Friday, January 21, 2011

Where to draw the line?

A few months ago, I heard from my bosses in the PSU University Studies Dept. that the Capstone course I have taught now for nine consecutive quarters would come to an end after the Spring 2011 quarter. I was told that the School of Business Administration, under which my Capstone was administered, was reacting to budget reductions by cutting or incorporating within the department 20% of their Capstones, and that my course would likely be on the chopping block.

C'est la vie. Time to make lemonade. Etc.

So, since I heard this news I've been looking for work. I've been looking at a variety of positions that will enable me to apply my expertise in urban environmental history outside of academia. I've applied to a few positions where I would be working with teams engaged in one aspect or another of the Portland Harbor Superfund Cleanup process.

I recently came across a Portland Business Journal article "Attorneys vie for Superfund work," where I read that "Attorneys are lining up to snag their share of Superfund work along the Portland Harbor."

"A-ha!" I thought, "Perhaps I'll see if I can get on with one of these firms, since the Superfund cleanup process is sure to be complex and long-term, and, of course, whomever is working on it will benefit from insights of an historian."

Slam-dunk for me, eh?

There were a number of specific legal firms identified in the Portland Business Journal article, so I navigated to their websites and started to poke around. Then I saw lists of some of their current and past clients. I read on one website that the firm had "Defended salmon aquaculture industry in appeals of waste discharge permits by environmental groups." Another firm expressed a feeling of privilege "to serve market leaders that have been driving forces in their industries."


I suddenly thought to myself, "what if I do get work with one of these firms and I'm asked to provide evidence to support a polluter's case against local environmental groups, the EPA, the City of Portland, etc." -- basically, what if I end up working for the Dark Side?

Check this out -- one company seems to take cases in which they help both polluters and the communities being polluted:
    We help our oil industry clients proactively comply with federal, state and local regulatory requirements and properly permit facilities. Our technical, industry, litigation and administrative experience helps these clients stay in compliance as operations and requirements change.
Ok, this sounds like something I could get behind.
    We have the expertise to defend both civil and white collar criminal investigations with special expertise in defending criminal environmental matters.
This sounds like the Dark Side to me.

Jacob Weiner writes describes the situation that historian Robert Proctor has experienced as an expert witness in cases against the tobacco industry. As Weiner writes, the tobacco industry has consistently & nefariously tried to undermine Proctor's credentials, because Proctor is one of less than a handful of historians who continue to serve as expert witnesses against the industry. The industry, on the other hand, pays tens of historians quite handsomely (and pays their graduate students as well) to produce evidence to undermine prosecution cases seeking to find the industry criminally negligent.

Even though I consider myself an historian who strives for objectivity, I still find myself with a gut-level support for the communities being polluted, and a gut-level distaste for the corporations responsible for the pollution. What if I do find myself working for a legal firm to undermine a community's case against a corporate polluter? What if I'm working for the legal firm and the work I'm personally doing is in support of a community's case, but other teams in the firm are engaged in other projects where they're defending corporate malfeasance? What am I to think of my gut-level feelings in support or in opposition to one party or another? Does this make me less of an historian?

What would you do?

[1] Jacob Wiener, "Big Tobacco and the Historians," The Nation Feb. 25, 2010.



  1. One friend commented on FB: "Having to make these sort of decisions ALL the time i usually listen to my gut. But in general I would rather be in the game than in the stands yelling. If I feel that a team will truly consider my ideas and that I am not part of some green washing scheme then I usually do it. I speak my mind and usually that's appreciated on some teams rarely it has led me to be quietly shown the door and that's fine too."

  2. Difficult indeed...perhaps proceed with caution, and in any interviews/discussions you may secure, you could feel out the firm for their intentions/hearts.