By Peter R. Mulvihill
What can we learn about the role and importance of scoping in the context of environmental impact assessment?
“Closed” versus “open” scoping
I am intrigued by the highly variable approaches to scoping practice in environmental impact assessment and the considerable range between “closed” approaches and more ambitious and open exercises. Closed approaches to scoping tend to narrow the range of questions, possibilities and alternatives that may be considered in environmental impact assessment, while limiting or precluding meaningful public input. Of course, the possibility of more open scoping is sometimes precluded beforehand by narrow terms of reference determined by regulators.
When scoping is not done well, it inevitably compromises subsequent steps in the process. When I teach environmental impact assessment courses, I always preface my comments by noting that almost everything about environmental impact assessment is controversial. Needless to say, the role of scoping in environmental impact assessment is contentious.
It should be noted that, in the academic literature pertaining to environmental assessment and management, scoping remains a somewhat fringe or obscure topic. For the most part, it is taken for granted and left largely unexamined.
A little history
Environmental impact assessment began formally in the late 1960’s in the United States and gradually spread internationally. In the first decade of environmental impact assessment practice, unfocused exercises were common, resulting in “everything under the sun” being studied, often inconclusively. Voluminous environmental impact assessment reports would be submitted to befuddled decision makers who were none the wiser about the probable impacts of development. Scoping was introduced to focus impact studies on key issues.
Overall, in practice the predominant effect of scoping since then has been to narrow and restrict environmental impact assessment. But meanwhile, consciousness of the ecological crisis has broadened, and a sensibility revolving around sustainability, intergenerational equity and longer term futures has become entrenched amongst researchers and the broader public. Scoping practice, therefore, held (and still holds) the possibility of addressing the tension between smaller and bigger picture thinking and hopefully fostering the latter.
Ideally, scoping can re-define narrow conceptions of problems and opportunities. Clearly, this can only happen when it is conducted with an openness to input from a broad range of stakeholders.
Scoping in practice
In practice, we usually need to consider many questions when confronting the impacts of human activities, from the smallest to the biggest picture. In doing so, we are usually constrained by generic problems facing environmental managers:
- ecological complexity,
- narrow spatial and temporal boundary setting,
- irreducible uncertainty, and
- large gaps in baseline ecological knowledge.
Unmanaged cumulative impacts (local, regional or transboundary) often increase exponentially in largely unnoticed ways until they breach system thresholds, and by then it may be too late to respond. Never has the precautionary principle been more apropos.
And yet, it is striking to note the prevalence and persistence of smaller picture and shorter term thinking in environmental planning and management. An aversion to bigger picture and longer term thinking is deeply ingrained in many systems:
- city planners mostly work on official community plans that typically focus on short and medium term concerns;
- national and provincial government planning revolves around annual budgets and electoral horizons;
- corporations usually make five year plans.
For many, the long term future is imponderable, the esoteric preoccupation of futurists.
Beyond the mainstream, there have always been experimental approaches that seek to address bigger pictures and longer term futures. Some of the best examples can be seen in scenario development exercises that explore plausible 30-40 year futures with the objective of informing present day decisions and sustainability strategies.
A basic premise of explorative scenario development involves considering a range of plausible futures (both desirable and undesirable), then re-considering our present-day policies and practices – to what extent might they be appropriate in steering us toward better futures? Practitioners of the art of scenario development are well versed in counter-intuitive techniques that stimulate creative exploration. They embrace uncertainty, complexity, weak signals, wild cards and surprise, and they have a deep appreciation of the limits to prediction. Arguably, this is exactly the sensibility that is most needed today as we struggle to avoid unsustainable futures at local, regional and global scales.
In this context – the imperative to address bigger pictures and longer term futures – scoping is integral. When conducted early enough and openly enough, scoping can gather broad input from different perspectives, sometimes re-framing questions and opportunities.
I see all these things – scoping, explorative scenario development, deep sustainability and long term futures – as profoundly interrelated. The more we venture beyond conventional approaches, the more insights will emerge.
I will conclude by posing two questions. What has been the experience of other readers of this blog with scoping in environmental impact assessment or other fields? And, are there any novel, alternative or experimental approaches to scoping that others have come across that may be effective in addressing bigger picture, longer-term, deep sustainability challenges?
To find out more:
Mulvihill, P. R. and Baker, D. C. (2001). Ambitious and Restrictive Scoping: Case Studies from Northern Canada. Environmental Impact Assessment Review, 21, 4: 363-384.
Mulvihill, P. R. (2003). Expanding the Scoping Community. Environmental Impact Assessment Review, 23: 39-49.
Mulvihill, P. R. and Kramkowski, V. (2010). Extending the Influence of Scenario Development in Sustainability Planning and Strategy. Sustainability, 2: 2449-2466.
Biography: Peter R. Mulvihill is Professor of Environmental Studies at York University, Toronto, Canada. His research interests include environmental assessment, planning and management, scoping, scenario development and environmental thought. His new book, with co-author S. Harris Ali, has just been published by Routledge – Earthscan: “Environmental Management: Critical Thinking and Emerging Directions”.