Environmentalists on both sides: Enactments in the California rigs-to-reefs debate

In New Natures: Joining Environmental History with Science and Technology Studies, ed. Dolly Jørgensen, Finn Arne Jørgensen & Sara Pritchard (Pittsburgh: Univ of Pittsburgh Press, 2013), 51-68.

Classic environmental histories of the environmentalist movement tell stories of pro-environmentalists fighting against anti-environmentalist interests who typically opt for economic gain over environmental preservation. However, in the debate in California over whether or not former offshore oil installations should be converted into artificial reefs, both sides claimed to be doing what was best for nature. How can environmental history explain a case like this where both sides claim to be pro-environmental? This paper uses the STS concept of enactment to understand how both sides can be genuinely pro-environmental while advocating exactly the opposite approach. Enactment of nature per the work of John Law and Annemarie Mol, involves multiplicity, i.e. there are different practices that make manifest different versions of nature and propose courses of action for dealing with it. This is not to say that nature does not exist, but we only know it through the versions of nature we produce. In the case of rigs-to-reefs, two versions of nature are enacted by the actors: one which is returned to a pre-oil development condition and the other which includes the manmade structures. I argue that because the enactments in the California rigs-to-reefs issue called for opposite actions, a full-blown environmental controversy emerged. Alliances were built around these common enactments of nature and strong actor-networks coalesced. Yet neither group was able to destabilize the other’s enactment, and therefore the controversy lived on even after a legislative defeat of the pro-rigs-to-reefs group in 2001 and subsequent legislative success in 2010.

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