, Volume 27, Issue 1, pp 13-25

“A Kiss Here and a Kiss There”: Conflict and Collaboration in Environmental Partnerships

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Abstract

Multistakeholder collaboration in the environmental realm has been increasing steadily over the past decade. This trend is responding to several stimuli, including dissatisfaction with current regulatory regimes, a liberal economic climate emphasizing global competitiveness and short-term returns, and the growing roles of the business and nongovernmental organization sectors in the environmental policy arena. This paper grows out of ethnographic research conducted between 1994 and 1998 with four environmental partnerships in Europe and the United States. The research found all of these partnerships to be marked by practices of conflict minimization and diffusion. Drawing upon illustrative data from one of these case studies, a European Union level initiative aimed at enabling sustainable development in Europe, the paper asks why this was the case, especially given the diverse political and economic interests at stake and the history of contentious relations between the sectors in other venues. Employing a theoretical perspective highlighting the sociohistoric factors involved in these processes, the paper suggests that this proclivity toward nonconfrontational behavior stems in part from two sources: a prominent cultural model that conceptualizes the partnership process as fundamentally nonconflictual in nature, and the promotion of the discourse of ecological modernization over other competing discourses. The paper explores some of the implications of this finding and concludes that environmental partnerships characterized by such nonconfrontational practices risk inadvertently encouraging the delegitimization of conflictual approaches to environmental action and engendering a retreat from radical thinking and innovative environmental solutions.