Those that know me understand that I have an aversion to conflict. Nevertheless, I was thinking about conflict with respect to environmental decision-making in the context of world conflict. I was pondering whther there is good conflict that is distinct from bad conflict. Maybe one of the reasons that we seem to have such extreme governmental dysfunction is because we are treating chances for good conflicts and bad conflicts. OK, so let me define what I mean.
Bad conflict – conflicts where achieving victory means someone else suffers defeat, where principles and values are highly contrasting and highly divergent, where people’s lives are directly at stake. Think conflict over territory, resources, money and religion. Bad, bad, bad conflict.
In contrast, I define good conflict as those where we focus on shared values and people on both ends of a decision spectrum can recognize that a decision requires a compromise to find a balance between competing values that we all share.
Bad conflict is about conflicting values. People go to war over conflicting values; war crimes are committed; people act heinously, barbarically, savagely. The worst of these conflicting values are religion, morals, and possessions. Imagine a scenario. I own something, let’s say it is Norway. You happen to be a Norwegian and would rather have self-determination and want me to relinquish my claim, and the burdensome tax collection I have been imposing. War is the commonest route to see that end. Alternatively, you believe in one god, I think that you shouldn’t believe in that god. Let’s have a fight to the death. Human history is littered with these conflicts. They make for the colorful and awful details of history.
We often think of this just as conflict; as in all conflicts create winners and losers. We love sports, for example. Sports are like war, all the terminologies and pep talks are the same. Winners creates losers. Classic conflict, but also bad conflict.
Good conflict is about shared values. We all recognize that allowing people to drive around on a motorcycle without a helmet results in an elevated death rate. The consequence is a choice between public safety, which we all want, and personal freedom, which we also all want. What we may disagree upon is where to draw the line between acceptable constraint on personal freedom and the social cost that personal freedom may inflict on others. Laws related to helmets, traffic control, drinking, drugs, gambling all deal with these issues: a conflict between private freedom (a benefit) and social costs. As a cost – benefit equation we can get very heated in our conflicts over these issues, but rarely do we go to war, rarely do people die in settling these conflicts. We all share some identity with values on both ‘teams.’
A current problem with government, at least in the US, is that we have turned what should be good conflict (how do we provide all people with the best possible government that we can afford) into bad conflict (how can we score a touchdown against our opponents by making our version of government the one people like and their version unpopular?).
The global rise in populism might be seen as a rise in bad conflict: conflicting values, us versus them. Any good conflict can be turned into bad conflict by not recognizing the shared values that are in competition with one another. Think about the shared value of personal freedom but forget the shared value of creating a safe society and you can consider speed limits an affront to your adulthood, for example.
Politics is particularly good at morphing good conflict into bad conflict. This is a particularly painful irony because government seems to be all about setting rules of civilization around shared values: good conflict. Yet elections force those who want to govern into couching government as bad conflict.
Moving back towards functioning democracies requires recognizing and treating good conflicts as good conflicts. This, of course, is easier said than done. Just think of the number of ‘cooperative games’, where no one is a winner or a loser, are actually popular. Imagine the journalist breaking the headline: ‘compromise reached, everyone ok with it’. Somewhere deep in our brains we prefer the clarity of bad conflict. It is easier. Right versus wrong, good versus evil.
One telling pattern is that the tagline of leading Democrats in the 2016 US elections was “We’re in this together”. That resonates with good conflict: we have disagreements, we all see both sides of the argument. Together we can work this out. Apparently, US voters favored the problem expressed as bad conflict: “make America great again” with border walls, ditching trade agreements, getting tough with China. The Trump campaign language was replete with ‘us versus them’ thinking. Government needs to re-learn that it is to serve the people of this country and that, largely, we share core values. Winning and losing as a political party is not what government is about. If we want that, we should simply put jerseys and helmets on our legislators and send them out into the field of play. Governing is not a sport, not a war, it is about careful analysis to adopt policies that jointly maximize our varied interests.
Environmental issues, I claim, are an ideal outlet for our misguided legislators to take baby steps back toward learning what it means to responsibly govern a country. More on that next time.
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