We care about environmental justice because it doesn't seem fair that poor communities of color should suffer disproportionate health risks. If we can demonstrate that companies have purposely located polluting facilities in minority neighborhoods, the law provides a remedy. When we can't prove intent, though, it's hard to make charges of environmental racism stick. Unfortunately, there are a great many situations in the United States where African-American, Hispanic, and Native American populations are suffering far greater health and environmental risks than their caucasian counterparts, whether a company intended this or not. These residents live next to riskier facilities (often unwittingly) because the price of land and the cost of housing are lower, or because it is the only place they were granted access. It you were the family involved, it wouldn't make a bit of difference what the company's intentions were, you'd want the situation fixed -- immediately. That's the problem. Many law suits have been filed under the law designed to remedy environmental injustice, but they have mostly failed. Discriminatory intent is hard to prove. A consensus building approach, though, one that doesn't rely on litigation, can produce results even if no discriminatory intent was involved.
Saturday, January 31, 2009
Tuesday, January 20, 2009
It doesn't seem to matter whether we are talking about energy from fossil fuels or renewable sources, there is strong opposition to proposed generating facilities. The Cape Wind project, a large wind energy facility proposed for the waters off Martha's Vineyard, has been the target of fierce opposition from well-known and well-heeled political opponents. Terrestrial wind projects planned for high ridges in the mountains of New England and in the plains of the western states have been challenged on aesthetic and environmental grounds. Large solar energy plants have been blocked all over California. The same arguments used to contest the building of coal- and gas-fired power plants all over the world, are now being used to haltthe construction of renewable energy facilities: they will have unacceptable environmental and aesthetic impacts;they will unfairly reduce property values; they will preclude other more desirable land uses, and they will cost too much.
Friday, January 16, 2009
There are a great many theories of leadership -- from highly centralized, top-down (almost militaristic) models to more decentralized, bottom-up, enabling (almost group-transforming) models. Leaders who get others to do what they want by using the power to threaten, punish, or reward can, in fact, get certain things done. As we flatten organizations, however, eliminating middle management ranks and emphasizing the need for flexibility, collaboration and individual initiative, leaders who motivate or manage by exercising power are becoming obsolete. Quite a few organizations, companies and groups now put a premium on finding leaders who can motivate or catalyze networks of employees, volunteers, supporters, investors and others to take responsibility for defining and achieving the tasks that need to be addressed.
Sunday, January 11, 2009
While a great deal of corporate decision-making is top-down, there are occasions when task forces or work teams representing various divisions or departments need to operate by consensus. The selection of a uniform computer architecture, for example, that each segment of the company will have to accept will be easier to implement if everyone is on-board with whatever software is chosen. While it is possible to impose a decision from the top (based on the recommendation of the IT department), the transition to a new system is likely to be a lot smoother if an informed agreement can be reached by a cross-divisional work team.
Tuesday, January 6, 2009
We've all heard the calls for greater bi-partisanship in Congress and Parliament. Especially in times of crisis, parties or factions are urged to put aside their differences for the good of the nation. But exactly how should a legislative body transform its usual approach to decision-making when it wants to operate in a bi-partisan or a consensus-building fashion? And why is this desired only in times of crisis?
Monday, January 5, 2009
International treaty-making is one area in which consensus building is the rule. Because countries are sovereign, a majority vote by other nations can not bind a country that doesn't want to sign a treaty. Thus, there are hundreds of treaties, but very few bind all the nations of the world. This means that any multinational coalition that wants to win support for a new treaty (like another climate change treaty) must propose something that countries will accept voluntarily. There are three ways to do this. First, countries can be drawn in on a step-by-step basis. An initial "convention" might just ask countries to agree that there is a problem that needs attention. They'll sign that. Leaders who sign can get political credit for "doing something," even though signing is just symbolic. Then, that initial treaty can be followed by more detailed "protocols" spelling out who needs to do what by when. Although some countries that signed the original convention might not endorse the subsequent protocols, many will feel obliged to follow, especially if each small step is not too burdensome. Second, a treaty can offer sweeteners -- financial incentives or other linked benefits (like access to technology) -- that make signatories better off. Third, a coalition can "shame" recalcitrant countries, either at home or in the world media, if they don't sign.
Saturday, January 3, 2009
Consensus building can be applied in all kinds of natural resource management disputes. Even in the face of competing demands, contending stakeholders can reach agreement on how to proceed. With a help of a professional mediator, people or groups (including government agencies) can work out who should get what portion of the land, water, minerals, or forests and for what purposes. They can do this in a way that takes account of legally-mandated rights and regulations as well as radically different needs and values. Their task is to come up with a way of guaranteeing everyone something better than what they would most likely end up with if they took the battle to court or into the political arena. Sometimes (voluntary) compensatory arrangements can make a difference. Other times, what look like irreconcilable differences can be resolved by formulating new rules about when and how a resource can be used (for example, your group can use certain portions of the lake for sport fishing during specific weeks of the year while my group is guaranteed that there won't be any motorized vehicles on the water at other times or in other portions of the lake). Neither side "wins" in the sense that the other "loses," but both achieve their most important interests. Sometimes the key is joint fact finding -- gathering believable information together. This can lead to entirely new problem-solving ideas that go beyond existing laws or practices. To see how this actually works look at the web site of the MIT-USGS Science Impact Collaborative (scienceimpact.mit.edu). Also, see Susskind et. al, Negotiating Environmental Agreements, Island Press, 1999 for more examples and theoretical background.
Consensus building is an approach to group decision-making that puts a premium on problem-solving. (The problem, of course, is how to get everyone on board.) Most people approach group decision-making -- whether in a committee, a club, a locality, a community-of-faith, a legislative body, or any other kind of assembly -- with the idea that majority rule is their only option. That is, only 51% can be happy. The other 49% can't get what they want, and are supposed to lump it. My question is, "Why?" To me, it makes more sense to seek unanimity, then settle for overwhelming agreement after every effort has been made to resolve differences creatively. I would never start out with the goal of achieving a simple majority. The typical arguments against consensus building are (1) the process takes too long, (2) there are two sides to every question and people will always disagree, and (3) consensus building produces lowest common denominator agreements -- meaning bad agreements. As it turns out, all three of these assumptions are wrong. And, I have the evidence to prove it. My objective in this blog is to share that evidence and encourage as many people as possible to discuss their own group decision-making experiences. The key to consensus building, by the way, is that a neutral party -- trusted by everyone involved -- needs to manage each problem-solving conversation. In each post, I'll include one published reference. I'll start with Breaking Robert's Rules: The New Way to run Your Meting, Build Consensus and Get Results published by Oxford University Press in 2006 (by Susskind and Cruikshank). It's now available in Japanese, Chinese, and Portugese and will soon be published in French, Dutch, Russian and Spanish.