International Association for Impact Assessment

In Memorium: Rabel Burdge

  • Tribute by Roy Rickson and Nick Taylor

    In Memorium:  Rabel Burdge

    We are writing to commemorate the passing of Rabel J. Burdge, July 3rd 2022, acknowledging his continuing contribution to the International Association of Impact Assessment. Our profound sympathies go out to his family and many friends, especially to Joyce, Rabel’s wife and partner. As we write about Rabel’s distinguished career, we know from first-hand knowledge of Joyce’s tireless involvement with IAIA from its inception and early days, her helping to organize and manage international meetings, her role as a professional educator and teacher, and her support of Rabel and his colleagues. His achievements as a scholar and researcher, as a senior educator and leader, as an environmental and rural sociologist are of course substantial and enduring far beyond IAIA, but critical to its development and maturity and the international respect it now enjoys. He was effective and influential in turbulent times as the international environmental movement, with its political and social implications, was intense and powerful in the late 1960s, 70s and 80s, continuing to the present, and providing a context and focus for his professional commitments, affiliations and personal values. These led him to strategic disciplinary, interdisciplinary and international collaborations furthering not only IAIA’s goals, but his professional aspirations and those of his many colleagues. 

    Rabel was influential in the movement of social and environmental assessment out of professional discussions and into 'mainstream' research and policy analysis. Canadian and European scholars, researchers and policy makers were rapidly developing social and environmental assessment, responsive to the general environmental movement and political support for environmental policy and management. Through IAIA, the Rural Sociological Association and the International Association for Society and Natural Resources (IANSR), which he and his close friend and colleague, Don Field, organized and co-founded, Rabel played significant roles in internationalizing and integrating social and environmental analyses, which we will elaborate below. Many others were involved and only a few can be named here. Rabel's efforts were a primary factor in bringing disparate professional and international groups together in a common perspective and interest in impact assessment and professional collaboration. 

    Rabel and Don’s vision, with supportive and mobilized colleagues, led to the founding of the international journal, Society and Natural Resources, and they were  ‘Co-Editor(s) in Chief’ of its 1988 inaugural volume. Rabel published widely, with 300 or so refereed papers, research reports, training manuals and books, in environmental, natural resource and rural sociology, usually with colleagues, collaboration being a special skill of his. His impact assessment books and journals included co-editing special editions of the 1990 Environmental Assessment Review and the Impact Assessment Bulletin, now Impact Assessment and Project Appraisal. These editions published refereed papers from the 1988 IAIA meetings held at Griffith University that he promoted and helped organize. 

    Joyce and Rabel’s travels to rural or ‘outback’ Australia, the  deep-soil farmlands of the Darling Downs, the sheep and cattle properties of Queensland and New South Wales, as well as the farms and Alpine vistas of Aotearoa New Zealand, were backdrops for co-authoring revised versions of Everett Roger’s Social Change in Rural Societies: An Introduction to Rural Sociology, giving it more of an international and cross-cultural perspective. He was a frequent contributor to Impact Assessment (Impact Assessment and Project Appraisal). He edited the Journal of Leisure Research and was a founder and co-editor of Leisure Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal.  

    He held executive positions in the Rural Sociological Society, serving as Vice President and was IAIA President from 1990 to 1991. His strong professional ties and social connections led Rabel to join others in formation of the IAIA and in the early organisational development of this Association. He served as a Board member, Treasurer and President and as an active member of committees and the SIA Section, understanding early on that the association needed a structure that would bring its wide and rapidly growing membership together into practical activities and leadership roles. Organizers of the 1988 IAIA meetings at Griffith University, Brisbane, Queensland Australia and the 1998 meetings at Christchurch, Aotearoa New Zealand, recognized Rabel’s managerial abilities, but even more his friendship, encouragement and personal support, that characterize his enduring legacy. 

    Rabel was one of the early promoters of IAIA in North America in a changing and complex political milieu. After the United States Congress passed the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), 1970, and in 1972 Section 208 amended the Act, social impact assessments were required to play a key role in the environmental audits of federal programs. Environmental and social impact assessment of development came of age, eventually spanning decades of research and policy debates. Political challenges and roadblocks were to blunt initial hopes, but over the course of a long career Rabel was personally and professionally committed to overcoming these through teaching, research, executive leadership and community involvement. One way was to promote the critical role of society and nature relationships in understanding social development and social impact assessment within environmental policy and applied environmental research. Seen in context, rural sociologists doing applied research from university departments of rural sociology were among the first to take up SIA. They joined university schools of forestry and fisheries, and leisure studies on park visitation, and many were employed by state and federal planning, regulatory and resource management agencies.  In the early 70s, sessions on SIA were routinely in the annual meetings of the Rural Sociological Society (RSS). Social impact assessment was here defined as integral to any environmental or biophysical assessment of development projects and plans. In 1976, the American Sociological Association (ASA) formally adopted this perspective, having a section on Environmental Sociology. 

    Prominent and emerging scholars at this time focusing on SIA were Rabel Burdge (University of Illinois), Fred Buttel and Charles Geisler (Cornell University), Bill Freudenburg, Don Field (University of Wisconsin), Riley Dunlap (Washington State University), William R. Catton, Jr (Washington State and  Canterbury Universities), among many others… We have lost Rabel, Don, Fred, Bill Freudenburg and Bill Catton, but their scholarship and commitments endure. Roy recalls Rabel firmly expressing the view that we cannot just talk among ourselves about the importance of systematic social and environmental assessment. We had to move beyond ‘specialization silos’ and learn how to work with anthropologists, policy and political scientists, engineers, planners, foresters, miners, soil scientists and ecologists—a project that is still in progress. Such concerns made Rabel step outside of his discipline, engaging others representing a range of backgrounds and experience from engineering to planning and policy analysis to resource economics.

    His good-natured optimism, expertise, social intelligence and hard work often broke down interdisciplinary barriers and rigid sectorial and organisational differences. Roy and Nick remember Rabel’s talent for ‘smoothing over differences’, seeing both sides in theoretical, methodological and policy debates, legitimizing and respecting intellectual, private and public sectorial differences while reinforcing common interests and goals. Few things annoyed him, but he sometimes struggled to put up with pomposity or disciplinary and sectorial chauvinism.

    After the First International Symposium on Social Impact Assessment held in Vancouver in 1982, Rabel visited Aotearoa New Zealand and Australia, and brought his enthusiasm and passion for SIA to our countries. Talking to Nick and Colin Goodrich, he encouraged us to start a postgraduate course on SIA that from 1983 ran for many years at the University of Canterbury, leading us also to run in-service training courses and to write about SIA. The connections forged between private sector, government and academic practitioners of SIA were strong foundations for what became the NZAIA after the IAIA conference in Christchurch in 1998. 

    From 1982 on, Rabel was a frequent visitor to the School of Australian Environmental Studies (AES) (now School of Environment and Science). As in Aotearoa New Zealand and the University of Canterbury, Rabel contributed strongly to our emerging teaching, training and research interests in social and environmental assessment. Roy had known and worked with Rabel from the early 70s while he was at the University of Minnesota (Twin Cities) and Rabel at the University of Kentucky. Rabel and Joyce enjoyed Australia, especially the Queensland sub-tropics, easily establishing lasting academic and personal relationships while encouraging Roy Rickson, Geoff McDonald, Tor Hundloe and Lex Brown to consider hosting the 1988 meetings. He convinced key School, Faculty and University administrators that such an endeavor would serve university and school goals. 

    As was the case later for Aotearoa New Zealand in 1998, the 1988 IAIA meetings at Griffith University were a ‘watershed’ event for the university and AES. We had a large group of United Nations sponsored registrants, and significant representation from Aotearoa New Zealand, Europe, North America, China (mostly Taiwan), Africa, and the South Pacific, South East and South Asia nations. Professor Dr. Nay Htun, Director, Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific, United Nations Environment Programme, Bangkok, Thailand, and UN Assistant-Secretary-General (UNEP, UNDP), was an honored guest and friend. AES had significant sponsorship from Griffith University and both the Australian and Queensland State Government, but government support was subject to continuing negotiation and crisis management. Hosting and managing an international meeting is never without drama.

    A five day and night intense winter rainstorm, atypical for the sub-tropics, stopped two hours before our outdoor opening ceremonies. Flood waters were retreating. Rain, along with complex and conflicting political currents at state, national and international scales, brought uncertainty, risk and concern into our planning and management. Audrey Armour, York University, Toronto, was IAIA President. She and Rabel helped to meet and manage emerging contingencies. Rabel, as a stickler for detail and planning, was at the centre of strategic conversations and negotiations. Aside from the publications and professional networks coming out of the meetings, they were an event marking development for our school and the association. They were a catalyst for international collaboration. Research consultations and professional exchanges were initiated and expanded, for example with Taiwan’s Academia Sinica, the Republic of China’s national academy, the National Tsing Hua University and the National Chengchi University. 

    Prior to the meetings, hours had been spent on the telephone, email and fax machines, facilitating the Australian visa applications of Taiwanese delegates having to travel through Hong Kong for their overseas destinations. The meetings and the government attention they brought enabled Lex Brown and Geoff McDonald to receive federal funding for a training course on impact assessment, allowing them to invite and fund the involvement of senior policy makers from many different developing countries. Following on from this course, a 1995 training program organized by Lex Brown (Griffith University) also involved Geoff McDonald (Griffith University, later University of Queensland), Richard Fuggle (University of Cape Town) and Rabel (University of Illinois). They presented a United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) training course on ‘Integrating Development and Environment: Broadening the Tools of Environmental Assessment’. Senior government officials from nine African countries attended and it was held in Cape Town and then Durban, South Africa. As a result of the training courses and the international audience that IAIA enjoyed, our undergraduate and postgraduate students were able to meet and interact with an assemblage of international scholars, policy-makers and practitioners, which many had neither before encountered nor experienced.

    The timing of the Australian and Aotearoa New Zealand meetings was fortunate since national and international funding agencies such as the World Bank and Asian Development Bank were increasingly supportive of research on society and nature relations in development. Recognizing the importance of fundamental research, their interests were on bridging theory and practice with a focus on professional training, applied knowledge, and regional and local community application. Recognizing the significance of practical instruction, Rabel and others argued that training courses and applied research needed theoretical and methodological grounding. And they needed to communicate to a wide professional and lay audience. To this end, Rabel J. Burdge and Colleagues published and continually revised The Concepts, Process and Methods of Social Impact Assessment. The book, in its editions, continues to serve as an essential text for lecturers and students of impact assessment.  His complementary publication was the Community Guide to Social Impact Assessment: 3rd Edition, which provided the practical basis for the many training courses that Rabel ran around the world. A reviewer writing from Cameroon in 2005 found it to be a ‘useful guide’ for researchers, seasoned development professionals and the ‘novice community member’; ‘it is the sort of thing one wishes they had known existed when they first started doing Social Impact Assessments (SIAs)’. 

    Rabel was always recruiting for IAIA. In his and Joyce’s travels, he never missed an opportunity to speak with potential recruits citing IAIA’s merits and persuading them of their need to join. He had membership applications in his suitcase and accepted cheques. Roy recalls none of those cheques ‘bouncing’! His good-natured, easy—but influential—manner brought many into IAIA. His advice and support, including co-authorship, facilitated and furthered many careers. He was, in a long and distinguished career, the recipient of many professional awards and honors across different universities. Examples include the 1994 Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology award from IAIA for outstanding contributions to impact assessment. The Lifetime Achievement Award was given to Rabel in 2011 by the International Association for Society and Natural Resources. The Rural Sociological Society recognized him with the Natural Resources Research Group’s Award of Merit for ‘outstanding research’ and then, in 1996, as Distinguished Rural Sociologist, the Society’s most prestigious honor. Earlier in his career he was awarded the Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt Award for Excellence in Recreation, Park and Conservation Research given by the National Recreation and Park Association. He was elected as a Fellow of the Academy of Leisure Sciences.

    Rabel was awarded a PhD by Pennsylvania State University (1965) after completing a BS (1959) and MS (1961) at the Ohio State University. His career bridged many different universities. He was Emeritus Professor, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, having had joint appointments in, respectively, the Institute for Environmental Studies, the Department of Agricultural Economics and Rural Sociology, the Department of Leisure Studies, Parks and Recreation and the Department of Urban and Regional Planning (1976 to 1996). Earlier appointments included the US Air Force Academy (1965 to 1967) and the University of Kentucky (1968-76). He held Fellowship and Visiting Professor appointments in the School of Australian Environmental Studies at Griffith University, Nathan, Queensland. He was visiting Resident Professor in the Department of Western Sociology at Wageningen University, the Netherlands, and Visiting Professor at the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom. After formal retirement from the University of Illinois he served from 1996 to 2012 as Adjunct Professor in the Department of Sociology and Huxley College of the Environment at Western Washington University, Bellingham, Washington. Rabel and Joyce left Bellingham, returning to Urbana-Champaign in 2012. His scholarship and research continued involving book revisions, journal articles and training courses. 

    We knew Rabel as a well-planned, knowledgeable and exuberant traveller, making the most of opportunities to visit different countries where the IAIA conference was located. He has left us with strong memories of the times our respective families spent in different locations with him and Joyce, learning about different cultures and places. On a personal note, Roy and Sally and Nick and Cilla remember the Bellingham home, the view from their back deck, the ferry leaving for Alaska, and Bellingham’s ‘deep-green’ ambience. Even more, we remember the hospitality, the easy friendship and conversations into the evening while deer were eating the garden. We remember snowball fights at the base of Mt. Baker, in the North Cascades, during summer hikes and the occasional bear in the blackberry bush at the end of their street. They hosted many fellow IAIA travellers many times in their homes, proving values of hospitality and kindness that will live on for many friends and colleagues. 

    Roy E. Rickson, School of Environment and Science, Griffith University, Nathan and Gold Coast, Queensland Australia.
    C. Nick Taylor, Nick Taylor and Associates, Rangiora, Aotearoa New Zealand

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