Posted by: chrismaser | September 23, 2009



Toward Sustainable Community Development


Chris Maser


It is now the twilight of the twentieth century, a century in which once abundant natural resources have rapidly dwindled to scarcity while the world’s human population grows at an exponential rate.  We citizens of this planet must now address a moral question for the next century: Do those living today owe anything to the future?  If your answer is “No,” don’t read further!

But if your answer is “Yes,” then we must now determine what and how much we owe future generations, lest our present collision course continue unabated into the twenty-first century, eventually to destroy environmental options for all generations to come.  Be forewarned, however, that meeting the obligation we say we have—whatever we determine it is—will require a renewed sense of personal and social justice, one that causes us as individuals and society to act now for the simultaneous benefit of both the present and the future.  But what direction must our renewed sense of personal and social justice take?

Civilizations have evolved by similar steps: growth of intelligence through discoveries and inventions, through the ideas of government, family, and property, all based on a slow accumulation of experimental knowledge.  As such, civilizations have much in common, and their evolutionary stages are connected with one another in a natural sequence of cultural development.

The arts of subsistence and the achievements of technology can be used to distinguish the periods of human progress.  People lived by gathering fruits and nuts; learned to hunt, fish, and use fire; invented the spear and atlatl; and then the bow and arrow.  They developed the art of making pottery, learned to domesticate animals and cultivate plants, began using adobe and stone in building houses, and learned to smelt iron and use it in tools.  Finally, what we call “civilization” began with the invention of the phonetic alphabet, culminating in all the twentieth century wonders.

Each civilization has also been marked by its birth, maturation, and demise; the latter brought about by uncontrolled population growth that outstripped the source of available energy, be it loss of topsoil or deforestation.  But in olden times the survivors could move on to less populated, more fertile areas as their civilizations collapsed.  Today there is nowhere left on Earth to go!

Yet, having learned little or nothing from history, our civilization is currently destroying the very environment from which it sprang and on which it relies for continuance.  Civilization as we know it cannot, therefore, be the final evolutionary stage for human existence.  But what lies beyond our current notion of civilization?  What is the next frontier for “civilized” people to conquer?  Is it outer space as so often stated?  No, it is not outer space.  What then?  It is inner space, the conquest of oneself, which many assert is life’s most difficult task.  As the Buddha said: “Though he should conquer a thousand men in the battlefield a thousand times, yet he, indeed, who would conquer himself is the noblest victor.”

In the material world, self-conquest means bringing one’s thoughts and behaviors in line with the immutable biophysical laws governing the world in which one lives, such as the law of cause and effect.  In the spiritual realm, this means disciplining one’s thoughts and behaviors in accord with the highest spiritual/social truths handed down throughout the ages, such as:  love your neighbor as yourself, and treat others as you want them to treat you.

The outcome of self-conquest is social/environmental sustainability, which must be the next cultural stage towards which we struggle.  Social-environmental sustainability is the frontier beyond self-centeredness and its stepchild, destructive conflict.  (I specify destructive conflict because conflict itself is not necessarily destructive.  Conflict can be personally and socially constructive, such as a focused debate on an issue that brings about increased growth in personal and social consciousness.  In other instances, one can view conflict as somewhat neutral, such as differences of opinion in which two people amicably agree to disagree.  A conflict becomes destructive when it destroys human dignity, degrades an ecosystem’s productive capacity, or forecloses options for present and/or future generations.)

To fulfill our acknowledged obligation to future generations requires fundamental changes in our social consciousness and cultural norms, changes that will demand choices different from those we have heretofore made, which means thinking anew.  But “a great many people,” as American psychologist William James observed, “think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices.” Resolving environmental conflicts is thus about choices, those with which we free ourselves and those with which we imprison ourselves.

To change anything, we must, through the choices we make, reach beyond where we are, beyond where we feel safe.  We must dare to move ahead, even if we do not fully understand where we are going or the price of getting there because we will never have perfect knowledge.  And we must become students of processes and let go our advocacy of positions and embattlements over winning agreement with narrow points of view.  This is important because our ever-increasing knowledge rapidly outstrips the ability of our current paradigm, based on old knowledge, to explain the new in terms of the old.

True progress toward an ecologically sound environment and a socially just culture will be initially expensive in both money and effort, but in the end not only will be mandated by shifting public values but also will be progressively less expensive over time.  The longer we wait, however, the more disastrous becomes the environmental condition and the more expensive and difficult become the necessary social changes.

No biological shortcuts, technological quick fixes, or political hype can mend what is broken.  Dramatic, fundamental change is necessary if we are really concerned with bettering the quality of life—even that of next year.  It is not a question of can we or can’t we change, but one of will we or won’t we change.  Change is a choice, a choice of individuals reflected in the collective of society and mirrored in the landscape.

Can destructive environmental conflicts be resolved?  Emphatically, yes!  But thus far I find only one kind of facilitative approach that can begin to accomplish such resolution.  It is the largely-ignored “transformative approach” described by Bush and Folger in their 1994 book The Promise of Mediation, which is: “a change or refinement in the consciousness or character of individual human beings . . . individual moral development.”

To resolve destructive environmental conflicts, the facilitation process not only must have the greatest and longest-lasting personal and social effect possible but also must be as healing as possible because outcomes of environmental conflicts are, above all, intergenerational.  This means that it is the present generation’s responsibility to serve the future, not the future generations’ responsibility to serve the present.  (Facilitate, in the sense that it is used in this book, means to conduct a process of communication whereby people are assisted in freeing themselves from difficulties and obstacles in making decisions that either avoid or eliminate destructive conflict by forging commonly held values into a shared vision towards which to collectively build.)


“This synthesis of ‘transformative principles’ articulates the world view presented in workshops facilitated by Chris Maser. He has been called in when agencies have exhausted other options for settlement of disputes over forest management and are faced with the threat of legal action. . . Written in a motivational style, the book presents themes from ecological and social sciences interwoven with strong value statements to sustain the idealism necessary for participants to work together in achieving their vision. . . .

“By emphasizing the theme of transformative facilitation, Maser seeks to inspire readers to move beyond mere ‘problem-solving.’ He writes for those who believe that implications for future generations are more important than is immediate settlement of an environmental dispute. From his perspective, the problem-solving approach to facilitation is something less than transformative. A mutually acceptable solution resulting from mere problem-solving may be viewed as a lose ⁄ lose rather than a win ⁄ win compromise, depending on the state of mind of participants. In his workshops, Maser consciously strives to alter participants’ state of mind to facilitate development of moral responsibility for stewardship of sustainable communities. He does so by facilitating discussion of an ecosystem from the different perspectives of disputants.

“. . .As more people recognize the diversity of cultural lenses through which stakeholder groups view environmental issues, the ways in which environmental disputes are resolved will also shift. This book provided another meaning to the term ‘sustainable development.’ Scientists, whose work is likely to interface with sustainable development at home or abroad, are advised to inform themselves of the multiple cultural lenses that affect the decisions of their collaborators. . . . This book is an excellent example of one cultural lens that both shapes and filters the information received by its believers.”—Dr. Jane M. Packard, Texas A. & M. University. Ecosystem Health, Vol.4. 1998

“Chris Maser’s Resolving Environmental Conflict is a good book, especially for those interested in the community aspects of environmental issues.”—Craig L. Infanger, In: Proceedings of a Regional Workshop:  Industrialized Animal Agriculture, Environmental Quality, and Strategies for Collaborative Problem Solving and Conflict Resolution.

Resolving Environmental Conflict:  Towards Sustainable Community Development. 1996. St. Lucie Press, Delray Beach, FL. 200 pp.

If you want more information about this book or want to purchase it, visit “BOOKS” on my website.

If you want to contact me, you can visit my website. If you wish, you can also read an article about what is important to me and/or you can listen to me give a presentation.

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