Making Sense of Intractable Environmental Conflicts: Concepts and Cases

By Fife-Adams, Stephen | Endangered Species Update, November-December 2003 | Go to article overview

Making Sense of Intractable Environmental Conflicts: Concepts and Cases


Fife-Adams, Stephen, Endangered Species Update


Abstract

A prime characteristic of many environmental disputes is their intractability. Making Sense of Intractable Environmental Conflicts provides several case studies of intractable environmental conflicts in the United States. The authors use the technique of framing analysis as a tool to explore how and why certain conflicts elude resolution, while in other cases the disputants are able to find common ground. The result is a comprehensive text on conflict resolution that could become an important learning tool for scientists, environmental activists, government agency officials, and other parties to local, national and global environmental conflicts.

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Roy J. Lewicki, Barbara Gray, and Michael Elliott, eds. Island Press 2002

A prime characteristic of many environmental disputes is their intractability. Whether the issue at hand is the preservation of habitat and protection of ecosystems, the sustainable use of resources, the regulation and cleanup of toxic materials, the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, or almost any other matter where ecological imperatives come into conflict with human perceptions, desires, traditions and innate behavior, one does not have to look far to find "conflicts that are long-standing and elude resolution." Where the protection of endangered species is concerned, intractable conflicts may sometimes seem like more the norm than the exception, with potentially grave consequences; every year where protections are delayed, challenged or undermined is another year closer to extinction for the species in question. Finding a way to bring these disputes to some positive final conclusion is thus a matter of increasing urgency. In Making Sense of Intractable Environmental Conflicts, the editors bring together timely case studies of several intractable environmental conflicts in the United States, on subjects ranging from natural resource management and water quality to the cleanup of toxic waste sites and efforts to limit urban sprawl. Each study explores how and why a particular conflict became intractable, and how, in a few cases, the disputants were finally able to achieve constructive resolutions.

Throughout the book the authors employ the common psychological and sociological methodology of framing analysis. A "frame," in this context, is an individual's way of understanding, shaping and focusing some aspect of a situation. When disputants frame a conflict's origin and salient issues differently, when they frame the dispute in hostile terms (as a "war" or "us against them"), when they frame the dispute in personal terms, or when they frame the motives and character of other disputants in negative or distorted terms, the potential increases for the conflict to become intractable. Framing analysis provides the authors with a common vocabulary and structure, and helps the reader to gain a deeper understanding of the nature of intractable conflicts from one study to the next. The result is a comprehensive text on conflict resolution that could become an important learning tool for scientists, environmental activists, government agency officials, business leaders, farmers and interested citizens as they attempt to find a way forward in future local, national and global environmental conflicts.

A straightforward example of how negative framing can lead to intractability appears in a case study concerning the contentious meetings of a water regulation advisory group in Ohio during the late 1990s. The group, which was charged by the state Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to find strike a compromise between environmental and business interests with regard to antidegradation policy, was explicitly divided into two distinct factions, the Environmental Caucus and the Regulated Caucus. The caucuses quickly conformed to the strong identities imparted on them by their names, and discussions between the caucuses were marked with negative characterizations on both sides--the Environmental Caucus often referred to the Regulated Caucus as "polluters," while the Regulated Caucus regularly cast aspersions on the Environmental Caucus's understanding of technical and legal matters. …

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