Teaching and learning about environmental justice: Hidden Valley and BP Horizon Oil Spill cases

October 9, 2018

In the first semester at CEU, Environmental Sciences and Policy students have the option to take a course called Environmental Justice, Politics and Humanities taught by Dr. Guntra Aistara and Dr. Tamara Steger. Students have the opportunity to assimilate their learning of course material through analyzing real-life examples of environmental issues. Various assignments are opportunities for creativity, simulation and integration of theoretical course material.

In the winter 2017 semester, the students were assigned to cases of a real and complex environmental problems. The students of the course were split into two groups and chose two case studies. The first a case was about the operations of a mining company in Papua New Guinea which brought on rapid economic development to the country, yet resulted in a tailings dam break causing destruction to the surrounding ecosystems and affecting indigenous people’s ways of life. The second case was the recent and well-known event of the BP Horizon Oil Spill in 2010 which occurred in the Gulf of Mexico. The assignment was to create games which would represent these real-life cases in order to teach others about the complexity of social and environmental issues they entailed.

Games which simulate community participation and decision-making are an opportunity for provoking thought about structure and organization, and examples can be found both online and offline. An example that was given to students was ERAMAT, which is a board game simulator which was developed by Maasai pastoralists and James Madison University (USA). The goal of ERAMAT is to “promote discussion and enable players to develop insights about the evolving challenges of pastoralism in East Africa” as a Culturally Anchored Eco-Game Project. The assignment came to fruition based on ideas that were generated in previous classes of Dr. Guntra Aistara. Dr. Aistara and her colleague Dr. Tamara Steger, both faculty of the Department of Environmental Sciences and Policy, who developed the game assignment idea as “a way for students to explore and learn about how assumptions, institutions, rules and regulations, and actors frame possibilities for thinking about, defining and addressing environmental issues.” In the game, challenging assumptions is the “goal of the game”, institutions are the “structure”, rules and regulations are the “policy or rules of the game”, and actors include nature and interactive power dynamics.

Students needed to identify significant actors, power dynamics, internal and external influencing factors, and important events (although not all needed to be used in the game). The students needed to conduct research through reading numerous articles in order to identify all of these aspects of the case. They also learned about different theoretical frameworks that would allow them to analyse the case itself. These frameworks included nature-culture, political ecology, power dynamics, environmental activism, environmental justice, and the science and politics of risk assessment). The students used a mind map approach to choose important aspects and identify the frameworks and relationships.

After researching the case and various frameworks, a group of students created a game and then later hosted a game-night for the rest of the students to experience playing it.

Game Description (as written by students):

“The end of the colonial era in Papua New Guinea brought the necessity of rapid economic development to the country. The easiest solution in the 80’s seemed to be the exploitation of natural resources of Papua New Guinea (Kirsch, 2007). This way, the Ok Tedi, which is a gold and copper mine in the remote highlands of Papua New Guinea was opened up. Although mining was a good economic investment, the consequences of unregulated exploitation brought unexpected side effects to the area of the mine.

Hidden Valley is a gate to a different reality. Players are taken on a journey where discussions are provoked and reflection on events is necessary to make collaborative decisions. Although players are given the chance to dominate, the goal of this game is to create cooperation between participants and help them understand the benefits of collaboration.”

Special thanks to current student Stanzi Litjens and faculty Dr. Steger and Dr. Aistara for their contribution to writing this story. An additional thank you to the students who allowed their work to be featured here.