Toxic discourse in the public square – searching for common ground
by Stan Hirst
An overcast morning in August: the Suzuki Elders gathered at the Rivendell Retreat Centre on Bowen Island, B.C. to debate the recent book I’m Right and You’re an Idiot – The Toxic State of Public Discourse and How To Clean It Up.
In the book author James Hoggan notes that the modern public square, especially in relation to environmental concerns, has become toxic and polluted. Participants in public dialogue are typically strongly divided over issues based on background, belief, social situation and a host of other factors, and true dialogue and consensus-building suffer accordingly.
The Elder retreat set itself the task of thinking seriously about how to move towards understanding or agreement on thorny issues, finding a way to work together, or at least respectfully differ. Discussions were focused by considering real developments which currently create deep discord in B.C., including the Peace Site C hydroelectric project, salmon farming along the B.C. coast, and the use of nuclear energy.
As reported in post-retreat evaluations, the Elders never actually found anything resembling common ground within these examples. They did find that emotions clouded the issues and that facts were divisive! I personally came away from the retreat wondering if common ground could realistically even exist between proponents of large disruptive projects like estuarine salmon farms or hydroelectric dams and the eco-minded segments of our diverse population.
What actually is this common ground of which we speak so easily?
Historically, common ground was an actual place which was available to everyone, e.g. a village square or the verge of a local thoroughfare, a neutral zone where important issues were discussed or argued. Today it means simply a level of accord around a specific theme or themes between persons or groups otherwise in opposition to one another.
Common ground requires a minimum set of characteristics if it is to function effectively. These include things like respect, trust, acknowledgement and/or mutual interest. As the name suggests, there must be some form of commonality in views surrounding key issues. Features common in modern social interactions such as suspicion and polarization have to be set aside. Finding common ground with others does not necessarily mean finding absolute agreement. Common ground is “shareable” ground whose boundaries are marked by a range of actions that all can live with.
When large actions such as Site C or the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion are pushed into the public arena, finding common ground typically takes a back seat behind much more prominent and aggressive actions. These include public testimony, bureaucratic manoeuvring, media initiatives, community forums, lobbying, electoral politics, litigation, boycotts and demonstrations.
The problem we face in finding common ground in such cases is basically that the factions opposing the proposed projects are actually created by the projects themselves. For example, the ranchers, homesteaders, hunters and anglers in the lower Peace River valley have been going about their business for more than a century. The First Nations bands using the area for hunting, trapping and exploitation of other natural resources have been doing so for centuries. Only when the threat of losses to the resources they rely upon looms as a reality do they form into groups to oppose the damming of the river by a power utility. The success of such environmental opposition groups is actually reliant on how well they can make their case against the project in the public arena (and often in the legal arena as well), and this means they accentuate the differences between the project goals and their own interests so as to make a stronger case. This is the exact antithesis of finding common ground!
Some might point out that agreements are often made between proponents and antagonists on specific issues, and that this necessarily means they have reached ‘common ground’, at least on that specific issue. For example, in the Peace Site C area some First Nations bands whose traditional trap lines would be impinged by the rising waters of the Site C reservoir have signed agreements with B.C. Hydro and have accepted cash payments as compensation for their losses. Is this a form of finding ‘common ground’? I suggest it is more a case of opponents making a rational decision between options and then joining the proponents!
It seems to me that at least part of the ‘common ground’ problem is that we seek it in the wrong place. Expecting to find common cause between a developer engaged in actually building and operating a project such as a hydroelectric dam or a fish-farm and the opponents of such projects is like expecting a wide receiver who has just caught the ball to stop and have a dialogue with the opposing linebacker. In truth, the faster and smoother the execution the better the outcome, no matter who wins the encounter!
Where we could and should seek out common ground between groups with differing objectives is where there are options available to reach mutually acceptable goals. Thus, moving a farmed salmon operation from ocean-based net-pens to a land-based system using tanks and recirculating flows might be a workable common goal for an aquaculture operation and for any opposing environmental groups. This would remove the threat of sea-lice and virus infections carried by farmed salmon being transferred to wild salmon migrating past the sites of the net pens, It could still be a viable and economic basis for aquaculture. The proponents might express a level of unhappiness at the added expense of having to build an on-land water purification system, but would find their commercial operation no longer in disfavour with local communities, commercial marine salmon fisheries and the concerned public.
The challenge facing humanity is to sustain the processes of economic development and poverty eradication while shifting gears to avoid greater damage to the environment from such economic activities. Developed countries must preserve their achievements while shifting the focus to more sustainable development and ever-diminishing environmental impacts. Developing countries must continue to raise their people’s living standards and eradicate poverty while containing increases in their ecological footprints. Both must adapt to the impacts of the damage already done. Now there is common ground worthy of the name!