What can we learn from debates on sustainability?

22 Februari 2020

Should we build a dam or preserve a national park instead? Should we go for all organic or industrial agriculture in our quest for food security?

We may well lean towards particular stances on issues like these, but the point might not be only about finding the right answer. Rather, debate on such topics, a new study suggests, benefits us by allowing us to explore the various possibilities and their likely outcomes.

The paper, published in the Journal of Environmental Studies and Science, elucidates the pragmatic value of dissent that is often left unexplored. In a fractious world, finding common ground on global issues seems like a must. The author suggests an alternative perspective: by focusing on our differences and disagreements we can learn from them.

Building on insights of the recent symposium “Embracing Disagreement in Environmental Thought,” Emma Brush, a scholar from Stanford University, suggests that we need “a commitment to the disagreement” to sustain a diversity of thoughts and opinions even if they are not compatible with each other. We can rely on “dissent as the basis for a healthy and rigorously democratic community”.

As time passes and sustainability challenges get increasingly complex, perspectives on how to address them can become either more diverse or unified. For example, seduced by the global consensus over sustainable development goals or a 1.5°C target for climate change, we can miss the bigger picture and leave other important perspectives on the fringes. 

Instead, we could adopt a number of global targets that help us to move forward. We should not, however, forget that the world is much more complex than the specific targets and numbers we impose on it. 

Large corporations and governments are powerful shapers of public opinion, yet adopting single unified visions could lead us into dead ends and disasters. To avoid this, we need to go beyond “surface consensus” and “allow all voices to remain seen” without getting lost in the post-truth, alarmism, and denialism, the author argues. 

We should focus on challenges by using discussions to seek more effective practical solutions, keeping in mind that “the opposing sides have pushed each other to mutually engage and evolve through the expression of difference and dissent,” Brush adds. 

Debates between organic and conventional farmers, for instance, has led to the adoption of integrated pest management on conventional farms while many organic farmers have started to explore the possibilities of hydroponic and aquaponic systems.

Going back to the roots, an early 20th-century debate between American environmentalists Gifford Pinchot and John Muir on wildlife management helped shape the outcomes of public and environmental policies many years after. Without their public disagreements policy outcomes could well have been very different.

Considering the complex environmental challenges we face, it is important to stay critical about the choices we make. We should treat our differences “not as a problem to be solved but a fact to be lived with, and a tool to be used,” Brush says, so that we can move forward with things we agree on while staying both critical of and respectful towards opposing ideas. 

Whether such a democratic commitment to critical pluralism and diversity can allow us to help protect the planet remains in doubt, but we should be open to correcting our course along the way.

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