I'm interested in how, when and why people engage politically about the environment, and I look at how political contexts influence environmental collective action.

Amanda Wooden

The Ak-Buura River that ran by Amanda Wooden's house in Osh, Kyrgyzstan, was polluted with household trash -- plastic bags, discarded food, diapers and appliances. Even though there were trash bins just down the street, Wooden's neighbors were among the culprits tossing waste into the waterway.

Wooden, then a field officer for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), was working to solve environmental problems just like the one in her neighborhood. So she asked her neighbors if they were concerned about water pollution, if they cared about the river. Their unexpected answer: "Yes."

"They told me they threw their waste in the river because the city didn't pick it up, and they didn't take the garbage to the dump located next to the play yard because they didn't want their kids playing in trash," she says. There was a complete disconnect, she says, between how people were thinking and how they behaved, and between how they, local officials and international development officials understood the problem. At the same time, environmental protests about issues such as urban sanitation became a regular occurrence in this poor, post-Soviet nation. "The local officials had assumed that the river didn't matter to the community," says Wooden. "But the people felt they didn't have a choice."

That realization, combined with previous cross-national empirical work on collective action and water resource governance, led Wooden, once she became a faculty member of Bucknell's environmental studies program, to pursue her current scholarly project focusing on environmental behavior. "I'm interested in how, when and why people engage politically about the environment, and I look at how political contexts influence environmental collective action," she says.

Wooden, a political scientist, is concluding a three-year study culminating in a book about environmental protests and conflict in Kyrgyzstan. In 2009, she conducted a nationwide public opinion poll there and completed more than 100 interviews across multiple sectors of the nation's society.

"Since I collected the data in 2009, there has been a revolution and a violent ethnic conflict," says Wooden. "The political unrest was in part due to frustration about water and electricity prices and the misuse of natural resources. It turns out that in my survey and interviews, I had actually captured why people were upset and ready to take political action. There's an interesting way in which the people of Kyrgyzstan have come to form their identity as citizens that's been shaped around nature. That narrative of nationalism and nature is where my project is heading."

Wooden sees in her work the potential to illuminate broader theoretical questions about environmental behavior. "I'm really interested in comparing the levels and types of environmental activism across Central Asian countries and across states in the Marcellus Shale region," she says. She wants to look at the idea of patriotic anti-environmentalism in the U.S. and has also spent time over the last year observing gas-drilling activism in New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Posted October 2012