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Environmental conflict resolution theory is comprised of adversarial and collaborative approaches to conflict resolution. It involves the force of collective action, which can manifest in the collective efforts shown in sporadic environmental protests or in the force of long-standing organizations and groups. Key to the mediation of conflict over environmental resources is effective resource management. This may entail a state delegation of freedom to an individual or group of individuals to cater for their environment, as they pursue profit and the benefits that property ownership entails.
Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) and Environmental Dispute Resolution (EDR) are common methods of environmental conflict/dispute resolution. ADR often involves resolution procedures that seek to address conflict at a more localised level without involving legal and public procedures, which may not be in the interest of the conflicting parties. EDR (a methodology adopted by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)) is a tactic within environmental conflict resolution theory that involves collaborative problem-solving. EDR acknowledges value conflicts, power disparities, and different attitudes about risk.
Methods of environmental conflict resolution have to grapple with the problem of structural violence, environmental disasters and health risks that often impact the poorer people in societies and this issue is analysed in its literature.
Eleanor Winsor, president of Winsor Associaties, a Washington DC, mediation firm believes that environmental conflict resolution represents the ‘better way’ and that its process ‘provides a forum where people can come together to help shape a project’ (Cohn 2002). Winsor acknowledges that attempts at environmental conflict resolution can help achieve a better project with less opposition by taking people’s needs into consideration in a democratic manner.
This collective decision-making process is a key factor in environmental conflict resolution theory as consensus-building approaches can be applied to disputes over where to put electric transmission lines, power plants, or wastewater treatment facilities (Cohn 2002). This idea of collective action is key to the cooperation over natural resources. Collective action involves a concerted group effort to achieve a shared goal and can be directly done by group members or on behalf of their organization. Whilst collective action is widespread and evidently visible in many societies, the strength and forms of it vary greatly. It can vary from sporadic events to highly structured and long-standing organizations. However, collective action cannot be viewed in its entirety as a positive force. Collective action based institutions can be highly inegalitarian; groups can act collectively to exclude others; and the outcome of their action can be negative (criminal gangs engage in collective action) (Ratner, Meinzen-Dick, Hellin, Mapedza, Unruh, Veening, Haglund, May, Bruch, 2017). Therefore, collective group activity can often be the source of a conflict rather than its mediating force. Strong collective action within a social group (bonding) can intensify conflict with opposing groups, but collective action that spans opposing groups (bridging) can reduce conflict (Ratner, Meinzen-Dick, Hellin, Mapedza, Unruh, Veening, Haglund, May, Bruch, 2017) In some cases with increasing complexity of property rights at larger geographic scales, conflicts cannot be managed by collective action alone, so mediation by state agencies or other external actors, or conflict resolution through the judiciary system may be necessary.
An effective solution for the usage of environmental resources and the mitigation of conflict is resource management. This involves the designation of the responsibility of a resource to a certain party, group or individual. However, resource management is unlikely to function effectively unless there is established property rights. This means giving authority to not only manage the resource but to reap benefits and profits from it. A paper on addressing conflict through collective action in natural resource management in the International Journal of the Commons, suggests that we engage community institutions to establish clarity in resource tenure, we enable collective action among small-scale producers (policies that support small-scale producers to tap into organic and fair trade niche markets can provide incentives for collective action to boost local incomes and livelihoods), we strengthen both statutory and traditional institutions for conflict resolution (people can engage in simpler procedures of conflict resolution in local languages rather than requiring the legal system to resolve grievances and have customary conflict resolution geared toward local resource usage, i.e local norms), address horizontal inequalities through natural resource policies and that we support the rights of weaker actors to access justice (Ratner, Meinzen-Dick, Hellin, Mapedza, Unruh, Veening, Haglund, May, Bruch, 2017). These methods of conflict resolution are effective and desirable, however, it is worth noting that conflict is and has not always been a negative force. In the case of environmental conflict, the problems we face can help challenge us to create new environmental perspectives. Conflict theory has provided the basis for understanding that not only is conflict always with us, but that it contains the seeds for beneficial change, as well as the grounds for destructive consequences. Contrary to the common view that conflict is always a negative force that must be managed to resolution, conflict can be a driving force for social change. Conflict over environmental resources has fundamentally changed our society in many ways: many members of the public are more informed and educated about environmental issues and the difficult choices inherent in a heterogeneous society (Lach 1996). Public scrutiny and the challenge to environmental decision-making has increased the level of public involvement in local, state and federal agencies concerned with environmental issues and the associated environmental budgeting and policy-making (Lach 1996). Hence, the heightening of environmental conflict in public agendas has provided consequent initiatives that have informed its management and resolution in conflict theory.
Two fundamentally different approaches are used to respond to environmental and other disputes: one is adversarial, the other is collaborative (McNaughton 1996). The adversarial approach focuses on winning (and on avoiding losing), and may be characterised as win-lose. It relies on decision-making. The collaborative approach on the other hand, focuses on problem-solving and resolution. It may be characterised as win-win (McNaughton 1996). This collaborative approach is exercised by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the use of collaborative problem-solving processes, such as roundtables, strawman rule-makings and other collaborative regulatory negotiations (McNaughton 1996). The EPA uses Environmental Dispute Resolution (EDR) in cases that involve value conflicts, power disparities, and different attitudes about risk. EDR methodology is availed of in certain cases to address issues of sickness and health, related to environmental disputes and thus, it can become quite volatile. Even if people agree on the probability percentage that a drinking water supply would be contaminated by salt-dome storage of hazardous wastes, for example, different people may be inclined to make different decisions about whether and how to proceed (McNaughton 1996). This value-based thinking stemming from empirical facts is a root of conflict in itself, and it is an important consideration in mediating conflict between groups and individuals.
Similar to EDR, Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) is a collaborative method of conflict/dispute resolution often deployed in cases of environmental conflict. This includes negotiation, mediation, arbitration and mediated rulemaking (Lach 1996). It is promoted as a method for breaking the paralysis of many environmental disputes. By removing the opportunity for lengthy and costly litigation, disputants are more likely to sit down and develop a consensus compromise that all parties can agree to (Lach 1996). Neghin Modavi argues that a political economic analysis reveals that ADR techniques demobilize and depoliticize grass-roots opposition by shifting public confrontation to the quasi-private arenas of mediation and negotiation. Moving environmental conflict off the front pages of the local paper into the back rooms for mediation stabilizes the business climate while shielding government representatives from criticism of bias toward industry (Lach 1996). ADR is an effective method of environmental conflict resolution in terms of preventing the escalation of conflicts and dealing with smaller instances of conflict at localised levels.
Environmental conflict can entail the presence of structural violence. This often involves the exclusion of the poor and disadvantaged from safer environments and the denial of environmental refuge. Rogers (2010) argues that the West is adopting a ‘fortress’ approach to the problems of the global South, constructing barriers at the borders to keep out migrants fleeing from environmental and other disasters (Ramsbotham, Woodhouse 2011). This is likely to be unsuccessful, however, and merely contributes to insecurity as the disadvantaged and repressed strike back with unconventional means. Barnett and Adger (2007) makes a similar argument, that climate change is most likely to affect the poorest – the ‘bottom billion’, who already live in weak economies with weak governance (Ramsbotham, Woodhouse 2011). Climate change will in effect weaken economic prospects, resulting in loss of income and horizontal inequalities. Thus, it contributes to human insecurity and to the fragility of governments (Ramsbotham, Woodhouse 2011). Climate change is not the sole contributor to the heightened environmental damage to the livelihood of the poor. The food security crisis and international ‘land grabs’ have drawn renewed attention to the role of natural resource competition in the livelihoods of the rural poor. Local disputes over land, water, forests and fisheries can contribute to broader social conflicts. Climate induced migration can however, spur competition for resources such as cropland and freshwater, and stress or undermine existing social institutions (Ratner, Meinzen-Dick, Hellin, Mapedza, Unruh, Veening, Haglund, May, Bruch, 2017). An example of this is present in low income and minority communities. Some communities have documented the disproportionate burden of toxic contamination in their neighbourhoods and are fighting back in the environmental justice movement. Choices and decisions about environmental concerns – clean-ups, restoration, preservation, management – provide the setting for environmental conflict (Lach 1996). In general, this environmental conflict occurs when decisions about the allocation of resources are made (Lach 1996). This is particularly true in relation to the developments around the resources that are exported for the profit of agricultural communities. Highly influential research by Paul Collier and Anne Hoeffler at the World Bank suggests that countries whose health is largely dependent on the exportation of primary commodities – a category that includes both agricultural produce and natural resources – are highly prone to civil violence (Humphreys 2005). Therefore, the challenge of resolving environmental conflict in societies with agrarian-based economies is heightened.
The Prisoner’s dilemma as defined in conflict theory relates to environmental conflict and in particular the ‘Tragedy of the Commons’. This is an extension of the Prisoner’s Dilemma to many players. Each farmer (or fisher) can cooperate, by limiting withdrawal of common resources, or defect, by withdrawing resources without restraint. If the renewal of resources depends on collective restraint, a policy of restraint is collectively rational. But if the farmers cannot trust one another, it is individually rational to defect, whatever strategy others play (Ramsbotham, Woodhouse 2011). Rapoport (1988) demonstrated in a series of experimental games that sustained cooperation is difficult to achieve in the Prisoner’s Dilemma even when the social trap is explained, although cooperation increases when players are allowed to communicate (Ramsbotham, Woodhouse 2011). Nevertheless, in real commons, people often do cooperate. Historians have shown that, in the medieval and modern period, peasant farmers generally did not ruin the commons. Instead they developed institutions to regulate access. Similar to resource management, which often entails a cooperative self-management of a resource to the benefit of all parties involved, the management of fisheries and farmlands might be treated in the same manner. The destruction or ‘tragedy’ of the ruination of a valuable resource is a driving force for its protection.
Like any form of social conflict, environmental conflict is driven by many factors including substantive, procedural and psychological interests. Substantive issues focus on the claim that fact is being made, such as differing views about the environmental impacts of particular land use (Schirmer 2018). Procedural issues focus on the process by which people raise concerns and engage in dialogue about environmental issues (Schirmer 2018). Psychological interests refer to the relationships between people involved in the conflict – they have an important effect on the likelihood of successfully addressing the conflict (Schirmer 2018). These interests are often rooted in scientific understandings. Science information is used in the substantive viewpoint and is often met with psychological interests. This results in the creation of value-based conflicts with each conflicting party claiming to have definitive answers, often referred to as ‘science wars’. Scientific evidence can only contribute constructively to environmental conflict resolution if careful attention is paid to how, when and why the evidence was collected, used and interpreted (Schirmer 2018). Therefore, objective scientific procedure where possible, emanates as an important goal for the successful mitigation of environmental conflict.
In conclusion, key elements of environmental conflict resolution theory include procedures of collective action, resource management, adversarial and collaborative approaches, EDR, ADR, a consideration of structural violence and inequality, the prisoner’s dilemma and the mitigation of value-based conflicts supported by a subjective qualitative analysis of scientific information. These methods of environmental conflict resolution are paralleled in other fields of conflict resolution and are growing in importance with the international emergence of conflict inspired by climate change. This further inspires the discussion of procedural environmental issues, which contributes to the greater realisation of the demand for effective environmental conflict resolution policies.
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