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Conflict, Climate Change And Environmental Catastrophe

“Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.” H.G. Wells

The recent oil spill by British Petroleum in the Gulf of Mexico highlights an escalating set of difficulties in our responses to environmental catastrophes, with echoes that resonate and reverberate with experiences responding to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, earthquakes in Haiti and Peru, firestorms in Russia, flooding in Pakistan, the tsunami in Indonesia, and others.

As population, technology, and globalization continue to increase, so will environmental deterioration, including global warming, allowing us to reasonably anticipate, and perhaps predict the following outcomes:

1. That environmental disasters will become more widespread, severe, impactful, costly and common;

2. That conflicts will be triggered by these events, and escalate as more individuals, groups, nations and eco-systems are impacted;

3. That these conflicts will accumulate around the failures in local, national and global emergency response systems;

4. That the ability to resolve these conflicts quickly and effectively will have a direct impact on the degree of damage they create;

5. That mediation, collaborative negotiation and allied conflict resolution methodologies will increasingly be used to address and resolve disputes that result from environmental disasters.

As human populations have grown more numerous and technologically advanced, we have naturally had a greater ecological impact on the planet. Simply by not paying attention for centuries and seeking to maximize our separate competitive short-term advantage as nations, corporations and separated communities, we have wasted exhaustible resources, despoiled and desecrated our environment, and created the preconditions for mass extinction and global catastrophe.

As a consequence, it is no longer possible to pursue non-sustainable approaches to survival, particularly those that aggravate the problems we already face. Instead, these problems demand not only the collective attention of everyone, but respectful, collaborative, democratic ways of communicating; complex, creative, paradoxical ways of solving problems; and interest-based methods for resolving conflicts over how to address them. Without these shifts, it is likely that many people around the planet will not survive.

What Needs Fixing

The most serious problems we face today include:

  • The size and density of human populations
  • CO2 and methane emissions that increase global warming
  • Species extinctions
  • Loss of bio-diversity
  • Loss of tropical rainforest and woodland
  • Desertification, erosion and loss of arable land
  • Decreasing genetic diversity in agricultural commodities
  • Loss of potable water
  • Loss of fish stocks
  • Resistance to antibiotics
  • Pollution, loss of bio-degradability, and use of toxic chemicals
  • Vulnerability to pandemics
  • Rising cost of medical care
  • Disruption of weather patterns
  • Increasing severity of natural catastrophes and weather conditions
  • The global effect of local, relatively minor environmental decisions

In addition to these, we are facing worldwide problems in other areas that can easily trigger severe environmental consequences, escalate conflicts, and make it more difficult for us to solve these problems, including:

  • The increasing destructive power and availability of military technology
  • Nuclear proliferation
  • Willingness to use war and resort to violence
  • Intentional targeting of civilians in warfare
  • Terrorism and unending cycles of revenge and retaliation
  • Acceptability of the use of torture and cruelty in response
  • Global financial crises
  • Financial cutbacks in government services, especially in education, corporate regulation and science and technology
  • Unregulated economic transactions
  • Increasing poverty, social inequality and economic inequity
  • Destabilization due to political autocracy and dictatorship
  • Rise in prejudice and intolerance
  • Hostility to immigrants, refugees, minorities and outsiders
  • Genocidal policies and “ethnic cleansing”
  • Growth of the drug trade, sexual trafficking, and organized crime

To solve any of these problems, and others we will inevitably confront as we proliferate, develop and expand, our disparate races, religions, cultures, societies, organizations, and institutions need to learn how to work together. To do so, we need better ways of communicating with each other, expanded skills in open and honest dialogue, and better techniques for solving problems, negotiating collaboratively, and resolving disputes without warfare, coercion, and other adversarial methods.

This may sound simplistic, even idealistic. Clearly, our history of working together to solve pressing social, economic, political, and ecological problems offers few reasons for confidence. Instead, it reveals an astonishing record of avoidable disasters, pointless miseries, and needless deaths. For centuries, we have gotten away with murder, and no longer have resources to waste.

What is worse, these escalating problems cannot be solved completely or in time by nation states, or even by large groups of countries, or by the use of military, bureaucratic, and autocratic methods. Indeed, none of the following well-established, centuries old problem solving mechanisms by themselves can succeed in solving these problems:

  • Military force
  • Treaties and international agreements
  • Legal interventions and rule of law
  • Administrative rules and regulations or policies and procedures
  • Power-based diplomatic negotiations
  • National political leaders and institutions
  • Capitalism and market principles
  • The United Nations, as presently constituted

So what is left? The answer is, we are. While it sounds ridiculous, when it comes to solving global problems, mediators matter. The good news is that as our problems have multiplied, so have our social and technological capacity to solve them. We have not only vastly increased our scientific and technological capabilities, we have also enormously improved our understanding and skills in communication, facilitation, creative problem solving, public dialogue, collaborative negotiation, prejudice reduction and bias awareness, mediation, conflict resolution system design and similar methods. And it is precisely these skills that we now need in order to “save the planet.”

If we consider the BP gulf oil spill as an example, there were numerous problems that led to that environmental disaster or contributed to making it worse. In my mind, these include:

  • Dependence on fossil fuels
  • Powerful oil and gas companies with assets and sales larger than the gross domestic products of all but a handful of nations
  • Inadequate market mechanisms to dampen the lust for quick profits, creating an incentive to cut corners on costs, including safety
  • Regulatory agencies that are led, managed and lobbied by people who pay greater attention to corporate influence than public safety and environmental sustainability
  • Disputes over how to managing the off-shore platform that were resolved hierarchically, bureaucratically and autocratically, leaving those with direct experience of the problem without the power or authority to solve it
  • Concentrating the problem solving authority in the hands of those who were more concerned with company profits than safety or environmental damage

In the BP spill, as in the Exxon Valdez spill before it, there was a concerted effort in political circles and in the media to find someone to blame for what happened. Yet a secondary effect of blaming individuals is that the system that permitted or encouraged the mistake is ignored or let off the hook, increasing the likelihood that there will be fresh problems in the future.

Environmental catastrophes are increasing in frequency, reach and cost, generating conflicts around the world, including arguments over causation, responsibility, and competition for scarce aid resources. Without mediation, the negotiation and implementation of solutions to these problems, assistance with recovery, and systemic prevention will be delayed by years, if not decades.

In BP and most similar disasters, political leaders have relied on the use of classic diplomacy, that is, adversarial, distributive, power-based negotiations in which there is a strict separation between:

1. Public declarations and statements in which all the right things are said but no one engages in dialogue, or genuinely comes to grips with what others are saying, or really focuses on finding solutions to the problem; along with

2. Traditional behind the scenes “hardball” negotiations, with arm-twisting, hidden agendas, and adversarial styles, in which the largest, most powerful and wealthiest parties “win,” while others feel excluded, disempowered and disrespected.

Clearly, mediators can design a better process for reaching agreements. For example, we could:

1. Conduct in-depth collaborative evaluations of the processes used in response to earlier environmental disasters to identify what worked and what didn’t.

2. Consult broadly with diverse organizations and individuals with experience designing dispute resolution systems on ways of improving the aid delivery process.

3. Ask the United Nations to assist in creating international aid protocols that include mediation, dialogue and similar methods.

4. Send negotiation facilitators and mediators to meet with competing aid organizations in advance to help set targets and timetables and encourage compromises that could lead to a better and quicker agreements.

5. Include among decision makers and problem solvers representatives of those who have been most injured by the event, along with mediators and facilitators who can assist in bridging differences as they occur.

6. Assign UN mediators to coordinate collaboration between competing groups.

7. Reach agreement on a variety of next steps that can be taken in the event that consensus is not reached, including open dialogue, informal problem solving, collaborative negotiation and mediation.

8. Select regional aid coordination and disaster relief teams with experts representing a cross-section of nations, groups and blocs, with professional facilitators and recorders to aid them in their work.

9. Consider the entire process as a conflict system and design better ways of responding to it.

10. Focus efforts not only on amelioration but prevention so as to reduce the severity of future problems.

This list is not meant to be comprehensive, but simply to suggest that it is possible for mediators, facilitators and conflict resolution systems designers to come up with useful suggestions that can make the process more effective and collaborative.

If the ideas on this list are correct, it is our responsibility to contribute what we can to reducing suffering by building the capacity of international organizations to resolve conflicts that slow the delivery of aid, or fail to deliver it in the places it is most needed. The difficulties, problems and reasons for not intervening are all too plentiful, but the need persists. All that is lacking is our realization that we can indeed make a difference and our willingness to begin. The world is waiting. We need to ask ourselves, as the surrealist artist Andre Breton asked, “What are we waiting for? A woman? Two trees? Three flags? Nothing. What are we waiting for?”


Kenneth Cloke

Kenneth Cloke is Director of the Center for Dispute Resolution and a mediator, arbitrator, consultant and trainer, specializing in resolving complex multi-party conflicts internationally and in designing conflict resolution systems for organizations. Ken is a nationally recognized speaker and leader in the field of conflict resolution, and a published author… MORE >

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