The country is currently fixated on ‘fixing’ healthcare. This has quite clearly been framed, and managed, as bad conflict. Eivdence is in the completely partisan voting, among other things. However, this actually could be a “We’re in this together” sort of problem. Everyone recognizes that health care is expensive; we all want everyone to have good health care; we know that using preventative care saves money in the long run; we all want to be able to afford health care; we all want people to behave responsibly with their health care; we all recognize that this is incredibly complex. However, we also should recognize that the government can’t afford to provide "A" level healthcare for everyone and do other things with tax revenue that we want (e.g., pay for the world’s most expensive military). What we disagree on is how much personal versus governmental responsibility there is in fixing the problem of health care, whether hospitals requiring to take on cases and help people effectively makes this a public and not a private problem, and where our federal budget priorities lie.
Never mind, health care is not my focus here. Just as bad conflict (e.g., ISIS and Syria) are displacing lack of progress on good conflict (health care) in the US, we can imagine this going the other direction, with good conflict displacing bad conflict. Imagine a policy process where a bipartisan panel of non-elected economists and health care professionals created a panel of 10 choices for health care that spanned a range from an open insurance market supported by individual payments to a government owned single payer system; did the economic analysis; balanced the cost against where it would come out of other government services (most likely other entitlements or military spending). Then, everyone was required to log in 10 hours of reading the analysis in order to vote. The final vote was then the option adopted. The panel was empowered to stay on and evaluate how the actual implementation varied from the model, and adjusted coverage and costs accordingly.
Wow. Everyone would come out ahead in that we would have better health care and a bipartisan political victory. Unfortunately, there are a whole lot of reasons this would never happen, including the fact that most people who run for political office have to lose, and therefore being a winner requires being able to paint a loser face on your opponent. Bummer.
Let’s try to get back to the environment. Should we strive to see more environmental conflict in the coming decade? Yes, with a big disclaimer: as long as we can both recognize and treat this conflict as good conflict.
I think that our democracy is in trouble. I think that we need to take on issues where we can re-learn what it is to cooperatively govern toward common interests. I think that a healthy environment is a shared value that, in certain times and places, can be de-politicized enough to treat as good conflict in order to find solutions. I think that we need to engage in these problems to re-learn that civilization is comprised of communities, and that a community is defined by working together, even on tough and divisive issues.
Environmental conflict is fundamentally a good conflict opportunity. Consider this simple example. Who wants caribou to go extinct? Come on, raise your hand if you think the world is better off without caribou? We can guess that the number of raised hands is not significantly different from zero. Now, who wants to see people having to choose whether to eat or heat their houses in winter? Yup, no hands up there either. We all share the common values of protection the environment and responsibly using energy resources for human benefit. The choice is where do we place the balance when these shared values conflict?
We can, of course, reframe the argument as bad conflict. Who wants to see fragile arctic ecosystems opened for profligate corporate greed? Who wants to see valuable energy resources locked away because of vague environmental fears about what might happen once there is a metal tube running through caribou habitat? I bet these concerns can be painted in sufficiently colored language so as to get majority negative opinions on both sides of the arguments. This is politics and is framed as winners and loser. Bad conflict.
Maybe, for the moment, we can agree that the majority of Americans would like both US energy independence and environmental protection. Further, that energy independence and healthy environments are both critical to our fundamental objectives to create a society where people are healthy, happy and prosperous. If these statements are true, then we could assert that the arctic conflict may hinge on two simple questions. What is the evidence that oil from the arctic will contribute significantly to energy independence? What is the evidence that caribou will go extinct if we open the arctic to oil drilling?
Then, the issue becomes, who gets to have what kind of say in assigning risk based on an objective assessment of costs and benefits? All US citizens, equally? US citizens, with heavier weight given to Alaskans? All that, but even heavier weight to local indigenous people? Well, one of those three, but I bet we would not think it a good idea to have the balance as: all people of the world, weighted by how much money that they bring to the table to make their outcome happen - a political solution, of sorts.
Bringing this to the current controversy over Bears Ears National Monument, we get three core values. Energy, environment and indigenous people’s rights. Native Americans fought hard to get Obama to designate that National Monument to protect their historic tribal lands. It is sadly ironic that many citizens of Utah are arguing federal over-reach and claim that the local people if Utah should get to decide whether or not to lock up the valued resources found within Bears Ears.
Of course there is much more to it than these simple questions of energy, extinction and land rights. There are correlated questions. How far could we get toward energy independence if we used resources that would be applied toward new energy extraction instead toward energy efficiency or renewable energy? Do we have realistic incentives in place that companies would invest in efficiency or renewables to make that happen? Who are the stakeholders in the decision and should local people have a disproportionately large say in the outcome? What defines local? There are jobs and greenhouse gases to consider. There are other species.
I am not saying the answers are simple. I am simply saying that the values are fundamental and we all share them. Therefore, is should be in nearly everyone’s interest to frame this as good conflict and resolve it like adults. That means first recognizing the fundamental objectives we are trying to acheive through management and the relative importance, or weight, different stakeholders should have in the outcome.
We can frame this environmental challenge as good conflict by explicitly recognizing our shared values, fundamental objectives and recognize that the conflict is about the means to achieving these fundamental objectives.
Forcing people to consider what we do and do not know about environmental responses to stressors, energy independence and local attitudes toward values creates an environment where we can jointly discuss what is best for society. It forces us to consider where we would like to place risk. It forces us to consider what costs for which benefits we would choose. That is, of course, if we engage enough to think about the problem. More on that later.
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