I heard somewhere that conflict occurs because we tend to focus on the minority of areas in which we disagree, ignoring the vast majority of the areas where we are in agreement. This idea strongly resonates with me, since it seems that if we put more effort into appreciating our commonalities and celebrating our differences, we could live more harmoniously and use our differences to our strategic advantage.
Perpetuating habits that cause or reinforce conflict seems to be in abundance, especially now. Perhaps I am naïve and idealistic, but I truly believe the vast majority of people in the world have positive intentions, and they want to be good citizens, have happy and productive lives, and wish to make a meaningful impact on the world. But we act as if the opposite were true, and civil and meaningful discourse seems as rare today as the cheetah.
I also tend not the believe the narratives at either extreme of the arguments. Life is not so black and white. A million perspectives exist between each extreme, and the likelihood there is a single truth on any given subject feels overly simplistic and counterproductive to me. Insisting that there is only one truth means that anyone who doesn’t embrace your truth is misinformed, ignorant, or worse.
I love the ancient Indian parable of several blind men touching different parts of an elephant. Each describes what they’re touching, and of course the descriptions are all completely different. An argument ensues, though each person is right from their perspective. Ironically, if they were to collaborate in an open-minded way, they’d have a much improved chance at accurately identifying the beast they’re dealing with.
Our arguments, whether interpersonal or public, seem as pointless and harmful as the discourse about the different parts of the elephant. So maybe we should step back and re-evaluate where we agree with regard to how we treat Earth (and every other issue where there is polarization) and see how our different perspectives could be used synergistically.
Here’s where I think the majority of us agree with regard to Earth:
- We depend on Earth for our air, water, food, and shelter, and everything else we need or think we need. After all, we’re not getting too much raw material from outer space.
- There is some part of the natural world, whether land, water, plant, or animal, that we love and feel inspired or comforted by. For many of us, our livelihoods are directly tied to a natural resource.
- We hope Earth will to continue to provide for us and future generations.
Another shared perspective that informs this discussion is around the use of assets and resources:
Probably most of us would agree that, if we have a resource or asset that we want to last as long as possible, that we should take care of it, fix it when it’s broken, and pay attention to what kinds of care and repair might be needed before it’s broken beyond repair. This is true whether we’re caring for our teeth, our physical health, our relationships, our financial health, or the integrity of our homes, cars, and appliances. Even though our things, and even our bodies, have a natural lifespan, it’s worth caring for those things because we want them to last and function well as long as possible.
This is also true for our workplaces. We have to take care of our employees, company finances, reputation, brand, and infrastructure. We rely on management and leadership to oversee the maintenance and growth of the organizations to ensure its viability and future.
Though we see signs of Earth health failing, including the loss of species, coral reefs, forests, devastating storms and weather conditions, there doesn’t seem to be consensus that environmental care should be a priority.
Why? There must be other valuable perspectives that is preventing us from having sufficient consensus to make meaningful progress. Here are my thoughts on some of these perspectives.
True or false?
Earth’s resources are unlimited – Maybe everyone agrees there are limits even to Earth’s resources but perhaps we disagree on where we are in terms of consumption or pollution limits. It’s probably true that some areas of Earth are quite healthy and other areas are not, and painting the situation as either uniformly dire or uniformly OK are over-simplifications. What areas are in the greatest need and/or have the greatest impacts on the health of the people and our environment?
Earth is fragile – Some believe that humanity is so small compared to Earth, our activity could not possibly impact Earth health. This view is perceived as naïve and full of denial by many environmentalists. I believe both sides are correct. I am of the camp that Earth is deeply resilient and will survive no matter what, but we may not. Climate change may kill a large number of us, or even all of us (who knows?), but Earth will persevere and even thrive after we’re gone.
I also believe it is arrogant to believe that only humanity can “fix” Earth. Rather, if we expect to continue to receive Earth’s blessings and abundance, then we have to help and support Earth healing. We should not continue to perpetuate environmental damage. Pretending that Earth does not need our care and support, in my belief, ensures that we will lose any goodwill we have towards Earth’s willingness or ability to continue to support us.
Other species do not matter – Another point of contention is whether the other species on Earth matter. Who cares about the spotted owl or the jaguar when jobs are at stake?
Environmentalists say that all species matter, including bodies of water or forests, and they should be preserved even at the expense of the economy.
Again, I believe both perspectives have truth and neither is entirely true. The bridge in this case is the idea that a healthy and abundant environment is good for the economy. A rich ecosystem means our natural resources (plants, animals, trees, water, and air) stay abundant and healthy, and free of invasive and pathogenic species that are costly on a personal and economic level. Biodiversity keeps all these things in check and allows us to ensure that the plants, animals, minerals, and water that are the source of all the things we need will continue to be available.
A healthy environment is also good for business because people want to visit, live, and work in places of natural beauty. People are healthier if the water and air are clean, and so health costs will be lower, as will absenteeism. The quality of life is also higher, and stress levels are lower. All of this creates more peaceful communities.
It’s true that such approaches take more time, effort, and money on the front-end but the ROI is high on so many levels.
You have probably discerned that the true versus false options presented is actually a false choice. Integrating all of the different viewpoints and parts of the elephant gives us a chance for creating a more civil dialogue, holistic strategies, and the potential to celebrate where we are in agreement.
I admit that this way of thinking is harder and takes more effort. Most of our modern-day problems are complex, thus the term VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous). Holding steadfast to a black or white perspective keeps us stuck in conflict and with incomplete solutions. Collaboration and mutual respect will help us find effective solutions that provide care for Earth and her inhabitants so that we can all thrive in the synergy that nature designed for our benefit.
Written by Dr. Susanna Wu-Pong Calvert