Creative Collaborations

Although environmental concerns are ubiquitous, they are never routine. Ecosystems permeate economic, political, and social boundaries — indeed no community can escape the inevitable dilemmas of material life, public participation, and educational inquiry without confronting environmental considerations.

Yet environmental controversies do not fit into easy stereotypes. It is not just economic growth versus environmental quality, regulatory agencies versus businesses, preservationists versus developers. So many different voices are brought to the table. What elements take priority? Who decides? What coalitions form? What compromises are made? What values are at stake? Difficult and painful conflicts arise as neighbors, communities, businesses, and legislators consider the complexities of environmental decision-making. But a new theme is now emerging, and the resounding voices are those of collaboration, in which surprising and innovative possibilities arise — prospects that could only occur when people are willing to actually listen to, and hear each other. No, their values may not change, and the conflicts will still be evident. But good, long-term public policy and problem-solving results from the ability to overcome what seemed to be entrenched, when all parties find some special connection deep within themselves that is revealed by virtue of a creative collaboration.

This issue of Whole Terrain includes a sampling of efforts that have shown tangible results. We’ve found that there are hundreds of ways by which citizens utilize their collective energies in community problem-solving. These stories reach across oceans and continents, with profound revelations about finding common ground in the most unexpected places, and among people who sometimes have diametrically opposing views. There are serendipitous moments between an eco-warrior and a scholar of British literature, an environmental educator and a logger, a Gaelic shepherd and a Mic Mac tribal leader. These essays connect citizens, policy-makers, teachers, ethnobotanists, industrial leaders, researchers and community planners. In every instance we find people who are reflective about their personal journey in relationship to building durable communities, people who expand their worldviews as they break through the limitations of prior methods that did not create the enduring solutions they had anticipated.

What emerges from unlikely collaborations is a greater depth of community awareness, what Tom Webler and Seth Tuler describe as social learning. Good process has a reverberating effect, as Daniel Kemmis suggests, “When people have the experience of connecting, they tend to get hooked and feel eager for the next opportunity to apply their skill.” And as several essayists observe, collaborative efforts may take time, but they appear to produce long-term solutions that just work.

Constructive collaborations happen in unexpected ways. So there aren’t many guidebooks or training programs. Rather, one has to be watchful and stragetically prepared to move forward when the situation allows, to mold and shape opportunities, to see patterns of change before they are necessarily evident. This entails a knowledge of citizen participation or environmental education — it takes the reflective capacity to see the needs of an entire community operating within its bioregion. It also takes the courage to cultivate the interstices of public discussion.

Collaboration is a learning and evolving process for sure. We celebrate this process with these writers who have been on the front lines in this regard. What have they learned from their efforts? What have they learned about themselves? What can we learn from them? If there is any pattern that resounds through these essays, it’s the spirited sound of engaged participation. The hard work is never over, but there are moments of mindful awareness when the activist realizes that people have been moved to build community, to gain insight, or to find strength and resolve in the eyes of their antagonists. As you read these essays, consider the creative collaborations that you have witnessed, or that lie just beyond your reach, now perhaps made just slightly more plausible.

Martha Twombly, Editor
Mitch Thomashow, Editorial Board Chair