Coming to the Table: A Way Forward on the Sierra’s Toughest Issues

As the 2014 election season came to a close many of us were left reflecting on our divisive political system. How did we come to a point where even the most straightforward of questions becomes politicized? With so many looming issues, from climate change, to the spread of disease, to international military conflicts, (don’t think we’ve missed the connection between them!) how have we become so paralyzed?

At Peak Innovation last month, a common theme arose. SBC’s 20th Anniversary Conference became a lesson in “coming to the table”, in bringing together people with differing opinions and objectives and finding common ground.

BT ComingtotheTable BlogImage 2014 11Acclaimed citizen writer Terry Tempest Williams spoke in length about the strategy during Peak Innovation’s opening night. She gave anecdotes from the gatherings she’s held, coined, “Difficult Dinners”, where thought leaders, divided by background, opinion, political leanings and more, are brought together to share a meal, as well as the societal etiquette that such a social contract demands. She discussed how commonplace this was between our nation’s two parties in the political world long past, something that has since been lost. She spoke of the success of these dinners in getting people to listen, the first step towards tolerance. In theory, tolerance should lead to understanding, which should lead to compromise. Could getting political rivals to share a meal be the first step in taking action?

NY Times Bestselling Author and Co-host of CNN’s Crossfire Van Jones closed Peak Innovation with a similar message. By looking down on those with different political leanings than our own, by acting like they must be stupid to hold such opinions, we are shooting ourselves in the foot. The crowd laughed, somewhat nervously, as we realized that we have all been guilty of such assumptions at one time or another. Jones called for us to instead accept our common ground, or come to the table, and listen. Through listening we can find shared priorities, the possibility of cooperation, and ways in which we may take collaborative action.

And I didn’t just hear about this simple strategy at Peak Innovation, I saw it in action. I won’t name those who were at the table, but following the Vision Awards Ceremony I found myself in deep conversation with a county supervisor, the head of a conservation group, and a fellow SBC staff member, discussing whether there’s any value in taking local action on climate change when the global picture seems so grim. In my mind there was a clear answer, “Of course we should be taking action at every level to mitigate and adapt to climate change, be it local, statewide, federal, or global, and preferably all four!” That, however, was the thinking of a naive ideologue, one that hasn’t experienced the ins and outs of funding local government action. It was a worthwhile discussion, one that seemed to have a profound effect on each of us at the table.

And that’s what it all comes down to. If we can all come to the table and recognize the common ground, the humanity, that represents each of us regardless of opinions, then we can have a real conversation, one where we listen to each other and come to understand how our opinions were formed. Perhaps then we can reach real compromise and start moving forward on the many issues that our world is facing.

Toward the end of his keynote, Van Jones quoted a line from a well-known song by The Police, “The darkness makes me fumble for a key to a door that’s wide open”. We’ve been fumbling for years now while the door to action has been wide open. Now is the time to turn on the light and come to the table, it’s dinnertime.