<< Return to InPsych December 2008

Dr Susie Burke MAPS, Senior Researcher, Psychology in the Public Interest, APS National Office

An emerging part of today's climate change story is concern about increased conflict over scarce resources, and links to increased violence. In this article we examine the importance of alternative dispute resolution (ADR) techniques in resolving different types of environmental conflicts. At one end of the scale, there is a need for resolution of disputes that arise in fairly localised areas involving local governments, organisations, businesses and residents. At the other end, in the area of environmental security, is the contribution psychologists can make to peace-making and peace-building in violent conflicts around the world.

Environmental disputes

The use of ADR to resolve environmental disputes has expanded considerably since the 1970s. Collaborative problem solving techniques are likely to be more effective than litigation in developing enduring solutions and protecting important relationships, and also offer potential to reduce costs and accelerate settlement.

The most common methods of ADR include negotiation, facilitation, mediation, arbitration, mini trials, fact finding, and dispute review boards. A key feature of most of these ADR techniques is that, rather than stakeholders just stating their grievances and preferred solution, each party must ensure that its interests and needs are communicated and understood and that the other stakeholders' interests and needs have also been communicated and considered, before brainstorming options for resolving the problem. Examples of disputes settled by ADR include damage caused by the release of hazardous and toxic substances to the environment, resource allocation (e.g., water rights), land management plans, natural resource damage disputes, negotiated rule making around endangered species, drinking water standards, and siting disputes (e.g., siting of dams or hazardous waste dumps).

Mediation is usually suitable for all forms of environmental disputes, and is the most popular ADR technique. Environmental disputes usually involve multiple parties - for example environmental activists, developers and residents - with very different and passionately held points of view, who typically have difficulty in ‘hearing' the other party's perspective. Conservationists, for example, may have difficulty appreciating issues related to development if a native habitat will be destroyed forever. Yet major infrastructure projects are important, often as a way of bringing clean water, roads, and improved living standards to people in disadvantaged communities (Oretskin & McNaughton, 2002). Importantly, parties representing different views in environmental disputes may have to spend a lifetime together, as most disputes concerning the environment involve neighbours. The benefit of mediation in resolving such emotive disputes is that it relies on direct communication (by getting parties to share their needs and concerns, and hear and understand the other's perspective), and actively assists disputing parties to preserve their underlying relationship whilst at the same time going through a process for resolving their conflict. In the end, this process maximises the chances of ending up with a better community that enables everyone to live together with a good quality of life.

Environmental conflicts often have a strong values component. When parties are convinced they are right and other parties are wrong, it is likely that fundamental values are in conflict. Values conflicts can generate emotional intensity and typically are not open to negotiation. MacNaughton and Martin (2002) outline a series of steps for helping participants deal with values conflicts. A first step is to help participants manage their emotions, usually through venting, active listening, and ground rules about taking turns to speak, not interrupting and being respectful. Then, participants can be helped to distinguish interest conflicts (which can be resolved) from values conflicts (which cannot). Conflict involving ‘shoulds' (e.g., ‘no new coal mines should be built') are usually conflicts over values, which can be strongly felt and generate intense emotions. Unlike emotions, however, they are not likely to diminish through expression. Values cannot be negotiated, but they can be managed. ‘Reframing' helps participants to see the extent to which their interests actually do conflict and where they do not. Sometimes people agree about more than they think they do, and in this way the conflict can be reframed. Parties can be encouraged to identify superordinate goals they can all agree on, which can form the basis for developing an agreement, like the need for a safe climate for all people, all species and all generations (Spratt & Sutton, 2008). Finally, participants can agree to disagree on certain issues by setting aside some values that cannot be easily resolved (e.g., whether one nation ‘should be allowed' to destroy old growth forests), and just focus on how to meet the needs that can be agreed on.

Mediation, which is usually a private process, may be more difficult for environmental disputes over public land use decisions, such as the siting of controversial facilities, because of the requirements for greater interaction with the public, limits to confidentiality (usually a crucial component of mediation), and the actions of special interest groups in the process. Appropriate ground rules, however, mean that mediation can also be feasible and suitable for public environmental disputes.

International environmental disputes

ADR techniques are also increasingly seen as useful tools for resolving some transnational and international disputes with environmental aspects, like infrastructure projects that threaten rainforest jungles, diversion of river water boundaries, or natural resource development activities (e.g., mining, logging). These ADR techniques are increasingly relied on as the world economy becomes more integrated, and we become more aware of our environmental interdependence and the limitations of the ‘global commons'. The success of ADR in international disputes, however, often depends on the extent to which culturally determined differences are identified and managed. Variables that commonly shift across cultures include language, social organisation, face-saving, authority conception, non-verbal communication, face-to-face transactions, and conceptions of time (MacNaughton & Martin, 2002). When cross cultural negotiation succeeds, it is largely because all participants have clearly articulated their own needs and interests, and have also accurately understood the intended meaning of the other's communications.

Armed conflict

Conflict over resources is certainly not the only cause of war, but it is likely to become a more frequent one in the future, as natural resources are depleted and global population grows. In 2001, 25 per cent of the planet's 50 armed conflicts had a strong resource dimension (Renner, 2002). Stern (2006) notes that increased climate variability as well as overall climate deterioration could contribute to increased violence. Environmental issues are expected to dominate this century's security agenda.

‘Environmental security' is defined as peace that requires the sustainable use and just distribution of natural resources, and has become a critical component of the security discourse in the last two decades (Dalby, 2002). Environmental security needs the attention of psychologists because it is a precursor to war and will likely play a key role in future armed conflict.

According to Winter and Cava (2006), conflict erupts as a result of a series of factors: population growth, unequal access to resources, resource deterioration, movement of populations, social identity conflict, perceptual processes, and development of ingroup/outgroup thinking. Psychological factors are always present at the onset of armed conflict, just as they are if and when environmental stress is resolved through cooperative solutions. Long-term peace requires that we understand and mitigate the social psychological responses to resource-based stress. Thus, we need a psycho-ecological approach to environmental security that examines both resource and psychological factors surrounding armed conflict.

There is an extensive literature that looks at the many and various components of a peace process in which conflicts are resolved by peaceful means, including official and unofficial mediation, dialogue, peace-keeping, peace-making, peace-building, and much more. There are numerous applications of psychological techniques in all aspects of the peace process.

Peace-building, for example, is a process that facilitates the establishment of durable peace, and tries to prevent the recurrence of violence by addressing root causes and effects of conflict (Boutros-Ghali, 1995). Environmental peace-building requires rigorous attention to resource issues, focusing on shared goals involving just distribution of resources. At the same time, parties engaged in resource-based conflict can begin to mitigate their prejudices and perceptual errors by working on integrative agreements, or win-win solutions (Thompson, 1998) to resource policies. These efforts can help bring together polarised groups and dismantle misperceptions that have escalated through conflict, while finding viable solutions for resource conflicts.


Psychology has an invaluable role to play in fostering the resolution of a range of local to global environmental disputes. In the coming years, pressures to protect natural environments will increase exponentially. At the same time, the impact of environmental degradation and resource shortages will create greater and greater stressors for people living in vulnerable environments, creating potential for even more conflict. There is an ever-increasing need for specialists in all aspects of the peace process.

Any comments or ideas for this column can be forwarded to s.burke@psychology.org.au.


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Boutros-Ghali, B. (1995). An Agenda for Peace. New York: United Nations.

Clayton, S., & Opotow, S. (2003). Identity and the natural environment. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Dalby, S. (2002). Environmental security. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

MacNaughton, A.L., & Martin,J.G. (2002). Managing environmental conflict and disputes for improved EDR results. In A.L. MacNaughton & J.G.

Martin (Eds), Environmental Dispute Resolution (pp. 269-289). Illinois:American Bar Association.

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