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Explaining political polarization in environmental governance using narrative analysis

Benjamin P. Warner, University of New Mexico, Department of Geography and Environmental Studies


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Research into formation of environmental narratives can explain the process of political polarization in environmental governance, or perhaps more constructively, how to avoid it. To do so, we must broaden narrative analysis to include the evolution of relationships between environmental norms in a community and the changing positionality of the researcher. I show how this may be done, by focusing on river governance in post-Tropical Storm Irene New England, USA. The storm left residents in the region bitterly divided over how a river should be governed. Relying on interviews, newspaper articles, and judiciary and town hall proceedings, I show that two narratives coevolved from norms of vulnerability and stewardship as different groups vied for power in river governance. As they did so, the community became polarized as the newer, stewardship-based narrative gained legitimacy by problematizing traditional environmental norms. In response, community members who saw the river as dangerous and the town as vulnerable defended these norms by problematizing the new narrative. Through an iterative process, the different environmental narratives became increasingly relative as each attempted to dictate governance. Ultimately, the narratives became problematized reflections of one another. This process undermined the possibility of compromise or novel governance schemes that may have incorporated different environmental norms. To avoid polarization, researchers must at one time position themselves within the political process but take care to study how this position changes governance.

Key words

governance; narratives; New England, USA; politics; rivers

Copyright © 2019 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. This article is under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. You may share and adapt the work provided the original author and source are credited, you indicate whether any changes were made, and you include a link to the license.

Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087