RESCUE: part six, The Fallacy of Consensus

In light of recent conversations and outcomes from COP27 and Davos, consensus may have become diluted, compromised and corrupted. What’s next? Might it be time for bottom-up collective action and social invention?

World Ocean Forum
4 min readFeb 16, 2023

RESCUE is a multi-part series outlining a new plan for the ocean and a new perspective to enable a new set of actions: from the smallest to the largest solutions and inventions, to radical methods and policy changes for a sustainable future.

The creation of policy is often a function of consensus: general agreement accepted by all members of a group. We see it at all levels of political and social engagement. In a corporation it exists until an executive declares otherwise and makes a decision sometimes an iteration of the consensus, sometimes as an imposition of a single point-of-view. In government, it is described as “horse-trading” and “executive order,” and has, at least in the United States, devolved to a confrontation of didactic opposites, a final version hinging sometimes on a single vote.

For large international bodies, such as the United Nations, consensus is a method to provide some things to all interests, all things dissolved into an acceptable compromise. Recently, at the COP 27 climate meeting, days of discussion and multiple versions of texts grew into an agreement that was to be made public as a serious progression toward climate action. But, after all that, at the last minute, the agreement was undermined by the fossil fuels lobbyists, some 150 of them working the corridors, whispering their own alternatives, compromising the consensus until it was meaningless. If you want to hear an expression of the resultant frustration, listen to the YouTube recording of former US vice president and ardent climate activist, Al Gore, at Davos last month, where he finally seemed to have lost all patience with the operative process and called for future agreements to be based on a super-majority of delegates rather than on unanimous agreement. Characterized as an “unhinged, irrational rant,” by the predictable financial and conservative press, Gore clearly had reached the limit of his frustration as result of the failure of the COP 27 conversations, undermined by vested, contradictory interests. That COP 28 is to be presided over by Sultan as-Jaber, the head of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, seemed the final insult.

There is no question that consensus has served much policy progress, but as the general agreement is diluted and subverted and prolonged, its efficacy now seems in question. As with the UN Sustainable Development Goals, Environmental, Societal, and Governance standards for investments and corporate behavior, and now, even COP, the international dialogue between the parties, thus compromised, the consensus plan for climate response across all fronts seems transformed into its antonyms: disagreement, dissension, opposition, refusal, discord, and denial. One wonders if even a super-majority would be able to overcome such powerful regressive force and the status quo must inevitably prevail. That Al Gore became “unhinged” by that realization after two decades of advocacy may well be understood as another “existential cry for help.” Apparently, after the event, renown cellist Yo-Yo Ma provided musical solace and harmony and distraction.

What to do? Greta Thunberg, the young climate activist who has described the inter-governmental process as “blah-blah-blah,” has opted for another way: during Davos she was arrested picketing a coal mine, an exemplary source of acid-emitting energy, located in nearby Germany. For her, and for many other climate advocates, direct action is the alternative. Too often, such statements are equally ignored and forgotten, dramatic and symbolic, yes, but lost in the ever-turning news cycle.

Collective action presents an alternative: from the bottom-up, and from the inside-out. Is it naïve to suggest that collective values can overcome narrow interests? Is it possible to change from within through action in response to circumstance that finds meaning and impact individually and communally through social invention? If we look carefully, we can see around us everywhere the positive impact of quiet movements that coalesce around evident, shared needs, enabling strategies that become initiatives and proposals, grants and appropriations, ordinances and laws, that are derived from necessity, promoted as solutions, and contributing de facto as meaningful consensus-driven solutions to pertinent problems, direct answers to direct questions. This is, in fact, policy in action, executed from incipience to implementation, from collective idea to community reality, that benefits many, and radiates beyond, as transformative action for all.

It happens all the time. It’s happening now. Can it be seen as an evolved, truly democratic plan for a future of our own making, as RESCUE:

R for renewal
E for environment
S for society
C for collaboration
U for understanding
E for engagement

PETER NEILL is founder and director of the World Ocean Observatory, a web-based place of exchange for information and educational services about the health of the world ocean. He is also host of World Ocean Radio, upon which this blog is inspired. World Ocean Radio celebrates 15 years this year, with more than 660 episodes produced to date.



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