In the seaside villages of the Fiji Islands, the elder men gather in a circle in a special hut every day at about 4 in the afternoon. With the sound of a younger man pounding kava root in the background, they speak slowly, in turn, of village affairs. No votes are cast in these sessions. They just keep talking, softly reforming their words until there is nothing more to add, until they all indicate agreement by saying no more. They have reached consensus. Its time for a sip of kava.
When I first witnessed this council of elders 15 years ago, I had not paid much attention to the word consensus, and it would be some years until I realized the power of this soft-spoken process of finding agreement among many points of view. It was my conversion from a radical environmental activist to a seeker of sustainability that also transformed my life from one of creating confrontation to one of practicing consensus.
When the Bruntland Report, “Our Common Future” was published by the UN Commission for Environment and Development in 1987, it recommended that “Round Tables” should be created in all jurisdictions. The Round Tables would be composed of people from all walks of life and all interest groups. They would work to develop a consensus on how to achieve sustainable development, or sustainability as it is now usually described. (It is said, in jest, that the environmentalists were unhappy with the developers getting the noun while they got the adjective; I think the real problem with the term is that “development” is often interpreted narrowly, to mean construction, industry, etc.)
Of all the countries in the world, Canada took up the challenge to create Round Tables more than any other. This was due, in part, to the fact that two Canadians, Maurice Strong, who chaired the 1972 and 1992 UN Environment Conferences, and Jim McNeill, who headed the UNCED Secretariat for Our Common Future, were deeply involved in the project. It was also due to the Canadian inclination to negotiate public policy issues rather than legislate or litigate them. One common phrase used to distinguish ourselves from our American cousins to the south is “Americans litigate; Canadians negotiate.”
By 1990, there were “Round Tables on the Environment and the Economy” established at the national level, in all ten provinces, and both territories. Although they were all constituted somewhat differently, e.g. some had elected politicians as members and others did not, they all had the common mandate to develop high-level strategies for sustainability and to operate by the process of consensus. The National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy is still very active today.
During a very active five-year period from 1990 to 1995 the Round Table movement flourished in Canada. I was appointed to the British Columbia Round Table in 1990 and was a member until shortly before it was disbanded in 1994. We produced an impressive array of documents, all representing a consensus among the 30 members who represented all the interests in BC society including environment, industry, communities, labor, aboriginal, and government. These documents described our advice to government on subjects such as Sustainable Energy, Sustainable Economy, Sustainable Cities, and Learning for Sustainability.