Rebecca Livernois on how environmental conflicts arise out of competing worldviews

Conflict in environmental ideals as a manifestation of 
differences in fundamental economic worldviews: 
A case study in Tofino, BC    

 Rebecca Livernois

Environmentalists, industry, and First Nations in Tofino, British Columbia, debate often with little resolution. Conversations with representatives of these groups suggest that their disagreements are symptomatic of different and conflicting worldviews. However, it is not obvious whether these worldviews can be reconciled, or, whether they are opposed at some fundamental level.  The aim of this paper is to identify the fundamental disagreements between industry and environmentalists, and industry and First Nations, with the purpose of providing the opportunity for groups to better understand their respective positions.

A strategy is needed to access fundamental values because they often get entangled with, what I call, surface values.  A surface value is one that a person appeals to in defending some position, but which they are willing to retract if that value is shown to conflict with some other value.  A fundamental value is one that a personal appeals to in defending some position, and which they will retain if it is shown to conflict with some other value. Simply put, fundamental values are not up for revision, at least without serious deliberation, while surface values are. It is likely that many people are unaware of their fundamental values, because the relative strengths of values may not be delineated until they are challenged.
The strategy used in this paper is to distinguish ‘fundamental values’ from ‘surface values’ through Socratic style conversation.  Representatives of different interests groups were presented with a challenging question designed to reveal their fundamental values. The question asked how each representative would defend a particular position of their group or organization, given that this position sometimes causes harm to other people. The specific question often took on slightly different form, depending on the context. For example, the groups and the nature of the harm caused by each organization was sometimes described, to help make the question clear.  Through this process it was possible to identify, for each group, which values are more fundamental than causing harm.
 A representative of the salmon farming industry, a representative of Friends of Clayoquot Sound (a local environmentalist organization that opposes salmon farming), and a representative of the Nuu-Chah-Nulth First Nations were presented with the harm question. Their responses are discussed in what follows.
The environmentalist representative was asked how he would defend the organization’s opposition to a proposed mine in Tofino to a local, poor, and unemployed person who’s life would greatly improve from a job at the mine. He responded that the environment is intrinsically valuable, in a comparable way that a person is intrinsically valuable. Hence, certain actions, such as the destruction of old-growth forests, are unacceptable in a similar way that murder is unacceptable.
The salmon farm representative was asked how he would defend his organization’s possible pollution of the aquatic ecosystem through the farm’s regular operations when this actively harms the interests of environmentally concerned individuals and possibly the ecosystem as well. This representative took the stance of a realist: he is operating within the rules of the current economic system while adhering to government regulations. Furthermore, he believes that scientific research proves that salmon farms are not seriously harming the environment.
The Nuu-Chah-Nulth representative was asked how he defended his aim to protect his land from logging and regain his traditional territory when the logging industry provides a primary employment source in the area, and as such, the fulfillment of his aim would lead to high unemployment. He justified his interests by arguing that his ancestors have been on that same land for thousands of years, and as such they ought to be the ones to determine what happens to it. This implies that the harm that is done is only a result of interfering in their territory in the first place, and as such logging companies’ claim to log the land to avoid job and profit losses is feeble.
The conflict between the environmentalist and the industry perspectives is in part based on conceptions of how natural items ought to be commodified. Industry is operating under a market-economy paradigm where something with no economic value can have its existence changed, and ought to have its existence changed, to become a resource (that is, to become economically valuable) the moment it is demanded by someone with sufficient money to pay for it. This is in direct conflict with the environmentalist perspective, which values the environment intrinsically, not merely instrumentally, as is the case with industry. It is likely that environmentalists believe that there should be some additional, morally based step, such as a powerful steward of the environment or an alternative economic system, between a natural thing existing in-itself apart from economic value and existing as a resource. Some things could become resources, while other things could never be considered as a resource. Hence the conflict in values stems from differing beliefs in the way nature ought to be commodified, if at all; this is a disagreement on the mechanisms of the economy.
Contrasting the Nuu-Chah-Nulth to the industry perspective, it becomes apparent that the direction of focus is starkly different. That is, industry operates within a typical Western progress narrative where growth is that which is good. Hence the future is that which is aimed towards; technology and innovations will improve life. In contrast, the highest good exists in the past from a Nuu-Chah-Nulth perspective. A traditional First Nations person is, in a way, aiming toward the ideal past to ensure a good future, a concept which is foreign to people who hold strongly the dominant Western paradigm. For the two groups, that which is good exists in different time (past and future) and space (the land supporting local First Nations communities versus supplying a global economy). Hence perspectives are focused in opposite directions, which could make mutual understanding difficult.
Resolutions in these conflicts seem unlikely. In particular, given the definition of fundamental values as inflexible, there is little possibility that any of these values will alter enough for an alignment of interests to occur. However it is possible that environmentalists and industry values could align, insofar as the industry representative is a realist. If the reality of the economic system was changed in favour of environmentalists’ interest, and industry maintains its realist stance, then the two interests would become aligned. However, structural change is “likely to occur only when the old paradigm is clearly shown to no longer be serviceable.”[1] A shift in paradigm to one that is more in line with the environmentalist perspective could only take place when industry can no longer make sufficient profits without adjusting to better environmental practices. This could be interpreted as the classic dilemma of having to wait for appropriate change until something devastating occurs, and at which time change must take place. However, there are alternative, less dramatic possible situations that could bring on a gradual alignment of interests: the demands of consumers could alter to a point where only environmentally responsible industries make large profits.
From speaking with the Nuu-Chah-Nulth representative, it was clear that he was fully aware of the different perspectives of First Nations and the ‘Western’ world. Therefore, in the conflict between worldviews of First Nations and the West, this distinction is primarily useful for Western people in acknowledging that progress, science and growth are only assumed to be good; they are not the only, or necessarily right, way of seeing the world. If the First Nation perspective was better understood by industry and the government, then perhaps a more constructive debate could take place.
I suggest that the conflicts over the treatment of the environment are based on fundamental differences in worldviews. It is possible that more constructive debate could lead to shifting environmental regulations that the realist industries would have to accept and which would better suit both environmentalists and First Nations.

[1] William E. Shafer, “Social Paradigms and Attitudes Toward Environmental Accountability,” Journal of Business Ethics (2006) 65:125

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