Recently I attended a kickoff event for a new initiative.  The organizers billed the new initiative as an inclusive, grassroots strategy for tackling a controversial environmental issue.  Like so many issues these days, this one is indeed contentious, with different stakeholder groups each historically having drawn a proverbial line in the sand.  I won’t divulge the particular issue here because its particulars are not the point of this story.  Instead, I’d like to talk about activism and collaboration—whether the two can coexist or whether they represent a dichotomy that can’t be reconciled.

Photo Credit: OEOM

I think of activism as standing up for what you believe in; Google defines it as “the policy or action of using vigorous campaigning to bring about political or social change.”  To me, in practice, this often means unwavering support for a particular position.

On the other hand, collaboration means “the action of working with someone to produce or create something.” (Again, according to Google—but interestingly, a follow-up definition is “traitorous cooperation with an enemy”).  I generally think of collaboration as working with others toward a common goal; in its best form, collaboration is coalescing around a shared objective and working together to achieve it.

Questions often arise about the best course forward for solving complex environmental issues.  Often, collaboration is seen as the enemy of the activist because it involves compromise, and activism adversarial toward the collaborator because of an unwillingness to cede any ground.  During my kickoff event, this tension manifested itself throughout the evening.  It is surely difficult to unite diverse groups of passionate people who may have distinct ideas about how to solve difficult problems.

I don’t purport to have any answers, but I do think the crux of the issue lies in framing the right questions, and in the right sequence.  While collaboration can be a key for unlocking difficult issues, its value lies in its process, not necessarily its outcome.  In other words, it should be a means and not an end.  Here, an example might be a bill working its way through the legislature that gets key provisions stripped from it at the behest of the minority party.  The bill as originally written would have passed, but the optics of “bipartisanship” trumped actual substance.

Photo credit: U.S. EPA

Nor should activism stand in the way of progress, so long as “progress” doesn’t involve undue compromise—working toward a shared vision is different than finding middle ground.  Diverse groups certainly will not agree on every issue, but that shouldn’t preclude achieving positive results for some.  As one example, protecting and restoring headwater streams is good for both wild and hatchery fish.  Framing the issue in terms of a healthy stream system can be a launch pad to achieve positive results, no matter which side of the wild/hatchery debate you’re on.

How do we define a shared vision where collaboration can be a critical tool for realizing goals?  It helps to not lose sight of the ultimate objective, and here, the wisdom of Aldo Leopold may serve as a beacon:

A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community.  It is wrong when it tends otherwise.

Finding ways to be an activist by using collaboration seems a worthy process, and one that can achieve solid results where a shared vision is rooted in this fundamental truth.