Inspire Dialogue Summaries: The Environment
Bhaskar Vira, Director, University of Cambridge Conservation Research Institute
“How do we have a dialogue with someone who is fifty years away from inhabiting this earth? This leads to considerations of inter-generational responsibility.”
Our group was looking at the environment. One way of framing our conversation is to go back to an observation that was made earlier by Tawanda Mutasah about the nature of competition, and how the problem of conversing with strangers becomes acute and heightened when we are competing over resources. The matter of the environment illustrates this in a very particular way, and our conversation centred particularly on water, which is becoming a very central issue in the here and now. How do you find ways when resources are scarce, to share in a manner which is equitable and fair, and leaves enough for future generations? How can we arrive at negotiated outcomes that are perceived to be fair to the present and fair to the future – fair both to those who have and fair to those who don’t have? This is a very profound challenge: who do we talk to and how do we arrive at that negotiated outcome?
We ranged widely in our discussions. We talked about the constraints around contemporary capitalism and contemporary politics, and how systemic problems constrain the opportunities of individuals and the decisions they can make.
In some ways these things force an individual to make choices which work against the interests of the collective, the environment and protection into the future. There are also issues about technology and the choices that people make about that. The groups were interesting because of their particular constitution. In one of them we had a number of people who came from a language or linguistic background, which led to discussion about the importance of language, and how we frame the narrative: how can we appropriate it in ways that help to make the conversation more productive? Another group had a number of people from the creative fields, which led to discussions about how we can harness the power of arts in order to frame these conversations. In short, what came up was the potential to use dialogue in creative ways. And, of course, the matter of education ran through every discussion.
What makes the environmental issue interesting is also the need for inter-generational dialogue. The ‘strangers’ we are talking about here are not yet born, therefore we have to think about who speaks for the children of the future, because the decisions we make today are going to have a direct effect upon their world. How do we have a dialogue with someone who is fifty years away from inhabiting this earth? This leads to considerations of inter-generational responsibility. People tend to see their responsibility for at least the current generation: for example, we had someone teaching at a primary school, and they pointed out that when you are teaching children up to the age of eleven, you are already talking about the next generation. Some of us are parents, of course, so inter-generational responsibility spreads naturally through our discussions. But we also need to think about the long-term future.
There are a few things I want to bring to the collective discussion. The first is the issue of making informed choices. We constantly make choices about environmental issues, but they are often not made on sound information so that we understand the implications of our choice. Someone from one of our groups pointed out the ‘embodied’ water in one McDonald’s big mac is the equivalent of twenty showers, because the water that is used to feed the cattle which then goes to making that burger is the amount you would use in your showers over twenty days. I did not know this, and when I’ve had a big mac at McDonald’s I’ve not been thinking that I’m consuming water. So how do we get this information out, so that the decisions that we make – the small incremental changes that add up to big change – are informed by knowledge of their impact? How do we obtain this information? How do we harness the narrative, and use the channels that everyone is already using, such as Twitter? Can we harness the power of advertising in ways which actually make the positive message appear, so that people’s choices are fully informed?
Secondly, there is a question concerning responsibility. One interesting element of the climate change treaty in the context of universal responsibility is that it uses the term “common but differentiated responsibility”. The idea of universality is that everyone has responsibility; the idea of “common but differentiated responsibility” is that, whilst everyone has responsibility, the extent of it reflects their ability, their resources and their historical responsibility. So the developed countries might have to take more responsibility because of the implications of their consumption choices in the past. But generally, the interesting aspect is the combination of the notion of ‘universality’ with the notion of ‘differentiation’.
Finally: an observation about how, even in situations of conflict, dialogue can happen. Coming back to the issue of water, a good illustration is that even now in the Middle-East Israel, Palestine and Jordan are talking about water resources, despite the fact that they find it very difficult to agree about anything else. It is the same with India and Pakistan, where there is something called the Indus Water Treaty which was negotiated in the 1960s. It is a negotiated settlement for the sharing of the resources of the Indus River, which is a hugely important matter for both sides. Even when they have fought wars against each other, they have maintained this treaty – and it has never broken down. This raises an interesting question, I think, about dialogue and conflict.
Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge
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