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Doing the impossible

by Peter Donovan, 1995

Inside his tiny office on a fluorescent-lit corridor of Washington State University's huge animal science complex, Jeff Goebel has posted Gandhi's injunction: "Be the change you expect." Goebel is a guiding force behind a change so fundamental that most people aren't aware that it is possible. In order to address the underlying cause of biodiversity loss and conflict, he is helping people change the way they make decisions.

Four years ago, Goebel went to work as a natural resources planner for north central Washington's Colville Confederated Tribes. The Colvilles face the same problems the rest of the world faces: the increasing difficulty of sustaining ways of life on a deteriorating resource base, and the resulting conflict.

Like most people and organizations, the Colvilles have been acting on expert opinion, problems and opportunities, multiple and conflicting goals, availability of funding, and compromise. After decades of forest and range management by outside experts, year-round springs and streams have been drying up on tribal lands, and traditional food and medicine plants have been disappearing. Many Colvilles regard the decline in traditional languages, cultural identity, family values, and health as inseparable from the deterioration of land and water. Says planner Lois Trevino, "We have lost so much. We have a lot of anger and grief over what has been taken away."

Goebel began coaching people in holistic management, beginning with natural resource managers. The interdisciplinary approach they were using, he said, was management of parts rather than wholes, and would not achieve what they wanted. Colville planner Dave Tonasket explains, "Holistic management is a different way of making decisions. That's the big change--people are looking at wholes. Whatever they're managing, they're stepping back and seeing the big picture."

For several years, Goebel had been gaining experience with the holistic approach while managing cattle ranches in Texas and Hawaii. Holistic management was developed by Rhodesian wildlife biologist Allan Savory in response to the worldwide failure of conventional solutions and thinking to stop or reverse desertification and biotic loss. In the 1980s many people assumed that Holistic Resource Management, as it was known then, was a grazing method for arid regions. It is increasingly perceived as a new decision-making model, one that integrates ecosystem and human values rather than isolating them or setting them in opposition.

Savory points out that all too often the quality of life we desire is compromised by our means of producing it, as is our resource base. We become locked in conflict over tools, such as logging or pesticides, without taking the time to define or achieve consensus on a goal. Desertification and biodiversity loss, he says, are the unintended consequence of this kind of decision making.

Major decisions at most levels and departments within the Tribe are now made according to a coordinated statement, compiled from the words of hundreds of tribal members, of what they want for their quality of life, their means of producing it, and the resource base needed to support this production indefinitely. This one-page holistic goal has been adopted by the tribal council, is posted in tribal offices, and has widespread support among the tribal membership.

The fact that both jobs and a healthy environment are in the holistic goal makes it difficult to set them against each other. A holistic goal, Savory has explained, does not consist of a prioritized list of multiple goals--it is a single target. Tonasket emphasizes that the approach tends to result in decisions that are at the same time environmentally, economically, and socially sound.

Last winter the Colvilles compared 250 tribal policies and programs to their holistic goal, and found that 75 percent were dealing with symptoms rather than causes. The Tribe is now in the process of turning its 1200 employees and $200 million budget toward the common vision. Expenditures are judged by how effectively they create progress toward this vision. Contrast this with conventional budgeting, in which money is allocated to multiple and conflicting goals.

The Tribe will have record profit this year because of this goal-oriented financial planning. Tribal administrator Diana White notes that departments are excited about putting dollars where they think they'll do the most good. She also sees holistic management as a way to avoid being pressured into things that aren't good for the whole. Previously competing departments of tribal government are now working together.

Changing the way decisions are made, Goebel says, is not a matter of administrative restructuring--it requires fundamental changes in beliefs, assumptions, and behaviors. These changes did not occur without struggle.

Because people habitually treat problems and problem-solving as goals, and act on opportunities, expert opinion, and peer pressure, training continues to be crucial. Over 150 people in various tribal sectors have received some training in the holistic approach, and Goebel says this group constitutes a critical mass. The Tribe has budgeted $100,000 for some of its employees to receive in-depth training from the Center for Holistic Management in Albuquerque. These employees in turn will train others.

This training consists in teaching people how to establish and act on a holistic goal that includes the values--positively and generally stated--of those in a group, whether family, organization, or larger community, that makes decisions as a whole. People are also taught how to recognize overlapping management wholes, to assume their decisions are wrong, and to monitor accordingly.

Goebel says it has taken years for forestry and other resource specialists at the Tribe to begin to see beyond the objectives of their disciplines, and to manage toward a holistic goal. On two pilot watershed management projects, the Colvilles are now planning for, and beginning to get, clean water and profit from sale of timber and satisfied tribal members.

Lack of trust was another challenge. At public meetings, Trevino remembers hearing, "Tell us what you're going to do, and we'll tell you what we think." People had been so well trained by resource conflicts and the NEPA process that they concentrated on what bothered them rather than what they wanted for the future.

Bob Chadwick, a former National Forest supervisor in Oregon, came to the reservation and set up several consensus workshops centered on conflict. People sat in a circle, everyone took a turn speaking, and feelings as well as thoughts were brought into play. Many deliberative meetings on the reservation continue to use the circle--which, tribal members point out, constitutes a revival of traditional forms of relating.

Goebel stresses that this consensus process is not about mediation, but is primarily about listening with respect. Listening builds trust, which is a prerequisite to learning from others and sharing power.

George Abrahamson, coordinator of the social program Healthy Nations, regards consensus as a fundamental dynamic of the Tribe's progress. "The consensus process, the circle and all of that, brings people together on equal terms," he says. "It brings them together beyond job titles, beyond expertise, beyond educational levels. It promotes listening with respect to all the different perspectives that are shared. It promotes learning and teaching one another. If we can continue to do that, and continue to build trust, then the creativity and everything is right here, within our own people, to take care of things for ourselves, to build sustainability, to build a future for our young people and for our children that are yet to come."

Dave Tonasket compares the effect of the consensus building to a stone thrown in a pond, with a ripple that spread throughout the reservation. One outcome was that a planning team was able to gather public input about what people really wanted for the future--the holistic goal that the Tribe now bases its decisions on.

To those accustomed to scrutinizing policy documents and legislation in an atmosphere of mistrust, the wording of collective statements--such as the Tribe's holistic goal--might seem unfocused. However, Goebel emphasizes, what such statements represent is beliefs and behaviors. The words are not the result of negotiation or compromise, and are not policy or law addressed at particular problems.

The consensus process and the holistic approach do not require that anyone sacrifice his or her uniqueness on the altar of the public good, Goebel explains. Diversity and individual points of view are critical to learning and creativity, and conflict reappears if some people are not listened to.

Says former tribal chairman Mathew Dick of the holistic goal, "It's a step toward involvement of the community as a whole in some of the decision-making processes."

"I don't expect everyone to buy into it," he says of holistic management. "I expect the majority of tribal members to at least go along with it for the first few years to find out what it's going to do for the Tribe. I think after they see how this process is going to work and see the similarities on how they heard their parents talk about how things ran a long time ago, that they're really going to begin using it, not only within our tribal public structure but within the family structure, too."

"That's something that we've been trying to find ways to do, is to reinstill those old values, those family values that we had a long time ago. They've been deteriorating for a long time because of the competitiveness of how people have to be. Through this process, I see us having an avenue to return to those values if we want to."

"Holistic management is getting all the people involved," Mathew Dick continues. "That's the way our chiefs did it a long time ago. Before they went anyplace, or made any decisions, they went and talked to all the people. That's what holistic management does, it involves everybody. Any representative government should do that."

This decision-making model has been used by some ranchers for over a decade. The Colvilles are proving that there is a practical way for governments and large organizations to move beyond the management of crises, symptoms, and turf battles--a way to manage process rather than events, wholes rather than parts.

Washington State Range Conservationist Jerry Rouse says of holistic management on the reservation, "I've been impressed with the ability of the Colvilles to stay with this." He notes that many shifts in the way things are done in Indian country are short-lived. "This thing is starting to have some legs."

This diverse and often divided confederation has defined a comprehensive, inclusive, but single destination--in provisional terms--and is moving toward it. The Colvilles are assuming that their actions might take them off course, and are monitoring so as to correct rather than compound errors. The holistic approach builds on existing human and natural assets, fosters creativity and hope, and is paying its own way. Says Lois Trevino, "we are changing from a system for failure to a system for success."

Statewide training

This change is now reaching beyond cowboys and Indians, thanks to an ambitious Kellogg-funded project that partners the Tribe and Washington State University Cooperative Extension. Across the state, 160 people are being trained in holistic management, in Stephen Covey's principle-centered leadership, and in consensus. Project director Don Nelson of WSU Cooperative Extension says, "We are seeking to achieve a transformation, not merely a modification, of the decision-making process and how people interact with each other. This won't happen overnight." Without such a transformation, he notes, we'll continue to get the outcomes we've been getting--continued biodiversity loss and conflict.

Phil Crawford, who directs Washington's Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources, says that the training effort is getting the right people together--farmers and ranchers, extension people, and community people--in ways that haven't happened before.

Other project participants agree. Rancher Dave Duncan adds, "there's no doubt that with holistic management you make better decisions with your land, your family, and your business."

Bonnie Mager, an officer for the Washington Environmental Council who has been active in growth-management issues, says that the training effort "is pushing the boundaries for a lot of folks. The leadership skills training has made it possible for people to put aside their biases long enough to hear what others are saying. It's the most hopeful thing I've seen in a long time--and it sure beats what we've been doing."

Changing the university

Emboldened by the preliminary successes of the four-year project, Nelson and Goebel are attempting to transform Washington State University itself. Says Goebel, who now works on campus for the Kellogg project, "That was our biggest challenge on the Colville reservation--the people that have been trained in the universities. The thinking is very linear, and it's difficult to make linkages, to see the whole picture."

Nelson says that reductionist thinking, competitiveness, and turf battles between departments and disciplines are the norm at the university. Real leadership is lacking, and the focus is on symptoms. "Sexual harassment is a good example," he says. "It's a symptom of the pervasive lack of respect, and yet we treat it as a problem in its own right."

Says Goebel of his alma mater, "There's a lot of disrespect toward students. I see a lot of frustrated employees, with low morale. A lot of distrust, bureaucracy, paperwork shuffle, waste. There's a class structure--administrators, the faculty, the staff, the students. There's privileges for the top and discrimination toward the lower. I don't see it as a learning organization. It's a sorry state of affairs for an organization that's supposed to be teaching and creating our future society."

The centralization of knowledge and expertise, by which the university system has largely defined itself, is losing public support. Nelson observes, "There is a lot of knowledge at the university, but damn little of it is being put into action."

Crawford notes that the university has a highly competitive individual-centered culture--which is a deterrent to cooperation and consensus--yet the university is being called more and more to deal with relationships and systems. There is a strong public mandate for this, he says.

Nelson adds, "There are a lot of good people at the university, but when you put good people in bad situations, you get bad results." He and Goebel began with their own spheres of influence, Animal Science and Cooperative Extension, and set up training opportunities for staff, faculty, and administrators in leadership, consensus, and holistic management. These are not yet part of the curriculum for students.

Consensus building has been a powerful tool in building trust, and stimulating people to action, says Goebel. Crawford adds that it is bringing together people who normally don't interact. For the first time, program budgets within Animal Science are being discussed openly, and financial planning on Animal Science farmlands is now based on a holistic goal.

Cindy McGuire, a secretary who has worked on campus eight years, notes that the Animal Science department is increasingly concerned with what's going to serve the people as well as the institution. "These are attitudes that you won't find in many departments," she says.

Data technician Jennifer Bumgarner says that there is more awareness of people as people, and more respect.

The approach that Nelson and Goebel are taking, says Crawford, is different. Some people find it threatening. Other departments and sectors of the university are beginning to show interest.

What Goebel and Nelson are demonstrating is that there are effective ways to get beneath the conflicts over resources and to transform the way decisions are made, as well as the underlying beliefs, behaviors, and ways of relating. Vision, patience, and self-transformation on the part of the human catalysts are required.

This transformation also requires thought models that seek to manage wholes rather than parts, and that are truly effective at finding and removing logjams in a variety of situations. It should come as no surprise that holistic management and consensus building did not arise out of an academic, self-help, or corporate milieu, but out of gritty determination to get to the bottom of biodiversity loss and conflict.

From the Colville Tribe to the university, there is a growing number of people who are recognizing that the world of the future is being formed now, not only by the decisions of experts, political leaders, and corporate executives, but by the choices that all humans are making--that the biosphere is our lifeboat and five billion hands are clutching the tiller. They realize the need for fundamental change in the way decisions are made, and they are making a practical commitment, beginning with themselves. It isn't a revolution, Don Nelson says, in which there are winners and losers, but an evolution.