. René Dubos suggested that humans prefer landscapes that most closely resemble those habitats in which their ancestors could satisfy all of their biological needs. This theory is used to explain human preferences for open savanna-like areas, they provide places for hunting and shelter. This idea is related to prospect-refuge theory, which posits that humans prefer areas in which they can see without being seen, i.e., providing both a prospect on the surroundings and refuge from them. Another tendency is for humans to have visceral fears of spiders and snakes, a sort of "biophobia". This too is presumed to have a survival function. Similarly, "biophilia" is thought, by those who see the decline of biological diversity as threatening human existence, as another survival mechanism (Kellert and Wilson, 1993).

The preference for things natural seems to have measurable unconscious manifestations as well. Roger Ulrich’s work showed that patients who have a window with a view of trees recover faster and require less pain medication than those with a view of a bare wall (Ulrich 1984). Upon further research, he found that exposure to scenes of natural landscape apparently produces a profound "quick-onset" reaction in the parasympathetic nervous system, expressed as a heart rate reduction (Thayer 1994:15). This provides evidence that a prejudice for natural scenes is actually beneficial.

Traditional connections to place can also be seen as having a survival component; they entail caring for and protecting the things around oneself that give sustenance. In the modern world it is more difficult to see how caring about places relates to survival. The development of a large, specialized economy means that few people see their connections with the land as a source of life. Few grow their own food, or even know where it comes from. One of the few times people become aware of their dependence on places is when it is threatened by new technologies.

What I am suggesting is that human connections to place, rather than being negotiable cultural constructions, are valuable biological survival mechanisms. The fear of man-made radiation is an excellent example of this point. Proponents of technologies often compare the risk of the technology to some natural risk. The nuclear industry compares its radioactive emissions to natural background radiation (Reicher et al. 1993); in de minimus regulation industrial emissions are judged relative to the annual risk of dying from disease (Palm 1990). If the risk of the technology is less than the natural yardstick, the proponents assume it is safe. But a simple story shows why this is fallacious.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission held a public hearing to address concerns about building a nuclear power plant in Vermont. The NRC representative brought a Geiger counter to the meeting and had it running on the table throughout the meeting where it clicked regularly, measuring the background radiation. Near the end of the meeting, he told the audience they had nothing to fear from emissions from the proposed plant. "Look how much background radiation there is already," he proclaimed, pointing to the Geiger counter. From the back of the room a woman shouted out, "That’s exactly why we don’t need any more!"

The woman made a crucial point; every new risk, no matter how small, is added to the present complement. Life on earth evolved adapting to a certain amount of background radiation, to add extra is unwise. This same point applies to any number of other situations, hazards are cumulative, and in the case of toxic hazards, they are not easily neutralized. For this reason, I suggest that we listen to the stories that people tell about their places, the stories that conclude that "a nuclear dump just doesn’t belong here."