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Sustainable Dialogue as a Necessary Template

For sustainable global community (Part #1)

Paper for the conference of the Academy of Management conference on
'Organization Dimensions of Global Change: No Limits to Cooperation'
(Case Western Reserve University, May 1995)

Abstract: Taking account of criticism of sustainable development as an unrealistic stable state, the paper explores the pattern of dialogue processes necessary to the coherence and evolution of a complex social system characterized by opposing views. This perspective recognizes the need to sustain the dialogue between radically different viewpoints as a guarantee of a level of diversity vital to unforeseeable responses to complex crises of the future. It is argued that the dynamic and evolving pattern of such dialogue needs first to be understood and given richer form in meeting-sized groups if the recommendations of such groups for wider society are to be of any longer-term relevance. Inability to sustain dialogue in widely representative conferences then becomes an early indicator of the inadequacy of the understanding required for any sustainable approach to development. Reference is also made to computer graphic devices to manage the imagery through which the necessarily complex patterns of dialogue can be understood and sustained, notably during electronic conferences.

Dimensions of dialogue
Immediate challenges
Challenging visions of dialogue
Implications for global governance
TABLE 1: Basis for allocation of dialogue elements to columns/groups of a periodic table

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This paper arises from the observation that the many efforts at dialogue, notably in international conferences, tend to get trapped in meanderings, repetitive patterns and over- simplifications, from which it is difficult to establish any conceptual distance. Worthy attempts at formulating new agendas and visions are too often characterized by lengthy recapitulations of old ideas which, to the extent that they are valuable, would be better taken as read. It is regrettable that so many key conferences give priority to affirmations, testimonials and the education of other participants -- whom it is assumed are either ignorant of the issues or have not been able to do any preparatory 'homework'. Do participants have so little confidence in their preoccupations and commitments that such reaffirmation is necessary? The issue of why previous dialogues following this pattern have failed to ensure sufficiently significant breakthroughs is not addressed. Rather the need to address this issue is carefully denied, usually implicitly.

Such forms of dialogue are then 'sustainable' only in that they can continue to be repeated in different settings precisely because they do not establish any basis for real change. In this sense a 'con-ference' tends to be the bringing together of 'one-shot' statements by key figures on the 'conference circuit'. Especially at the intergovernmental level, they are not expected to engender any new framework. The same statements are repeated in other settings. Whilst this has the important consequence of giving wider legitimacy to valuable insights, it does not help in taking concrete steps to act effectively on such insights. In particular the time-consuming effort to achieve consensus, and to express that consensus in affirmative declarations and pledges, has tended to litter international documentation with unfulfilled good intentions -- somewhat analogous to the production of New Year resolutions or to the 'vapourware' characteristic of over-optimistic computer software houses.

As instant communities, such conferences are a demonstration of the inability to engender sustainability. The pattern of dialogue is only sustainable for a matter of days as the increasing exhaustion and impatience of participants quickly demonstrate. It is not surprising therefore that such dialogue is unable to provide the conceptual basis for sustainable communities of a longer duration. Somalia, Bosnia, and Rwanda are memorials to this approach. There will be others. Deploring impotence is not enough.


In what follows it is assumed that a sustainable community is primarily characterized, at its most fundamental level, by a sustainable dialogue. The nature of sustainable dialogue remains to be understood, even if its essence, like that of peace, may be that which 'passeth all understanding'. Such dialogue could suggest a way of understanding what is meant by 'communities of discourse'. The ability to dialogue collectively is in this sense a necessary precursor of any collective ability to 'commune' and to cooperate -- whether at the local or the global level.

The socio-economic dimensions, as constrained by environmental considerations, which are so often put forward as of primary importance to a sustainable community are here treated as secondary consequences or manifestations of such a sustainable dialogue. Briefly, if people cannot communicate together effectively, they cannot trade insights and information effectively. They would then be handicapped in their ability to trade goods and services, or to enter into sustainable social relations.

On the other hand, if people can maintain a sustainable pattern of communications, then a sustainable community exists, whatever the degree to which it manifests in conventional socio-economic terms. (The argument that a sustainable trading community can be based on barter between people who cannot communicate effectively is inadequate to the challenges of a complex global environment.)

Dangerous misinterpretation of 'sustainable community'

Sustainable community has become a fashionable notion. It is however too readily assumed that by providing the much sought socio-economic conditions for 'basic needs' a sustainable community will necessarily result, provided account is taken of environmental constraints. This very conveniently lays responsibility on those who might provide such conditions and not on those who might form the community, or on those who might hinder its formation if it did not reflect conventional socio-economic priorities.

The nature of sustainable dialogue also challenges the assumptions of environmentalists associated with initiatives to establish eco-villages or their urban equivalents. Their concerns tend to focus on the alternative technologies and patterns of cultivation thought to be basic to an improved quality of life. As with mainstream environmentalist approaches to community design, the disciplines called upon (such as architecture) tend to be focused on the design of 'containers' for interactions between humans, rather than on the nature and quality of any such dialogue. The nature of sustainable dialogue also raises the question of the quality of dialogue with nature, as stressed by the deep ecology movement.

Recent decades have witnessed major attempts by those sensitive to environmental issues to ensure that these reframe the dominant economic thinking of the past. But just as the economists have endeavoured to put forward many arguments to minimize the full significance of the environmentalist perspective, so it would appear that the environmentalists are now exhibiting similar behaviour in minimizing the psycho-cultural dimensions which sustain the more balanced new approach to development that they advocate.

The literature on 'sustainable community', especially in the light of Agenda 21, reveals no concern with the psycho- cultural dimensions of the quality of life -- except insofar as they affect economic development or protection of the environment. This is probably due to public relations efforts to reframe the less attractive original notion of the sustainability of 'human settlements' and 'towns and cities'. 'Community', because of its multiple associations, usefully implies what is in fact not present or intended.

'Human development', through the UNDP Human Development Report, has been subject to a similar reductionist distortion and ignores all aspects of psycho-cultural growth that make individual and community life meaningful. In both cases surviving is stressed at the expense of thriving. It is ironic that the contrast is perhaps drawn more effectively in the case of animals, where agribusiness is vociferous in protesting how well animals are cared for in intensive farming units -- despite increasing public repugnance at the constraints under which they survive.

Just as religious conflicts and schisms amongst Christians arose from different perceptions of the Holy Trinity, so social conflicts are being aroused by the different ways, and denials, through which the 'trinity' of economics, environment and the psycho-cultural is understood. Specifically, for example, the environmentalist arguments for 'zero-growth', whilst relevant when economies rely primarily on non-renewable resources, are inappropriate (and possibly dangerous) when there is the possibility of a new concept of growth in the psycho-cultural domain. How, and whether, such cultural development is to be monetarized is another matter.

The issue of sustainable dialogue gives focus to these psycho-cultural concerns. Without these psycho-cultural dimensions 'sustainable community' is a dangerous misrepresentation of aspirations to a better quality of life and of the means to achieve them (as indicated by the growth example above). Still worse, there is every possibility that the much sought 'paradigm shift' associated with 'new thinking' will only emerge from these psycho-cultural dimensions and not from any materialistic redisposition of environmental elements through a 'community design' reminiscent of Brave New World.


The challenge explored here has to do with what makes or breaks the sustainability of dialogue as the underlying dynamic of the social fabric. This requires attention to what gets transferred, exchanged or blocked in dialogue. It also calls for understanding of the different exchange pathways and how they may be configured. Such understanding may then suggest richer possibilities for sustainable dialogue as well as the subtler requirements essential for any sustainable community, whether local or global in nature.

Unsustainable dialogue

In what ways do dialogues tend to be unsustainable? In general this occurs when they become 'boring', 'simplistic' or 'threatening' to a significant number of participants who will then leave, reduce their level of involvement, or choose not to participate again. But 'boring' covers a range of conditions involving recognition that the dialogue:

  • will simply continue to offer 'more of the same';
  • is effectively monopolized by a sub-set of participants;
  • is simply a series of monologues;
  • lacks any transformative dynamic through which it can progressively transcend its present limitations;
  • is being manipulated by some participants towards ends which may be unclear;
  • tends to get stuck in particular modes;
  • is paralyzed by some form of polarizing dynamic;
  • is simply being used as a platform to further individual agendas;
  • is essentially superficial or naive in its avoidance of more fundamental issues;
  • is focused on the formation of a simplistic consensus;
  • is unrepresentative of the variety of perspectives on the issues under discussion.
  • finger-pointing
  • over-simplistic

In metaphoric term, what prevents a dialogue from 'taking off' and 'flying' and what causes it to crash?

Beyond 'feel-good' dialogue: breaking the comfort barrier

The concern here is not primarily with forms of dialogue between participants who have a predisposition to agree or who value agreement and consensus. Rather it is with the more challenging category of dialogue between those who have little disposition to agree or seek consensus, as typified by the belligerents in Bosnia or the faiths which encourage such behaviour. With some 50 conflicts based to some degree on religion in 1993, it is assumed that new ways of approaching such complex dynamics are required.

Forms of dialogue capable of embodying the depth of disagreement that sustains such conflicts must honour difference in more profound ways. These are likely to challenge conventional understandings of consensus and will involve a greater sense of risk. Whilst feel-good dialogue may be vital to some forms of community-building, it is questionable whether in its present simplistic form it is adequate to the challenge of a world in crisis. If there are to be appeals for harmony and simplicity, it needs to be recognized that these cannot be based on naive and simplistic notions of either.

Where consensus is possible, it is of course to be welcomed. But where individuals are made to pay the highest personal price over several years, as in Bosnia, whilst those who favour consensus nourish what may be an illusion (in the form they choose to understand it), then other approaches should at least be considered. There is a danger that isolated zones of simplistic consensus will start to take the form of fortresses in a sea of disagreement, for lack of a more imaginative approach. The self-righteousness of those within such fortresses does not help matters.

native approach. The self-righteousness of those within such fortresses does not help matters.

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