Addressing the elephant in the room
by Teresa Martin
Pee, poop, and public discourse formed order of the day October 22-23 at the Sustainable Cape Cod conference in Hyannis. More than 200 attendees and 25 exhibitors delved into topics ranging from composting toilets to financing plans as part of the region's ongoing effort to come to terms with its water and wastewater issues.
The event, sponsored by the Water Alliance, the US Environmental Protection Agency, and the Cape Cod Commission, follows up on a series of previous shorter sessions. In fact, many of the workshop themes echoed those introduced in the day-long May workshop in Dennis.
From eco-toilets to regenerative green design, conference exhibitors and the bulk of the first day's workshop sessions took a look at state of art in solutions and approaches to managing our water and wastewater processes.
While an enthusiastic core compared notes on reusing waste products, toilet technologies, and leaving the flush behind, it also seemed clear that - despite the blanket of technology wrapped around it - many folks remain less-than-comfortable talking about those bodily functions most commonly discussed in toddler play groups and dog park sidelines.
The take away: options exist at the source - and those options should enter into the larger debate about wastewater.
When this happens, the underlying question changes. Instead of: "What do we do about all that waste?" it becomes: "How can we avoid creating all that waste at all?"
In keynotes and in various session throughout the two days, speakers hinted at the biggest issue of all: public consensus.
On the Cape, where the wastewater debate has flamed through anonymous emails and political posturing, the question of civic engagement looms larger than any technical or even financing question.
As if offering proof, in a workshop session focusing on that very topic two members of the audience engaged in sharing emotional and polar opposite views on Chatham's sewers-in-progress and citizens views of it.
"The biggest mistake", stated one with great anger.
"Most people are happy", countered the other.
In the breakout entitled Civic Engagement and Multi-Stakeholder Decision-Making, four panelists took the issue squarely on, sharing examples from other locales. The group's audience mirrored conference attendees as a whole: water and wastewater professionals, town committee members, activists on all sides of the debate, and a few interested bystander citizens.
In Gloucester, said Valerie Nelson, of the Water Alliance, local issues have led to "long term friends no longer talking to each other." A former Gloucester city councilor, she talked about a project called "Gloucester Conversation" whose goal is to restore civil and useful debate about local challenge.
"It's very sad to see a breakdown in the 'public square' - in that place we come and talk to each other," she said, almost as a warning to the warring wastewater factions. "No matter where one stands on an issue when the conversation is all about the extremes everyone in the middle stops coming."
Wisdom of the Crowds
Often, debates about community issues have moved from citizens to a small number of "experts" whose credentials seem to carry more weight than the informed view of a community member, creating a dynamic of elites vs. the public. This trend has further exacerbated "uncivil" civic engagement.
A number of projects seek to reverse this and mine the collective wisdom of the community in a meaningful way - a process essential to reaching consensus on large issues like wastewater.
Portsmouth Listens (Portsmouth, NH), and a similar project in Lawrence, MA both look to change the paradigm by which public decision get made, bringing back deliberative decision making to the process and de-emphasizing angry opinions.
Speaker Cynthia Mitchell, from the University of Technology Sydney, also pointed to the New Democracy Foundation as another group working to set up models in which public input and responsive experts come into balance with each other.
Case studies from King Lake, just outside Melbourne, Australia, and Pomona, California, highlighted the national and global scale of the need to incorporate multiple stake holders in local decisions.
Kyle Brown, from CalPoly Pomona, spoke about the concept of "ecological sovereignty," in which a neighborhood and a community controls the systems essential for sustainability: food, waters, energy, waste, and the built environment.
To make this work in Pomona, a largely poor and minority community outside of LA, the team developed processes for engaging different spheres of the community - across income and ethnic groups, as well as opinion perspectives in finding the path to consensus.
Closer to home, Jasmine Tanguay, of CLF Ventures, used Wellfleet's Comprehensive Wastewater Management Plan as an example of integrating science and community and supporting public participation in environmental issues.
She noted that to reach community-based decision making, we need to keep moving away from an "extractive" model in which professionals investigate, own the data, and make plans for the outcome to an "empowering" model, where experts and citizens participate with a facilitator to create sustainable local action with data owned, analyzed and used by the community.
Public engagement, technical solutions, and financing questions all share one element: to work well, they take time and they take a willingness to make a difficult mental shift in perception and expectation.
We laugh at how hard it can be to say "poop" among an adult audience - but that's easy compared to working in the middle to draw both community and expert knowledge together to find workable solutions to the very difficult sustaining issue of wastewater among us.
Conversation lays the groundwork - and the sponsoring groups expect that last week's conference serves as one more of a thousand steps to a sustainable solution.