The importance of integrating different spheres of knowledge: thoughts on the round-table discussion, September 24th

On September 24th, I attended a round-table discussion with guest speakers from Evergreen and the Quebec-Labrador Foundation. An earlier post by ‘crocus’ addressed the former organization, so I will focus primarily on the latter.
The Quebec-Labrador Foundation (QLF) is a non-profit organization aimed at bringing human resources to small, often highly remote communities in eastern Canada and the New England States. In the early days of the organization, Ivy League students from the United States would disperse to remote communities to help develop educational programs there. Now, QLF is a much larger organization, offering internships to people from all over North America. Similarly, the vision of QLF has broadened from primarily focusing on building leadership skills in young people from remote villages, to a focus on developing conservation and stewardship skills in individuals and families, young and old. Indeed, with concerns about the environment increasing during the last quarter of the 20th century, issues such as sustainability, conservation and stewardship are integral pieces of QLF initiatives. For a more detailed history of QLF and their current projects, check out their website here.
One quality that QLF tries to incorporate and build upon in its programs is local, community-based knowledge. I learned quickly from my political ecology studies that many initiatives do not succeed if local interests and knowledge are ignored. Too often state-sponsored conservation initiatives are insensitive at the local-scale, leading to more harm than good. Thus, intelligently I think, QLF develops conservation awareness and skills by working at a local scale, with local knowledge and interests, to foster developments that, in turn, have implications at the national- and global-scales. For example, community-based marine conservation initiatives empower the local people with the knowledge and ability to manage the waters that they often depend upon for survival. Since fisheries around the world are collapsing, and marine fish species are increasingly threatened by extinction, the local-scale initiatives of QLF have global significance.
However, the appeal to bottom-up initiatives has often led to a glorification of the local-scale. Creating initiatives based solely on the knowledge and cultures of local peoples has its risks. For example, one of the guest speakers, an intern for QLF, noted that a local fisherman thought the porpoise fin he was holding in his hand was in fact a shark fin. Consequently, when locals comment on the species of fish in their waters, and give estimates of numbers of sightings for each species, one should be wary of the validity of this data. It would be unwise to create initiatives and base decisions on local knowledge alone.
The QLF brings expertise in the form of trained biologists, conservationists and other educators into communities and helps integrate it with traditional knowledge. I think this synergism between different spheres of knowledge (i.e. the academic, the professional, and the traditional) is an important component of any initiative to succeed on the ground in any community. For this effort, the QLF should be commended.
I do have one primary concern regarding the initiatives of non-profit organizations like Evergreen and the QFL: primarily, their sources of funding. Big corporations fund many of the organizations’ initiatives in part, or entirely. Considering that corporations have traditionally operated to promote their own interests and improve the bottom-line, how assured can one be that corporate funding for ‘green’ initiatives is not a façade to further promote corporate interests? For every hybrid that Toyota sells (they are the main source of funds for Evergreen), how many SUVs are sold with their logo? Should corporations stand above the moral standards that we set for other people and parties? It seems to me that corporations are tapping into the ‘green’ market purely because there is a market there. While they tap into this market, however, they maintain a foot in the older, more environmentally damaging market. With a foot in more than one market, corporations can make much more profit. My moral hackles rise when I consider corporations promoting environmentally-friendly goods and services one day, and environmentally-damaging ones the other; and sometimes on the same day on the same channel.

4 Responses to “The importance of integrating different spheres of knowledge: thoughts on the round-table discussion, September 24th”

  1. Culture Kid says:

    This post brings up 3 interesting points to me:

    1. Glorification of the local-scale
    Like Thomas Homer-Dixon espoused in his seminar, environmental change is likely to begin only with small, community-based, grassroots organizations, as the state, in the current political climate, is virtually impenetrable. And while I think his points are valid, I believe that placing too much faith in smaller organizations has the potentially to be damaging, in displacing essential information.

    2. The role of civil society in environmental policy and action
    I believe strongly in the role of civil society in providing checks on governance (at the national and international scales). NGO’s, etc. rely largely on small-scale, voluntary progects, and I think that the public is more likely to respond to voluntary suasion rather than state-led enforcement. Perhaps I push this concept a bit too far when I say that I think civic society has the potential to act as a an international form of moral government.

    3. Corporate sponsorship
    That last point made, I realize I am a bit idealistic, as NGO’s, etc. need the funds to operate and implement projects. It seems hypocritical at every level, though, to accept funding from corporations whose reasons for giving the money are (through my cynical perspective) more to do with tax breaks and reputation than interest in the environment. But where will the money come from? This is always the question.

  2. Jones says:

    I think Culture Kid has accurately described and clarified the main points of this post, and I am in agreement for the most part with the reply. I do, however, have problems with the idea that we should accept funding from morally reprehensible corporations (I am not implying that all corporations are such), just because we cannot obtain funds elsewhere. The moral standards we hold for each other must be applied to corporations. When someone cheats, lies and steals we are wary to join ranks with them.
    I do understand that if the liar, cheater and thief holds the key to your success (has the money to get your operation off the ground), and if that key cannot be found elsewhere, then you are almost forced to form a relationship. I think, however, that NGO’s can be funded from more respectable sources. We, the public, must do more to pressure governments into funded NGO’s using public funds, must donate more to NGO projects, and must spend our money wisely so that morally reprehensible corporations learn that hypocrisy does not pay.

  3. merle says:

    The issue of corporate sponsorship is, I think, very important. To this discussion, I will add two points:

    First, I want to pick on the idea stated by Jones that “the moral standards we hold for each other must be applied to corporations”. Since corporations and, perhaps, especially international corporations represent such a powerful force in our globalized economy, it is very important to find a way to held them accountable for what they do, as each of us are accountable to various institutions (including various formal and informal moral codes). Evidently, the “as” here is problematic: what kind of agents are corporations? Do/should they have the same responsibilities as full moral agents? Who or what other institutions are to held them accountable? Those are all very difficult questions that we will have to address in more depth. I merely want here to suggest that even if it would be already very good (and almost miraculous) if corporations were held as accountable to the same set of moral standards as is any full moral agent, there are good reasons why they should be held more accountable then individuals on certain issues. The main reason would be, I think, that they have a capacity to acquire information and to predict the consequences of their decisions to an extent unavailable to individual agents (as their ability to market their own products shows). Since we tend to hold agent more accountable when they could have predicted an undesirable outcome then when they could not (except when they are guilty of maintaining themselves voluntarily in ignorance), corporations should be held more accountable then individuals where they could more easily predict outcomes than individuals. If this is right, then it could be applied to most global and long term undesirable consequences. Is it quite easy here to think at their contribution to global warming as an example.

    Second, corporate sponsorship is subsidized by the government, i.e. us, in terms of tax credits. In other words, it allows corporation another way to avoid paying taxes while subsidizing part of their publicity and good image. Even if the causes they support are noble, who put them in charge of deciding which causes we should finance? Isn’t part of the job of the government we elected to make these decisions and not the job of unelected corporations?