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Greener Social Constructions: Marie Lake, Fort Chipewyan, and the Alberta Oil Sands

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Thesis type
(Dissertation) Ph.D.
Date created
There is considerable debate in the green criminological and environmental sociological literature regarding achieving environmental reform. This dissertation contributes to the discussion through a qualitative constructivist interpretation of regional/national news media depictions of two environmental/industrial controversies. The embroiled controversies pit concerned social actors from the Alberta communities of Marie Lake and Fort Chipewyan against Canadian oil sands proponents. Using grounded theory methods and NVivo 10 software, media depictions of the controversies were examined as indicative of the dominant voices at the intersection of a public conversation about the harms caused by the oil sands industry. Very few issue entrepreneur efforts resulted in meaningful environmental reforms, but several key findings emerged. First, we must provide empowering eco-solutions for government, appreciating that politicians are particularly adept at avoiding the negativity accompanying symbolically charged environmental issues. Second, there is value in embracing human interests as a means to save nature, recognizing that social actors can appear self-serving when they affix conventional environmental concerns to anthropocentric (human-centered) causes. Third, sensationalizing isolated aspects of an environmental issue can allow attention to be diverted from fundamental environmental considerations. Fourth, issue entrepreneurs must remain cognizant of the ways in which ideology can defile science during an environmental controversy. Fifth, issue entrepreneurs must acknowledge that scientists are frequently ill prepared to portray their environmental findings against political ideology, and in the media where suspenseful stories routinely take precedence to nuanced and contextualized environmental portrayals. Sixth, it is important to depict environmental controversies in ways that cast science as only one part of a broader landscape of environmental decision-making that also acknowledges localized/first-hand experiences, and the precautionary principle. Lastly, official “truth-seeking” investigations by authoritative governmental agencies often subjugate other important avenues for understanding environmental realities. These key findings are placed in a constructivist framework entitled greener social constructions. The framework contributes to an evolving body of environmental social constructivist literature critical of ways in which journalists, policymakers, environmentalists, criminologists, and concerned publics include the environment and environmentalism in their communications. Ultimately, greener social constructions are synonymous with conceiving more compelling ways to remake the planet’s future.
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Scholarly level
Supervisor or Senior Supervisor
Thesis advisor: Burtch, Brian
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