Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Under a big tent

Like other conservation and sustainability work, place-making draws an interesting mix of people. One day a few weeks ago, that point came to me as I attended two separate meetings that had to do with sustainability projects.

One meeting consisted of the usual suspects. I live in a small town and tend to know most of the people who are engaged in the usual civic affairs and pitch in in a positive way. That’s one of the advantages of a small town – when you want to do something, you know who to bring together. In fact, meetings for different types of projects often have many of the same people.

The other meeting was in a way more interesting. It had a much more diverse group in terms of outlook. There were people who live off the grid, people who wanted to see a major overhaul of the political landscape, people who were more concerned with working toward the global community rather than local issues. They were all nice, sincere, articulate people. They were not hot-heads. They were idealistic enough to be interesting but none live in la-la land.

I was just reading a wonderful book, “Looking for Hickories: The Forgotten Wildness of the Rural Midwest,” by Thomas Springer. It’s a great collection of essays about the renewing role of the nature that’s at our doorstep. I recommend it highly. In one essay, Mr. Springer describes the diversity of people in the local land trust he belongs to. I belong to a local land trust but it sounds like it’s a more homogeneous group. All the active people in our land trust see the goals of the land trust fairly similarly. We might disagree on some specific management activity, but we’re mostly in agreement overall. I also belong to a citizen’s advocacy council for specific, local environmental issues. Again, members of the council may disagree on some specific approaches, but we’re all pretty similar in our overall goals for the project.

It occurs to me that I have not had the opportunity to work on an ongoing basis with a group of people with strongly varying conservation and sustainability goals. I’ve certainly hosted meetings where opposing opinions are expressed stridently, even by some hot-heads, but I have not had to work closely over a long period of time with people of strongly differing points of view. Achieving a synthesis of opposing viewpoints can result in a powerful organization and would be quite an accomplishment. (Visit for an example of some skillful coalition building.) But not being able to accomplish that synthesis would be quite frustrating. Should I feel fortunate that I haven’t had to form difficult coalitions or should I feel deprived of such an experience?

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