Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer will not be in attendance

Something is happening in Minnesota that is worth noting if you’re interested in the public sphere. There is a mining project in the Iron Range that is awaiting state approval. It would be the first mining project in the Iron Range that would mine copper and precious metals instead of the usual iron that has been mined in the area for a long time. It would create a lot of jobs, which is obviously a priority to people right now. The non-ferrous mining that is planned is potentially highly polluting due to the sulfide makeup of the ore in which the metals are deposited. Now, PolyMet, the company that is ready to get going, claims that their particular mine setup will control the pollutants to acceptable levels. The state recently released its long-awaited Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), which was produced in cooperation with the company, and we are now in the “Public Comment Period.”

Minnesota’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has scheduled a number of public meetings to gather input regarding the EIS and the PolyMet project, and has recently announced some details about these meetings that are becoming a source of controversy. For the first time at such meetings in Minnesota, the public comments will not be taken in an open forum that would allow attendees of the meetings to hear one another. Instead, people wishing to comment will be taken into a private room with a stenographer, who will record their comments privately and deliver them to the DNR officials. The only talking in the auditorium will be an address by the DNR to the crowd.

Environmental groups have complained about this new process, pointing out correctly that it removes both the “public” and the “information” from “public information meeting.”

Now, I am someone who likes the way written communication facilitates rational thinking, so there’s something about transferring everybody’s comments into written form that appeals to me, as a buffer against chaos. However, there is something really wrong with what the DNR is doing here, and it is a problem that should be of concern to more than just environmental groups. Public meetings as a part of the process of setting public policy are an aspect of governance that shows that the public sphere still exists to some degree. By isolating individuals in such a way that they become media consumers who are allowed to give only private feedback, the public is disempowered and democracy is further hollowed out.

I’m all for public policy being dominated by technocrats and experts – I’m not a populist. But in public meetings such as the ones that this system may replace, the most significant comments are often from independent, critical experts. I am concerned that the process is being rigged.

…And it is a matter that I think falls into the category of information ethics…