Can the top executives of major oil companies sit down to dinner with a group of environmental activists and have a pleasant discussion about off-shore oil drilling?
Can energy developers who want to dig for coal and uranium on Native American lands have rational discourse with Indians who distrust them and believe developers neither respect nor understand their culture?Can electrical power magnates come to a meeting of minds with people who think sabotage, a la "The Monkey Wrench Gang," is a rational response to what they believe are air-polluting and water-diverting power plants?
They not only can but have, says Terrell J. Minger, president of the Institute for Resource Management (IRM), one of Robert Redford's non-profit organizations founded under his Sundance Enterprises umbrella.
Redford has acquired a reputation over the past 20 years as being an environmental radical, a label he concedes "has not been entirely untrue," in an article titled "Search for the Common Ground" he wrote two years ago for the Harvard Business Review.
The article reveals a new, more conciliatory Redford who acknowledges, "Sometimes we have to take down trees, drill for oil and mine for coal."
This is also the Redford who last year spearheaded a historic workshop in the Soviet Union on global warming and the greenhouse effect that resulted in a letter of understanding between Soviet and American scientists to cooperate in research, public education and policy development on the subject.
The vehicle for these effort is the IRM, which holds up to four symposiums a year focused on specific natural resource problems and a number of 3-5 day executive seminars for public- and private-sector leaders involved in resource management.
Since 1982, the IRM's programs have been financed by donations from participating industries and the support of foundations and individuals who, Minger says, are committed to finding new approaches to resolving environmental problems.
According to the IRM charter, it is a national non-profit organization dedicated to fostering a more balanced approach to the development, use and conservation of America's natural resources. Its goal is to anticipate problems and issues before the different viewpoints become polarized, to provide a forum for discussion and to serve as a catalyst for active problem solving.
"The founders of the institute believe that the need exists for a process that will bring leaders from industry, government and the environmental movement together to collaborate in solving the important resource problems facing our country," says the IRM in its "statement of purpose."
The IRM's 19-member board of trustees indicates perhaps more than anything else the degree to which Redford and Minger have been successful in bringing together people of diverse environmental views.
Where else might Howard Allen, chairman of Southern California Edison and George Keller, former chairman of Chevron Corp., come together at a meeting table -- not a picket line -- with Peterson Zah, former chairman of the Navajo nation, and Gilbert Grosvenor, president of the National Georgraphic Society?
According to Minger, Redford's inspiration for the IRM came in 1981 when he was hung in effigy for his stand against the controversial Kaparowitz coal-powered electrical plant near the Utah-Arizona border. The plant was never built.
"That experience caused him to step back and look at his role in the environmental movement," said Minger. "The conclusion he reached was that the most radical stance these days is compromise rather than confrontation. That's what we've been doing ever since."
The IRM's emphasis right now, said Minger, is on global warming, an issue that can't be tackled by one nation alone and which presents special challenges because it isn't "sexy" and poses no immediate threat.
"How do you bridge this gap between the issue and the world public?" asks Minger. "It's a long-term kind of obscure, non-immediate issue. We'll be talking about how to break down those barriers. Sundance and the IRM will be the forum."