Shifting Sands of Time


   The issue was simple and straightforward. Beaches against low power rates. And the plan would be just as simple. The public meeting was to be held at a large hotel right downtown, lots of traffic, lots of people. And rumor had it that the power interests were going to bus in a bunch of folks from out of town to make a big showing. The media would be there, especially if we gave them a call ahead and let them in on it. Picture it; busy front steps, people arriving, cameras rolling, warm summer evening light. Unnoticed a dump truck slowly rumbles up a side street. People step aside as it swings up into the registration lane. With a belch of diesel it backs toward the main doors and dumps 4 tons of fine, white sand on the front steps. People shout, cameras roll, and a spokesman steps up to the camera to state that this sand represents the beaches of Grand Canyon which were being swept downstream at an alarming rate. Too late to make the 6:00 o’clock news but should make it at 10. Might even the national news shows in the morning…

   Such a scene never occurred but it was certainly discussed. Instead the public meeting went off rather smoothly. Buses of supporters did arrive. Both sides made angry statements denouncing the motives and tactics of the other. Power bills were going to go through the roof. The Grand Canyon was being washed away. It made the local 10 o’clock news.

   Thirty years ago a new awareness of the environment sprang on the scene and a new consciousness was born. No one thing symbolized this shift better than the battle over the construction of Glen Canyon Dam. From that battle too sprang methods for focusing public opinion on threats to our earth, air, and water. Since then many of these issues have been waged directly in front of the public, with letter campaigns, national advertising, marches, protests, and media events. Techniques were refined, mailing lists honed, and all sides learned to effectively focus and motivate public response. Today these strategies are no longer the domain of a single, dedicated crusader with a typewriter. They are big and sophisticated and, as often as not, are effected by trumpeting our differences. There are few real benefits to showing where we agree.

   Consensus and the end of gridlock. We hear these phrases so often these days they seem almost meaningless. But behind these buzzwords is a sincere and widespread effort to find new and more efficient ways of solving the moral and cultural issues that confront us today. Not that we are all of a like mind now, that our values and ideas are completely converging. It’s simpler than that. It’s the realization that many of the decision making processes we’ve evolved no longer serve their purpose, no longer provide us with solutions in a timely and effective manner. And nowhere is that more evident that in issues of our nation’s economy and environment.

   The dictionary has two very different definitions for consensus. The first, “a majority of opinion”, is well established. Our present system is based on majority rule. But often the process of establishing a majority entails stressing our differences more than our commonalities. The end justifies the means, triumph is more important than agreement. The second definition, “general agreement or concord; harmony”, is very different and desperately under-used. We need to resurrect real consensus, to focus on agreement first, and resolution second.

   For two very different reasons the time has come for a new process. First, issues are seldom as clear as they once were. It’s rare that we can simply be for or against a new project. Instead the issues revolve over how we manage existing resources. Such is the case in Grand Canyon. We are no longer in a position to bring back Glen Canyon or the pre-dam Colorado River, we must decide how to manage the river we have. And secondly, we can no longer afford the time, money, and energy to wage the simple “majority rules”. Change will be slow because the process is a departure from the present. But it won’t replace our present system. Consensus cannot be used to impose an unwanted action on any member of the process. Any effort to do so forces that member to withdraw, and consensus defaults to simple majority rule. The process is therefore essentially advisory in nature and will not replace the decision maker. It is invaluable, however, in helping the decision maker ensure the final decision is more responsible and less divisive. And the advisory nature in no way diminishes the power of agreement. On the contrary, the strength of consensus comes from the number and diversity of viewpoints that agree. It is more important that a wide variety of stakeholders agree on a few subjects rather than few stakeholders agree on all subjects.

   Is it possible. Yes. There are many examples of effective consensus processes today. The nearest involves the Cooperating Agencies for the Glen Canyon EIS. As little as two years ago there were wide differences of opinion over many aspects of the EIS. Today instead of two decidedly armed camps these agencies are focusing on two very similar alternatives. Is this agreement binding on the Secretary? No. But the fact that a wide and diverse consensus has emerged will make his decision much easier and will allow all at the table to go home with less animosity.

   I attended the strategy meeting where the truckload of sand was discussed. To the credit of all there it was never seriously considered. Not because it would not have made the news but because it would not have been effective. There was a gut feeling in the room that that pile of sand would not have brought us closer to our objective.

   A solution. Issues are different, lines blurred, and those wearing black and white hats not as obvious as they once were. It’s not as simple as being for or against a dam; we are instead faced with the question how do we best use the dam? We find ourselves in new alliances with strange bedfellows. But as we find it harder to completely disagree we therefore must find it easier to agree.

   There are many opportunities for agreement. The consensus now present in this EIS is an opportunity to generate more. It is up to us, the various stakeholders, to determine a long-term philosophy for maintaining the Colorado’s downstream environment, the objectives of dam management, and the role of science in the Canyon’s future. The Adaptive Management Program and long-term Monitoring Program can only benefit from the participation and collaboration of many viewpoints.

   We will not always have consensus. But we can agree on as many points as possible. We should be judged by the amount we agree. Each agreement represents something we don’t have to spend precious time, energy, and money fighting over. And we should encourage others to join us. The strength of consensus comes from the number and diversity of viewpoints that agree.

Tom Moody