Increasing Exploration

Guy Burgess

Co-Director of the University of Colorado Conflict Research Consortium and the Beyond Intractability Project

Interviewed by Julian Portilla, 2003

This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).

A: I think that we're at the threshold of a new generation of ideas, and part of the threshold is that we sort of run up against the limits of what we are able to do with these old table-oriented processes, and if we're going to get further, we've got to move in to larger-scale situations, we've got to deal with complexity. The other really big one that we haven't talked about, and this also is tied up in all sorts of word problems, but conflict analysis and resolution as it's been practiced has a very much academically-oriented, rational spin to it. It's the kind of thing that would come out of universities and we know it's not the only way in which people learn and we know it's not the only way people think and know things.

Q: The rational way?

A: The nice, rational, academic way. There is no better proof for this than the fact that the folks who are experts at this, don't really follow their own advice when they're in the midst of a conflict. But there is this whole non-rational side, this is not to use the word non-rational in a pejorative sense, it has a higher subjectivity and emotional quotient to it, but to just say its emotional, doesn't quite get it. There is a whole different way of learning and knowing that stands apart somehow, certainly the relationship with rational though process is complicated, that we've got to figure out how to master and work in or we're not going to get very far. But it isn't enough to say, "Well, just be emotional and let it all hang out," because those emotions can do a wonderful job of reinforcing all the evil stereotypes, and hatreds and destructive relationships that there are. So the frontier is how to do that.We've been talking up a twenty-year agenda for the field and we tend to think in small terms.

I guess maybe a good story to end with here, is I think what the field faces is something similar to where we were in the fight against cancer in the late '60s. I grew up with the threat of polio, I had a friend who came down with polio and I was terrified. Polio was a scary disease. All of a sudden we went down, I still remember going to my elementary school and they had a whole big tray of sugar cubes with this funny pink liquid that had been dropped into them, and they all went down the row and we all got a sugar cube, and that was the end of polio. So we got this bright idea, "Well heck we can do that with cancer," so Richard Nixon initiated the war on cancer, now thirty years ago, and there is no vaccine, there is no simple cure. What we've discovered about cancer is it's an enormously complex class of diseases, the treatments have to be carefully tailored to a particular genetic make-up of each cancer sufferer. Some things we know, a lot of things we don't. That's how it was with conflict, we had this idea that getting to yes and interest-based bargaining was the magic sugar cube, and we discovered that it isn't and that conflict is this big terrible mess, but if we don't start the kind of long-term effort to really understand it and grapple with the tough problems, as we have been doing with cancer, we're never going to figure it out. And we get the sense that there is chronic conflict. You know so many people die every year because of conflict and we can handle that, it's been going on pretty much every year like that as long as I can remember. But there is the potential of the "perfect storm" conflict, where you get a coincidence of things and you can produce something that's vastly more serious than anything we've really imagined. If we don't get on the task of really understanding and grappling with these problems, before the perfect storm shows up, we won't have much of a prayer. But the investment in this is miniscule.

I'm pretty certain that the total real budget of peace related research might buy you a few parts on a jet fighter and given the amount of money that we put into long-shot security systems, this really ought to be worth as much funding as some of the long-shot things that DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Products Agency, the guys that buy a lot of really silly things, but some of the stuff works, they invented the Internet. But we've got to invest in it, but we're not going to do that until we can change the public image of what the field has to offer, and we're not going to do that until we show them that we can grapple with the hard questions, and that we've got something more to offer than getting to yes and interest-based bargaining and win-win solutions.