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 oclock 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
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. Its simpler than that. Its the realization that many of
the decision making processes weve 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 nations 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. Its 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 wont 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. Its 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 Colorados downstream
environment, the objectives of dam management, and the role of science in the
Canyons 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 dont 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.