Posted by: Ken Homer | March 17, 2008

A Startling Statistic

I have just spent the last three days involved in a very intriguing process called Deliberative Polling.

Originated by Professor James Fishkin at Stanford’s Center for Deliberative Democracy, the process invites a randomly selected sample of a population into a conversation about an issue of importance to them. In this case, it was the housing crisis facing the county of San Mateo, which could face a shortfall of housing in the neighborhood of 50,000 units by the year 2025 unless new policies are adopted.

Please see the link above for detailed workings of the process.

Briefly, it involves a survey of the participants’ attitude toward the issue before attending the gathering, mailing of a detailed briefing booklet to participants for them to study between being surveyed and arriving at the event.

Once there, participants are divided into small groups of ten to 15 who are assisted by facilitators for in depth conversations of about 90 minutes where they talk about their thoughts and feelings on the issue with the only goal being the development of a question to put to a panel of experts in the plenary session. After the plenary the small group process is repeated.

At the end of the conversations, participants fill out the same survey they took before the event and data is gathered to determine if any changes in attitudes have occurred as a result of their participation. In our case there were four plenary sessions and four small group conversations stretched over two days.

I will write more about my experiences and learnings later in the week, but one statistic quoted by a expert panelist caught my attention and I have been nearly consumed with its consequences ever since. It was mentioned that according to HUD, only 50% of the  built environment needed to support the projected housing and commercial development needs in the year 2050 exists today.

Whether you agree with the statistic or not, it is the long term guiding model on which trillions of dollars of investment will be based. In the US, we may very possibly see a doubling of our built environment the next forty years!

According to a study released in 2005, two thirds of the Earth’s resources have disappeared, been severely depleted or significantly damaged. Most of this loss has occurred in the last century.

It boggles my mind to think that in the US plans are underway to double our built environment. If indeed population and other pressures will require so much development, we have to do so while simultaneously finding ways to not only reduce our demand on the Earth’s ecosystems, but to be actively engaged in healing, restoring and growing back to a less diminished state the oceans, forests and skies of our home.

This is something never before attempted and ways forward are scarce.

Clearly we are up against challenges never before faced by our race and as they said in the Apollo 13 mission: failure is not an option. But at the same time, there has probably never been a better time to move into a more sustainable paradigm of design for both the human and natural world.

Like it or not, there are a bunch of things that will not go away, such as people, their need to be fed, clothed sheltered, educated and productively engaged in creating meaningful lives.

On the other hand there are many things that could go away that will dramatically reduce the quality of life for those living in the not so distant future, such as old growth forests, fisheries, rivers, wetlands, access to clean air and non-toxic water, foods that are nourishing and resilient to droughts, pests and blights. 

The imperative to balance ecosystems with economic-systems looms large. Our success in this endeavor rests on our ability to be in productive conversations to coordinate our actions in support of a sustainable future.

Are we up to it?    

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