Solving natural resource problems is tough. I know, I’ve been at it for some time.
As an ecologist and director of the Western Aspen Alliance, I spend a lot of my time thinking about the preservation of the largest organism on Earth, and one of the oldest: the aspen clone named Pando.
Pando spreads over 100 acres in south-central Utah in the midst of mountains and meadows. Here, cows and deer pose a serious threat to its existence – trampling young shoots under-hoof, and eating them. Natural predators that would keep deer in check are actively culled because of the threat to ranchers’ calves.
In this situation, conservationists can feel pitted against local interests. Conservationists value Pando and the ecosystem that surrounds it for the unique lessons to be learned from a being of such size and persistence. Ranchers value as much predator-free open range as they can get. Local residents often do not want outsiders, including the federal government, telling them what to do. Hunters and fishermen should be allied with preservation, but often feel alienated from an environmental community that can too often seem an arm of liberal political parties. If Pando is for tree-huggers, and tree-huggers are thought to be liberal elites well-heeled enough to be able to spend free time worrying about what seems to be a distant problem, then the most expansive tree on the planet is surely doomed.
On the other hand if Pando is about sustainability (isn’t everything, really?), then everyone who has a stake wants something to come back to, either for economic purposes or pleasure purposes. And sustainability is about recognizing connections, meaning what affects one, affects all. Like sustainability, connectivity requires cooperation, which brings us face to face with one another despite different interests, whether expressed in economic, political, ideological or philosophical terms.
One thing I’ve learned through all of my work is that even the most intimate ecological knowledge will only get us so far without understanding how our individual interests are interdependent as opposed to being in conflict. That requires understanding each other, including those with whom we disagree. Listening to and learning from the perspective of “the other” is key. In terms of Pando, this means everyone with a stake in the discussion listening to and learning from those on other sides of political and cultural divides.
Collaborating for change
How do we begin to make positive changes to the way we live with our world and each other when each increment of potential development along that path faces formidable people barriers? After all, we cannot use the great information that conservation science feeds us without practical mechanisms for acting on that knowledge and bringing local communities along.
Collaborative problem-solving provides a basic framework. But it’s true personal investment that supplies the holdfasts for this budding structure. (Those looking for quick, easy, fixes take note: anything of real worth requires more than just a bit of skin in the game.)
Imagine your next do-gooder event with a broad cross-section of 21st century Americans at the table – meaning we make sure to invite those we are likely to disagree with. How would such an event be different than your typical event? How would you reach people across the ideological spectrum?
Imagine that such an event is organized around a clean-up of a local public space, say a park or school yard. Everyone in all their diversity shows up, but they will likely have very different ideas on how to go about things. Human values come to the fore even at this basic level: sustainability vs. expediency, funds vs. human resources, recycling vs. landfill, volunteers vs. civic workers, and so on.
Often such groups have “natural leaders,” but how do we incorporate the good ideas of those who have hidden talents or less obvious abilities?
Can we even go a step further to organize broader, even lasting patterns that include lifestyle changes?
These are difficult issues, but the connectedness of sustainable communities—socially, economically, spiritually, physically—demands deeper, respectful, investment. And listening.
Conservation of immense public spaces, say our federal public lands, are markedly more complex and personally demanding than civic clean-up, but no less important. Up-scale to a global level and the complexity is mind boggling. At any level, however, it is useful to have a game plan. Collaborative problem-solving using an adaptive approach provides a flexible, though accountable, method for tackling such messy problems.
Here are some tips:
Get out of your comfort zone. A key to collaborative problem-solving is physically being in the presence of those who hold opposing views.
When we have field trips, we have imposed a rule of switching vehicles frequently so everyone has the opportunity to ride with their rival, so to speak. Conversations almost inevitably blossom and we begin to humanize the former “enemy” as a real person.
Not only that, but we find that those with different priorities often “love the land” just as much as we do, maybe more, but simply see different endpoints. Our commonalities may include more overlap than we originally thought.
Stay focused on the problem at hand. When jointly visiting wild places, we choose to focus on the environmental problem we’ve come together to focus on and not the “bad guy” identities we have assigned to the players. Conceptually, maybe literally, we keep our attention on the situation in the middle of the circle, say, degraded soils or overgrown weed-scapes, and not the personalities at the edge.
Work together. There’s nothing like good, old fashioned work, be it clean-up, monitoring wildlands, or talking with one-voice to those outside the collaborative, that brings folks together. When we take actions together, bonds are formed. A cornerstone of common understanding is set in place. It becomes much harder to dispute results of baseline information collected together.
Soon, we find that we are working at ways to solve the problem without invoking means which are known to be disagreeable. Working together enables us to use empathy as our tail wind.
Collaboration has now been adopted as a major initiative of the U.S. Forest Service after decades of inaction resulting from litigation. In the words of U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell:
Collaboration isn’t easy. Interests don’t always align. Successful collaboration depends on hard work, but represents a solution that provides meaningful engagement in public lands management. Collaboration creates a greater sense of ownership and responsibility when it comes to management outcomes. Collaboration produces better decisions. (Denver, April 25, 2016)
A collaborative model is not always successful and may take years. But it does show promise for progressing on difficult issues, and progress is typically deep and meaningful once it is made.
At the very least, collaboration challenges our thinking and increases our understanding of others. And who knows, you may even make new friends…that you don’t always agree with!