Josie Osborne: Personal relationships in environmental decision making.

To cap off what already felt like a full day, we spent Monday afternoon in a second meeting with Josie Osborne at the Tofino Botanical Gardens. Now this is what I call a nice learning environment. Josie explained the importance of developing personal relationships as a way of establishing trust among opposing stakeholders. While this might be true, I see personal relationships as a double-edged sword in small communities like this one.

Josie spoke candidly about her time working as a liaison with between the provincial government, the fish farm industry and the Ahousat First Nation. During these discussions, she explained, scientific findings held  little sway. Even concerning questions about the ecological impacts of fish farms, some stakeholders rejected scientific findings as a legitimate form of evidence. My sense is that the disagreement occurred at a very fundamental level. In order to be considered an authority on environmental matters, some claim, an individual must be intimately familiar with an area. However, first hand familiarity is not a received scientific norm. If anything, it is considered a source of bias. Likewise, the scientific norms of  random sampling and statistical analysis were not recognized by all concerned parties. To some, scientific methods are no substitute for the opinion of respected community member. When two approaches disagree not only about what the experts say about some matter, but even about what counts as legitimate expertise,  it is difficult to move a discussion forward.

Josie explained how the opposition between stakeholders was eventually bridged through the formation of personal relationships.  For example, riding in a boat together and talking about one's kids. Getting to know each other on a human level, she argued, was far more important than any kind of scientific evidence when it came to questions about whether fish farms should be allowed in Ahousat territory.

The philosopher in me struggles with this observation. It is not simply the absence of reason in the decision making process that bothers me (though it does for sure). I also see personal relationships as a double edged sword. As much as these relationships can be a foundation for trust, I also see their potential to reinforce the status quo. Let me try to explain.

In coastal towns like Ucluelet and Tofino there remains an old guard who pines for the days of logging and fishing. These extraction industries were a source of pride, income and identity for many people. The rise of environmentalism and the disappearance of these jobs (which are not necessarily connected, I might add) are regarded as a direct threat to these honest and honourable ways of earning a living.

Now, one might understandably resist this whole world view. The loss of jobs is more a fault of corporate greed, some would argue, than of environmentalism. For many people these extraction industries were unregulated and highly destructive. They are like dinosaurs taking their last gasp, and good riddance to them.

Getting back to personal relationships. My suggestion is that as much as they act as a bridge for trust, they can also serve to reinforce ideologies like the one just described. In a small community one is forced to interact on a daily basis with people who might hold opposing world views. In Tofino, the environmentalist stands shoulder to shoulder with the fish farmer in line at the local co-op. If personal relationships require civility, as I take it they do, then one's opposition must be tempered. It might be necessary to comply with - rather than challenge- an ideology that seems utterly destructive and outdated, or else face a difficult social dynamic. This is symptomatic of a small town, where interactions with neighbours is frequent. In a big city like Toronto, people can express whatever views they want without the slightest fear of ostracism.

Ultimately I am not sure where I stand on the question of how personal relationships impact environmental decision making. But this strikes me as an interesting question for further thought.

Speaking with George Patterson outside Darwin's Cafe, Tofino Botanical Gardens. 

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