Tapping ODR into the Green / Noam Ebner

The hidden benefit of ODR
Much has been written about the many benefits offered by Online Dispute Resolution (ODR) over the past decade and a half. Articles extolling ODR for being flexible, cost-efficient, convenient, cross-jurisdictional, travel-saving and so on are by now commonplace, and many people involved in ODR have chipped in, often writing more than one article. These pieces, usually embedding these advantages within a wider discussion of ODR’s development and of ODR success stories (usually providing the examples of eBay and ICAAN) served the important purpose of laying the groundwork for ODR stepping on to the stage, in practice and in academia. They appeared in the literature on dispute resolution, justifying ODR’s discrete space on the dispute resolution map, and in the literature of other disciplines, serving as literary, interdisciplinary, ambassadors – charged with introducing other fields to ODR.
After pitching in my own share in this regard (e.g., here), it struck me that there was one advantage to ODR that I had never seen mentioned: ODR must have an extremely low level of adverse environmental impact, compared to either litigation or to traditional ADR. If one’s operational carbon emissions are limited to switching on a laptop, as opposed to having two or more parties and their neutral/s board cars or planes to convene, well, score one for Mother Earth. If a judge and jury can stay at home, score another one for the planet.
This was enough to make me say ‘Huh!’, run a few web searches for like-minded thinkers (none out there, but this isn't  the only topic I can say that about) and raise the issue now and then in class discussions. It was also enough to wake me up to a fact I had never considered before: My own professional modes of practice have environmental impact, just as my actions at home do. I have never actually hugged a tree or cleaned up an oil spill with a drinking straw but I certainly consider myself an environmental well-wisher (Go Earth!). At home, this had long ago resulted in recycling practices, affected our choice of family car, and so on. Professionally? Time to do some serious thinking.
Soon after I forgot to do any thinking at all on this issue, I was fortunate to come across the one ODR project that had actually taken the environmental issue into account, and I reached out to the mastermind who had actually sat down and figured it out. This is the background to how ODR: The Next Green Giant, co-authored with (said mastermind) Colleen Getz, came about. Green Giant is set to be published in next month’s volume of Conflict Resolution Quarterly, and can be viewed here (click ‘one-click download’ at the top of the page to view a .pdf of the article).

ODR-ing for the environment in Canada
Colleen had written a very thorough evaluation report about a project in British Columbia, Canada which aimed to overcome the vast distances separating disputants from each other - and from legal or mediation facilities and services - through ODR. The Distance Mediation Project (also known as the Technology-Assisted Family Mediation Project) was a pilot project conducted between May 2009 and February 2010 by the British Columbia Mediator Roster Society (now part of a larger organization called the Mediate BC Society).  The project, funded by the Law Foundation of British Columbia, operated in remote, non-urban areas of British Columbia with the goal of bringing family mediation services to these small, sometimes remote communities with the help of the electronically mediated communication that is the trademark of ODR.
The fact that the project was very successful and blazed a solid trail for ODR into the area of family mediation (sweeping aside intuitive objections people often have), is worthy of a blog post on its own (or, in fact, an entire blog; check out project coordinator’s Susanna Jani’s blog). However, what caught my eye was that the project applied a ‘green lens’ to its efforts by articulating a green objective as part of its overall purpose: exploring the extent to which the use of ODR might reduce use of fossil fuels when delivering and accessing mediation services. And, indeed, Colleen’s calculations showed that a significant amount of carbon emissions had been saved by offering the services through electronic media.

Calculating environmental costs
With this as an initial real-world case-study, we set off to explore what the environmental savings of implementing ODR might be when taking different scales into account. What might be the environmental effects of a mediator moving her practice online? Of a nonprofit conducting a mediation project online? Of a court system referring thousands of cases to ODR?
After running the numbers we discovered that the effects are very significant (the numbers, and the way we calculated them, can all be seen in the article). This, even though our scope of examination was purposefully limited to the one environmental impact most easily calculated: carbon emissions associated with travel, and saved by mediators or by parties participating from their home or office rather than traveling.
Of course, there are many other environmental costs associated with convening for formal litigation or face-to-face ADR. Ever wonder what the energy consumption associated with lighting a courthouse is? Factor in heating or air conditioning and you’ve got an operation flooding the environment with carbon emissions even as it dispenses justice. We’d be very interested in learning of simple models which might be applied to factor in other environmental costs, in order to put a more accurate environmental price tag on a given case. What else must we factor in? The paperless nature of ODR? Other issues? Tell us!
That is not to say that ODR is a carbon-free endeavor. Making and running computers and servers have their own environmental impacts, as does firing up a kettle to have a cup of coffee to accompany a settlement session - even if the mediator drinks it in his home office. Providing a fair and accurate account of ODR’s environmental impact requires we take a good look at the environmental dark side of ODR.

What’s in it for us? Being environmentally-friendly benefits ODR
What is the purpose of all this, beyond general goodwill towards the planet? Why investigate this question in the first place, let alone go to great lengths to prove and calculate something that most people would acknowledge intuitively: That online activity is less costly, environmentally speaking, than physical convening?
One reason is that we both love a good mystery – and the fact that not a single ODR provider, author, academic presentation, article or advertisement had ever made mention of the environmental aspect, to the best of our research, was a mystery worth cracking. In Green Giant, we present several reasons why this may be so.
However, the main reason is that we feel that by exploring and stressing its environment advantages, ODR and the environment can go win/win with each other. Not only might this be a useful thing to highlight for advertisement purposes, it might also open doors to new sources of institutional interest and funding. As companies, to say nothing of governments, shift to ever-increasingly environmentally-conscious practices, which are increasingly, ODR may well benefit from increased interest, expanded access to funding, new offers for partnership and wider client-bases – if it is properly positioned to do so. The road in that direction leads through expert analysis of ODR’s environmental advantages. ODR: The Next Green Giant is intended to kick that off. We’re looking forward to seeing what happens when it does. Meanwhile – tell us what you think.


Noam Ebner
Assistant Professor and Online Program Chair

Noam received his undergraduate and graduate degrees in law from Hebrew University. Originally from the U.S, he now divides his time between his home in Jerusalem, Israel and his teaching, training and consulting activities in the U.S. and abroad. After practicing as an attorney, Noam shifted focus and established Tachlit Mediation and Negotiation, which deals with a wide spectrum of issues, including commercial, divorce, business partnerships and employment disputes. In addition, Noam trains mediators for the Israeli court system, conducts corporate training for the private sector and consults to several community mediation programs. Before joining the Creighton faculty, Noam taught conflict resolution and negotiation at universities around the world. He is a regular visiting professor at Sabanci University in Turkey, and a senior fellow and visiting professor at the United Nations? University for Peace in Costa Rica. His research and writing focus on negotiation pedagogy and on negotiation and mediation processes conducted online.

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