In the past twenty years, we’ve seen breakthroughs in collaboration resolve conflicts over energy extraction and generation, food production, and water allocation. Yet the unrelenting global demand for these resources is raising tensions in many parts of the world.

CBI’s 20th Anniversary Symposium, held this spring, brought together an extraordinary, global group of colleagues we’ve been privileged to work with — natural and social resource managers, collaboration practitioners, scholars, and business leaders — to generate fresh ideas on how collaboration can avoid and resolve the conflicts that are with us now, and those that lie ahead. To introduce the day, we offered some thoughts on the challenges and opportunities we face, and on ways our field might be helpful. We’ve edited them and offer them here for the record, and to stimulate ongoing conversation among the many colleagues who couldn’t join us for our Symposium and have much to contribute to the discussion. 

The Challenges Coming

First, the good news: the world is more democratic and more peaceful, with fewer large scale wars, than ever before. More people are living longer and getting better educations. Many diseases are being eradicated. Poverty is falling dramatically. Science and technology have created a global village that Marshall McLuhan could only have dreamed about. But . . . 

Distrust in institutions, not only corrupt, authoritarian ones but seemingly transparent, democratic ones, is growing rapidly. That distrust is undermining public commitment to current structures of representation and public decision making at home and abroad. In the United States and other rich, post-industrial countries, disenchantment with party politics and government institutions is profound. In the emerging market economies of the G20, demands for public participation and accountability often outstrip political leaders’ willingness to play by those rules, while the value of democratic versus authoritarian governance is very much in debate. And though the capacity of citizens and civil society to organize is rising exponentially in poorer countries, the history, culture, and institutions for governance and participation in these places are often weak or nonexistent.

 Globally, incomes are rising, and more people have moved faster out of poverty in the last 25 years than ever before in the history of the world. The outgrowth of WWII and Cold War technologies has unleashed unbelievable efficiency, speed, and dynamic churn. But the winners in this new economy are not compensating the losers; the top 1% — both inside and outside of the United States — are reaping more and more of the value of productivity gains. Income inequality threatens to destabilize economic systems that are not spreading the gains from growth broadly enough. The status quo in many countries — and perhaps globally — is not sustainable. It raises fundamental questions about the balance of power between private capital and public governance. 

Many of the most difficult conflicts increasingly center on natural resources. While the frequency and severity of large-scale civil and international wars has decreased, tensions over natural resources are rising. Energy, water, and food are often at the heart of these resource disputes. Secure and sufficient access to these resources is essential for achieving quality living standards. Population growth, an expanding global middle class, and climate change will all serve to further increase the demand for and stress upon these resources. 

From Russia’s gas-filled sphere of influence to feuds over oil fields in Sudan and the South China Sea, there is real risk of military conflict driven by petro-politics. Even if countries manage to avoid inter-state conflict, the drive for energy resources is triggering local battles over fracking in the United States, Europe, and China and over oil and gas extraction in Latin America and Africa. And conflict is by no means exclusive to fossil fuels. Renewable projects, ranging from offshore wind in Nantucket Sound to hydropower in the Andes and Mekong, are mired in disputes over siting and resettlement, costs, subsidies, grid integration, health impacts, and landscape preferences. 

Conflict is also intensifying over water resources beyond hydropower. In water-stressed regions, water rights, disputes over in-stream versus extractive use of water, and water provision and pricing in cities and slums are all provoking intense conflict. Climate change is wreaking havoc on domestic water rights and international water agreements. In the oceans, massive overfishing is decimating major fisheries. Ocean acidification driven by climate change is adding to that pressure, destroying habitat and food chains, affecting many species and hundreds of millions of people. As the pressure on open access ocean resources grows, and as pressure mounts in contested areas (including the Arctic and the South China Sea), user conflicts will continue to multiply.

And then, there is the question of how much food will be needed to feed 9 billion people by mid-century and how the global food system is going to do this. Difficult and contentious decisions on GMO controls, agricultural land ownership, farm subsidies, incentives for sustainable farming, policies and incentives on nutrition, and diet and obesity will all shape the future of food security for these 9 billion. At the same time, a myriad of political, economic, and social forces is disrupting and destabilizing the food chain in countries and in global markets. It is a sad reality of the modern world that while over one billion people are food insecure, another one billion are overweight; we cannot feed part of the world enough, and we are stuffing the other part almost to death.

What Consensus Building Can Offer Over the Next Twenty Years

We are going to need every ounce of creativity to deal with a set of very challenging, apparently zero-sum conflicts over land, water, energy, and climate in a world where authority and influence over those resources and systems are highly unequal. The higher the pressure, the greater the temptation for leaders — at all levels, from villages to corporations to advocacy groups to governments, — to default to fighting in their corners, defending their current positions, and discounting the potential for working together.

At its core, the Mutual Gains Approach is a commitment to deal with these conflicts in a very different way: by bringing the full set of stakeholders and their interests into constructive conversations. Practitioners of consensus building can offer and advocate something different, in the most practical possible way: literally helping people come together to talk, understand each other and the issues, and search for better outcomes. So, what can we anticipate today: what knowns, and what known unknowns, might we be prepared to help address? We do not have all the answers, but we know more than ever before about how to foster collaboration among stakeholders.

 We can leverage science and technology to search for solutions and expand participation. We know how to bring experts and stakeholders together to define problems, provide potential solutions, and monitor the state of our resources and environment. CBI and its partners have successfully done this in environmental regulation, land use planning, public engagement on nutrition and wellness, and many other issues. We can use the instant connectivity of the Internet to generate broad public input, provide information, and promote dialogue. And, we know just as well that we cannot decouple technical analysis and solutions from stakeholders’ values, interests and influence, and that we cannot substitute “virtual breadth” for “face-to-face depth” in collaboration. What our field can offer is continuing innovation in helping stakeholders and experts work well together on complex problems and systems, and creativity in using technology for both broad and deep stakeholder engagement.

We can use collaboration to re-direct concentrated power. Collaborative forums and multi-stakeholder negotiations cannot substitute for social movements or democratic accountability. But they can create a context where those with the most power and those with the most at stake – local communities, minority groups, women, and others -- have equal legitimacy, and where the focus is on jointly defining goals, options, and criteria for decision making. In our work, we have seen corporate executives and hard-core advocates create strong partnerships for managing the world’s aquaculture markets; oil field managers and community leaders in the Niger Delta come up with far more constructive community development partnerships than either thought possible; and Native American tribes and the US government resolve a multi-generational feud over control of land and budgets for Native American schools. 

We can engage and empower women. In the US and in other countries, we are finding that by engaging women at all levels, we can build their capacity to participate and lead in public decision making. By recognizing their distinctive interests and assets in public issue negotiations, we can unleash enormous creativity, talent, and economic development. 

We can broaden, deepen, and institutionalize positive-sum ways of thinking and acting to manage natural resources. As we make that push, we can draw on deep human instincts and social capital. There’s overwhelming evidence that the capacity to manage conflict and foster collaboration is part of our evolutionary heritage. Today, we’ve created a field that really does know how to teach, train and coach people to be effective as collaborative stakeholders and leaders, from community meetings to global treaty negotiations. We now need to foster those skills systematically starting in childhood, and at every level from the local school to the executive retreat. We can’t substitute for life lessons that build character and values, but we can draw on skills and aptitudes that nearly everyone has, and we can also strengthen organizations and partnerships by making sure interests, capacities and incentives are aligned with shared goals. 

 Finally, we must push back against a tide of cynicism, frustration, and fear that is more threatening to our future than any of the physical resource challenges we face. We can learn from and publicize the examples of success to remind citizens and leaders that we can do better, and that in many cases we’re doing amazingly well. And we can continue to facilitate broad and deep representation, wise use of knowledge, and a Mutual Gains approach to transform resource conflicts into opportunities for sustainable agreements.