In this excerpt from Miki’s forthcoming book Reweaving Our Human Future, she presents a vision of how major regional conflicts are resolved in a post-coercion world. This is the second of the book’s twelve “Wisdom Tales from the Future.”

It’s Water Again

The alarm went off, and Jasmine woke up and pushed the snooze button. Once again in a strange room. Where was she? Oh, yeah. She was in the Owens Valley. Far, far away from her home in Sri Lanka. She had just finished two weeks of offering master classes to mediators, which she loved. And now, in a few hours she would be sitting with a bunch of angry people she didn’t even know. This often happened at the tail end of a teaching tour. She was very talented in approaching difficult inter-regional conflicts, and had a very high rate of success, so she was often invited to handle tough local situations, even though local resources for mediation abounded in all regions.

In this moment she only felt the weight of that responsibility, not the joy of her mastery. She stretched and yawned. No point continuing if she was losing her willingness. Maybe it was time to switch jobs. Or maybe she could learn better how to say “no” when invited, and only go if she could really go willingly. She felt a familiar bitterness arise in her. She was just old enough to have still grown up before willingness was accepted as a key organizing principle, and so she absorbed her share of “should” and “have to” as a child. If only she had been born ten years later. She was envious of her younger colleagues who just didn’t have that weight to carry around.

What would she do if she let go of doing high-stakes global mediations? She was suddenly awash in gratitude. Despite her rough start, she was, now, living in the post-coercion world. She didn’t have to work. She could take time off. She could just focus on nurturing herself after several decades of intensive work. There was so much she wanted to learn and experience. She could decide not to work forever, and she would still get food and shelter. One of her closest friends back home had not worked in any capacity for over two years, and the people at the food distribution center didn’t even blink. Of course they didn’t know. Why would they know, or care, anyway? They, too, could choose not to be where they were. Forty years after the transition it was still hard to grasp that the old days were really over.

The alarm went off again. Now it was time to get up and get ready. The guest house was still quiet. She liked to get up early to do her morning routine. She picked her intention for the day, which was to trust the people who would come together to address the conflict. Especially when people were angry and didn’t trust each other, she knew it would be important for her to trust them. She sat in silence with this intention, allowing memories, doubts, insights, to arise to the surface, then subside. Her earlier grumpiness dissipated as she connected with her love of supporting people. Maybe she wasn’t quite ready to let go, after all.

Next she went for a stroll around the building. It was high desert country, and yet the garden was in full bloom. The lessons learned from experiments in permaculture[1] in the extreme deserts of the Middle East were bearing fruit, in the most literal sense. She walked around, listening to species of birds that had not been seen in those areas for decades, enjoying the lush green and the sweet smell of pomegranates, knowing what she was about to eat was mainly grown within this garden.

She used her netter[2] to type her transportation request. She knew the questions and didn’t mind providing all these details. Yes, the day was clear and warm, and she could walk a little to be picked up at a more central location. No, she didn’t have flexibility about arrival time. Yes, she was happy to be picked up a little earlier. From having mediated a conflict about inter-regional transportation she knew how each bit of clarity and flexibility she could provide would support the coordination.

Two hours later, at 9:35, she entered the room where representatives from both regions and a regional mediator would soon arrive. She always liked to be the first in the room, to get comfortable and fully connect with herself before anyone entered, so she could face what came later. She loved greeting everyone who came and getting to know them just a little bit before starting the formal proceedings. As angry as she knew some of these people would be, this was far better than the killings of the 1930s.[3] When she was reading up on the issues in preparation for this meeting, and when she talked with people from both sides, she was amazed how much of the original resentment was still ready to kindle right under the surface, so long afterwards.

She was glad the Greater Los Angeles council agreed to come to Owens Valley for this conference. She had a lot of compassion for their struggle. Fifteen years after the transition, when the global population was finally able to choose zero growth and consumption within means, that region had some of the toughest conversions to make. Scientists from around the world were invited to work with the local population to come up with an energy descent plan[4] that would be livable, manageable, and responsive enough to meet the global challenges. Water was one of the biggest issues. How could they reduce consumption fast enough without any coercive measures? What would make conservation attractive enough to people used to some of the highest standards of living in the world? Now, twenty-five years later, they had only managed to reduce 75% of what they had committed to. The paradox of success and failure in that picture was deeply moving to her.

She also easily understood the residents of the High Desert region. They had extended goodwill towards the LA folks for a long time, and they were losing their patience. The LA region had originally been using close to three times the amount of water it could supply for itself, so now, despite all their efforts, the LA folks were still living beyond their water means by 45%, and that meant water from Owens Valley was still being diverted. They wanted access to their own resources, the capacity to live in dignity within their means. They still had pictures hanging on walls of the time before the great diversions started, when Owens Valley was wet and flourishing. Hard to believe!

That’s why the High Desert people wanted the LA folks to come, and why they chose this location. The locals wanted to show the visitors exactly what was happening, so they would grasp the effect of their lack of compliance with their own commitment on the Owens Valley population. The local population were stretching too much, and she was worried there wouldn’t be enough willingness left to move forward. They were managing, especially with the breakthroughs that came about with permaculture being widely applied. But they wanted to have more ease, and it was hard for them to agree, voluntarily, to continue to make sacrifices because, in their words, “a bunch of high-consumption LA residents still wouldn’t budge on their swimming pools.” It was true that, like everywhere else on the planet, people who were used to high resource consumption were the last to recognize the joy of living within their local means and in community with others.

One by one the representatives came in. Jasmine was friendly, and showed them each to their seats. There would be fourteen people in the room including herself. Her first and most important task was to reach a place of shared ownership of needs. Having them sit intermixed with each other would help, she knew that from years of experience. The youth in the room would likely have no difficulty with shared ownership. It’s only those, like herself, who grew up under scarcity mentality, who would be challenged. If not for the historical buildup, this could be a no-brainer. With her level of skill, getting from everyone’s expressed positions down to their underlying needs usually took her no more than an hour or two. This time she figured it would take at least three, if not four. It wasn’t the issues that were complex. It was the lack of trust that would make things difficult.

She was right on target. Once everyone was in the room and seated with their drink, it was already 10:15. That was fine. She started them with an initial go round where each person would speak their heart as they were coming together, and express their hopes for the process they were undertaking. A couple of times she stepped in to ensure they would focus their hopes on the process itself without sneaking in any wishes for a particular outcome. Knowing how important it is for everyone to know they are taken seriously, she wrote on the board the key hopes she gleaned from each person. The hopes were almost always the same anywhere in the world she went. Everyone wanted respect, to make sure that what they wanted was taken into consideration, and that the outcome would work for everyone. At the end of the circle, it was 10:35.

The toughest part was next. With the level of intensity in the room, she knew it would be hard for people to hear each other. She invited them to go around the room again and for each person to speak and focus on what was most essential for them that the other side would hear. Then she asked for a volunteer from the other group who was willing to reflect back a summary of what was of most importance to the person who spoke.

For the first hour she had to work hard to ensure that people wouldn’t yell at each other, especially the older ones. If it were only youth, she thought, we could get this done so quickly. The older generation, they still had that old habit of believing their needs didn’t matter to anyone, and would get agitated easily.

A particularly challenging moment happened when Robert, one of the people from Owens Valley spoke passionately about how they just couldn’t do it any more, they had waited far too long for the LA people to comply with the agreements they had made. Before Jasmine managed to ask for a volunteer from the LA group, Sarah, a woman from LA, raised her voice and said: “Why are you on our case? Can’t you see that we are doing all we can? Why do we even have to have this stupid meeting? You know we can’t reduce consumption further.” Seeing several people from the High Desert region almost jump to their feet, Jasmine immediately stepped in to the circle, and stood between the two people. She wanted to catch these words before their incendiary potential ignited the others. “Before anyone says anything,” she started, “I want to make sure that at least I understand what’s important to you.” She paused to look around. Some people were still on the edge of their seat, waiting to see if she could handle the tension. Every word counted now. “What most stands out to me from what you said,” she continued, “is how much you wish there were a way to reduce the consumption further.” Sarah nodded her head. Jasmine knew that her words, her way of reflecting what Sarah had said, was far from the meaning that others had assumed was intended. This was so often the case – the choice of words could create polarization when the underlying intention could produce connection. “I am touched hearing this,” Jasmine went on, not leaving too many pauses for anyone else to step in. “I bet anything that you just want to be trusted about your intentions.” Sarah nodded again. “Exactly,” she said. “It’s not like we have some magical powers and we deliberately stall. We have such a mess on our hands, and it’s not going to happen overnight.” The blame was dissolving, and Jasmine had some confidence the High Desert people could now hear Sarah and know what needs she was speaking for. And sure enough, someone chimed in: “Is it that you want consideration for the complexity of the situation?” Sarah took a deep breath, and they could continue, all together. With her softest possible voice, Jasmine turned to Sarah again and said: “Now that you’ve been heard, can you tell us all what you heard Robert say?”

Sarah was getting ready to argue again. “But…” was all she managed to say before Jasmine stepped in again. “Sarah,” she said gently, “please stay with Robert. I want him to be heard, too. Can you focus on him now? If not, I can ask someone else.” Then she waited. If Sarah could find her way to Robert, the power of holding both perspectives together would immediately happen. Sarah’s body relented, and her shoulders dropped a bit. “I think you are saying that it’s hard for you to wait for us for so long… that you want to see action or something… But…” “Thank you, Sarah,” Jasmine interrupted her before she could bring polarized energy into the room again. “Please, let’s just stay with this for a moment before you say anything else. Can you appreciate how difficult it is for Robert?” Sarah’s features became contorted as she struggled to take the emotions in. One more time she came up with a “but” and one more time Jasmine caught her. Sarah was clearly uncomfortable, and yet she persevered and shook her head when Jasmine asked her again if she wanted someone else to do it. Finally, her voice shaking, and her hands clutching the handle of her chair, she said: “Yes, I can see how difficult it is for you, Robert. It would be for me, too, if I were living here in this… desert … that we … created … for you.” Each word came with effort. Jasmine beamed at her. “Thank you, Sarah,” she said, “I am really grateful for your effort.”

Whenever they got to the bottom of what someone was expressing, and could capture their underlying needs in a few simple words, she wrote the phrase on the board. She was constructing the needs list which would later serve as the basis for finding a solution. She made a point of putting everything in one list, undifferentiated. Her goal was shared ownership, so there wouldn’t be “LA needs vs. High Desert needs.” A solution could only arise from everyone holding all the needs together. That was key to the success of the conference. It didn’t matter how long it took to get there.

She still was needed, that was so clear now. She had a true ability to hear each person, to give them a sense of full compassion and love, and to get to the bottom of what mattered to them. She knew they trusted her, so there would be no posturing, no power play, only raw human expression. She knew how to work with that. She didn’t want to lose the tendril of goodwill that was building up, so she asked people to come and go as needed without a formal break. By 11:45 the difference was palpable. Everyone was breathing more openly. People were laughing at her jokes and talking directly to each other. At 11:55 she felt confident enough to announce a break. She suggested people stay within their respective groups, and talk about other matters. Things still felt precarious to her.

At 1:10, when she proposed a lunch break, they were about half-way done. A local group had volunteered to cook for everyone, using mostly local ingredients. They ate outside in the cool air of late autumn. The conversation was animated. The anger was gone, at least for now. She knew some of the passion would come back when they worked on an action plan. If nothing else, how would the locals trust the LA folks to follow through on any commitment they made?

At 2:15 the van arrived with their expert guide, and they went on a tour of the valley. The only voice heard was their guide’s, and he was being as observational as possible, pointing to this or that area and naming the challenges of producing enough food without access to the expected level of water. She could see that the visitors were uncomfortable. Seeing the effects of one’s actions is a quick and difficult way to learn. She knew they would need support later, so that they could face this discomfort without guilt or shame and let it inform their choices when it came to crafting an agreement.

They came back to their conference room by 3:30, and took another break. This would be a long day, she thought. By now she was in full gear, excited, and completely hopeful. By 4:15 they were done generating the initial list of needs. She read the whole list out loud, and asked for any additions from either side. A couple more items were called out to the room. She could feel the clarity descend on the group almost by itself, but thought it would still be better if she named the truth out loud: the only solution that would work would be one that addressed all these needs in some fashion. They all knew they had tried to work this out through compromises in the past, and it was time to work together, beyond compromise, to full mutual care. She didn’t even need to ask them to take ownership all of the needs, she could see that they all already did.

Now it was just a matter a time. She looked again at the list they had put together. Some needs showed up on almost every list she was part of constructing, such as care, flexibility, and authentic choice. Others were more specific to the situation. Trust was a big one here, for both parties. The toughest balancing act was generating movement while maintaining the commitment to no coercion. How were they going to do that? She was curious, open. It wasn’t her job to find the solutions, only to guide the process.

At 4:40 she divided them into small groups of four, two from each region. Their task was to brainstorm solutions without losing track of all the needs. She and the regional mediator would float between the groups and support them as needed. As she suspected, the anger resurfaced in a couple of the groups, at which point she or the regional mediator intervened, listened, and found more needs that the anger revealed which had not yet been named or added to the list. Those were then disseminated to the other groups.

At 6:00 it was time to break for dinner. There was no breakthrough solution yet. She was disappointed with the lack of creativity. Why can’t they let loose? What’s holding them back? She then asked each person to go take a 15 minute walk by themselves to think about the challenges the other group was facing, and how best to address them to enable a shared outcome. Then it was time for dinner. No one had volunteered to make it for them, so she figured they would all go to a restaurant. She suggested they reconfigure the groups. This way the small groups could cross-fertilize. Maybe that would allow something new to emerge.

At 8:55, after they came back and reconfigured yet again, she was getting discouraged. Their mandate was to stay together until they came up with a solution. That would mean one more day away from home. She really didn’t want that. And yet she knew she had to trust the process and give them all the time needed. Solutions cannot be made up on a timetable, not if they were to be effective, long-lasting, and voluntary. She reconnected to her intention from the morning. Someone in the room would find the solution, someone affected by everything.

At 9:35, just as she was ready to call it a day, one of the groups announced that they had a solution. It was the youngest member of the group who came up with the idea. That part didn’t surprise her, it often happened, because they were the least burdened with past habits. It was a stroke of genius that she herself hadn’t thought of. All the groups were essentially going back and forth with variations on the same theme. It was either asking the LA region yet again to agree to reduce consumption more than was really feasible, or asking the High Desert folks yet again to be patient and stretch. The young man changed the terms. Since it wasn’t really about water, he said, and since the most important needs were about care, he suggested that the LA region support the High Desert region by sending people every summer to support local production of food, as well as scientists who would research and propose more innovative approaches to regional sufficiency that would allow local residents a higher standard of living while remaining within their reduced means. This would not be instead of reducing consumption. The commitment was clear as day, it was just a matter of maintaining the overarching integrity with the non-coercive principles. They simply couldn’t reduce consumption enough without coercion, and he wanted to have another way to care for the locals. As a rep from LA he was confident in his ability to mobilize hundreds of youth. He trusted that many youth would find tremendous meaning in coming to Owens Valley, a way to put their passion for justice into place, and channel their own frustration with the older generation that was still attached to the old ways. The locals were moved by his passion and the clear commitment to find a workable way to care for their needs. The LA folks were inspired to see a way out of the either-or. Everyone agreed, wholeheartedly. This was no longer a compromise; no one had to give up anything. It was partnership, for the first time. Now it was time for the implementers to hammer out the fine details of the agreement.

At 10:15 they finished their celebration. Tomorrow she could go home, to her mango trees and the beauty of her own garden.

[1] Permaculture experiments in the Middle East have indeed happened successfully, and are slowly spreading across Jordan, as several youtube videos illustrate. The project is called “Greening the Desert” and was started by the Permaculture Research Institute of Australia. Information about permaculture is widely available on the web and in books.

[2] An invented name for a solar-powered handheld device that extends beyond our current 4G technology and is assumed to be universally available and non-toxic in production and operation. By and large, the main focus of these stories is on social systems and human interactions, not on technology.

[3] The problem that this story addresses is based on a historical water dispute that, at its height in the 1930s, bordered on active war between LA county and Owens Valley. LA has been diverting water from that valley since then, and the landscape and options in the valley have been altered dramatically.

[4] The concept of an energy descent plan is closely linked to the Transition Town movement.