Tackling the impossible through collaboration
BY MARY O'BRIEN
I promise to report back a year from now. I'm participating in two collaborative efforts wherein people who have disagreed for a long time have agreed to try to agree. By next December, when I'll report again, each collaboration will be succeeding, middling or failing. I don't know how (or whether) differences will be resolved, but if "Peace on Earth" is going to remain a reasonable human goal, people who disagree are going to have to do something other than merely trying to defeat or kill each other.
The first is the urban West Eugene Collaboration, which includes conservationists, business, government and community representatives. Its long-sentence purpose is to "Develop an integrated land use and transportation solution supported by stakeholders that will facilitate movement of people and commerce from/through/to west Eugene and west of Eugene while enhancing community, business, and the environment." In other words, think of something to do other than arguing about the 20-year-old West Eugene Parkway. We plan to propose solutions by December 2008.
It will be quite the accomplishment if we come up with a land use and transportation solution supported by Eugene's divided stakeholders. Likewise, it is quite the task to figure out how to enhance the environment with land use and transportation developments rather than merely limiting environmental damage of such developments. But that's the ambitious goal.
The second collaboration is the rural southern Utah Tushar Allotments Collaboration (http://tushar.ecr.gov),which includes conservationists, cattle permittees and government representatives. Its goal is to agree by April 2009 on changed practices on two long-overgrazed cattle allotments of 42,000 acres.
The odds against consensus solutions in either of these face-to-face collaborative groups might seem long, but here are some elements I see going for both:
• Unfounded claims can be challenged more effectively than from behind dueling op-ed pieces, organizations or ads.
• Joint on-ground visits to sites of disputes or proposals change perceptions and increase mutual understanding.
• Joint gathering and examination of evidence reduces both ignorance and PR spin.
• Each participant's proposals and concerns matter, reducing inequalities in numerical, economic or political power.
• Each participant has the responsibility to put forward proposals she or he thinks the others can live with rather than merely putting forth demands.
• Listening is rewarded because those who listen will better discern what proposals might appeal.
• Innovation is rewarded because rehashed proposals won't move people out of their corners.
• Hard work is rewarded because those who develop the best information-based proposals are the most likely to see them incorporated.
• Being sleazy won't get anyone far because everyone else is watching.
• Anyone can ask crucial questions that often aren't asked in standard planning processes.
• Some people are funnier face-to-face, which helps free people.
• Affection, spontaneously arising as it does among at least some people who spend time together, reduces rigidities.
• Both collaborations have neutral facilitators to keep the process moving and fair.
Well, that's fine for process. How do joint solutions arise despite fundamental differences? For instance, take the West Eugene Collaboration. I believe we should make every possible contribution toward reliance on public transit, non-motorized transportation and altered configuration of homes, businesses and industry because 1) global warming = global biological, social, economic and political crises; and 2) U.S. transportation alone emits more carbon dioxide (CO2) than all but three other countries' emissions from all sources combined. A second participant has said it doesn't matter if we reduce CO2 emissions because someone else will burn oil if we don't. A third figures technological fixes will allow us to have more cars. And a fourth claims human activities aren't causing global warming.
By themselves, these beliefs would lead to varied, perhaps irreconcilable, proposals for west Eugene land use and transportation. But such beliefs don't exist in isolation from other beliefs held by the same four individuals that do coincide. Further, solutions we consider here don't exist in isolation from other cities' innovations that might appeal to us despite our different perspectives on cars and global warming.
It is the multiplicity of beliefs, findings and innovations worldwide, in combination with processes such as those listed above, that allow diverse participants to have a hope of configuring solutions acceptable to them and their communities.
At least that's my belief. Let's see where we get by next December.
Mary O'Brien of Eugene has worked as a public interest scientist since 1981. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org