by Lucy Moore for EDR Blog.org
I recently posted on the Island Press blog (Field Notes) a rant about Cliven Bundy and the Nevada dust-up over the federal government trying to do its duty. (http://ipfieldnotes.org/ranching-and-the-categorical-imperative/)
As a mediator I am deeply committed to treating all interests fairly, showing no bias or favoritism. And so as an equal opportunity ranter, let me share another thought with you. The righteousness of some environmentalists drives me crazy. There. I said it, the kind of confession that we mediators admit only to ourselves or in the company of other mediators when we have had too many margaritas.
Let me illustrate. In over 25 years of mediating complex natural resource disputes the most unpleasant, disturbing and depressing job still stands out. Many years ago I was asked to help a major environmental organization’s regional board deal with some contentious issues. Board members were grappling with the question of whether or not to partner with local land-based communities, many of whom were ranchers. There were obvious reasons to ally with these folks who could have a big impact on the land and water resources. “Why not bring them under the tent?” asked some. After all, if they grazed more sustainably, with more awareness and commitment to preserve resources, wouldn’t that be good for everyone, especially the planet? Wasn’t it smart to invite others, even those who saw environmentalists as the enemy, into the fold rather that beating each other up?
The other side was ferocious. A rancher would never be allowed under the tent of environmentalism. It was blasphemy to even suggest it. Holding the hard line against all grazing on public lands was critical if the movement was to succeed. Consorting with the enemy meant compromise, and compromise was a dirty word. There was no such thing as a conscientious rancher. It was an oxymoron. But it didn’t stop there. The righteous ones took out after their brothers and sisters on the other side of the argument, the ones who wanted to enlarge the tent. Some things cannot be negotiated, they shouted. What about the civil rights movement? What about lynchings? What if we said “OK, you can go ahead and lynch just three or four every year, but no more than that.” I was able to stop the blood bath just as they were moving on to Nazi Germany. The meeting ended with tears, wounded feelings, red faces, lost tempers. And I felt a little battered myself. These environmentalists, I thought on the way home, eat their own.
I have had dozens and dozens of environmental advocates in processes since then and some have been righteous and some have sought a middle ground. I understand the passion and urgency to save the planet, or some small part of it. I agree it is a critical, maybe terminal, situation, and it scares me to death. And I understand the need to hang onto your principles with every ounce of your being, not to let them be eroded, to fight to the bitter end. But I would ask any advocate, enviro or otherwise, to ask themselves “What makes sense at this moment? Is it worth it to refuse to negotiate, or might I gain some valuable ground which will put me a little closer to my goal?”
These are very tough questions for advocates representing a larger body, and the answer may require painful and tortuous processes involving boards or membership. I know that there are those who find themselves at my mediation table wishing they could be flexible, consider options, even take a risky step in the direction of the other, but are constrained by powers that be in their organizations. I am not naïve. These issues are highly political and the stakes are always high. But I would ask you to think about your options and be open to a variety of strategies.
And I would add, simply sitting down with the other side can pay off in surprising ways. I have seen relationships formed between enemies, positions shift, and even a smile or two in the process. OK, call me naïve. But it’s true.
Based in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Lucy Moore is an environmental mediator, helping adversaries find solutions (or not) to thorny natural resource disputes around water rights, forest management, endangered species, tribal sovereignty, toxic waste storage and more. “Common Ground on Hostile Turf: Stories from an Environmental Mediator” (Island Press 2013) includes stories from her twenty-five year practice that have been significant in her understanding of the issues and of people in conflict. She is also author of “Into the Canyon: Seven Years in Navajo Country,” (University of New Mexico Press, 2004).