Peace Triangle: A Way to Measure Social Combustability

Peace Triangle: A Way to Measure Social Combustability

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While I’m confessing, I should also say that I was once a fire chief in rural Tennessee. I was fortunate during my tenure. No one got hurt. Just a few hay barns went up in smoke.

Sometimes an idea sticks in your head for no obvious reason and later you find all sorts of uses for it. In the two-week fire chief training course, the instructor taught us about the fire triangle. The triangle’s three points were labeled with the three necessary conditions for combustion: “fuel,” “oxygen,” and “heat.” A fire starts when all three are present. To some extent, the three can substitute for one another. Heat and fuel can cause a fire even if there’s very little oxygen. Oxygen and heat can cause a fire even if there’s little fuel. The presence of a lot of fuel and oxygen can cause a fire even if the heat is low.


Years after my time as a fire fighter, I co-founded a national grassroots organization focused on the pragmatics of getting citizens to lobby on global environmental issues. When training grassroots organizers on what it takes to get a citizen to take action, I used a variation on the fire triangle. This time the three points were labeled “convenience,” “effectiveness,” and “importance.” For citizens to take action they need a critical combination of these three qualities. For people to take action, the action has to be sufficiently convenient, and it has to have sufficient likelihood of making a difference on a sufficiently important issue. Or else they won’t bother. As with the fire triangle, the qualities can be partial substitutes for one another. If the action required is convenient enough, then people will act regardless of whether it is very effective or important to them. That’s how we get “Astroturf”: the new artificial grassroots lobbying campaigns whereby special interests with deep pockets pay to make it as convenient as possible for citizens to voice an opinion on issues they may not know or care much about. High convenience, low effectiveness, low importance, and still the people will act.

On an issue that doesn’t make your short list, you might be willing to do something inconvenient if you knew it would be highly effective. I’d be willing to sit in an inconveniently cold bath for seven days, if I was 100% certain it would prevent some bird species I’ve never heard of from going extinct in some far-off land.

And if the issue is important enough we’ll do desperately inconvenient and probably ineffectual things. Though it would be highly inconvenient, I’d risk life and limb on the slim chance of saving my child’s life.

I used the action triangle to highlight the special challenges of getting people active on global environmental issues. Few people feel the imminent threat of global warming. Whatever we say, the issue isn’t, in practice, that pressing for most of us. We perceive the actions open to us as having a low probability of effectiveness. So any proposed action must be convenient or people simply won’t act.

Of course, here too there’s a challenge because in a way, global environmental issues demand that we adopt inconvenience. That’s a key contrast to the movements that environmentalists often try to emulate. The civil rights, women’s, or labor rallying cries were all variations on the highly self-motivating “We demand more.” The environmental movement’s cry is “We demand less,” which is not nearly so rallying.

This week I found a third use for the fire triangle. I’ll call it the “peace triangle,” and label the triangle’s three points “compatibility,” “compromise,” and “independence.”

What makes for peace in any relationship? Compatible preferences help, as does the willingness to compromise when incompatibilities arise. And where neither compatibility nor compromise is possible, then “taking space”–in other words, reducing interaction and dependence upon one another–creates peace.

Compatibility, a willingness to compromise, and the willingness to give space to people all sound like virtues, but they aren’t. Each of them can be either good


or bad depending on context. The three don’t comprise a list of behaviors you should pledge to embody so that you become a better, more peaceable person. Rather, they add up to a formula for figuring out whether there’s going to be peace in any given situation. It’s useful, for example, if you’re trying to figure out why people’s expectations of peace don’t get met.

You know those people who claim to love everyone? The ones who think we should just stop fighting and get along because really, we all want the same things anyway? They’re discounting the importance of the independence factor. It’s easy to love everyone if you’re independent of them. But that’s not really love (which I’ve ventured to define elsewhere as interdependence), it’s abstract regard. We can be tolerant of incompatible people existing elsewhere in the world, but when their actions impinge on us, then compatibility and compromise are the requisites for peace. With low compatibility, low compromise, and low independence, there’s not going to be peace.

Some say that precisely because we’re interdependent, it’s important to recognize just how compatible we are. There should be peace because at core, we all really want the same things. Wanting the same things is sometimes the opposite of compatibility. Everybody loves oil, but that doesn’t make us compatible.

Some people recognize the lack of independence and the lack of compatibility and therefore argue that we should stop all the petty fighting among ourselves. We must learn to compromise in order to live together in peace. And it’s true, there are often very good reasons to compromise for peace’s sake. Indeed, many times we feel unable to compromise when really we can and should. But sometimes we compromise when we shouldn’t. Peace and justice are sometimes at odds. At least some of the roads to hell are paved with the good intention to make peace by compromising. Make peace with your slaveholding neighbors by compromising to their preference for slaveholding? That’s bad peacemaking.

Besides, who should learn the virtue of compromise? We mostly sing the virtues of compromise to other people when we’d rather not compromise. Is the fair solution that everyone compromise equally? Measured from when? If my people have imposed on your people for seven decades but just now your people are imposing on mine, should we meet halfway in real time or taking into account past times? Well, then, maybe only the greedy should learn to compromise, anyone who takes too much for themselves. Again there’s a time factor, but now considering not the past, but the future. Is it greedy to save for a rainy day in a world where some aren’t even making it through the present day?

The peace triangle explains why there often isn’t peace, but it also suggests more accurate ways to gauge the likelihood of peace in a particular situation: “Given our level of compatibility and willingness to compromise, are we likely to be able to find a satisfying solution? If not, should I create some space between us? If I can’t, and there’s not likely to be any increase in compatibility or compromise maybe I’ll have to get used to this lack of peace.”

The point of my old activism triangle is to impose a realistic understanding of the thresholds for people taking action. Below sufficient levels of convenience, effectiveness, and importance, you may wish for activism, but you really won’t see any, so you’ll need to pump up at least one of the qualities enough to reach the threshold.

The point with the peace triangle is similar. Below a threshold combination of compatibility, compromise, and independence, you may wish for peace, but you won’t get it.

And come to think of it, the two triangles interact. The level of compromise is inversely proportional to the level of activism. When action is convenient, effective, and important enough, that’s when we we’re no longer willing to compromise, and we get fired up, we take action, we foment revolution. That’s when we see barn burnings, but it’s also how we get barn raisings. Some revolutions destroy more than they build. Some revolutions build more than they destroy. No revolution is peaceful.