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Overcoming challenges and furthering relationships: ED Report February 2023

By Chris Morrill, Executive Director

This month, I had a fairly unusual interaction for someone who lives in the liberal bubble of the Bay Area. After a swim at the gym, I was joined in the hot tub by an older man. After some brief introductions and discussion about the regular busyness in the pool, he launched into a surprising series of complaints that from my vantage point, seemed particularly conspiratorial. As the conversation developed, we ended up discussing the recent storms throughout California where he argued that they were proof that there was never any drought. The “drought” in his view, was orchestrated by the government to facilitate restrictions, and to stick it to the farmers of California. 

There are plenty of people who have this opinion, and the fish versus farmers debate is a particularly well-worn trope. The clearest thing I came away with from the conversation was how often he used the term “they.” The only individual he ever referenced was Governor Newsom, and even he seemed pretty secondary to this ambiguous “they” group. Whoever constituted this group was much worse than any one person, but it was clear that environmentalists were near the top of the list. Perhaps naively, I pushed back and discussed how this is one of the worst drought periods in the last 1,200 years. He was dismissive of any evidence or any points I made and went back to the fact that it was all made up. 

The conversation eventually moved on to global warming. He cited that the change from “global warming” to “climate change” was evidence that it is all manufactured. I tried to politely inform him that the greater use of the term climate change was a strategy of conservative political consultants because they thought it sounded less menacing, and therefore would not require political action.

There were two ways that I could have interpreted this conversation. One was to be dismissive of this man’s opinions. I could focus on how ill-informed he was and simply move forward as I would have otherwise.  The other was to explore why his perspective was so pervasive. And further, how do CalWild’s goals fit into a world with a media environment that leads people to these conclusions?  

Overcoming opposition     

This conversation stuck with me more than similar conversations in the past because they coincided with a few news stories. The first was the coverage around Microsoft’s release of a new AI tool, ChatGPT. Some of the initial stories were about the potential power of this AI system, but more and more stories came out about both its limitations and potential to do harm. Consistently, as reporters and others explored the system, ChatGPT would give seemingly plausible but misleading or even wrong answers. The misinformation ecosystem, in which many are immersed, will likely grow when tools like this are more widely deployed. As an organization that prides itself on critical thinking, engagement with those who don’t agree with us, and the power of evidence or education to overcome opposition, how do CalWild and others overcome something this powerful?

U.S. Capitol Building | Elijah Mears

I’m sure many of you will say that this has been the reality of conservationists forever. You’ve had conversations with people who were terrified that the government is plotting to take their land. Or that there is a cabal controlling the water supply and saving it only for the wealthy urban elite. While it is true that these arguments have always been around, the amount of commonly agreed-upon foundational facts seems to be waning. 

CalWild has always relied on the notion that most people want to protect public lands. That is true when you look at polling, but those who are opposed seem to be getting more calcified in their positions and harder to find common ground with. CalWild has spent many years continuing to grow our work on non-legislative tools to protect public lands. That includes administrative actions, engaging in planning processes, and building new advocates, like the state of California. I don’t really have the answers for how we should operate in this new landscape, and I’m not even sure any straightforward ones exist. But the thing I return to over and over again is the importance of relationships.

There was an interesting report recently released about a Congressional committee tasked with modernizing the function of Congress. The Committee was formed shortly after the attacks and subsequent votes on January 6th – and the divide was deep and visceral. The committee required a super-majority for any recommendations and was evenly divided with six Democrats and six Republicans. The chairman and vice chairman understood that to get anything done they needed to create the structures and space for people to build relationships. The committee implemented a number of rather simple and straightforward strategies. Those strategies included dinners with the entire committee, using a round table during hearings with Democrats and Republicans interspersed, and changing the meeting structure to allow for more open discussion and conversation. Ultimately, the committee was able to navigate their conflict making 202 recommendations, two-thirds of which are already being implemented. 

As CalWild continues its work, we will try to be in spaces and open to conversations that create and further relationships. We would be naive to think this effort will overcome some of the dramatic differences that exist between our viewpoints and those of others, especially when those viewpoints are contrary to ours. We recognize that when dealing with those who do not or may not share our opinions and/or our goals, we need to prioritize relationship building and meaningful conversation over ideological rigidity and uniformity. Better personal relationships will continue to be the only avenue out of the information bubbles that caricature those who disagree with us – and the only avenue towards getting things done.

Please let me know your thoughts, comments, and questions by emailing me at