Events, dear boy, events – of oil slicks, rich people and creeping

Musing #1 on Molotch, H. 1970. Oil in Santa Barbara and Power in America. Sociological Inquiry, 40, 131-144.

In January 1969 the first big Oil Slick That Mattered washed up on the beaches of rich people in California. Sure, there had been the Torrey Canyon in 1967, where someone took an ill-advised shortcut and hit a reef. Cornwall copped it, and hands were wrung. (1)

sb-oil-spill
Photo from here.  Turns out, still having health impacts…whodathunkit

But Santa Barbara was different – bigger, more ‘photogenic’ and happening in a place where there were lots of powerful, plugged-in folks who (thought that they) had hands that could pull on the levers of power. They got an education, and this magnificent article, explains how.

 

Being powerful locally, it turns out, doesn’t give you ‘juice’ nationally. The local yokels should have suspected this when, the year before, they were unable to stop the federal government granting oil leases on seabed that was patently unsuitable (no bedrock, porous as heck). Once the worst happened , sure, there were rallies, marches, lobbying, court cases, and so forth, but over the following months, the good burghers came to realise that access to power-makers doesn’t equal influence (a lesson environmental campaigners should note, but don’t).

There are several points at which Molotch (who is still around and has had a stellar career with a whole bunch of contributions) seems to quite enjoy watching and recounting this dawning realisation. The clearest is near the end of the article (which you should defo read)

Similarly a well-to-dow widow, during a legal proceeding in Federal District Court, in which Santa Barbara was once again “losing,” whispered in the author’s ear:

“Now I understand why those young people at the University go around throwing things… The individual has no rights at all.” (2)

(Molotch, 1970:141)

Molotch was writing before Downs’ seminal ‘Up and Down with Ecology- the ‘issue-attention cycle‘, and doesn’t address the inevitable decline in attention/agitation (though Molotch clearly knew that was coming

It’s a great essay, that stands up as fresh and important today, half a century and so many Big Spills later…

I’ll write at least once more on it, and there is a 1975 piece Molotch co-authored on the national (press) coverage the spill that is also going to get read, but probably not until #afterSubmission.

Meanwhile, those events

Pseudo-events

Molotch uses Daniel Boorstin‘s then-relatively-recent concept of the Pseudo Event to great effect, (“A pseudo-event occurs when men arrange conditions to simulate a certain kind of event, such that certain prearranged consequences follow as though the actual event had taken place” (p.139)) describing local participation in decision making especially, but also President Nixon’s carefully stage-managed ‘inspection’ flight.

Creeping Events

Molotch then introduces what he calls ‘creeping events’.
“A creeping event is, in a sense, the opposite of a pseudo-event. It occurs when something is actually taking place, but when the manifest signs of the event are arranged to occur at an inconspicuously gradual and piece-meal pace, thus eliminating some of the consequences which would otherwise follow from the event if it were to be perceived all-at-once to be occurring.” (p.139)

This is analogous to the fable of the boiling frog – you get used to anything. Right now we are seeing it with the slow normalisation of pervasive scanning of the population (jay walkers?!).

An historical aside- shortly after  Molotch was writing this there was another famous CREEP going on – the Committee for the  Re-Election the President. But that’s all watergate under the bridge now…

Focussing Events

Later on, in 1984, when John Kingdon was first launching what has come to be called the Multiple Streams Approach, he said that for a policy window (within which major change might be possible) to open, one of the necessary-but-not-sufficient conditions was a ‘focussing event’ – something loud, unexpected/influential.

So, really, creeping events are efforts to avoid the coming of focussing events (Molotch quotes an internal Interior Department memo about the policy of refusing public hearings before oil drilling – “We preferred not to stir up the natives any more than possible.” ((p. 139)

I’ll write something else about this great paper – there is a Monty Python connection worth flagging. In the meantime, around the park and in front of the thesis….

 

Footnote
(1) Two ironies. One, the Torrey Canyon was named for a geographical feature in … California and Two, the same company that owned it, Union Oil, was also responsible for the oil well that went splat in SB. Oh, those scamps.

(2) I wonder if she sustained view that after the Bank of America went up

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