Micah Saul: This project is built on a hypoth­e­sis. There are moments in his­to­ry when the sta­tus quo fails. Political sys­tems prove insuf­fi­cient, reli­gious ideas unsat­is­fac­to­ry, social struc­tures intol­er­a­ble. These are moments of crisis. 

Aengus Anderson: During some of these moments, great minds have entered into con­ver­sa­tion and torn apart inher­it­ed ideas, dethron­ing truths, com­bin­ing old thoughts, and cre­at­ing new ideas. They’ve shaped the norms of future generations.

Saul: Every era has its issues, but do ours war­rant The Conversation? If they do, is it happening?

Anderson: We’ll be explor­ing these sorts of ques­tions through con­ver­sa­tions with a cross-section of American thinkers, peo­ple who are cri­tiquing some aspect of nor­mal­i­ty and offer­ing an alter­na­tive vision of the future. People who might be hav­ing The Conversation.

Saul: Like a real con­ver­sa­tion, this project is going to be sub­jec­tive. It will fre­quent­ly change direc­tions, con­nect unex­pect­ed ideas, and wan­der between the tan­gi­ble and the abstract. It will leave us with far more ques­tions than answers because after all, nobody has a monop­oly on dream­ing about the future.

Anderson: I’m Aengus Anderson.

Saul: And I’m Micah Saul. And you’re lis­ten­ing to The Conversation.

Aengus Anderson: So how goes it?

Micah Saul: Pretty good. How about you?

Anderson: Doing alright. I feel pret­ty good about those oth­er two inter­views and this time we’re going to be head­ing off in a total­ly dif­fer­ent direction.

Saul: Yeah. Those first two I thought in a lot of ways worked real­ly well togeth­er as a way to kick this off, and now this is def­i­nite­ly going down the path of well, less­er known things. I think it’s real­ly inter­est­ing. So once again the name of the guy we’re talk­ing to tomorrow?

Anderson: We’re talk­ing to Peter Warren, and he’s from the Nature Conservancy, and he’s been work­ing with the Malpai Borderlands Group. That’s a coali­tion of sort of envi­ron­men­tal­ists and ranch­ers in Southern Arizona who’ve come togeth­er to joint­ly man­age a lot of grass­land in a way that is pret­ty unprece­dent­ed. It’s not com­mon to have this sort of coali­tion, and it’s been a sur­prise, I think, that they found so much com­mon ground and that they’ve been remark­ably effec­tive at meet­ing the goals of very dif­fer­ent constituencies.

Saul: Absolutely. I think it’s real­ly inter­est­ing that espe­cial­ly in the American Southwest the envi­ron­men­tal move­ment and ranch­ers have always been at loggerheads.

Anderson: So what are some of the… There are a lot of direc­tions I think this con­ver­sa­tion can go. It seems like some of the nat­ur­al ones we’ll want to talk about are how on earth did these groups come togeth­er? If we’re inter­est­ed in the Conversation, I’m real­ly inter­est­ed in the logis­tics of like, how did these guys make the con­ver­sa­tion happen? 

Saul: Exactly, because I think of all of the peo­ple in orga­ni­za­tions we cur­rent­ly have lined up, these peo­ple are the clos­est to actu­al­ly real­ly hav­ing the Conversation as we envi­sioned it. I mean if the Conversation is mul­ti­ple var­ied dis­parate groups sit­ting down and talk­ing about the future, well that’s exact­ly what this is. So I think you’re absolute­ly right. I think fig­ur­ing out how that hap­pened is going to be incred­i­bly valu­able for our ver­sion of the Conversation as a whole.

Anderson: So some­thing I think we need to think about now before I go in and make a total fool of myself, what’s the con­nec­tion to the big­ger philo­soph­i­cal idea about this? They’re mak­ing the Conversation work; we want to pur­sue that. We see cul­tures that are threat­ened by eco­nom­ic changes sort of try­ing to nego­ti­ate that. Are there oth­er big ideas we want to explore here?

Saul: As an envi­ron­men­tal­ist, I’d assume that he’s going to have more of a bio­cen­tric view of the world. The ranch­ers might have more of an anthro­pocen­tric view of the world. 

Anderson: And maybe that’s a lens that we should actu­al­ly be think­ing about to explore this con­ver­sa­tion through.

Saul: Exactly. It’d be, I think, inter­est­ing to see how you rec­on­cile those two dif­fer­ing points of reference.

Anderson: Yeah, I’m real­ly excit­ed to see where this goes. After our last con­ver­sa­tion was very philo­soph­i­cal, I think this one’s real­ly going to bring us back to earth with a lot of tan­gi­ble stuff about how do we do this. I’ll keep you post­ed and I’ll be send­ing you some audio to lis­ten to soon.

Saul: Excellent. Alright. Take care, sir.

Peter Warren: My per­son­al back­ground is as a biol­o­gist work­ing here with the Nature Conservancy for 25 years. So a sub­stan­tial part of my back­ground has been try­ing to under­stand changes, what hap­pens to the nat­ur­al com­mu­ni­ties of plants and ani­mals over time in response to cli­mate change and things like that.

And actu­al­ly my first con­tact with the folks in the Malpai Group was focus­ing on rare plants. Turns out there’s a few very rare plants down there. One lit­tle cac­tus occurs only on one lime­stone hill on one ranch, list­ed endan­gered. So it’s like the clas­sic hor­ror sto­ry for a ranch­er and an endan­gered species, you know. They are the only place in the world that has this endan­gered species on it. 

So any­way, we went back down there in the begin­ning in 87 and helped put in some mon­i­tor­ing plots to doc­u­ment the tra­jec­to­ry of those pop­u­la­tions of cac­tus, and in the process were real­ly able to show that the man­age­ment of the live­stock oper­a­tion of that ranch had no effect on the out­come for the cactus.

Anderson: So you’ve got a back­ground sort of think­ing about biol­o­gy and change, that takes you down to Southeastern Arizona and you meet these ranchers.

Warren: Right, exactly.

Anderson: How does the Malpai Group start?

Warren: They start­ed because, you know, they’re under a lot of pres­sure from, in a sense think of it as the out­side world, the non-ranch com­mu­ni­ty, for a cou­ple of things. One is sim­ply as these ranch­ing fam­i­lies tend to grow over time, they have to make deci­sions about what to do with the ranch when there get to be too many peo­ple for the ranch to sup­port. And often the only solu­tion they can come up with is to sell it and divide up the pro­ceeds to sat­is­fy the fam­i­ly’s shar­ers in the ranch. 

Pressure to split that up is relat­ed to exter­nal pres­sure for hous­ing devel­op­ments, things like that. When ranch­es are sold and sub-divided the mar­ket is con­ti­nen­tal. A recent branch sub-divided there sold in parcels to peo­ple from twen­ty dif­fer­ent states. Literally. Hawaii to Florida, includ­ing British Columbia by the peo­ple that bought into the pieces of that ranch. Because the mar­ket is on the Internet. So that’s the pres­sure that they’re faced with. But that’s pure­ly economic. 

So from the Conservancy’s point of view, we want to see the land pro­tect­ed as nat­ur­al habi­tat for wildlife, that kind of thing. And so this kind of socioe­co­nom­ic prob­lem with these ranch­es being sub-divided is also an eco­log­i­cal prob­lem from the point of view of land con­nec­tiv­i­ty for wildlife move­ment and func­tion­al­i­ty of water­sheds and things like that. 

So although our ulti­mate goal is pro­tect­ing bio­log­i­cal diver­si­ty on the land and pro­tect­ing the integri­ty of these nat­ur­al com­mu­ni­ties, the strate­gic way to get there is to pre­vent these ranch­es from being sub-divided. And it turns out the issue that these ranch­es are hav­ing, you know, they get togeth­er and talk and say, Wow our neigh­bor over here sold out and that ranch got sub-divided…” every time that hap­pens, it puts pres­sure on the remain­ing ranch­ers who want to stay in ranching.

And these are folks who might’ve been out there for four or five gen­er­a­tions, over a hun­dred years. Their fam­i­ly tra­di­tion is all about ranch­ing. From the point of view of folks that have sur­vived that long, what it means is their fam­i­ly tra­di­tion is all about tak­ing care of the land, keep­ing the grass healthy. So they were see­ing this as a process that was a chal­leng­ing issue for them as ranch­ers to kind of think about the future. They’re think­ing about from the point of view, How do we pre­vent this to pro­tect ranch­ing in this val­ley?” We’re think­ing about, How do we pre­vent this to pro­tect the bio­log­i­cal wildlife resources of that valley?”

Turns out we’re both try­ing to accom­plish the same thing.

Anderson: But for…

Warren: For dif­fer­ent rea­sons [crosstalk]

Anderson: Very dif­fer­ent reasons.

Warren: Very dif­fer­ent per­spec­tives on the same rea­son, in some ways.

Anderson: Huh.

Warren: But back to the ques­tion, how did they start? They were hav­ing these infor­mal get-togethers among neigh­bor­ing ranch­es, talk­ing about this. And one par­tic­u­lar­ly insight­ful guy, Drum Hadley, who was part of that group, owns one of the ranch­es, he was real­ly— Drum, he said, You know, we real­ly need to bring in some of these con­ser­va­tion­ists to help us think about what to do here.”

Anderson: How did that go over? It seems like—

Warren: It did­n’t go over at all. The first time they brought this guy John Cook in, he was at the Nature Conservancy and at that time was try­ing to fig­ure out what the Conservancy would do with the Gray Ranch, which we owned at that time. This was like 1990. The first time Drum took John to one of these lit­tle com­mu­ni­ty get-togethers, they did­n’t tell them where he was from. Just a friend. [laughs]

Another piece of this sto­ry back there as far as our rela­tion­ship. There’s a ranch right in the bot­tom of the San Bernardino Valley. This ranch has a lot of nat­ur­al waters, arte­sian springs on it that have, it turns, out some endan­gered fish and things like that. So this prop­er­ty came up for sale back in the late 70s. The Nature Conservancy bought it. We turned around and gave it to the US Fish and Wildlife Service. They made a refuge out of it to man­age those fish. And in the process, the guys work­ing with the Conservancy at that time just basi­cal­ly ignored or dis­re­spect­ed the involve­ment of any of the neigh­bor­ing ranch­ers that had been there all their lives.
So some of these folks, who are now our best part­ners, were send­ing these let­ters to the Cochise County news­pa­pers real­ly just rip­ping into the Nature Conservancy, attack­ing the Conservancy for cut­ting the heart out of the val­ley, for destroy­ing ranch­ing. Because it real­ly was the best water. It was the his­toric cen­ter of the val­ley. And we took it out of ranch­ing and gave it to the Service for fish.

So there were some real­ly pas­sion­ate hard feelings.h

Anderson: And that seems like that’s a pret­ty com­mon theme across the West, right?

Warren: It is. Absolutely, yeah. That site actu­al­ly rep­re­sents kind of an evo­lu­tion in the Conservancy’s think­ing from focus­ing on small places that have kind of high local val­ue like a spring with a lot of fish in it and just buy­ing it, try­ing to pro­tect that spot, to think­ing more broad­ly. What does it real­ly mean to try to pro­tect that spot. This is the bot­tom of the val­ley. It’s sur­round­ed by a 200,000 acre water­shed, all of which feeds into that spot to sus­tain that water and the con­di­tion of the stream there. So the long-term solu­tion there is not just buy­ing the spring, the long-term solu­tion is pro­tect­ing the whole water­shed. And there’s at least sev­en or eight dif­fer­ent ranch­es, all of which own a sub­stan­tial amount of prop­er­ty in that water­shed. So the real, full, big land­scape solu­tion is work­ing with all those ranch­ers to come up with some kind of com­mon solution.

Anderson: That’s real­ly inter­est­ing, because that makes me think of— I mean, this con­ver­sa­tion hap­pened between ranch­ers and con­ser­va­tion­ists there. And it seems like it went from the point of think­ing about the small and local, spe­cial­ized, to this bigger-picture holis­tic conversation—

Warren: That’s right.

Anderson: —where every­one under­stands that the ecosys­tem, as a unit, is some­thing that needs to be thought about.

Warren: Exactly.

Anderson: Which has real­ly inter­est­ing par­al­lels with the struc­ture of the project that I’m doing, which is sort of like how do you get peo­ple to be hav­ing a con­ver­sa­tion about our holis­tic future? We have peo­ple who will be talk­ing about aspects of the econ­o­my or the envi­ron­ment or sci­ence, and it feels like those don’t always over­lap. So I’m real­ly inter­est­ed in this because it’s kind of like a cool par­al­lel, almost a case study to think about bring­ing peo­ple togeth­er to talk about a big­ger sys­tem. What actu­al­ly brought the peo­ple together?

Warren: It was just their con­cern about the future of ranch­ing in that val­ley. I mean, that was what kind of got these con­ver­sa­tions start­ed. But John was actu­al­ly a real­ly impor­tant cat­a­lyst in rec­og­niz­ing that these guys were all real­ly moti­vat­ed, real­ly capa­ble peo­ple. And hav­ing the skill to orga­nize that into what our cur­rent accept­ed legal struc­ture is for a non-profit orga­ni­za­tion to do that kind of thing.

Anderson: Was it hard for both sides to set aside how they viewed each other?

Warren: It was. That was the first… You know, the tra­di­tion­al pat­tern up until that time was buy­ing a piece of land and the solu­tion would be giv­ing it to the Federal gov­ern­ment to man­age. In order to think of these big­ger land­scapes, though, clear­ly the Federal gov­ern­ment could­n’t do it all. We had to have these col­lab­o­ra­tive approach­es with mul­ti­ple own­ers, pri­vate and agency land man­agers work­ing togeth­er. The Conservancy decid­ed we were going to make this an exam­ple of pri­vate land con­ser­va­tion and kin­da set the mark for how you stim­u­late these col­lab­o­ra­tions for big land­scape con­ser­va­tion among diverse own­er­ship of dif­fer­ent philoso­phies in the landscape. 

How this ties in…thinking about this as I’ve been think­ing about your project here… What does that mean for think­ing about the future and changes that we’re expe­ri­enc­ing? The ranch­ers in this case, they have a fair­ly long tra­di­tion of how they oper­ate, what kind of life they lead, what kind of tra­di­tions they have. And it does­n’t include a lot of the same pri­or­i­ties that some of the con­ser­va­tion­ists have. But it does include a very strong sense of being self-identified as an envi­ron­men­tal man­ag­er of the con­di­tion of the grass, that kind of thing. So if you can just kind of begin under­stand­ing how each oth­er views those goals, which are very sim­i­lar to ours, the chal­lenge is tak­ing what start­ed out as a very strong antag­o­nis­tic rela­tion­ship and try­ing to direct that pas­sion into shared goals instead of direct­ing it at each other.

Anderson: What are some of those shared goals? I guess for a group like The Nature Conservancy, the land has val­ue in and of itself in a non-anthropocentic way, like the land just has val­ue, and the things liv­ing in it.

Warren: Yeah. All the species out there have val­ue. And from the point of view of a ranch­er, I sup­posed you’d say the land has val­ue as it sup­ports their live­stock. I mean, mak­ing a liv­ing off the land is a key ele­ment of the val­ue the land has. And that’s true for peo­ple around the world.

I think the angle which to me is real­ly fas­ci­nat­ing, which Malpai is a great case study for or some­thing, is that these ranch­ers rec­og­nize they had this con­cern which the viewed as a threat to their way of life. Their fam­i­ly, her­itages, tra­di­tion, was being lost. So there’s this inti­mate link between this fam­i­ly tra­di­tion, com­mu­ni­ty, her­itage and tra­di­tion, and the land that they’re mak­ing a liv­ing on. And the Conservancy is incor­po­rat­ing that con­cept into almost every­thing we’re doing now around the world. We have to work with local com­mu­ni­ty to find sus­tain­able ways of using the land that are com­pat­i­ble with the bio­log­i­cal diver­si­ty goals that we have for these nat­ur­al landscapes.

And so it means com­ing to an accom­mo­da­tion from both sides.

Anderson: So there’s a real lev­el of just prag­ma­tism in this sort of alliance between I guess bio­cen­trism and anthropocentrism.

Warren: But there’s room for both. And it turns out you can have a real­ly healthy grass­land which is feed­ing bison and deer and prong­horn and oth­er wildlife, and there’s enough pro­duc­tiv­i­ty there for some cows also. You just have to pay atten­tion and man­age the sys­tem in a bal­anced way.

Many of these rur­al com­mu­ni­ties, it turns out all around the world, peo­ple who make their liv­ing from graz­ing live­stock of some kind whether it’s the Masai in East Africa, the Serengeti, it’s been a tra­di­tion­al herd­ing cul­ture of peo­ple there for thou­sands of years side by side with the best-known biggest con­gre­ga­tions of mam­mals on Earth. Same kind of thing in Mongolia, a tra­di­tion­al herd­ing cul­ture, big land­scape, a lot of inter­est­ing wildlife, and nat­ur­al val­ues. And every one of these local cul­tures is under pres­sure from the world at large. Whether it’s min­er­al devel­op­ment in Mongolia or pres­sure for agri­cul­ture in Tanzania, these herd­ing com­mu­ni­ties are being pushed off of these tra­di­tion­al lands by oth­er more inten­sive uses. 

Just like the Malpai ranch­ers here, oth­er ranch­ers all over the West. They’re look­ing for ways to pro­tect their tra­di­tion­al liveli­hoods, and the tra­di­tion­al lands that go with those liveli­hoods, and they need to look out to oth­er con­stituen­cies to sup­port their goals. And it turns out the con­ser­va­tion world an obvi­ous… I mean, it was­n’t obvi­ous at first, but it turns out we’re one of the best and strongest part­ners for them to adopt to try to achieve their goal of pro­tect­ing this ranch­ing liveli­hood. That’s true…you know, herders in Mongolia, we’re part­ner­ing with some of them. It’s true with the Masai in Kenya and Tanzania. We’re kind of col­lab­o­rat­ing with them to try to pro­tect their tra­di­tion­al lands. 

Now, more than ever, we’re aware of what peo­ple are doing every­where else around the world. This is a chal­lenge that peo­ple are fac­ing even in urban places. Bombarded with this glob­al infor­ma­tion sea makes it chal­leng­ing, I think, to iden­ti­fy what are the key ele­ments of your tra­di­tions and your cul­ture that you need to pro­tect. And how do you pro­tect that at the same time that you’re bring­ing and engag­ing col­lab­o­ra­tors, engag­ing con­stituen­cies to help you achieve your goals, who have very dif­fer­ent cul­tur­al back­grounds than you do?

Anderson: And how do we choose what to keep and know that some things will be lost?

Warren: I’m not even sure where this is going. This is the point where it’s— I’m not sure what the future holds, but I think this issue of both iden­ti­fy­ing and pre­serv­ing local cul­tur­al tra­di­tions… Like at the Malpai Group, our Western ranch­ing tra­di­tion, that’s only a hun­dred year-old tra­di­tion or so, hun­dred and fifty year-old tradition.

Anderson: So it’s not an old tradition.

Warren: Not and old tra­di­tion com­pared to the Masai, but it turns out US ranch­ers and Masai have a lot in com­mon. We’ve had a cou­ple of exchange vis­its between them, and it’s like, they spend their day to a large extent look­ing at the grass and think­ing about water and where to move their cows to. The guys in Mongolia, I think the same—if your job is man­ag­ing live­stock on the land and a way to sus­tain the pro­duc­tiv­i­ty of that land, you think about things in a very sim­i­lar way, it turns out.

Anderson: So it seems like we’ve seen this amaz­ing con­ver­sa­tion, unlike­ly allies com­ing togeth­er, very dif­fer­ent sort of philo­soph­i­cal bases for their con­cerns, in a way, that have some com­mon ground that’s unex­pect­ed. And it seems like it’s been pret­ty suc­cess­ful. When you think about this as a mod­el for any sort of con­ver­sa­tions, this seems like it would make you pret­ty opti­mistic. Do you think you can gen­er­al­ly bro­ker a con­ver­sa­tions between very dif­fer­ent sides?

Warren: It turns out it’s actu­al­ly pret­ty dif­fi­cult, I think. Because there’s got to be a core num­ber of peo­ple from that com­mu­ni­ty who are will­ing to real­ly try some­thing new and dif­fer­ent, and to real­ly keep at it. Because it’s been suc­cess­ful. It’s been almost twen­ty years. And there’s been ups and downs, and peo­ple get angry, and some­times they row; are they going to come back or not? But they do. And so just kind of keep­ing the momen­tum of this com­mu­ni­ty orga­ni­za­tion I think is actu­al­ly pret­ty chal­leng­ing. Simply because it takes extra work. Everybody involved has to do some­thing more than they would have oth­er­wise, and their lives are already full just tak­ing care of the ranch and fam­i­ly busi­ness. And not every­body wants to just try some­thing that is pret­ty new and dif­fer­ent and maybe foreign.

Anderson: Sure.

Warren: And work­ing with sev­er­al dif­fer­ent local ranch­ing com­mu­ni­ties in Arizona, I think it ends up being a pret­ty dif­fi­cult thing to sustain.

Anderson: Do you think that’s some­thing that could be sort of pre­emp­tive­ly sparked, that con­ver­sa­tion can hap­pen, or is that some­thing where to do all this extra work you real­ly have to be sort of in the jaws of desperation?

Warren: Part of it, I think, is you have to legit­i­mate­ly be inter­est­ed and curi­ous about try­ing some­thing new. Certainly some peo­ple might come to a process like this because they real­ly need some kind of finan­cial assis­tance to keep the ranch togeth­er and sell­ing a con­ser­va­tion ease­ment is one way to do that. But the longer run, and I think the more impor­tant thing is there’s got to be a core group of com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers who are will­ing to take a lead­er­ship role to try some­thing that not every­body trusts… Because even though Malpai’s been going twen­ty years. After twen­ty years there’s still peo­ple in that com­mu­ni­ty who do not trust what’s going on, because the Conservancy is involved. So that’s the challenge.

Anderson: So if we scale this mod­el up to sort of a con­ver­sa­tion about the future, I guess before I quite make that jump, some­thing I’ve asked a lot of the peo­ple I’ve talked to is, do you think that this is a moment where we should be hav­ing a con­ver­sa­tion about the glob­al future, that kind kind of holistic…the ranch­lands scaled up to every­thing we’re deal­ing with?h

Warren: I think it’s pos­si­ble. I mean, I think it’s kind of hap­pen­ing in a way, because coun­tries all over the world are engaged much more exten­sive­ly than they ever have been before. If you’re kind of uncer­tain about your own val­ues, your own cul­tur­al her­itage and what’s impor­tant about it, all this oth­er stuff can be viewed as very threat­en­ing. Somebody else, if they have a very strong iden­ti­ty that they’re com­fort­able with, if you are uncom­fort­able with yours that could be very threatening. 

And so it forces you to them kind of self-identity how you feel about your own val­ues rel­a­tive to all these oth­ers. And I think if you feel com­fort­able you could clear­ly draw your bound­aries where you’re going to pro­tect, and at the same time feel real­ly com­fort­able about every­body else out there and their val­ues, just kind of appre­ci­ate what they have. You know, the fact that human diver­si­ty is worth pro­tect­ing some­how. I think a lot of the glob­al dis­sen­sion we’re see­ing is some of these local com­mu­ni­ties exposed to all of this are see­ing it as fun­da­men­tal­ly threat­en­ing, so they’re react­ing to it in real­ly vio­lent ways.

It’s a huge issue around the world right now, how local cul­tures react to this kind of process of being inun­dat­ed with infor­ma­tion about all the oth­er cul­tures in the world. Do you view it as threat­en­ing or not?

Anderson: Do you think that is the issue of our time?

Warren: It could be. I think it’s an issue that threat­ens frag­men­ta­tion of the coun­try. Especially in a democ­ra­cy, where every­body has to kind of accom­mo­date each oth­er in some process. A ten­den­cy to push for some kind of homo­gene­ity across edu­ca­tion, that kind of thing. But I think more and more these lit­tle local com­mu­ni­ties are sur­viv­ing. And how do you accom­mo­date all that cul­tur­al diver­si­ty is real­ly one of the chal­lenges we’re fac­ing right now. I think it’s… We’re in an elec­tion sea­son that’s kind of high­light­ing it, because folks are so polar­ized about how do we come togeth­er as a coun­try to deal with sig­nif­i­cant nation­al shared issues. The frag­men­ta­tion is par­a­lyz­ing us.

Anderson: And that’s some­thing that also kind of sparked want­i­ng to do this project, you know. In a lit­tle sense think­ing about US pol­i­tics and won­der­ing how do we sort of get past that? How do we shake hands like the peo­ple in the Malpai Group did?

Warren: I don’t know how. It takes lead­er­ship that is real­ly will­ing to take a risk, try some­thing dif­fer­ent. And the prob­lem is our polit­i­cal lead­er­ship, you take a risk, you’re boot­ed out of office. You aren’t real­ly able to act.

Anderson: So it feels like we kind of need peo­ple of the same fore­sight that we’ve seen in maybe some­thing like Malpai.

Warren: Yeah.

Anderson: People who can sort of take a lit­tle bit of that risk. I hope the struc­ture isn’t rigged in such a way that that is impos­si­ble. Are you opti­mistic about the future?

Warren: Uh, I guess I am. Yeah, I’m kind of inher­ent­ly opti­mistic, but… I don’t have any answers, though.

Anderson: Do you think—

Warren: I think one of the neat­est things, in a way, that makes it pos­si­ble to be opti­mistic is that when you see folks like… The changes we’ve had with Malpai Group, exchanges with Masai herders in Africa, exchanges with some of these guys from Mongolia, they have so much in com­mon. And they can talk about so many things that they under­stand real­ly well, because their lives are based on the same kind of fun­da­men­tals of eco­log­i­cal pro­duc­tiv­i­ty and live­stock. Radically dif­fer­ent cul­tur­al back­grounds, lan­guages, but a sim­i­lar world­view in many ways.

And so if that’s pos­si­ble, then it seems like we should be able to come to some agree­ment here. I don’t know. One of the dif­fi­cult things is it seems like peo­ple that tend to be more sim­i­lar dis­agree more vio­lent­ly about the dif­fer­ences they have. Which is iron­ic and kind of non­sen­si­cal, but it seems like it’s true, you know.

Anderson: I kind of won­der, are we putting our heads in the sane? We use these issues as a way to not think about some of these real­ly… Because the changes thath it seems like we’re deal­ing with a very big and involve a lot of…I mean, soul-searching is a cheap term, but kind of that sort of—you real­ly have to reflect. I mean like you were say­ing with think­ing about what are your cul­tur­al val­ues that you want to preserve. 

And it seems like a lot of it comes down to sort of, we need to be hav­ing a con­ver­sa­tion about what is good. That’s where I think with Malpai it’s neat to see that both groups can go, Okay, we’re com­ing to this from very dif­fer­ent back­grounds, but we have a sense of good.” Maybe it’s lucky that it’s in com­mon, but maybe it can also be made to be in com­mon. But I won­der if that’s sort of the fun­da­men­tal base lan­guage that almost needs to come to the surface.

Warren: Yeah, I think maybe it does. You’ve real­ly hit the nail on the head as far as what makes it pos­si­ble to have a strong col­lab­o­ra­tion like Malpai is that agree­ing on some shared goals. These goals defined as some­thing like keep­ing the land­scape whole, keep­ing the grass healthy. The good” goal you’re set­ting for your­selves out there. I mean, there’s clear­ly a lot of things that each of us dis­agree about with each oth­er, but for the pur­pose of Malpai, we’re all focused on what we agree on, which is the shared goals for the land. 

So for what­ev­er rea­son, our polit­i­cal process has pushed us to focus on the things we dis­agree about, not the things we agree on. But in order to actu­al­ly move ahead with these strong part­ner­ships, you’ve got to focus on what you agree on. And for a politi­cian, to show agree­ment with some­one who’s from the oth­er side, so to speak, is a sign of weak­ness. Which imme­di­ate­ly caus­es you to lose ground with your core. As long as com­pro­mise, which is crit­i­cal, absolute­ly nec­es­sary for the demo­c­ra­t­ic process to succeed…as long as com­pro­mise is viewed as weak­ness, our sys­tem’s not going to work.

Aengus Anderson: Greetings!

Micah Saul: How’s it going, sir?

Anderson: It’s going alright. I feel like we should have a bizarre, dif­fer­ent greet­ing every time we start or close an episode.

Saul: I like the sound of that.

Anderson: So, I talked to Peter, and you got chance to lis­ten to it?

Saul: I did. I did. That was, uh… God damn, we’re three for three right now. That was awe­some. It’s the first real­ly prac­ti­cal… This was The Conversation. That was The Conversation that they are hav­ing right now, and have been hav­ing for the last twen­ty years.

Anderson: You know, we talk a lot about these sort of big pic­ture things, and I think we’re going to talk about a lot more big pic­ture things about how do you bring peo­ple togeth­er. But I like Peter’s sto­ry about how these are peo­ple who…there’s just some guy who’s the first guy to basi­cal­ly extend his hand to the peo­ple on the oth­er side and say, Look, we can work togeth­er. We have some com­mon goals.”

Saul: Yeah. Something that Peter said that real­ly sort of struck me was the idea of dis­agree­ment stem­ming from being too sim­i­lar.

Anderson: Right.

Saul: And I think you were dead on. You were talk­ing about the polit­i­cal par­ties in the US and how real­ly they’re just two faces of the same coin. And that—

Anderson: Oh, thank God for the sub­jec­tiv­i­ty disclaimer.

Saul: Uh huh. But what I thought was inter­est­ing is that in some ways, oth­er sides of what he was talk­ing about sort of con­tra­dict what he was say­ing. I think it’s real­ly inter­est­ing that… Let’s take the Masai and these Malpai ranch­ers. Though on the sur­face they seem just com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent, they’ve real­ized they have incred­i­ble amounts in common.

I won­der how to rec­on­cile those two thoughts. This group and this group have, when you look down deep inside, they have a ton in com­mon and that’s why they’ve been able to work togeth­er. And then you look at the Democrats and the Republicans, who seem to be the same thing to, well, me. And yet they have a com­plete­ly inabil­i­ty to work together.

Anderson: I think this is going to be some­thing for us to also car­ry for­ward into oth­er inter­views, the kind of split between well…this is some­thing you deal with all the time as an ontol­o­gist, or what­ev­er the hell your job is. But what are the rel­e­vant dif­fer­ences? In the case of the Masai or the Mongolians or the guys ranch­ing down in Cochise County, they have a fun­da­men­tal eco­nom­ic sim­i­lar­i­ty that allows them to kind of relate over the cul­tur­al differences. 

So if we go over to the polit­i­cal side, what­ev­er par­ty affil­i­a­tion you have, we’re all part of this mod­ern econ­o­my. So we’re very sim­i­lar in most ways, and our dif­fer­ences are sort of like the lit­tle cul­tur­al pieces of cilantro on the dish, the gar­nish­es, the small stuff. Which I mean, admit­ted­ly those things mat­ter, too. But it is…it’s small­er.

Saul: Right. I think you’re right. I think it’s a theme worth explor­ing as we con­tin­ue mov­ing on.

Anderson: The part that real­ly caught me, and I think you can hear this on the tape, is the bit where Peter talks about that you just need to start by find­ing what you have in com­mon. That’s huge.

Saul: It is. It’s sad, in some ways, that that seems so huge, isn’t it?

Anderson: Yeah. Somehow it seems like there must’ve been some for­mer gold­en era when peo­ple kind of just knew that. But I don’t think that’s the rule.

Saul: It’s inter­est­ing, I think, one of the rea­sons it’s become so hard to say that… Bear with me here. It actu­al­ly per­tains to some­thing else that struck me. You asked Peter Warren if he was an optimist… 

Anderson: Mm hm.

Saul: And he seemed real­ly hes­i­tant to say so. To say yes. And then when he final­ly did, he said, But I don’t the answers. I believe that things will be good, but I don’t know how yet.” And I won­der if being an opti­mist with­out feel­ing like you know the answers comes across, in mod­ern cul­ture, as naïveté. Or in the mod­ern, sort of irony-based world, if being an opti­mist just isn’t…not cool, cool’s the wrong word. But if being an opti­mist seems…silly. In the same way that I won­der if say­ing, Well, all we have to do is reach across and find these com­mon­al­i­ties,” can seem, in our irony-based world, silly.

Anderson: Right. It almost has sort of a child­ish­ly sim­ple ring to it.

Saul: Right. Despite the fact that here’s an orga­ni­za­tion that has exist­ed for twen­ty years and at least anec­do­tal­ly sug­gests, oh hey if you just reach across and find your com­mon­al­i­ties, you can get things done.

Anderson: If you’ve got the dis­po­si­tion that will do that. 

Saul: Right.

Anderson: And this also makes me think of the con­ver­sa­tion with Dr. More, where he was talk­ing about the idea of com­plex­i­ty. Basically, it’s so dif­fi­cult to be any­thing more than a spe­cial­ist. And I think that makes it hard also to say that you’re an opti­mist, because you can real­ly own a cou­ple of sub-fields. You can know them inside and out.

Saul: Oh, interesting.

Anderson: But to know enough to say that you’re real­ly an opti­mist about the future? involves a huge knowl­edge that, by say­ing you’re an opti­mist you’re sort of invit­ing peo­ple who’re spe­cial­ists in oth­er areas to say, Well, you’re a fool about this and this and this. You don’t know about these things. How dare you be an opti­mist?” Like, our default is pessimism…when it comes to think­ing about the future.

Saul: God, that’s a scary thought.

Anderson: The bur­den of proof is on the opti­mist to have a sort of sys­temic knowl­edge of every­thing, so they can say, This is why I’m opti­mistic.” And maybe that’s a false read. Maybe it’s actu­al­ly real­ly easy to go, Oh, the future’s going to be great,” and then just kind of sign off. But maybe in the cir­cles we’re talk­ing to, that’s different.

Saul: Is that scary to you?

Anderson: That the default assump­tion is pessimism?

Saul: Yeah.

Anderson: So…it is, sort of. But as a pes­simist, I think that’s kind of reas­sur­ing. I would be more wor­ried if the default assump­tion was opti­mism. Because for me, I think, if your default assump­tion is pes­simism, then you’re going to be con­stant­ly work­ing to make the world bet­ter. And if your default assump­tion is opti­mism, you’re going to be more inclined to go with the sta­tus quo. And so, for the kind of peo­ple we want in this project, who are shakers…you know, peo­ple who are going to agi­tate, I won­der if we’re going to find more pes­simists than opti­mists, because you have to have that to get you out try­ing to reform.

Saul: I’m intrigued by the idea that if the default is pes­simism, you have to strive to improve things. I feel, in many ways, that pes­simism can just lead to fatalism.

Anderson: That’s prob­a­bly true, too.

Saul: In many ways per­son­al­ly, I’ve always sort of been intrigued by the Norse end of the world.

Anderson: Oh, you’re think­ing like Norse myths.

Saul: Norse myth, yeah yeah. It’s pre­des­tined what is going to hap­pen. At the end of the world, evil wins. But in order to be an hon­or­able per­son, you have to fight on the side of good. Knowing that you’re going to lose.

Anderson: No won­der no one’s into that reli­gion any­more. But you know, on a slight­ly more seri­ous note, I’m think­ing the optimism/pessimism thing isn’t a bina­ry, right.

Saul: Oh, absolute­ly not.

Anderson: Or maybe it is bina­ry, but it’s a fluc­tu­at­ing bina­ry. I’m think­ing of all these inter­views I’ve done on oth­er radio projects, as I’ve rid­den around the coun­try talk­ing to peo­ple. And I’ve often been real­ly sur­prised at the strange way that opti­mism and pes­simism come in a pack­age togeth­er. And maybe there is no log­i­cal way of rec­on­cil­ing which one is ascen­dant. I would go into many inter­views and ask some­one about the hard­est deci­sion they’d ever made, or what they were most excit­ed about. And often I would get a sto­ry which seemed on the sur­face to be incred­i­bly dif­fi­cult, to have a sad les­son, and then the per­son would end, almost invari­ably, by say­ing, “…but I am hap­py about the future.” And I could nev­er square that. And I don’t know how many of them could ratio­nal­ly square it, but I think they were being total­ly sin­cere. And maybe that’s just part of what we are as bio­log­i­cal crea­tures. Pessimistic about the present, and kind of—

Saul: Optimistic about the future.

Anderson: Yeah, just a lit­tle bit starry-eyed. Even when it’s not social­ly cool. I think you have to be… I think you have to be a lit­tle bit opti­mistic about the future.

Saul: I mean, if you’re not there’s only a few options avail­able to you.

Anderson: Ragnarök, and the bottle.

Saul: Yeah.

Anderson: Ideally together.

Saul: Yes, yes. In fact, this might be a good time to plug my new vodka…

Anderson: I think it’s time for us to end The Conversation and just go into sell­ing vod­ka to pes­simists. This Friday we’ve got Colin Camerer, who’s one of the found­ing minds of neu­roe­co­nom­ics, and so we’ll be chang­ing paces yet again.

Saul: That seems like a com­mon thread here. Although, again what’s inter­est­ing is that how many of the same themes just keep com­ing up, and as we real­ize more themes in the future, we’ll real­ize that we missed them ear­li­er but they were total­ly there. 

Anderson: Absolutely. It’s going to be very fun to map this thing visually.

Saul: Oh, yeah. I’m look­ing for­ward to hear­ing what Colin Camerer has to say, and I’ll talk to you a day or two before that to give our lit­tle intro.

Anderson: Cool. Alright, well I will talk to you in a cou­ple days, then.

Saul: Sounds good. Take care. And we’ll talk soon.

Anderson: That was Peter Warren, record­ed May 4, 2012 at the Nature Conservancy’s office in Tuscon, Arizona.

Saul: This is The Conversation. You can find us on Twitter at @aengusanderson and on the web at find​the​con​ver​sa​tion​.com

Anderson: So thanks for lis­ten­ing. I’m Aengus Anderson.

Saul: And I’m Micah Saul.

Further Reference

This inter­view at the Conversation web site, with project notes, com­ments, and tax­o­nom­ic orga­ni­za­tion spe­cif­ic to The Conversation.