Also see:  The Visioning Process | Why a Vision is Important | My History in Visioning and Leadership | Letters of Recommendation

You really shouldn't say "I LOVE YOU" unless you mean it. But if you mean it, you should say it a lot. People forget. — Jessica, age 8

All we have to give our children are choices and some things of value from which to choose. With each choice we pass forward, we give the children our love, our trust, our respect, and the benefit of our experience. With each choice we foreclose, we withhold our love, our trust, our respect, and the benefit of our experience.

All we do in life—ever—is practice relationships, some of which form the passive violence we bequeath our children and those of the world. Here it must be understood that we live between two oceans (one of water, the other of air), and each has currents that circumnavigate the globe. If, therefore, we fix all the worldly problems-except clean the air, we will still pollute the entire Earth, from the blue arc of its heavens to the bottom of its deepest sea, in every corner of the globe.

Clean air is the absolute "bottom line" for human survival. Without clean air, there eventually will be no difference in the way we destroy ourselves, either directly through nuclear war or indirectly by air pollution because our biosphere is comprised of interactive components, where one affects the whole and the whole affects the one. If we adults do not clean the air we breathe, then we will commit indirect suicide, and that is our choice. As we commit indirect suicide for ourselves, we simultaneously commit indirect infanticide with respect to virtually all generations of the future, and that, too, is our choice. But is it the choice of the children whose demise we will be responsible for?


The presence of children is critical to a successful visioning process for several reasons, of which three are primary:  (1) a visioning process is preemptive conflict resolution, and adults behave better when children are present, (2) children have a voice in their future, and (3) children represent a different level on the stairs of perception.


I was taught that conflict between people is simply a mindless condition of life, a necessity of survival. Finally, in my mid-forties, I began to understand that conflict comes about because frightened people perceive the need to defend themselves from the potential loss of what they think and feel they must have to survive—control of their own lives as they perceive it. Control, in this sense, is synonymous to each person's "right of survival," however that is defined. And the perceived security of our right of survival is weighed against the number of choices we think are available to us as individuals.

These choices are in turn affected by the supply and demand for natural resources—the world's source and supply of energy, which all life requires in one form or another. The greater the supply of a particular resource, say clean water, the greater the freedom of choices an individual has with respect to that resource. Conversely, the smaller the supply, the narrower is the range of choices. The variety of available choices dictates the amount of control we feel we have, which consequently affects our sense of security about our survival. Thus, the seed or the germ of all conflict comes from a perceived loss of choice, which we interpret as a threat to our survival.

We relieve our fear of being out of control by creating enemies onto whom we can project blame for our fears and thereby justify them. But what or who is the enemy? An enemy is one seeking to injure, overthrow, or confound an opponent, something harmful or deadly. We're not the enemy because we're convinced that our position, our values are the right ones, and "the enemy" is wrong. This is what we are taught. This is the eternal verity around which conflict rallies.

When both or all sides feel this way, there is little understanding that an enemy is anyone or anything that is perceived to threaten our sense of survival. Herein lies the great irony:  conflict in one way or another is the spawn of misunderstandings, miscommunications, and misperceptions. Conflict is thus a mistake or a misjudgment of appearances that is avoidable because it's only a choice of responses to a given circumstance.

When one side or the other perceives a threat to its survival, the most important, single precipitating factor in conflict is misperception, which manifests itself in a leader's self-image, in a leader's view of the adversary's character, in a leader's view of the adversary's intentions, and in a leader's view of the adversary's capabilities and power. Once misperception is in play, miscommunication joins ranks with misjudgment to foster a distorted view of the adversary's character, which helps to precipitate a conflict.

If a leader on the brink of conflict believes that an adversary will attack, the chances of conflict are fairly high. If both leaders share this perception about each other's intent, conflict becomes a virtual certainty.

The lesson conflict has to teach is that conflict of any kind is a cycle of attack and defense based on the misjudgment of appearances. Appearance is an outward aspect of something that comes into view, and judgment is the process of forming an opinion or evaluation based on assumptions by discerning and comparing something believed or asserted. Therefore, those whom we define as enemies are those onto whom we affix blame for our perceived sense of insecurity, our perceived threat to our survival.

Our judgments are necessarily incorrect, however, because nothing is as it appears since appearance is external. If we could understand the inner motive of our "enemy," we would find a mirror reflection of our own fears for our survival. And in that reflection, we would find that we had made a mistake about our enemy, which means to make an incorrect judgment of character or ability based on inadequate knowledge.

If we are not one other's enemies, what is the enemy? What we are really afraid of is change—the loss of something we value through circumstances we cannot control, circumstances that we perceive as a threat to our sense of survival.

Control, often used as a synonym for power, is an interesting phenomenon. We pay dearly for control, but regardless of the price, there are limitations. I cannot, for example, control the wind, but I can trim my sails. The wind is the circumstance beyond my control, but by trimming my sails I can choose how I respond to the wind. And in my response, I am in control of myself, which de facto controls the circumstance.

That we cannot control circumstances is a given, although we continually try, which results in either inner or outer conflict of some magnitude. However, we can control how we react to circumstances, and therein lays both the problem and its resolution.

The inability to control circumstances in any meaningful way translates into fear of change because every circumstance causes change in some way, whether relatively minor or catastrophic. Change is thus perceived as a loss of control that threatens survival. We therefore want to control circumstances whenever we can so that other people—our perceived enemies—will have to risk change, but not us.

When, however, we focus our attention on human enemies we are really focusing incorrectly. The other person is not the enemy. The enemy is fear. Conflict is thus an attempt to move away from that fear, away from some unwanted circumstance. Conflict is a choice of behavior that we resort to because that is what we've been taught to do in order to cope with circumstances we perceive as threatening to our survival.

It's therefore necessary to understand that every circumstance we encounter in some way evokes an unanticipated change in our participation with life. In turn, each change we are obliged to make is a compromise in our sense of control, which is frightening to most people in an increasingly complex world. In the United States, our ultimate attempt to control another person or persons is through use of the court system.

We go to court with any and every legal standing we can find, which is usually procedure—seldom substance. In other words, the ends justify the means. But what is the social-environmental cost of a contest wherein one does not think about or question the validity, the social responsibility or ramifications, or even the truth of the issue at hand? Because human values can neither be legislated nor legalized, do the ends really justify the means when my "victory" legally forces you to change your behavior (termed "compliance") so that I will not have to change mine?

Who's "right" when we're all right from our own, individual points of view? If everyone's right, then who's wrong? Right or wrong is always a human judgment, and judgments can only deal with appearances, not with reality. Everyone loses when issues are "settled" by judgments of right or wrong because, again, judgments can deal only with appearances. In addition, we do battle in court over procedural matters, and social-environmental sustainability loses in the end, which means all of humanity has lost. If, on the other hand, the court could assess and would rule on substance, such as the long-term ecological health of the land, then the land and humanity could win.

What happens to a society that obeys the letter of the law and violates the heart of the law? First, we perceive one other as enemies. Second, we too often destroy the land's sustainable biologically capacity in the ensuing struggle for power and control. And third, we foreclose the options for future generations.

If we go to court to punish and "win," what have we won? We've won the legal right to remain stuck within the rigid limits of our thinking. We have won the legal right to retain our fear of change and argue for our limitations at the expense of our potential. And we have won the legal right to humiliate our opponent, because the court has awarded us our opponent's dignity as the legal trophy of "conquest."

Here, I must reiterate:  There is no human enemy. The enemy is fear—an enemy it takes the utmost courage to face, for each of us must face our own fear in the depths of our soul. There are few arenas that test a person's courage like facing change, especially change one does not want, change over which one feels completely out of control.

Therefore, if we go to court to teach, we all win, because teaching is a process of experiencing ourselves and one another as growing human beings with the courage to examine the issue, to allow and to help one another to change, and to help one another experience each other as we grow toward a new relationship. Although we have not yet reached this peaceful use of the courtroom as a hall of learning, I know there is a better way to treat one other and the Earth. It's called a creating a shared vision of a sustainable future toward which to build.

The challenge with every conflict I have helped to resolve has been that of been one side arguing for what it wants while trying to stop the other side from getting what it wants. Such competitive tactics are fear-based self-centeredness, which totally excludes the children.

On the other hand, when I insist on having children present during the resolution of a conflict, the adults begin to think of someone besides themselves, and it's easier to guide them toward the potential of a vision than remaining stuck in the guaranteed limitations of the conflict. Part of the "magic" is giving the children a voice in the outcome.

With this background, I have found that it's far better to engage in a visioning process before a given situation becomes too contentious, rather than waiting for a conflict to erupt, which only complicates matters. Again, part of the "magic" is giving the children a voice in the outcome, which makes the vision a truly shared experience—one that acts as preemptive conflict resolution because mutual agreements are reached before divergent desires, and the emotions they engender, get out of hand. top


A major problem for children in the United States, as I have written in " Giving Children a Voice," is that they do not have the First Amendment Right of "free speech" because, being children, they are simply discounted, precisely because they are children. And adults, having long forgotten what it's like to be a child, consider them too immature to know what they want their future to be like in terms adults deem realistic. The other thing adults have forgotten from their own childhood is what it feels like to have the validity of their thoughts continually stifled simply because they are children. And yet, I have found that, when children are intimately involved in the resolution of a conflict or in a visioning process, the adults act with far greater compassion and understanding (=psychological maturity) toward the children's point of view than they might otherwise do—perhaps remembering what it was like to be a child themselves.

Nevertheless, I have repeatedly found that children know what they want their future to be like, and are happy to be asked, provided the one who asks really listens. Moreover, I have found that every, basic human requirement—such as peace for all, love for all, enough food for all, an education for all, beauty for all, and so on—is paramount to the children. Here are four examples, taken from "Giving Children a Voice." The children were in the fourth grade at the time they wrote these essays for me:

If I got to pick what I wanted the future to be like, I would want people to be nice to other people. I want people to be nice and grateful to each other. I would also want people to be cooperative. Cooperative means to work well together. I would really like it if that would happen.

The other thing I would want is for people to help clean up the world. The reason I would want that, is because the world is getting more and more polluted lately. Almost every year people start polluting the world more. Imagine only one person cleaning up all this garbage in the world, that would take about 100 years! My only wish is for people to start cleaning up their own garbage and to stop polluting. Maryam R

If I got to chose one thing that I would like to see when I have children of my own it would be peace. I want my children to grow up with peace around them. If the world was all peaceful you would see everybody being kind to each other. You can sort of feel peace. That feeling is wonderful. But to have peace everybody would have to try.

First, everybody will have to be convinced that a peaceful world is a good world. Then, we (meaning the people who want peace) could tell them (meaning the people who don't want peace) that it will help the world a lot and everybody will want to be nice to each other. It will be hard but if everybody works hard the world just might be a peaceful place. I know that peace will make the world a better place. And that is the world I want. Michael G.

What I want the world to look like when I have children. I want everyone to have food because if you don't have food you can't live and you probably don't want to die. I want the earth to feel safe. I want it to smell clean and look clean. I want it to sound quiet and that the food tastes good. How can this come about is people working harder like to make food, cook food, try to help save endangered species, keep planting trees, and try to keep clean air. If you want to know how to know how to help then clean up garbage like at the beach, at a school in you neighborhood or at a park. You can ask your friends if they will help and you should recycle. If everyone recycled then the world would be much cleaner and easyer to move around. Taylor R.

When I have children I want the world to have clean air and clean water. The air and water would be poision free. In the cities, people would have clean air in their face, no masks. The air taste good and smell good and the water would be clear and taste sweet. The plants would get a lot of clear water in the cities.

You could get this to happen by saying that you have to recycle almost everything. People could take all of the cans and trash out of the rivers, streams, ponds and lakes. Another way would be to filter oil and pollution out of all polluted bodies of water. A way to get the air clean would be to have all factory workers to figure out a way to run the factory using some other fuel, like solar power or a battery. People could try to transport air from the farm lands to the cities, then take the air somewhere that is in space. If people did this, we would have a very clean earth. Lauren K.

I detected nothing in the hopes of these children that we adults cannot bequeath them as our legacy, if we so choose. And it is only a choice, but one we seem unwilling to make. Part of the reason for our reticence may be where we stand on the stairs of perception. top


To best help you understand what I mean by "the stairs of perception," I will repeat a conversation I have many years ago with Ken Gordon, the processor in charge of my master's degree. (To see the original context of the following conversation, go to:  My History in Environmental Education.)

What the arrival of the chain saw meant to the forests I loved really came home to me in 1963 as I worked on my Master's Thesis, for which I studied red tree mice, whose populations were constantly decimated by clear-cut logging. The destruction of their habitat was particularly painful because I had grown to love the little, red mice so very much. In fact, each time my research necessitated killing one of them, I'd lock myself in my office and cry almost uncontrollably during and after the whole process. Once again the unrelenting grief of continual loss knocked at the door to my heart.

Keenly aware of my grief, I went to the only person with whom I could discuss it—Dr. Kenneth L. Gordon.

Ken, the professor in charge of my graduate studies, was an exceedingly gentle man of tremendous artistic talent in writing, drawing, wood carving, and photography, in addition to which he exhibited boundless creativity in his pursuit of natural history. Moreover, he, too, suffered from the same grief that I did. But it was his philosophy of minimal, ethical disturbance of Nature, his gentleness with all things living, and his deep regard for the living spirit he saw in all things that still influences me, an influence that began with my barging into his office one day in a blind rage over the destruction of a forest wherein I was studying red tree mice.

Telling me to close his office door, he motioned me to sit while he tapped the spent tobacco out of his ever-present pipe, refilled and lighted it. He then regarded me for a long, silent moment, as though making up his mind about something.

"Chris," he said, "you'll find in life that most people are so busy with their day-to-day affairs they scarcely notice anything else. I came here to Oregon in 1926. It was much more peaceful then with far fewer people. In fact, I think I drove every road in the state within a decade. I've seen a lot of destruction of the state within these past thirty-seven years [it was now early 1963]. That's why I started photographing what I call 'The Passing Scene.' It's my way of remembering the part of my life that's fading into history, never to return. Creating an archive of visual memories is my way of softening my grief."

"Doc," I interrupt his slow, methodical speech because—as impolite as it was—experience had taught me that Ken was easily sidetracked into examining hitherto unexplored, mental rabbit trails, "what are you getting at?"

"Well," he continued, "like me, you'll see much that you love disappear in your lifetime before this modern notion of 'progress.' And, like me in my youth, you'll feel powerless to stop it. In fact, I came west when I graduated from Cornell with my Ph.D. because I loved the open country. I wanted to get away from the destruction I saw on the East Coast. But I couldn't get away from it. It's here too!"

"How did you even know about the openness of the West if you were at Cornell?"

"Because I was raised in Fort Collins, Colorado. Anyway, I've found that anger and force net only despair. You've got to examine your feelings, and then go through them to reach the rational logic that will tell you what to do."

"How," I ask impatiently, "do I know when I've reached this 'rational logic' of which you speak?"

Ken went to the small blackboard on his office wall, picked up a piece of chalk, and drew the simple depiction of stairs. Pointing to the top step, he drew a horizontal line outward from it and said:  "This was Oregon as I saw it in the late twenties and early thirties, and to me that was the optimum."

"Okay," I ventured, "but I was born in 1938 and gained my perception of Oregon at its optimum in my teens and early twenties as I wandered the trails of the Coast and Cascade Mountains, as well as the high-desert steppe east of the Cascades. But now I find most of the places I loved already falling to the roar of chain saws."

Ken regarded me for an instant. Then went down two steps to 1950 and drew another horizontal line:  "This is when your perception of Oregon began to emerge." Drawing a third horizontal line outward from another step down (1960), he continued, "This is when you really began to notice the changes taking place. It is part of the human condition to notice change at intervals. If you love Nature and the natural world around you, then you have the sensation of descending the stairs from top to bottom, with each step a loss of something cherished. But, if your interest in life is tied to something like technology, then you ascend the stairs with each new invention, such as the chain saw. In the end, the desirability of a given change is based on one's perception of the circumstance that precipitated the change."

"Ken, this is clear," I said with some frustration in my voice, "but how will I know when I've reached this 'rational logic' you speak of?"

"You'll feel it; it's an intuitive sense of harmony with what's right, with what will work. For instance, did you ever consider that most people don't even know the consequences they cause in and to Nature simply because they're uninformed. They're not bad people; they're just ignorant. Not stupid—ignorant! Remember, scientists tend to write for and speak to one another; they've scant interest in informing the public. Perhaps that is something you could do—educate the public."


"When the time's right, you'll know what to do and how to do it. But first, you have to learn the basics. You have to pay your dues before you can speak. So, back to your studies!"

Ken always saw something to which others were blind. He saw the spiritual laws that lay behind all science and technology, the spiritual laws that underpinned the Universe. And in his quiet way, he planted in my mind, heart, and soul the seeds of his vision that I might one day see what he saw, a truly spiritual world.

Today, more than forty years after this conversation took place, I well understand what Ken meant about the "stairs of perception." For example, I felicitated the beginnings of a resolution to quell a brewing conflict over the use of a river that was drying up in the summer. The conflict, in part, was between long-time residents, who remembered what the river had been like in years past, when the human population had been far less that it is today, and the newcomers who were not only causing the human population to swell but also demanding more water from the already-troubled river. Added to this was a county encouraging growth in order to garner more taxes, which only added fuel to the simmering emotions.

As part of facilitation process, I convened a panel, as I have done in the past, with adults and young people. This particular panel, however, had all adults and a single teenaged boy.

I opened to panel by asking the participants to tell the audience how they "felt" about what was happening to the river—their river. As each adult spoke in turn about the terrible sense of loss at the river's decline in volume of water, loss of habitat for salmon, loss of remembered beauty, and on and on, they were each descending the stairs of perception—from what they had deemed perfection to the ongoing destruction of that which they loved.

When it became the teenage boy's turn, the audience was in for a surprise. This boy had been in trouble with the law and had been in detention for some time. He was, however, allowed to work on a restoration project in the river as part of his "rehabilitation." He began by saying that he couldn't understand why the adults were all so pessimistic, when the river was showing such good signs of recovery over the last couple of years that he had work on it. The audience sat in a momentary, stunned silence.

Here was a youngster without the historical memories of the adults, which came across to him as "unnecessary baggage," telling them of the positive changes he was seeing in the river's condition. Because he—without a personal, historical perspective—was going up the stairs of perception as the river changed, he failed to understand the adults' apparent misery. Why, he wondered, could they not see the positive changes? Why were they so stuck in their sense of loss and grief, when the good changes were so obvious?

Thus, as the adults descended the stairs of perception due to a sense of continual loss, the teenage boy was ascending the same stair, but from a sense of gain toward some future condition that he would someday deem optimum. Because the future belongs to the young, it's imperative that the young are represented in all visioning processes with a voice equal to that of the adults. After all, the young will inherit what the adults leave—for better or worse. And the young have neither voice nor choice in the outcome unless it is purposefully, consciously given to them as a "First Amendment Right" of participation through the freedom to speak, be respectfully listened to, and be truly heard. Only in this way can those descending the stairs of perception meet those ascending the stairs so that past and future can inform the present for the benefit of all. top


  • Vision and Leadership in Sustainable Development

  • Evaluating Sustainable Development:  Giving People a Voice in Their Destiny



    Chris Maser
    Corvallis, OR 97330

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