A challenge to my classmates in ’97: Can we create a society that manages to prevent certain problems? Can we create a system which rewards or at least accepts people who focus on preventing problems.
We face a water crisis that is not showing any signs of reducing, and a climate change threat, and an economic crisis, among others. Lets not just solve these piece-meal, lets strive to create a system where such crises are less likely to occur, where preventing problems is as least as important, if not far more important, than solving them. Otherwise, we will be fighting fires and our attention will be on the biggest or latest fire. And those who want attention will be setting fires.
Originally, published in HaasWeek, the newspaper of the Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley in 1997.
March 10, 1997
The hostage drama in Peru started this thought that will meander and diverge before coming to rest without a climax. So, gentle reader, please approach this essay with patience.
The Mrta revolutionaries who took over the Japanese embassy in Peru may have been forced into terrorist action within a system that gave them no other choice. Since i don’t know much about the Mrta and their history, let me talk about things that i do know a little about.
When i grew up in Bombay, there were regular protests. Most of the protests were hunger strikes. I remember seeing students in tents camped outside the university fasting to get their opinions heard by the chancellors. Textile unions would have sit-ins. In villages, people would organize and lead a group to the nearest government office and squat outside to get funding for a school or hospital. The authorities would generally ignore these non-violent protesters for a day or two and then invite them in and negotiate with them.
But things have changed a bit and its hard to figure out exactly why. Maybe the authorities got too busy. Maybe there were too many protests. But people started using more attention-grabbing means to lodge their demands. Maybe its easier to crowd a person and rough them up. Maybe its easier to use an explosion to announce yourself. Maybe its easier to kidnap a person to get their undivided attention. From the authorities’ point of view, maybe it is easier to respond to a person holding a gun than someone sitting outside the lawn starving themselves. And maybe the issues are getting so polarized that its hard to find commonality. Or is it that the new negotiation tactics have caused the polarization?
So there has been a trend to use a new set of tactics to get points across, those that are the most provocative, most immediate. These involve very little self-sacrifice (in the short-term) and the use of the media, of threats, and of violence. These acts appear to be manifesting themselves in a big way in the land of Gandhi. Major industrialists and union leaders have been shot during the day. It would be a novelty now for someone to go on hunger strike.
Lets look at the alternatives that people have when they wish to protest against the system. For example, for millennia, the Gwich’in Native Americans have lived on the land south of the coastal plain straddling the border between northeast Alaska and northwest Canada. The Gwich’in are known as “Caribou People” because their way of life is so closely tied to the Porcupine River caribou herd, which migrates there every spring. Gwich’in traditions, language, and stories all relate to the caribou. The Gwich’in want to maintain their traditional lifestyle and support wilderness protection of the area designated as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the last protected piece of the Arctic coastline. As a tribal leader says, “Protecting the Arctic Refuge is how we will survive. Our people never went to the birthplace of the caribou because it is a sacred place, not to be disturbed.”
On the other side, the oil industry is pushing hard to accelerate drilling operations in Alaska. Not content with having access to millions of ocean acres surrounding Alaska, it also wants the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
The coastal plain is the biological heart of the refuge because it is the calving ground of the Porcupine River caribou herd. Scientists consider drilling operations a threat to the caribou. The coastal plain is also
nesting habitat for millions of migratory birds in the summer and for polar bears in winter. Cold and windswept, the Arctic Refuge is hardly the “wasteland” the oil industry makes it out to be.
The oil companies and their Congressional friends had included in the 1996 budget bill about $1.4 billion in revenues from selling leases to drill in the Arctic Refuge. This is only a fraction of the more than $50 billion the federal government annually gives to the oil, gas, and coal
industries in subsidies and tax advantages. Alaska’s Governor Tony Knowles, and the oil industry have much more access to the media to aid their campaign to open the Arctic Refuge. While discounting the Gwich’in people’s concern for their way of life, the politicians and oil companies are able to convince us that our way of life depends on drilling in the Arctic Refuge. Yes, if (and its a big IF) we learn about the Gwich’in, we sympathize with them and we want the Gwich’in to choose their lifestyle, but as long as there is no threat to prices at our pump when we drive up in our 4-wheel drives.
For the Gwich’in, if development goes forward it will be their children who bear the burden. But what resources do they have to face the oil companies and the government with? What can they offer to appease those who seek higher profits? If they manage to keep their way of life, the economy does not benefit. Yes, a few organizations such as Greenpeace have taken up their cause and individuals are donating money, some fraction of which will be able to aid them. But it is a trickle compared to the resources of the other side.
With a media that needs sponsorship and an indifferent audience thousands of miles away, what form of protest can the Gwich’in undertake to get to the table with the people in power? And more important what can they do to boost their negotiation position? Can Gandhi’s methods be applied here or do they have to resort to violence?
Does this have any relevance to us at the business school and to the business world? Yes, gentle reader, the end of my thought process is near. We would like to prevent problems before they occur or to negotiate our way out of a situation. But for that we need to spend time understanding the situation and the other side, to empathize with their position, to walk in their shoes. But do we have the time and energy to negotiate, to diffuse situations before they erupt? In our fast-paced lives with no time to do laundry, we cannot even pay attention to the proverbial squeaky wheel. We now only respond to the wheel on fire. So it looks like our lives are ripe for some violent terrorist-type attention grabbers. Will we change so that we can reach out and seek the Gwich’in in our lives? Or will we continue until we are forced to confront them?