You are in a heated argument with a colleague and each of you is passionately making the case for your position. Then comes along a third person who listens to both of you for a bit. Finally one of you asks her what she thinks. She pauses before she answers and then says: “I understand the rationale behind your respective polar positions…But I cannot take a side. It’s more complex than either of you is articulating. It seems to me that entrenched as you are in your positions, you are failing to engage with important questions which could help you achieve a constructive, more legitimate solution.” Your adrenalin plummets and you feel deflated. Both you and your opposing colleague are at a loss for words. You both make excuses for ending the conversation and go back to your offices.
Shades of grey can be disappointing. Engaging with grey can temper the passions, the anger, the sense of righteousness and being on the high ground. It can feel much less exhilarating than having a stance and not budging. But most of our decision-making dilemmas exist within shades of grey. If we want to create a different world – one more aligned with values of justice, compassion, respect, responsibility and honesty – we need to embrace the grey. We need to play with it – the grey space is a playful space where we have the opportunity to use our agile minds in identifying connections that open up new understandings and possibilities for action. That is not to say we must not argue and debate. No, not at all. The point is that exploring and playing in the land of the grey can lead to arguments and debate rooted in a nourishing soil likely to result in more expansive and fruitful thinking. But to journey fruitfully in grey lands we need to be prepared to let down some defenses, to be reflective and honest with ourselves and others, to dig into and challenge our assumptions and beliefs, to let go of our egos, to ask questions before we give answers.
Two prominent issues in environmental activism have been influencing my recent thinking on the grey lands: Tar Sands drilling in Canada and the Belo Monte dam in Brazil. I learned bout Tar Sands from Liam Barrington-Bush. A couple of months ago, Liam experienced a very powerful journey into the land of the grey. The brief summary: He was in Canada with a delegate of young British activists (People & Planet) and they heard a tribal Chief talking. He could see the anguish in the Chief’s face. The Chief pulled everyone into the grey lands by telling them about how his peoples had once been fur-traders. This had been an important source of income. Then, the environmentalists/animal rights activists protested against fur-trading. When the fur-trading stopped, so did the income. Along came industrialists eager to drill – tar sands are a rich source of fuel and are seen as a profitable alternative to/replacement for crude oil. When drilled, Tar Sands are also a huge source greenhouse gases and generally are destructive of the land. Environmentalists are now protesting against Tar Sands.
The Indigenous peoples for the Alberta region in Canada where Tar Sands are prominent historically have a strong relationship with the land – with Mother Earth. Like their non-Indigenous activists, they are outraged by the drilling when they think of what it does to the environment. But they also aren’t very welcoming of unemployment and poverty in their communities. For the Chief to say ‘no’ to drilling is still leaves the anguished question: ‘Where will our income come from?’
The issue of the Belo Monte Dam in Brazil recently captured my attention courtesy of a heart-touching June picture on Facebook (see below, Chief Raoni Chief crying when he learned that the President of Brazil approved the Belo Monte dam project on the Xingu indigenous lands).
The dam is going to displace anywhere from 20,000 (official statistics) to 40,000 Indigenous peoples living along the Xingu River. The argument by the Brazilian government and the industrialists is that the dam will result in electricity for Brazilians (a country with a population of 190,732,694) and in turn lead to economic growth, employment and decreased poverty. One could make the utilitarian rationale here: an important ‘good’ is being created for the majority of Brazilians. Of course, what’s good for the Brazilians is not very good for the Xingu River peoples.
Compared to the Tar Sands issue, the Belo Monte dam might not seem very ‘grey.’ In one respect I don’t think it is: I believe it is ethically wrong to displace people from their lands and to deforest in the Amazon. I’m in the ‘No Dam’ camp for sure. Yet, saying ‘No Dam’ doesn’t address the issue of poverty in Brazil. Nor does it address the desire Brazilians have to be have regular access to electricity. I’ve read that while many Brazilians are sympathetic to the plight of the Xingu River peoples, they also want to improve their standard of living. Are they wrong to have the aspiration?
So much can be written about both these issues, and I’m not an expert on either. But what I do know for certain is that at the heart of both – in the grey lands – is a hotbed of controversy not about ‘to drill or not to drill’ or ‘to build the dam or not to build’ but about our values as human beings who live on a planet we share with each other and with all the other creatures inhabiting it. We make decisions based on our values, assumptions and beliefs – conscious and unconscious. Some fundamental differences in values, assumptions, and beliefs underpin our disagreements in decision-making, e.g. one’s understanding of our relationship with earth and other creatures, the moral perimeters we set for ourselves, the responsibility we are prepared to take for our actions, our sense of how we as individuals and communities are connected with each other and impact on one another’s well-being.
Amidst all our differences, I believe we have shared core ethical values and most of us would prefer to uphold those values than not. Yet, the truth is that sometimes our social and economic values, beliefs, prejudices and assumptions create situations where we undermine our ethical values – albeit unwittingly. For example, we talk about respect and responsibility and we uphold those values for a particular community. At the same time, the manner by which we are upholding those values is disrespectful and irresponsible when it comes to the interests and needs of other communities.
The grey lands – they aren’t simply all around us, but they are within all of us. Crucially, this notion of ‘unwittingly’ undermining our values should be a wake up call, but is often used as an excuse for complicity. What the Tar Sands, Belo Monte Dam and other similar issues are shouting out for us to do is to open our eyes, seek greater awareness of how we are moving through the world individually and together – journey into the grey lands in search of illumination, see and connect with the intricate dynamics within them.
Arguments about ‘You’re right and I’m wrong’ constrain us as creative human beings. They encourage us to start with an answer rather than a question. Going to the grey lands begs us to begin with a question. What if, for example, we were constantly asking: ‘How can we work together to be the best of we can be as human beings – for each other and for the planet?’