Consensus, Caspar Style

proposed by Michael Potts

If you want to be universal,
sing your village.
— Franz Kafka

We are proud to be citizens of the US, but experience has led us to agree that democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others. Because we are few (but mighty!) we Casparados have the luxury of resolving our problems and making our plans using a much friendlier tool: Consensus. When asked by outsiders, particularly those who work in conventional government, what means we might prescribe for exporting our friendly, successful self-governance to other communities, we all point proudly to consensus.

We freely grant that ours is not an easy prescription, but here it is: Proactively seek practical ways to improve your community, including ALL stakeholders (which in our case extends to Osprey and Coho Salmon, among others who are often excluded from the conversation) in the considerations, and proceed bravely but deliberately through consensus.

All the experts groan when we say that. Could this be because in our Western American culture we're addicted to quick fixes, and consensus has the reputation for being anything but quick? We habitually leave the gnarly problems to "the government" even as we cynically expect "the gummint" to blow the solution. We stand ever ready to criticize gleefully. Better "they" blow it than us.

In Caspar's "the buck stops here" form of grass-roots governance there is no such thing as "the government." We're "it."

Starting with elections for Eraser Monitor in second grade, we "US-ers" (I can't bring myself to call us Americans, because that applies as well to folks living in Patagonia and Panama) all grew up under the assumption that majority rule is the morally correct "democratic way" ...without noticing that this can easily become a form of tyranny by the 50.1% over the 49.9%. Consensus shifts the attention from the plurality of enthusiasts to the minority of dissenters whose staunch opposition may contain important elements of truth. By deliberating until we can find a way that satisfies all, we find, again and again, that achieving consensus isn't as difficult as we thought, and that heeding and incorporating the views of the minority often saves us from grievous errors while leading us away from "slam dunks" and quick fixes to well thought-out, longer lasting, better solutions.

Like residents of marginal towns everywhere, we Caspars are used to being in the minority. Most of us moved here so we could live outside the dominant paradigm. We're all Californians, by choice or birth, meaning that we have an almost phobic preference for expressing things positively. Maybe it's all the sunshine and fresh produce, but we're natural enthusiasts, and assembling a simple majority or listing the benefits of a proposed change is easy. Faced with a tough planning conundrum, we have learned to empathize with those who doubt because we have come to recognize that their misgivings may be prescient. After ten years of working together on consensus, we've all been doubters and enthusiasts, and seen that solutions formed by careful synthesis of the best from both positions fits our little community better than mandates from distant government.

A short digression about the slowness of consensus: In our ten years of experience -- not much, considering Caspar is working on a hundred year plan -- consensus appears to save time, in that it gets to a solid decision without wasting time on false starts and temporary enthusiasms. It's a social application of the precautionary principle:

If we have reasonable suspicion of harm even in the face of some scientific uncertainty we all have a duty to take action to avert harm. We can take four kinds of precautionary action:

  1. Set and state our goals (including implicit ones, such as justice and democratic participation). Different parties may have different goals, and it's good to acknowledge this. Diversity is good.
  2. Assess available alternatives for achieving the goals, including no action whatsoever.
  3. Gather and consider complete and accurate information -- and the proponents of change bear the burden of providing it. This is what we mean by "shifting the burden of proof" onto the proponents of a new plan.
  4. Involve affected parties in decisions (beginning at the earliest possible stages when questions are being asked and goals set and making sure that the broadest definitions of involvement are applied). Respect their values, knowledge, experience, and preferences, and provide them with what they need to participate until consensus is reached.
We are indebted to Rachel's newsletter for the core of this definition of the precautionary principle. Article 15 of the Rio Declaration (1992) contains an early statement of the precautionary principle and can be found here: . The Wingspread Statement on the Precautionary Principle (1998) can be found here:

Those who know best that a proposed action will cause harm tend to speak up only if they can be assured of a safe forum (and that's not common outside of Caspar, we fear.) Their truth, if spoken insistently, stymies many large and imaginative schemes, and should probably stymie many more. To the principle of precaution, we add a committment to process. Our operational definition of "consensus" is, by consensus, slippery, but generally it works like this: If someone opposes an action in our community, she or he speaks up and is listened to respectfully. Those conducting the meeting and managing the process are responsible for (1) keeping the forum open, orderly, and safe; (2) listening to and understanding as much as they can of the objection; and (3) earnestly seeking the kernels of opposition no matter how excited or inarticulate a speaker may be. In the case of some stakeholders, for example, the Coho Salmon, human articulation can be a real problem, and the facilitators and managers have to listen very carefully indeed. Even humans vary in their ability to express themselves cogently in a public meeting, and the practice of honest consensus depends absolutely on providing many safe ways for everyone to make themselves heard.

Often, oppositions raised at the first presentations of a new proposal require study, and the process of gathering goals, alternatives, complete and accurate information, and points of opposition or difficulty, takes weeks, months, even years sometimes. It requires public meetings, private sessions with those in opposition, fact-finding, and a stubborn resistance to the "voices of experience" who say "You can't do that." For little Caspar, this process is easier because we have been learning how together for a decade, we're all neighbors, we have achieved together several "un-doable" goals, and we all share some really basic agreements about dignity, livability, fairness, and kindness.

We model our practice of consensus on the schema of Formal Consensus Process proposed in the book On Conflict and Consensus: A Handbook on Formal Consensus Decisionmaking by C.T. Butler and Amy Rothstein, to be found on the 'net at

consensus flowchart

Our "friend in consensus" Tree Bressen asks, doesn't this model place too much emphasis on concerns and not enough on enthusiasms? Good question. My guess is that in the enthusiastic atmosphere of Caspar, we need a process that protects endangered species -- doubters -- for the same reason that the Endangered Species Act protects the Coho Salmon, Burrowing Owl, and White-tailed Kite: because they may know something we don't know, but need to. Perhaps in another community or time, when enthusiasm is endangered and doubters are ascendant, the process will need to protect the enthusiasts.

The issue of "safety" touched on above is another curious point with which we have recently begun to deal. At our last Community Meeting, it was decided that the mere presence of technology, such as recorders and video cameras, was intimidating to some while conferring too much advantage on those of us who use electronic media well. We have also noticed that "the meeting" is not "safe" enough for some of our neighbors, who need more private ways to express their doubts and enthusiasms. As an organized community, we have used the internet intensively, as our publicist and moderator, but we constantly remind ourselves that it doesn't serve the whole community, or, taking Coho and Kite into consideration, even a majority. We remind ourselves constantly that in addition to consensus, inclusion is an important part of the process, and we actively seek our dissenters and quiet stakeholders and respectfully solicit their wisdom. Like Caspar, our consensual process is evolving and resistant to codification. It is proving, however, to be durable, exciting, and, especially for those of us who have made it an important part of our working lives, a constant challenge to evolve ourselves.

posted 1 March 2005