I recall being sent to a Stephen Covey course, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, many years ago. The one habit that struck me most was “Seek first to understand and then to be understood”. What is so remarkable about this habit is its ability to defuse conflict situations - would that more people put it into practice. But it strikes me this sort of approach is not in the nature of humans who would sooner shoot first and ask questions later.
So here’s the scene: a meeting in a breezy seminar room to discuss all things “trees”.
The matter is a contentious one. The trees are not indigenous. Yet they provide local communities, particularly impoverished ones, with much needed recreational shade. Others enjoy the plantations for walking, dog walking, horse riding, mountain biking, picnicking and barbequing. And, it should be said, that of the entire National Park that runs through the middle of the city, these pine plantations form only two percent. True, the indigenous vegetation is under threat and much of it has already been destroyed by urban development – along with the indigenous peoples who were wiped out by the original Dutch settlers way back in the 1600’s... But now, in an era of “biodiversity crisis” and after years of slumber, local botanists have finally decided to pop up and bellow loudly. I have no issue with this – but it’s the how of the matter that irks me.
My position is simply this: We live in a time of global warming in a city that already enjoys temperatures of plus 30 degrees Celsius in summer. It is a Mediterranean climate and the little shade there is, is much valued. Moreover, the plantations act as something of a green lung in a polluted environment – and of course, provide that valuable recreational shade. They have also come to form part of the city’s cultural landscape. The other critical point is that throughout my fight for the trees (accepting that plantations are a form of agriculture and the trees are regularly harvested) I have wanted to provide a voice for those who were given no voice – namely, those from “previously disadvantaged communities”. To this end I have, over several Sundays, conducted interviews amongst these people as they’ve picnicked in the shade of the pines. What struck and distressed me was the level of disempowerment voiced - the simmering resentment and hostility towards an authority who never consulted them – as in the bad old days and so now…
So in the meeting of all interested and affected parties yesterday I raised just that point and pointed out that the group of predominantly white faces sitting around the table was hardly representative of the majority of the city’s inhabitants, particularly those who live in dusty, treeless communities.
And so from stage right enters Mr Despicable Opinion.
I’ve been hearing about Old Despicable for the past few months, but having never met the man formed no opinion of my own. It is, I believe, a little unreasonable to accept others’ judgement without study of the subject oneself…
From the moment I closed my mouth, having made my plea, I felt something or someone’s energy directed at me - and it was not a well-meaning energy. It was resentful, bitter, angry… I ignored it, told myself I was imagining it…
The meeting over, I stood outside the seminar room in conversation with a friend. A man of about 60 with white grey hair stalked towards me. His body radiated contained aggression and he locked eyes with me as he began to speak. His the voice was measured - baiting a trap.
“Did you tell those picnickers the trees were going?” Despicable Opinion asked.
I knew where this was coming from. He was hoping I’d say yes – and nothing else.
So I said, “Yes, I did - but I also told them the picnic site would be moved and pointed out the proposed new picnic area.”
He tried again.
“Did you give a time frame?”
“No, I didn’t, I don’t know the time frame.”
My friend butted in. “It’s imminent – we’ve just been told that in the meeting.”
Despicable glowered at me. “I want you to know that what you’ve done is despicable!”
“You’re entitled to your opinion,” I said.
“You had no right to speak to those people! I’ve been speaking to those people. I know what’s right for them! You had no right. Your actions are despicable. Despicable!”
He was frothing and plumes of blue smoke billowed from his ears.
“As I said, you’re entitled to your opinion.”
“Thank you for letting me be entitled to my opinion!” he snarled and spun on his heel in a huff.
“My pleasure,” I said to his retreating back, “it is after all only an opinion.”
And so it is - just an opinion – of a man who knows nothing about me or my motives. Who has no clue how I conducted my surveys or the spirit in which it was done. The opinion of a man used to bullying others so he can have his own way.
We are complete strangers yet he chose to go to war because he felt threatened. And he made an assumption. And you know what they say about the word “assume” – ass u me. Nobody wins.
But Mr Despicable Opinion is not alone in the position he takes – it is the position of many an insecure person feeling threatened. You see, Old Despicable hates the pines. He wants to preserve the indigenous vegetation – scrubby grey bush – at all costs. It’s a noble view but it is unbalanced because biodiversity is not just about plants, it’s about people too. Biodiversity is about ecosystems and, whether one likes it or not, us humans are very much an integral part of those systems. Perhaps the next thing for Mr Opinion to argue is the removal of all humans from this part of the world too. That is, after all, the logical conclusion of his position. Now, I wonder what the opinion of others would be on that…