Toward the end of November those who attended the New Networks for Nature conference at the Stamford Arts Centre were privileged to listen to a debate between Tony Juniper and George Monbiot on the theme of The Real Value of Nature. This debate has been well summarised in Mark Avery’s blog and Mike McCarthey’s article in the Independent. In its essence, Juniper drew from his book, What Has Nature Ever Done For Us? (Profile Books, 2013) to argue that we must meet the proponents of economic development on their own ground and establish the monetary value of ecosystem services. Otherwise, we make no headway. In contrast, Monbiot argued that if we engage our opponents on their own economic terms we lose the moral ground that is central to the conservationist argument. In any case, he added, cost-benefit calculations would always be skewed to meet the required economic or political argument in favour of development.

The argument was passionate, well informed and well mannered. As I listened, my sympathies were drawn one way, then the other. Both protagonists appealed to head and to heart, provided sound arguments and drew on persuasive examples. In the end, it was impossible to say who ‘won’ the argument.

So where does this leave us? If the debate was inconclusive, was it no more than an engaging piece of theatre that has no relevance to the practical politics of conservation? Or can we draw some maybe more far reaching conclusions? I think we can. If it is impossible to reach a conclusion after such an intelligent debate, was there something wrong with the way the question was posed and the dialogue framed?

I think it is important to notice that the debate was staged and framed in conventional form, with each protagonist setting out their position and arguing who was ‘right’ on each point of principle and example. We should ask ourselves whether this conventional structure to the debate reflected the oppositional way we frame issues in our society and how value arguments are so often placed against the pragmatic and economic. Maybe we should look more deeply how we construct our arguments if we want to be successful in challenging the orthodoxy. Finally, I found myself reflecting that the conversation was between two articulate white men, educated in the best of British schools and universities and politically apt. Maybe an ecofeminist perspective might cast a different light on the issue?

Over the past weeks I have been stimulated by an exploration of the writing of the Australian ecofeminist philosopher Val Plumwood with students on the doctoral programme at California Institute for Integral Studies. At the heart of Plumwood’s book Feminism and the Mastery of Nature (Routledge 1993)  is a clinical dissection of the logical structure of dualist thought. She sees western culture as a network of dualisms that are central to all forms of oppression, including that of women and nature. Environmental debate, she observes, often retains a dualist dynamic that appears in subtle ways and in unlikely guises.

Dualist arguments are essentially oppositional; they create and maintain sharply demarcated differences. The opposing pole is devalued, masking the essential dependency of both sides on the other. Plumwood described this as ‘hyperseparation’ that creates an alienated form of differentiation, maximising the distance between the two spheres so they are not seen as continuous or contiguous. Dualist structures arise not only in creating oppositional debate, but more widely to creating gender identity and the relationship of the human to the natural world. The practice of hyperseparation is linked to systematised relations of power, in which those who hold power construct the ‘other’ as an inferior and alien realm.

Plumwood argues that difficulties arise in feminist thought when dualist constructions are adopted. On the one hand, she sees a ‘feminism of uncritical equality’: there is no fundamental difference between men and women, what men have women must also have. The problem with this position is that it attempts to fit women into the masculine model and norm regardless of its costs to both women and men. It offers an ‘upside-down world which strangely resembles the one they seek to escape’. On the other hand, she identifies the ‘feminism of uncritical reversal’: what is devalued in the masculine norm – the body, empathy, nurturing, collaboration as well as ‘nature’ – is positively valued and identified with the feminine. This feminism reverses negative value traditionally assigned to the feminine and to nature, but does not disturb the underlying dualist assumptions. Plumwood points out that neither of these positions (which I have rather crudely sketched here) are satisfying or tenable, because both are based on a dualistic construction of both gender identity and human identity. And they get in the way of the development of a genuine ecofeminist position as an integrative project

I think the two sides of the argument at New Networks for Nature can be seen as having a similar structure. Tony Juniper was arguing that, since crucial decisions are made within a financial and economic calculus, we must show that preservation of the natural world has a value that must be included within this economic calculus. This, I suggest, parallels the feminism of uncritical equality: if that is where decision power lies, that is where conservation must be, whatever the wider costs this may incur. George Monbiot argued in reverse, that what is important is to retain our unique, moral identity, to assert our love for the natural world and appreciation of its intrinsic value that is devalued by the mainstream. He argued that we ‘joined’ the system we would lose anyway since the odds are stacked against us (just as many women find they ‘lose’ however hard they try to join a male dominated society). Whatever principles or examples were put forward in support of one side were in nearly all cases denied and devalued by the other: the structure of the debate created a hyperseparation of the two positions.

Monbiot argued in addition that crucial to the whole debate was the question of framing, drawing on evidence to show that it is not possible for humans to hold two conceptual frames at the same time and that as a consequence the most powerful frame would prevail. Whether he is right in principle, he is right in pointing to the framing structure of the debate as at the root of the problem. Are the positions taken by Monbiot and Juniper fundamentally oppositional? Do we really have to embrace one and reject the other?

I suspect all those who attend New Networks for Nature, as members of our Western society with a commitment to values of conservation, do actually integrate moral concern for the intrinsic value of nature with economic arguments on a day-to-day basis. After all, as is so often pointed out, the word ‘economics’ derives from the Greek ‘oikos’ or household: economics is good management of the household. For example, when I think about how to heat my house, I may chose the most carbon-efficient approach I can find and afford. But it makes no sense to replace this new system as soon as an even more carbon efficient one is available – the costs outweigh the benefits both to my pocket and to the wider ecology. Questions of travel illustrate another was moral value and calculation come together: we may chose to limit the amount we fly to those occasions when the journey appears, in some calculus, to be truly worthwhile. The same logic applies in the animal world: as we watched the magnificent pictures of a blue whale on the recent BBC TV programme The Hunt, we were told that it was not worth the blue whale opening its huge mouth unless it could swallow a great mass of krill. That is essentially an economic (although not a monetary one) argument.

Instead of seeing the two sides of this argument as fundamentally opposed, we might think of them dialectically. Two concepts are dialectically related when elaboration of one draws attention to the other as having been implicitly denied or excluded by the first; the opposites co-define each other. So the articulation of the economic value of the natural world draws attention to its moral, intrinsic value, and vice versa. A second principle of dialectical thinking is that opposites interpenetrate each other: Tony Juniper argued that is was morally appropriate to place an economic value on nature if this meant we were more likely to conserve it. A third principle is that, taken to the extreme, the opposites become one, so that at the heart of every moral principle there appears a pragmatic, even economic calculus: it is morally right to care about preserving natural world, and it helps to preserve an environment in which humans may continue to flourish. Dialectical reasoning tells us that any value, held in a one-sided way, will become an illusion. It also shows us how movement takes place through contradiction: how if we look long enough, hard enough, and creatively enough the dualism will resolve into a new, integrative position.

Of course, if we look for resolution too soon, all we will get is a horrible compromise. We need the robust debate of the kind we witnessed at Stanford. But we also need not to be dazzled by the gladiatorial spectacle of debate – even when the gladiators are as skilled, informed and as mutually respectful as were Monbiot and Juniper.

But where do we look for resolution? I have two suggestions. The first is that we develop the creative potential of community debate. At Stanford the debate between the principles was the focus of attention: the lights were on the stage, the audience sat in the dark, and even when questions and contributions were invited they were swallowed up in the either/or structure that had been established. I would like to have seen us all drawn into a more participative and creative debate, loosened from the oppositional framing, through a democratic conference design such as world café.

But where do we look for creative resolution of a question such as this? One place is in the work of George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, whose book Metaphors We Live By, argues that ‘Our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature.’ Lakoff takes this into the political field in Moral Politics in which he examines the political metaphors of liberals and conservatives. He argues that one of the reasons ‘liberals’ have been in difficulty since the 1980s is that they have not been as aware of their own guiding metaphors as the political right. In this country, the political right – George Osborne in particular, who was evoked several times during the debate – have captured the dominant metaphor in the image of austerity as necessary in order that the country pays its way in the world, and to ‘mend the roof while the sun is shining’. A majority of us, including Nobel winning economists, know this is nonsense but have not found the persuasive stories and metaphors to counter it.

I believe Tony Juniper is absolutely right in arguing that conservation and the ecological argument must be part of mainstream debate. I believe George Monbiot is absolutely right in arguing that to try to enter the mainstream through conventional economics and cost benefit analysis will mean the conservation argument will be swamped.

It is all a matter of metaphor and of story. So long as we cast the debate in either/or, dualist terms, we will blind ourselves to the new emergent integrative metaphor. I don’t know what that metaphor will be or how we will incorporate it into a new story. I do know that articulating a new metaphor, telling a new story about the human relation to the Earth of which we are a part, is a central task of our times. It is a task to which New Networks for Nature, with its collaboration between scientists, naturalists, poets, storytellers and artists, is uniquely placed to contribute.