Also see: My History in Environmental Conflict Resolution | "No formula" | "Community Building" | Recommendations
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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