Article originally published in the Honolulu Civil Beat
Neal Milner wrote a fine piece on getting past our escalating national polarization which, unfettered, may lead to violence, secession, or a new civil war. Like Neal, I believe there are ways to deal with it.
I see many examples of people struggling to get beyond everyday gridlock. Still, in Hawaii, we seem stuck in a stewpot of persistent, unresolved, larger political, economic and cultural conflicts. The future of tourism. The tangle of issues about Maunakea and TMT. Our vulnerability to catastrophic climate events.
The ability to feed and house ourselves.
“Intractability” feels like an iron wall, a juggernaut, a steamroller. But it’s not. At the moment, I and another colleague are working in the Klamath River Basin along the California-Oregon border to try and help tame what is essentially a 30-year water war. The river basin extends from the top of the Sierras to the Pacific Ocean and is beset with serious troubles.
In the face of a multiyear mega-drought, water quality and quantity are in serious jeopardy. Several fish species, on which six sovereign tribes depend, are bordering on extinction.
Farmers and irrigators, at odds with the tribes, face bankruptcy from crop and livestock losses. Migratory waterfowl on the Pacific Flyway are diminished.
Domestic water wells are drying up, and everyone has been hard hit by wildfires and Covid. Acrimonious lawsuits and hard-elbowed political advocacy are punctuated by occasional violence.
Our effort doing third-party diplomacy involves helping some of the protagonists form “a coalition of the willing,” disposed to more constructive dialogue and working towards a grander, basin-wide bargain when the moment is opportune. In the meantime, there is much they can do together to prepare.
The Klamath Basin conflicts make many of our Hawaii issues seem small but the dynamics of intractability are precisely the same. Certain conflicts acquire lives of their own and long-term strategic distrust is a breeding ground for new disputes.
But interestingly, small windows of cooperation open if we stay alert.
‘Us Vs. Them’
The U.S. and China spar over the South China Sea but still negotiate mutually advantageous trade deals. Pro-life and abortion advocates fight over reproductive rights but in at least one instance, checked their weapons at the door and decided to help women avoid unwanted pregnancies. Conservationists and developers always have competing agendas but they also negotiate acceptable permit conditions.
We tend to think big conflicts are born of irreconcilable differences but they aren’t. There is a known pattern. Pigheadedness evolves. Differences of opinion that might have been worked through early harden into debates. The debates get enjoined to other problems and protagonists move from words to actions. Soon enough, social media diatribes become harsh political showdowns and lawsuits and at that point, potentially productive communication stops.
The world devolves into “Us” versus “Them.”
Robert Frost wrote, “The best way out is always through.”
“Intractability” isn’t a wall. It is quicksand. Fueled by conflict entrepreneurs who are often paid fire starters, it swallows people. But there are ways across it even in the face of ongoing cold wars.
Become a “guerrilla” problem solver.
Guerrilla warfare is unconventional. Instead of relying on large, slow moving armies and doctrines of overwhelming force, guerrillas depend on invisibility and seizing small opportunities. Today, we have guerrilla marketing, guerrilla job finding, and guerrilla mutual fund investors.
Why not guerrilla bridge building?
Look for small windows of opportunity to convene quiet, confidential dialogues. Make sure people have a safe time and place to talk story. Examine what Amanda Ripley in “High Conflict” calls a conflict’s “understory,” the deeper needs that sit below each person’s individual headline. Move beyond either/or characterizations and all the binaries of good, bad, right and wrong.
In Hawaii, we know a lot about “talking story.” Stories are ancient avenues of human exchange and one of the ways we make discoveries. Stories explain things and create possibilities.
Inevitably, and at the right moment, ask people: What are your worst fears and highest hopes and quietly explore solutions that reduce the former and accelerate the latter.
Little diplomatic openings can grow. Seeds can become trees.