Green Lands, Blue Waters

Chad Monfreda has an post on WorldChanging ‘Green Lands, Blue Waters’ and Nested Activism on the ecological problems produced by industrial agriculture in the Mississippi River Basin and an innovative project to try and transform the river basin Green Lands, Blue Waters.

a long-term comprehensive effort whose mission is to support development of and transition to a new generation of agricultural systems in the Mississippi River Basin that integrate more perennial plants and other continuous living cover into the agricultural landscape.

Chad’s describes how he thinks this project represents ‘nested activism.’ His description sounds a lot like how the case of Kristianstad Water Realm in Sweden has been analyzed by Per Olsson and other (see Olsson et al 2004). He writes:

I see four ways in which Green Lands, Blue Waters foreshadows a kind of “nested activism” that goes beyond network-centric advocacy by deliberately seeking synergistic connections between organizations working at different scales.

First, nested activism engages interests across multiple spatial scales and multiple political jurisdictions. It doesn’t recruit participants from a single spatial scale, like the watershed or basin. Nor does it look towards a single jurisdiction, like community activists, state scientists, or national NGOs. Instead nested activism blends the logic of bioregionalism with political realism by deliberately forging horizontal links within and vertical links across spatial scales and political jurisdictions. In the case of Green Lands, Blue Waters, a three-tiered network emerges: watershed-level learning committees, state-level coordinating committees, and a basin-level body with a national voice. Multiple scales and levels lend players secret allies who mount actions in places that those players can’t access themselves.

Second, it leverages mutualisms to create solutions. Nested activism is active, meaning it doesn’t just respond to problems but proactively creates solutions. It’s one thing to identifying win-win relationships; it’s quite another to make them happen. Synergies, however, are only possible if members are diverse. Getting together with people just like yourself too easily leads to monopoly, disenfranchisement, and battles over turf.

Third, what I’m calling “nested activism” aims for durability without ossification. One of the main problems with big non-profits is the tendency for funding cycles to freeze them into a risk-averse state. A lot of capital becomes tied up in slow-moving organizations, whose predictability opponents learn to outmaneuver. On the other hand, network-centric advocacy’s distributed capital is speedy but insufficiently coordinated to press for the kinds of structural changes so badly needed. By contrast, not-too-strong, not-too-weak links among diverse, nested actors encourage persistent alliances but also relinquish old ones that cease to serve their purpose.

Fourth, a flexible prolematique is essential for the first three points. In order to get initial buy-in from diverse interests, and to keep them involved over the long-haul, nested activism should encourage what in the lingo of science studies we might call the interpretive flexibility of a boundary object around which everybody can rally, even as they define it differently. In the case of Green Lands, Blue Waters, revenue-seeking investors, research-oriented academics, and election-minded politicians can gather around the object of Continuous Living Cover Systems for very different reasons. Nobody can define the solutions, or even the questions, from the outset; rather, they emerge from interactions within the network.

Green Lands, Blue Waters’ motto is to keep working lands working. What’s clearly not working is piecemeal thinking that sacrifices broadly optimal solutions for merely efficient ones. And master plans to deliver utopia hardly bear mentioning. Truly transformative solutions are harder, messier—nested, active, full of niches, and diverse. They balance compromise and collaboration. They are about creating a better world, rather than mending a broken one.

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