The Dirty Road to Abilene


“Nibbling around the edges” is the way I would describe the last decade of efforts to reduce polluted runoff in the Chesapeake Bay, particularly when it comes to the agricultural sector’s piece of the mess.  Despite widespread efforts by government and the environmental community to work in partnership with agricultural interests and farmers to reduce pollution through voluntary measures and incentives, we remain a long way off from making a meaningful progress.  As seen in recent dialogue about the Chesapeake Bay’s pollution problems, some leaders in the agricultural community don’t see themselves as a critical part of the problem (or the solution), meanwhile all of the other sectors are stepping up.

The situation reminds me of a management concept developed by Jerry Harvey called the Abilene paradox that gets its name from the anecdote used to describe perils of groupthink –when individuals are reticent to act contrary to the prevailing viewpoint of those around them.  I can’t say for sure that groupthink is how we got here, but, when it comes to dealing with agricultural pollution, it’s looking an awful lot like Abilene –a place that none wants to be.  Many environmental organizations have worked hard to develop partnerships with the agriculture sector to address our pollution problems.  It’s an understandable approach given the collaborative mind-set of many organizations and an earnest desire to reduce pollution without fueling conflict.  The leaders of the agricultural community are resisting meaningful pollution solutions with all their might, an understandable approach given their perception that avoiding regulation will bear short-term benefits and disbelief about the scientific facts.   The dialogue is stuck in a bad feedback loop.

Increasingly, there are voices offering a different perspective on the problem, as seen in these op eds by Waterkeepers ChesapeakeSenior Scientists and Policymakers for the Chesapeake Bay,  and farmer, William Morrow, published in the Baltimore Sun.  We’re not on our way out of Abilene just yet, but there are signs that a pathway forward may soon appear.