Mudflats in Cook Inlet at low tide. Photo credit © NOAA on Unsplash
CoalitionWILD Global Mentorship: The Future of Wilderness May Depend on Our Ability to Learn Faster and Better
April 2021 | Volume 27, Number 1
The CoalitionWILD Global Mentorship program pairs rising conservation leaders with veterans from the environmental field for a 12-month virtual and intergenerational exchange. The program provides avenues to build networks, encourages perspective exchange on challenges and celebration of success, and is committed to bridging the gap between generations, cultures, and experience. CoalitionWILD endeavors to go beyond developing the leadership skills in mentees. Rather, this mentorship program is c ommitted to collaborative and equal partnerships between participants built upon foundations of trust, respect, and curiosity. Learn more at www.coalitionwild.org/mentorship/.
I am a wilderness conservationist, which makes me a member of a professional community that exists to protect wilderness for the benefit of all life. I joined the conservation profession because I believe in the power of nature to heal and preserve life, and because I believe in the power of people to change the world for the better.
It is, perhaps, on the shore of my beliefs and the tide of current events where my motivation to serve nature and humanity struggles most. In my lifetime, the world has lost more than half of its wildlife and more than a third of its wild places (WWF 2014). As you read these words, on every continent sweeping damage to Earth’s biosphere and the unraveling of the fundamental conditions that make human civilization possible are accelerating. In April 2020, even as the pandemic (a consequence of biological spillover that, in and of itself, is a viral message from our planet’s ragged and fraying wilderness) sequestered billions of people within their homes, the atmospheric concentration of carbon hit a new record: 416 parts per million (United Nations 2020). This is the highest concentration of carbon in more than 800,000 years and just 34 ppm shy of the climate threshold scientists (and some oil industrial reports) have identified as catastrophic for global ecology and humanity (Song, Banerjee, and Hasemyer 2015).
In our sector, it is out of fashion to paint starkly ominous portraits of the global ecological condition, such as the one I have painted above. Doing so, the conventional wisdom states, defeats the audience before they can act and thwarts positive change. As a social movement theorist and practitioner, I find this sentiment not in line with the conclusions of others in my field and believe it is a misinterpretation of the volumes of research conducted on issue framing (Stone 1989; Baumgartner and Jones 1993; Baumgartner and Mahoney 2005). Urgent, existential need is one of the rudimentary elements of mobilizing messages. Even more importantly, a clear understanding of reality is a necessary condition for learning to take place, both personal and communal.
Given that, it could be beneficial on multiple levels to stand back and objectively take in the facts unvarnished by superficial optimism. What do we observe? For many, the indices – the collapse of biodiversity, surging wildfire intensity alongside rising temperatures, erratic weather, mass human migrations, all while greenhouse gases continue to accumulate in the atmosphere and wilderness dwindles – appear grim. Not entirely without hope, no. But certainly dire, and very definitely urgent.
Moreover, at a professional level, a blunt review of the facts reveals something more, something relevant to every single practicing conservationist: what we are currently doing, maybe not as individuals, but certainly as a sector and a community – our collective efforts to save nature across the globe – might not be working. Part of the problem is that conservation and wilderness conservation remain a narrow sliver of a larger environmental movement that only represents a fraction of society. For all our collective knowledge, we still have not learned how to make what we know more meaningful and relevant for the rest of society.
And if that is true, it is in all our interests to consider alternative strategies and what we might do differently. To admit that we haven’t yet learned how to protect the biosphere and that we are still seeking answers. In the next 10 years, if not sooner, we must act on a scale and with a speed never witnessed to halt the destruction of nature, and with it the security of the future. But how can we hope to succeed when we haven’t yet learned how to effectively marshal conservation’s immense resources (both material and intellectual) to systematically and internationally defend wilderness at scale?
CoalitionWILD Global Mentorship
It struck me that inviting in more diverse perspectives could help with this endeavor. One natural place to begin is with young and emerging leaders.
Earlier this year while reevaluating both conservation’s efficacy and my own contributions to our collective mission, I agreed to become a CoalitionWILD mentor to contribute the very answers that I now tentatively questioned to a bright and aspiring young conservationist. But instead of using this as an opportunity to repeat lessons that may or may not be relevant to my mentee, I thought this would be the ideal moment to practice learning with a partner. My mentee agreed and shared many ideas that have helped to structure our discussion. It is our hope that through this relationship and the CoalitionWILD Global Mentorship program we can become more effective conservationists, better equipped to confront the immense challenges ahead.
About My Mentee
Fleur Nash is one of the wisest and most thoughtful people I have ever met. I prefer to think of her not so much as a mentee, but as a professional pen pal. She is a PhD candidate in the Department of Geography at Cambridge University. Her research interests center around how conservation NGOs work better with all stakeholders in conservation interventions, and how theory and practice can work better together. She is particularly interested in decision-making concerning interactions between humans, nonhumans, and the environment – specifically how knowledge, values, and ultimately power influence who decides what and for whom.
Fleur is conducting her research in Laikipia County, Kenya, working with an international nongovernmental organization that is engaging stakeholders around land use and elephant conservation. She is tackling the complexity inherent in such an issue with intelligence, compassion, and a commitment to move beyond critique and create a practical value to her research. What impresses me about Fleur is that she is genuinely pursuing a model for creating environmental and development policy from a more “authentic place” based on firsthand experience and open and respectful discussion between all relevant interests.
My own work is far more global in scope. I am a member of an international team working to protect half of Earth’s land and sea in time to stabilize the climate emergency and halt mass extinction, and I lead on global communications and outreach. Yet my interests and work overlap with Fleur’s on the topic of “wicked problems,” issues so thorny and complicated they are difficult or impossible to solve (Rittel and Webber 1973). In other words, we have not yet learned how to solve them.
In the environmental sector, wicked problems generally emerge when long-term and large-scale risks and uncertainties (ecological collapse in a watershed, extinction, or carbon emissions) intersect with sharply divergent public values (economic growth, unsustainable land use, unemployment) to generate political stalemates. Whether we like it or not, the future depends on dissolving wicked problems to implement collaborative and fair solutions that protect people and nature.
It would be nice to think that we can bypass wicked by appealing to a higher authority, one more amenable to our type of expert recommendation. Unfortunately, not only is this not always possible (there are few, if any, higher authorities outside of the nation-state; meaning that at the country and global levels wicked problems cannot be circumvented), it is short-sighted to do so even when it is. Wicked problems have a way of not going away, undermining implementation efforts for years and diminishing opportunities for future reform. Therefore, learning how to embrace wicked problems and transform them is something we might all aspire to understand.
In my endeavor to improve my own ability to learn and become more effective at addressing the wicked problems I confront in my work, I could not have found a more perfect, receptive, and sensitive partner than Fleur. She inspires me by her example and with her advice, and the topics covered herein are the foundational principles of our explorative relationship.
It is very likely that those reading this article have years of learning experience in the conservation field. It is equally likely that the type of learning we have engaged in has made us experts on describing a topic or a situation. We study the context within which we operate, we identify and analyze relevant variables, and we increase our understanding of what is theoretically possible if we could only manipulate those variables. Implicit to this type of learning is an assumption that expert advice ought to guide decision-making. If only that were always how it worked in the real world.
As a scholar and an environmentalist, this is the type of learning I have engaged in for decades. I am proud of the knowledge I have acquired using this method, and I am also at a place in my career where I have deemed that this type of learning is no longer enough. In his book, Leading Learning Communities, Fred Kofman, the former vice president for executive development at LinkedIn defined learning differently. “To learn is to increase your capacity to accomplish the results that you desire; to know is to be able to act effectively in a given domain” (1995, p. 2). This alternative definition of learning does not stop at information outputs and places the emphasis on practical outcomes. The implication of the latter definition is that we likely have the tools we need to save wild nature, the obstacle we must overcome is learning how to use them to the effect needed.
Peter F. Drucker, another observer of business and the economy, coined the term “knowledge society” when he described the radical shift of the US workforce in the 1990s. “By the end of this century, knowledge workers will make up a third or more of the work force in the United States – as large a proportion as manufacturing workers ever made up, except in wartime. . . . The great majority of the new jobs require a habit of continuous learning” (Drucker 1994).
Dynamic learning, as opposed to static knowledge, has become the very foundation of our economy. To some degree, conservation has always been based in learning. Many of us are scientists driven at least in part by an innate curiosity about the natural world. Could we become more effective conservationists by feeding our curiosity about the social and human worlds? How would that ease the implementation of our projects?
The three primary drawbacks to the traditional definition of knowledge are: (1) it prioritizes theory over practices (Idhe 1986), (2) it discourages creativity and innovation (de Bono 1992), and (3) it disempowers students/learners/nonexperts (Freire 1970). The traditional definition of learning may impede our effectiveness and stifle our curiosity. By prioritizing theory over practice, application and implementation become secondary to that all-important theoretical understanding. When it comes time to influence social or political variables, we have invested little effort into understanding what type of interventions will yield the best results.
Additionally, the traditional definition does not encourage creativity or innovation. Authority belongs to those with the most experience by virtue of the fact that they will have accumulated the most information. In this model, we perceive expert knowledge to be a finished product as opposed to an evolving variable embedded in a fluid social-ecological system. In the words of Kofman, “The teacher, the ‘knower,’ makes deposits, transferring bits of intellectual capital, focusing on increasing the quantity of knowledge rather than the quality or meaningfulness of the information to the learner’s life” (1995). Strict hierarchies can often stifle conversation and form the basis of the dreaded echo chamber. By opening expert knowledge to feedback and amendment by others, we create more expansive opportunities for everyone involved.
By creating an expert class, the traditional definition of knowledge divides society into “thinkers” and “doers,” with thinkers being the privileged minority who parcel out information to everyone else. For those of an egalitarian bent (guilty!) this model is problematic from a moral and ethical standpoint. We want to expand agency for all people because we believe that it is right to do so. Also, in times of change and uncertainty, survival depends on teamwork and organizations tapping into the knowledge and ideas of all its members, particularly those most informed by day-to-day practice or most exposed to diverse stakeholders.
Each and every one of us simultaneously occupies two coexisting forms of reality: the objective and the intersubjective. Land, wildlife, stars, seas, and molecules shape objective reality. Experts excel at apprehending and describing this mode of reality. Intersubjective reality is superimposed on objective reality. Ideas, concepts, relationships, and power structures are the cornerstones of intersubjective reality. Countries, laws, identities, values, desires, and allegiances all contribute to the intersubjective reality. It is in this cocreated intersubjective multiverse that the latter definition of learning, the one that emphasizes effective action becomes far more relevant because whether we like it or not, the reality is entirely dependent on us, collectively. Learning to become more effective may very well mean learning how to be more inclusive and receptive. What better practice to become a better learner than an intergenerational mentorship in which I and my partner cocreate more effective strategies and actions for ourselves and our respective work?
Learning to Embrace and Love “The Wicked”
Learning is a lot easier said than done. In this journey Fleur and I are on together, I am reminded of something I once read by the great satirical fantasy writer, Terry Pratchett. “Everyone loves to have had written,” he once shared when asked about how he felt about writing. So too, I’m convinced, is it with learning. Everyone wants to have had learned.
Stepping outside expert hierarchies, structuring interactions based on curiosity for effective action, and collaboratively redrawing strategic roadmaps based on authentic knowledge requires an alertness and sensitivity that can be, frankly, exhausting. But if learning is a kind of muscle, then with diligence and practice, this kind of energy expenditure should lessen over time. The CoalitionWILD partnership with Fleur is helping.
At the outset of our relationship, Fleur and I agreed that we were both only interested in doing something novel. For Fleur, this means learning how to craft environmental and humanitarian interventions shaped by authentic and context-based direct experience. For me, it is discovering how the need to protect half of Earth’s land and seas overlaps with what is meaningful for people around the world so that we can expand and mobilize unified support for wild nature.
By engaging those who are not necessarily experts, but do have a stake in expert recommendations, we commit to potentially complicating already complicated issues. But by doing so we also expand our potential to discover new solutions together through joint problem solving.
To help organize our approach to this type of professional lifestyle, Fleur shared with me an article about the relationship between care and curiosity. In it, “care” is described as an entry point for ethical action even as it is also recognized as a potential for harm to someone not in our sphere of care. Our care for one issue or entity can result in harm to another, after all. This is the dilemma at the root of wicked problems. The remedy for harmful care is curiosity. This may entail reimagining what care looks like. It also means continually learning about how we care and how that care impacts others. Finally, what is not stated in the article, but which I believe is implied, is an obligation to collaborate with the other, whoever or whatever that may be. By engaging those who are not necessarily experts, but do have a stake in expert recommendations, we commit to potentially complicating already complicated issues. But by doing so we also expand our potential to discover new solutions together through joint problem solving.
Care, Curiosity, and Collaboration: A Model for Learning
Based on our nascent exploration of this mode of professional living, Fleur and I have set forth the following questions to make continuous learning easier. This relational model of learning is also something I plan on applying in my own work, both within my organization as well as outside of it as I interact with the world to recruit new allies for wild nature.
1. What motivates you? Define the problem and the opportunity.
Understanding why participants have joined a conversation, be it a mentorship or a policy debate, is essential to understanding who they are as people and the category of solutions they can appreciate. It is also a chance to share your own motivations, which sets the stage for mutual problem solving, and opens channels of empathy. Emotional expression is the basis of good storytelling, and it is also a cornerstone of community building.
2. What is your purpose? Define the solution.
Sharing purpose helps us understand what others believe to be the solution. It goes beyond short-term and superficial interventions and illuminates longer-term goals. Purposes can range from being the best person possible, creating safe and stable habitat and/or economies, or radically shifting systems from one mode of operation to another. Purposes ought to be grand and unattainable with a single action or intervention. They are end points in a personal or communal journey.
3. Is there any overlap or commonality between us? Define what we share.
This step engages relational discovery and practice. How are we alike? By learning about what makes us similar we set the stage for aligning our purposes. When we do eventually discover how we are alike, we spark the potential to form a new community. Whether this happens depends upon how the participants prioritize their commonalities within their own larger identities. If one participant chooses not to recognize a commonality, it is essential to discover something else that is shared between participants. The more commonalities uncovered, the more potential for collaboration in the future. This step is also iterative and should be returned to frequently.
4. How do you need help? Define the obstacle and the actions steps needed.
Oftentimes, when we come together, it is because we need another’s assistance. In the expert model of learning, this is not explicitly recognized, but it is true all the same. Experts need others to accept their knowledge and recommendations. The problem arises in that others may not feel they need expert recommendations. Being able to clearly and straightforwardly state how it is you need assistance to accomplish your purpose sets the basis for trust and puts participants on an equal footing. Recognizing our interdependency is also key to the care and creation of communities that problem solve together.
5. How can I help? Define relevant resources and willingness to assist.
After you or someone else has asked for assistance, it is time to evaluate how others can help. It is also the moment when innovation begins. Oftentimes, what we ask for specifically another is unable to give. However, if they are willing to engage in genuinely creative and innovative problem solving around what they can offer then we have an opportunity to learn something new. Likewise, when someone asks us for our assistance, we may not be able to meet their specific request, but we might be able to offer something else that is relevant to their need that they have not previously considered.
6. Can I use the offered assistance? Define willingness to integrate.
Now comes the second stage in innovation, evaluating how or if we can use what is offered. This can be the most difficult and frustrating stage in continuous learning because what we are doing is world creating, merging visions of the world to manifest collaborative, joint, and potentially, transformative action. Many times, what is offered might not appear to work at first. If that is the case, it might behoove participants to return to step three and redefine commonalities. Learning, after all, is iterative, and it can take multiple attempts to learn how to become more effective at what it is we want to achieve. It is also important to note that changing conditions might also change participant willingness to utilize offered assistance. This can have multiple implications for our behavior and how we choose to proceed.
7. What happens when I apply offered assistance? Define results and report back.
The last stage in this continuous learning model is application. What happens when we utilize the offered assistance? Reporting the results can spark new opportunities for learning.
The above model of learning is generative and pragmatic, promoting possibilities for action. My objective is to identify a model of learning that can be applied to wicked problems and produce results. My assumption is that it may be necessary to discard knowledge hierarchies implicit to more traditional models of learning. My practice of this model is through the CoalitionWILD mentorship program. By including diverse perspectives in my own problem solving and empowering others to stand on an equal footing with my own experience, I am learning to learn. This is a skill I hope to develop and put to service for the benefit of conservation and our wild Earth.
It is one thing to accept that learning is about being effective. It is another entirely to embody learning to increase our competency. Over the course of the next year, I will be practicing how to learn with my mentee. I invite others within conservation to join me in this endeavor.
About the Author
AMY LEWIS is vice president of policy and communications for the WILD Foundation. She has spent the last 15 years researching the building blocks of collective action; email: email@example.com.
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