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Electronic Harmony

Students learn how to solve environmental conflicts through Web dialogue with their counterparts at Peking University

By Jon Reidel Article published March 12, 2003

Saleem Ali
Professor Saleem Ali's students are teaming up with Chinese counterparts to explore environmental problems. (Photo: Bill DiLillo)

Continuing education student John Clark is trying to explain to his counterpart at Beijing University the potential consequences of a recent decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to decline the California spotted owl protection under the Endangered Species Act.

Clark, a 37-year-old activist with a passion for resolving environmental conflicts, is struggling to convey via e-mail to 22-year-old environmental science major Xiaojie Bai how the decision paves the way for logging companies to come into the ancient forests of the region and ruin the natural habitat of the elusive owl.

The exercise is part of an environmental studies class that pairs students at UVM and Beijing University to discuss, and potentially solve, environmental issues in both countries. Despite Bai’s strong English and relatively good knowledge of U.S. policy, there’s a communication problem that appears to lie in the differing environmental regulations of the United States and China. Clark’s UVM teammate, 41-year-old continuing education student Michele Marcotte, suggests in her e-mail that the spotted owl decision is part of a larger pattern by the Bush administration, evidenced by a recent article in the Sacramento Bee.

Dialogue of diversity
Bai explains that in China, unlike the U.S., all land is owned by the government. “We seldom trap ourselves into conflicts with the government’s actions,” she writes in a return e-mail.

“And in your country,” she continues, “the alternation of administration may change the attitude towards forests… like the Bush and Clinton administrations adopt completely different attitudes in logging. The benefit is that the civilians, especially the environmentalists, stand in a strong position for supporting or objecting to the acts and regulations. But in China, we can merely give advices or support.”

Clark, Marcotte and Bai realize that they’d better backtrack and do some research on the governmental structures of China and the U.S. before they attempt to solve the environmental problems of the world and the conflicts that surround them.

“You have expertise in your own locale, but we knew nothing about how Chinese government forestry works,” Clark says. “We tried to explain the setup in the U.S., but it meant nothing to her (Bai). We had to step back and get some basic background information on both countries.”

That’s what Saleem Ali, assistant professor of environmental studies, was hoping the students in his "Environmental Conflict Resolution" class would do. The purpose of the Web-based dialogue portion of the course is to provide a collective learning experience for students on environmental conflicts and how they are resolved in different economic circumstances amidst varied cultural traditions.

Ali came up with the idea for cross-cultural Internet conversations after meeting with a professor at Beijing University on a trip to China last summer. Ali says he was impressed with the way students there were responsive to American concerns.

“They would say things like, ‘in America they would do it this way,’ " he continues. “We don’t always think about how people in other countries would do something. I thought ‘maybe we should capitalize on this idea.’ ”

Language barrier
Ali, who grew up in Pakistan before attending Tufts for his undergraduate work and Yale and MIT for his master’s and Ph.D, says the Web-based dialogue is still “a work in progress,” but that he hopes to expand it after the rough edges are ironed out.

The technology facilitating the conversations, which was developed and implemented by the Center for Teaching and Learning, has worked smoothly; the cultural factors are more complex. Language is occasionally an issue, although it hasn’t been a major problem since most of the students at Beijing University were picked for the pilot program based on their ability to understand English.

Some of the dialogue is translated, but most is written in English. Chen Xiaoguang, a student at Beijing University, writes that “maybe we have some language barrier …as you know every student study English very hard. And in this way I can learn some cases better in U.S.”

He Xiaoxia, a faculty member in the center for Environmental Science at Beijing University, says most of the time he can understand his UVM counterpart “well enough” and that it wasn’t a problem to “express my opinions feely.” Xiaoxia agrees with Marcotte and Clark that the tougher obstacle is the lack of knowledge of U.S. and Chinese policy.

“The political system and legislative system in these two countries are quite different,” writes Xiaoxia. “The level of public involvement are quite different in the two countries.”

Conflict resolution
Once the language and policy barriers are broken down, students have been able to discuss serious environmental issues and find ways to resolve the conflicts that surround them. The 20 teams discuss a wide range of environmental topics ranging from urban sprawl to ecotourism to the relationship between timber companies and local communities in China and the U.S. with a focus on the battles over forestry in endangered habitats. Students give a brief presentation at the end of the course based on their Web-based conversations and answers to some questions assigned by Ali.

Discussion of this kind when used to solve environmental or political conflicts is at the heart of Ali’s research. In one of his research papers, "Catalyst of Sustainable Consensus," he shows how the tools of negotiation used in the resolution of environmental disagreements can be applied to conversations between hostile countries on more politically charged issues. Ali is teaching a seminar on the topic next summer at the Cambridge, Mass.-based University of the Middle East Project, which will bring people from various Middle Eastern countries to Toledo, Spain.

“At the end of day,” Ali writes in the paper, “most environmental arguments boil down to a matter of perceived threats to the global ecosystem and an appreciation for the nexus of life that constitutes our environment.”

Ali concludes that just as the word catalyst means “setting free” in its Greek roots, the “inclusion of environmental factors in consensus-building processes at any scale can potentially liberate us from short-term approaches to problem solving, and inculcate sustainability in every elusive sense of the word.”