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The Powers That Be

Sometimes climate change seems like a downright good idea. The global re-boot of conditions on Earth is a take-all-prisoners phenomenon. Confronting its challenges requires absolutely everybody into the pool. I wondered, for example, at the sheer marvelous variety of the speakers lined up at the Bay Area Open Space Council‘s annual conference last week. Other than perhaps the funeral for a head of state, what other subject brings a two-star Marine general and an Episcopal priest onto the dais?Retired Major General Anthony Jackson spoke about “why nations fight and fail.” The Reverend Canon Sally Bingham spoke about “choosing life over death and destruction.” The God of War and the God of Love may ordinarily rule separate hemispheres but under global change, the whole celestial sphere is at issue, and these two leaders know it.

The Bay Area Open Space Council is one of my favorite organizations. Its very structure and purpose pursue the goal of “collective impact” that was the topic for this year’s conference. Over the past several years, a paper from the Stanford Social Innovation Review has percolated through the nonprofit community. “Collective Impact” poses a fairly simple paradigm: small groups working under the rubric of a common cause directed by an organizing entity can achieve social reform at the scale necessary to make a difference. I read this paper with glee when it came out, because it articulates exactly what the landscape initiative called The Spine of the Continent is all about. A tiny nonprofit, Wildlands Network, keeps its hand on the pulse of more than 40 organizations ranged along the Rockies, to help them coordinate efforts to achieve connectivity between natural areas. The Spine of the Continent is a great example of “collective impact,” because without such coordination, not only the effort will fail, but nature will fail.

As I wander through the land of environmental nonprofits, I’m always asking myself: what works? Because on one level, nothing is working. Every year more land and water is converted to human use. The engines of what literary critic Leo Marx calls “the Faustian drive” are stoked and fanned by what has become an increasingly disconnected and lethal passion for more. Fantastic organizations and people at the helms of land trusts and science-based research institutions and nonprofits are doing truly indispensable work to target and protect critical swaths of land and water – but they will never keep pace with the Faustian lust for development. It will take a critical mass of individuals having an “aha” moment about what we need to do here, and then holding hands and doing it, to stem the destruction. That’s why I like citizen science so much – it’s all about collective impact. Collective impact depends on multiple single hearts turning, impelling multiple hands to stretch out and work together.

The panel I moderated at the conference was a case study of where collective impact is at these days and where it needs to go. Kristeen Penrod unveiled a tremendous effort she spear-headed, “Bay Area Critical Linkages,” a book-size document that tells where and how to achieve connectivity here. Wendy Eliot talked about the door-to-door, muddy-knees approach to actually getting a single corridor protected in Sonoma County. And Kirk Lenington talked about an even more precisely geo-located effort to support underpasses and culverts down the Peninsula to allow mountain lions to keep on trucking without getting hit by them. Lenington’s mountain lions have to be connected with areas similar to the one Eliot is working in, which in turn have to be safely nestled within a larger matrix such as delineated in Penrod’s tome. What the Bay Area Open Space Council does so well is to create a community setting for these people to share knowledge and war stories. For their own work to succeed, their colleagues’ work has to succeed. They have to hold hands to get their work done.

General Jackson reminded the audience that again and again great civilizations have risen based on exploiting resources. Then they exhaust the substance of their vitality, and fall. “Now we study their bones,” he said. The Reverend Bingham called climate change “the most important moral issue of our day.” She said that caring for creation is “God’s work.” And we would do well to remember that there’s another fellow up at bat here, promising us the same things he offered Faust: riches, ease, power and control. We think we can follow him just so far, and that we will step off his golden conveyor belt in time to save our own souls. Both the general and the priest stare this fellow down and we would do well to take a closer look at his identity as well.

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