MES alumnus Aaron MacKinnon: “Environmental impact assessment is about people”
It’s not every day a master’s thesis turns into a book, but that’s exactly what just happened for Aaron MacKinnon, a recent graduate of the Master of Environmental Studies program. In fact, it’s so unusual that of the more than 420 theses generated by graduate students in the School for Resource and Environmental Studies (SRES), MacKinnon’s is the only one to be published as a book.
MacKinnon graduated in May 2017, and just a few short months later, in early 2018, he celebrated the official launch of The Application of Science in Environmental Impact Assessment. The book, co-authored with thesis supervisor Dr. Peter Duinker and committee member Dr. Tony Walker, maps the history of how science is used in the practice of environmental impact assessment (EIA) and provides a conceptual and technical overview of scientific developments in EIA since the early 1970s. It’s part of the Routledge Focus on Environment and Sustainability series.
EIA refers to the process of assessing the environmental impact of major infrastructure projects. New roads or highways, mines, hydroelectric facilities, transmission lines, quarries, airports, pipelines, rail lines, and offshore oil and gas projects—anything with a big footprint—requires an EIA.
“EIA has three essential domains,” explains Duinker, Professor and Acting Director of SRES. These include the scientific component; the administrative or legal side, meaning government; and the political side, meaning the stakeholders and public who influence how a development goes forward. “All three have to work together to make an EIA successful.”
MacKinnon was asked to follow up on An Ecological Framework for Environmental Impact Assessment in Canada, a report Duinker and Gordon Beanlands had worked on in the 1980s. The goal was to investigate how the environmental assessment community was thinking about and doing science, and see if it had improved or changed. “We wanted to compile and synthesize the broad range of information and knowledge about science and EIA, because it can be very fragmented and people may only see their own individual aspect of the process,” says MacKinnon. “It’s also a chronological and historical account of how those ideas, tools, techniques and protocols have changed over the last 40 years or so—or how they haven’t changed. We were hoping to help readers think about how science could be done better in EIA.”
And who exactly are these readers? An international audience of academics and students, as well as practitioners who carry out EIAs, is already downloading and ordering the book. “EIA process and theory are the same the world over,” explains Walker, Assistant Professor in the SRES. “Since EIA has been around for more than 40 years, the advancement of science has taken a very steep trajectory, so there are many more tools available, and it’s good for practitioners to use the best science available.”