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ENVIRONMENTAL CONFLICT RESOLUTION

If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each man's life, sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostilities. — Henry Wadsworth Longfellow


Each society has also been marked by its birth, maturation, and demise; the latter brought about by uncontrolled population growth that outstripped the source of available energy, be it loss of topsoil or deforestation. But in olden times the survivors could move on to less populated, more fertile areas as their civilizations collapsed. Today there is nowhere left on Earth to go!

Yet, having learned little or nothing from history, our civilization is currently destroying the very environment from which it sprang and on which it relies for continuance. Society as we know it cannot, therefore, be the final evolutionary stage for human existence. But what lies beyond our current notion of civilization? What is the next frontier for people to conquer? Is it outer space as so often stated? No, it is inner space, the conquest of oneself, which many assert is life's most difficult task. As the Buddha said: "Though he should conquer a thousand men in the battlefield a thousand times, yet he, indeed, who would conquer himself is the noblest victor."

In the material world, self-conquest means bringing our thoughts and behaviors in line with the immutable biophysical laws governing the world in which we live, raising the level of our concisousness to be in tune with the law of cause and effect. In the spiritual realm, this means disciplining our thoughts and behaviors in accord with the highest metaphysical truths handed down throughout the ages, such as: love your neighbor as yourself, and treat others as you want them to treat you.

The outcome of self-conquest is social-environmental sustainability, which must be the next cultural stage towards which we struggle. Social-environmental sustainability is the frontier beyond self-centeredness and its stepchild, destructive conflict. I specify destructive conflict because conflict itself is not necessarily destructive. Conflict can be personally and socially constructive, such as a focused debate on an environmental issue that brings about increased growth in personal and social consciousness. In other instances, conflict can be viewed as somewhat neutral, such as differences of opinion in which two people amicably agree to disagree. A conflict—like those dealt with herein—becomes destructive when it destroys human dignity, degrades the health of an ecosystem's productive capacity, or forecloses options for present and/or future generations.

To change anything, we must, through the choices we make, reach beyond where we are, beyond where we feel safe. We must dare to move ahead, even if we do not fully understand where we are going or the price of getting there because we will never have perfect knowledge. And we must become students of processes, thereby letting go our advocacy of positions and embattlements over winning agreement with narrow points of view. This is important because our ever-increasing knowledge rapidly outstrips the ability of our current paradigm, based on old knowledge, to explain the new in terms of the old.

True progress toward an ecologically-sound environment and a socially-just culture will be initially expensive in both money and effort, but in the end will not only be mandated by shifting public values but also will be progressively less expensive over time. The longer we wait, however, the more disastrous becomes the environmental condition and the more expensive and difficult become the necessary social changes.

No biological short-cuts, technological quick-fixes, or political hype can mend what is broken. Dramatic, fundamental change is necessary if we are really concerned with bettering the quality of life—even that of next year. It is not a question of can we or can't we change, but one of will we or won't we change. But as American psychologist William James observed: " a great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices." Change, however, is a choice, a choice of individuals reflected in the collective of society and mirrored in the landscape.

Can destructive environmental conflicts be resolved? Emphatically, yes! But thus far I find only one kind of facilitative approach that can begin to accomplish such resolution. It is the largely-ignored "transformative approach," which is a change or refinement in the consciousness or character of individual human beings—individual moral development, if you will.

To resolve environmental conflicts, the facilitation process not only must have the greatest and longest-lasting personal and social effect possible but also must be as healing as possible because outcomes of environmental conflicts are, above all, intergenerational. This means that it is the present generation's responsibility to serve the future, not the future generations' responsibility to serve the present.

Destructive conflicts are created by the choices people make and, therefore, can be resolved by electing different choices with resolution so firmly in mind that it naturally leads to a shared vision of the future toward which to build. Because people are often consciously blind to the motives of their choices, however, some kind of facilitative process is needed to help resolve destructive conflicts by overcoming blind spots, the first step towards a shared vision.

There are many reasons facilitation is necessary to the resolution of an environmental conflict, but I am going to list only ten that are important to me by helping people understand that:

  • the level of consciousness (thinking) that created a problem is not the level of consciousness that can fix it; to fix a problem, one must raise one's consciousness to a higher realm than the level of consciousness that caused the problem in the first place;

  • Nature—not humanity—is ultimately in control and sets impartial rules for the intergenerational experiment of life;

  • solar energy is the only "free" resource over geological time; Earth-based resources are ultimately finite—a condition now exacerbated by a global overpopulation of humans and an unjust distribution of available resources;

  • science can do the job it was designed to do only when we have resolved our destructive conflicts and can accept scientific data for what it is meant to be: tentative insight into universal relationships;

  • the environment and our children, their children, and their childrens' children are the silent parties in almost every environmental conflict;

  • people are one another's learning partners, and conflict is one of life's classrooms;

  • through conflict resolution we can reframe our understanding of the environmental issues, renegotiate our participation with one another and our environment, and in so doing realize what costs we are committing our children and those of the future to pay for our decisions and behavior;

  • destructive conflict—and its squandering of finite resources through the primacy of competition—is a luxury society cannot afford;

  • destructive conflict is a choice, and we always have the option of choosing to choose again;

  • social-environmental sustainability is also a choice, but it requires a collective vision to see beyond destructive conflict.

One of my main purposes for working to resolve environmental conflicts is to help people understand the debt they are committing their children and their children's children to pay through decisions they make during the resolution process, however the conflict comes out. It is imperative that people become aware of the long-term effects of their decisions.

I say this because I believe children are one of the two silent parties in all environmental conflicts; the land and the health of its productive capacity is the other. All parties must understand the environmental and social circumstances (including economic) to which they are committing the future because, if the conflict is destructive and the outcome is a deficit in terms of either the childrens' future options or the ecosystem's productive capacity, it is analogous to "taxation without representation," and that goes against everything our democracy is reputed to stand for.

Rainbow in wheat field

As long as we speak for the children (and thus for the productive
capacity of the land, as opposed to just for our own, adult
self-interests), there is hope for their future well-being.

I therefore facilitate every environmental conflict toward its natural conclusion, a shared vision of a sustainable future toward which to build. Such a vision is the necessary culmination of every facilitation process dealing with the resolution of a destructive environmental conflict if society, as we know it, is to survive the twenty-first century. This is a critical idea, because parts are often mistaken for wholes, and ideas are often viewed as complete when in fact they are not—as is often the case with environmental conflicts, when the outcome is seen only as the solution of an immediate problem.



APPROACHES TO FACILITATION

To help you understand why I use only the transformative approach, the following comparative discussion of approaches to facilitation is drawn from the introduction and Chapter 1 of Bush and Folger's excellent book, "The Promise of Mediation." (For those interested in a comparison of facilitative approaches, this is the book to read: Robert A. Bush and Joseph P. Folger. 1994. "The Promise of Mediation: Responding to Conflict through Empowerment and Recognition." Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, CA.) Facilitation, according to Bush and Folger, is generally understood as an informal process in which a neutral third party, one powerless to impose resolution, helps disputing parties seek a mutually acceptable settlement. As such, facilitation has within itself the unique transformative potential to engender moral growth in people by helping them—in the very midst of conflict—to wrestle with difficult inner and outer circumstances and bridge human differences.

Bush and Folger point out that "substantial evidence" indicates today's, standard facilitation process focuses largely on problem-solving, perhaps even more so than in earlier years. In fact, the unique potential of facilitation to achieve conscious transformation is receiving less and less emphasis in practice. This tremendous potential is therefore seldom realized, and when it is, it's generally serendipitous, rather than the result of the facilitator's purposeful efforts. There is currently a crossroad facing facilitation, one reflecting the movement's two basic approaches: problem-solving and transformation.



THE PROBLEM-SOLVING APPROACH

The problem-solving approach to environmental conflicts emphasizes the capacity of facilitation to find solutions that generate mutually acceptable settlements, almost always for the immediate benefit of adult humans, regardless of the effect of the settlement on children or the health and productive capacity of the environment. Facilitators using this approach often endeavor to influence and direct disputants toward settlement in general, and even toward the specific terms of a settlement.

As facilitation has evolved, the problem-solving approach has been increasingly emphasized, to the point where this kind of directed, settlement-oriented facilitation dominates the current movement. The premise of the problem-solving approach is that the most important goal is to maximize the greatest possible satisfaction for individuals engaged in a conflict. But as author Gail Sheehy points out: "Human institutions prepare people for continuity, not for change." To me, therefore, the limitations inherent in the problem-solving approach are precisely its narrowness in scope, rigid focus on quantifiable outcomes, and the increasing attempt to eliminate risk—all symptoms of its growing institutionalization.

Designer Milton Glaser captures well my concern with the uncritical institutionalizing of professionalism in facilitating the resolution of disputes when he says: "Professionalism really means eliminating risk. Once you become good at something, everyone wants you to repeat it over and over again. But the more you eliminate risk, the closer you come to eliminating the act of creative intervention." In contrast to the problem-solving approach, the transformation approach emphasizes the capacity of facilitation to initiate and enhance personal growth, which is embodied in the ability to approach and accept risk with an elevated sense of consciousness.



THE TRANSFORMATIVE APPROACH

Through transformative conflict resolution, I concentrate on helping parties empower themselves to define the issues and decide the settlement in their own terms and in their own time through a better understanding of one another's perspectives. I therefore avoid the directiveness associated with the problem-solving approach. Equally important, I help parties recognize and capitalize on the opportunities for personal growth inherently present in conflict. This does not mean that satisfaction and fairness are unimportant; rather, it means that transformation of human moral awareness and conduct through an elevated sense of consciousness is even more important.

My aim is to help parties become better human beings by stimulating conscious awareness of cause and effect that transforms human character in a way that helps parties find genuine solutions to their real problems. In addition, the private, nonjudgmental, noncoercive character of transformative facilitation can provide disputants a safe haven in which to humanize themselves, despite their having started out as fierce adversaries. This safety helps people feel and express varying degrees of understanding and concern for one another as they grow toward greater understanding and compassion, despite their disagreement.

The most important aspect of transformative conflict resolution is its ability to strengthen people's moral resolve and their ability to handle adverse circumstances beyond the immediate conflict. It therefore transforms society for the better by bringing out intrinsic good in people.



Relaxing after a conflict resolution workshop

I am deeply committed to the philosophical foundation of transformative conflict resolution, which is all I practice. I say this because, having lived under both a ruthless dictator and a Communist regime that were, at best, indifferent to human life, I know that coercion of any kind settles no differences and lays to rest no issues. It only degrades human beings by stealing both dignity and hope from their souls.



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Chris Maser
www.chrismaser.com
Corvallis, OR 97330

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