My first year out of grad school, I paid $400 to attend a conservation and sustainable seafood speaker series at a large industry conference. (Lesson #1: just because a conference is expensive and in a cool place doesn't mean it's worth it.) Manic with the limitless potential for learning, I skipped into a headliner panel and saw that the room was split in half not just down the literal aisle, but because people in the audience had clearly chosen sides. Wait a second, I thought. There are sides? Why are there sides?
Five minutes into the panel, it was clear I wasn't actually at a conference; I'd accidentally gone to a Bruins game. It was the only explanation for the chill in the air and the verbal punches being thrown. (Lesson #2: $400 will get you two front-row tickets at an actual Bruins game.)
Honestly, I don't remember the arguments. I do remember likening the speakers to the Hatfields and McCoys, neighbors feuding long after anyone remembered the original slight.
It's a disturbing trend I've seen over and over among conservation groups. I call it the Frenemy Phenomenon (FP), and I despise the two-faced nature of it. In private, it seems most people (grudgingly) admit our rival colleague's intentions are good... but *eyeroll* they're doing it all wrong. The Frenemy look, the one so prevalent at that panel, says, "aw, that's adorable-- but you're an idiot." Many, many times I've white-knuckled through a discussion while I wanted to shout, "I know you dislike what I'm doing! Just come out and say it! Stop giving me that patronizing look and let's talk plainly!"
The roots of FP aren't particularly mysterious. Many conservation groups are competing for the same resources on multiple levels--for money, for staff, for airtime. We end up with a bizarre melange of orgs: on one extreme end, small, cash-strapped "grass roots" 503(c)s mocked by larger groups for their naïveté, inefficiency and ineffectiveness. On the other end, enormously endowed multi-national NGOs waving around celeb endorsements, branded as bullying, fluffy sell-outs by smaller, more down-to-earth companies. Then there's the hippies, the environmental terrorists, the policy nuts, the dull-eyed, complacent government cogs, the well-meaning, constantly abused outreach folks, the attention whores, the charismatic megafauna crazies. (Lesson #3: if you're lazy and indifferent, you will find stereotypes to be a huge timesaver and important tool in your day-to-day life.)
I think the answer to the "why were they fighting" question is infuriatingly simple: because they're passionate, and they're so, so tired. Many NGOs are cash-strapped, but they're flush with idealism and ardor. They're fighting for the same reason conservationists work for terrible pay--because what we're doing is so important. (Lesson #4: the power of your convictions won't pay your rent, but they'll make your landlord feel worse about evicting you.)
I also think we're feuding like cantankerous Kentucky good-ol-boys because it's easier to be a two-faced git than engage the other side in a discussion that might change our outlook. We're already tired from fighting the good fight; maybe we don't have the energy to make any more good choices. (Lesson #5: from cubicles to Capitol Hill, you will encounter schoolyard antics long after you've left 7th grade behind.)
The answer? There will never be peace between the different sects of applied conservation science, though I hope we can at least make an effort to eliminate that awfully cruel FP. I am thankful, though, that we're feuding over things that really matter, even if I want to shake you and tell you to speak plainly. I did learn something from that Hatfield and McCoy panel after all: why can't we all just get along? Because we're humans, not fish. It means we can be jerks, but it also means we have the ability to forgive each other. (Lesson #6: united we stand. Divided we fall.)