It is very strange, this domination of our intellect by our digestive organs. We cannot work, we cannot think, unless our stomach wills so. It dictates to us our emotions, our passions… After hot muffins, it says, “Be dull and soulless, like a beast of the field — a brainless animal, with listless eye, unlit by any ray of fancy, or of hope, or fear, or love, or life.” – Jerome K. Jerome, “Three Men in a Boat”
There is a moment that arises in every environmental impact assessment (EA) when the intention to look with honesty and bravery at the possible risks and outcomes of a project is eclipsed by the desire to get this thing done, yesterday. You may recognize this scene. You submitted your 300-page report to the proponent or Crown agency, the one that took you years to compile–the one around which you rearranged your life and the life of your community, or client’s community–maybe a few weeks ago. Afterwards, you imagine the bureaucrats and developers hunched over your report. They’re poring over every word, late into the night, their highlighters flying. They’ve laminated the pages so they can read it in the bathtub. They just can’t get enough, and they get it, because at long last, you imagine, they’re really listening.
A few weeks pass. When you encounter your report again, it’s at the next working group meeting, and you can barely recognize it. All your work, and more importantly all your community’s knowledge and carefully articulated concerns, are reduced to a single 8.5 x 11 Excel spreadsheet (11 x17, if you’re lucky), and it lies abandoned on a cheap plastic chair, silently guarded by muffins. All your stories, your ways of being-in-the-world, your community’s hopes and fears… neatly condensed under the headings Issue, Proponent Response, and Community Response. This is a real thing in our world: the ITT or Issues Tracking Table.
For me, this is always a moment of profound reduction. Something so big that I felt I could not contain it, let alone do justice to it, just shrivelled and disappeared down a pinhole. It is the polar opposite of that moment long ago in the community hall in the Arctic hamlet, which had first set my heart racing. To answer the innocuous question, “does anyone have anything else that they wish to add,” which bureaucrats feel they are obliged to offer, an Elder had risen to his feet and launched himself and us into an hours-long soliloquy of incomparable richness, beauty and sentiment, and storytelling complexity. I had never heard anything like it, and I really listened to another human being for the first time. I mean really listened, and it shaped my entire career.
I later came to understand that this was not a strange occurrence in indigenous communities, whose public cultures are often powered, in their own unique ways, with wonderful traditions of rhetoric, oratory, story-telling, decision-making, and other forms political craft. Many of these arts are not captured in discussions and scholarship about the right to govern, because they relate to the arts of governing and decision-making and not just the ability to exercise that right, and many people do not notice them, but they are there none the less.
In the years since I have understood it as my role in EAs to help the bureaucrats and bearers of muffins really listen to such Elders, and to help the Elders understand what the bureaucrats are really saying. We strive to unpack the meaning behind everyone’s statements, so that the different knowledge systems involved in an EA — indigenous, scientific, bureaucratic, etc. — can be brought into a fruitful conversation.
Spreadsheets are fundamental tools of business administration. I get it. But there are some obvious problems with the way spreadsheets enframe discussions about a project or decision.
- Shrink substantive discourse to miniature proportions. Literally.
- Insist upon a strictly linear thought process that only seems progressive. Cells on the left refer to cells on the right. But they cannot express more complex thoughts or relations. (Even if they could, the technologies with which they are viewed — the screen, the standard office printer — kneecap them.)
- Discourage face-to-face encounters and substantive engagement in a number of ways:
- First, their mobility is exactly the thing that allows you never to have to leave the house to answer your critics’ concerns. You can respond to their column at home, in the safety of your housecoat.
- Secondly, they enframe issues in such a way that the resolution of a problem is not really necessary; all that’s required is another category of response. Real engagement requires productive, creative conflict, not mere management.
- Finally, they automate something that should never be automated.
So let’s not stand idly by and watch while all our attempts to impart the meaning in things are taken out of context and packed in neat little boxes. Here’s four things you can do when the Muffineaters come calling with their spreadsheets:
- Don’t let others make spreadsheets about you.
If you’re going to accept that the complexity of the EA process can be reduced to a series of spreadsheet cells — issue, response/snappy comeback – then at the very least take control of that process. Produce your own issues tracking tables for circulation.
- Use the spreadsheet as an opportunity to engage face-to-face.
Spreadsheets are being used to facilitate a quick, on-the-fly engagement and consultation. Resist this practice. Instead of filling in your column and emailing it back, consider using each and every cell as an opportunity to engage face-to-face in productive dialogue. Make a whole day of it. Get muffins. Remember that on technical matters, since the proponent typically has their consultant respond, these conversations could degenerate into consultant vs consultant, if attempts aren’t made to establish real relationships around them.
- Use the spreadsheet as an opportunity to re-invigorate the issues with complexity.
Crown administrators and proponents, or engagement professionals, will filter your issues down to easily digestible nuggets, divided by subject or discipline. In EAs, the issues might be arranged to mirror the impoverished impact assessment logic: VC / effect pathway / effect / mitigation / residual effect / follow-up. Since we know the real world doesn’t actually function like this, don’t feel you have to accept it.
- Experiment with new methods for gathering and expressing your concerns and ideas in short format.
There are so many ways to represent complex issues, you don’t have to accept confinement to an Issues Tracking Table. When you find one in your inbox, return a mind map, a prezi, word clouds, qualitative data analysis results…try something new.