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Stewarding the environment and building relationships of trust

I’ve been following some of the collective impact work going on in the US (see these Stanford Social Innovation Review articles, for example) but haven’t come across many UK-based examples. So when a member of EFN introduced me to Isabel Carlisle, director of the Bioregional Learning Centre, I thought what they were doing sounded a lot like the work of a backbone organisation for collective impact in South Devon. I asked her to write up what she’s doing for EFN members. – Florence Miller, EFN

One of the toughest challenges facing us in caring for the environment is that it is going to take all of us working together. The big systemic challenges like climate change or economically-driven degradation of the natural world need systemic responses. Responses are not hard to design, but how to do we achieve the ‘all of us working together’ part? Plus, there is an underlying issue around the absence of trust in our society, and the pressing need to build trust at a time of increasing uncertainty about the future.

What qualities are needed for that task, and how do we measure its success? What does it take to fund backbone organisations that put the building of multi stakeholder relationships and trust first, ahead of the project delivery that is being carried out by the stakeholder members? How can we measure collective impact? The USA is way out ahead of us here, with funders partnering up with backbone organisations and giving unrestricted funding, in relationships of trust. It is time we in the UK caught up with this approach to whole-systems change.

Let’s take trust first. The way our life-support systems are organized here in the developed West (food, energy, water, shelter…. all of them derived from the natural world) is that we pay for them. We are in a financial exchange with our water companies, food producers, energy companies and housing providers. We trust that they are taking care of the water, the soil, the atmosphere and our eco-systems (think carbon emissions) and we have abdicated any role as citizens in stewarding our collective assets.

Let’s take the Grenfell Tower disaster as an example. In its wake, layer upon layer of systemic failure has been revealed and trust diminished. This is symptomatic of bigger societal failures: citizens are starting to distrust the ability of government or organisations at all levels to keep the economy on track while protecting both people and the environment. Or simply maintain the health of the eco-systems on which our lives depend.

If we flip the problem around and ask ‘how can we get citizens more fully involved in top-soil retention or the health of river fish or keeping toxins out of our drinking water?’ there is no shortage of examples. And, there is still work to be done in building relationships of trust and care from which the new collective endeavor can emerge. Indeed, that is the work. When we involve everyone who cares we broaden our scope of engagement and we have a much better chance at establishing the collective will required for action.

I find the task of coalescing collective will into action both a daunting and an irresistible challenge. My response has been to co-found the Bioregional Learning Centre as a backbone organization here in South Devon. We are going for whole-systems change towards regional resilience, throwing an encircling story around our region by identifying it as a bioregion. A bioregion is non-political; it has coherence of geology, landscape, soil, flora, fauna and human culture. It is large enough to have a functioning economy and small enough to call home. A place to belong to, feel pride in and take care of.

We are a learning centre because we don’t have all the answers. But we intend that the work we are piloting in Devon will create more resilient ecosystems and communities in our rural and urban landscapes. We are working with many partners to find systemic solutions that are place-specific. This was also the vision of Donella Meadows (the grand-mother of whole-systems change). She and her husband Dennis wrote the ground-breaking Limits to Growth report for the Club of Rome back in 1972, together with a team of MIT researchers. In 1982 they founded the Balaton Group at Lake Balaton in Hungary. Donella was holding a vision back then:

………of a number of centers where information and models about resources and the environment are housed. There would need to be many of these centers, all over the world, each one responsible for a discrete bioregion. They would contain people with excellent minds and tools, but they would not be walled off, as scientific centers so often are, either from the lives of ordinary people or from the realities of political processes. The people in these centers would be at home with farmers, miners, planners, and heads of state and they would be able both listen to and talk to all of them.

The Bioregional Learning Centre is founded in that vision. In addition, we are a backbone organization, one that is helping the collective project to grow and around which many other organisations can align. We are a member of the South Devon Catchments Partnership, one of over 100 similar catchment partnerships set up by DEFRA on the back of the EU Water Framework Directive that was published back in 2000. Together with them we are piloting a Watershed Charter created out of the voices of communities along the River Dart, and mapping the valuable natural, cultural and heritage assets in our local landscapes.

A charter enrolls individuals and communities as citizens of place, it prompts them to state what they care about and what they will take responsibility for. Our charter is grounded in shared values and draws on human rights, environmental legislation, the subsidiarity principle and plain common sense. It is a document that invites citizens and environmental agencies to come together in a bond of shared accountability and dialogue.

On the back of the pilot Watershed Charter we will be launching our River Keepers programme of citizen stewards and the community self-monitoring tool for assessing the well-being of assets. For that we are working with both economic and ecological metrics. The former are based around the UN Sustainable Development Goals and the latter are based on the Stockholm Resilience Centre’s planetary boundaries. We are excited about both Riverkeepers and communities doing their own monitoring…but that is material for a future blog. And we are always learning, naturally, and sharing our learning and questions both nationally and internationally. And building relationships of trust!

Isabel Carlisle is Director of the Bioregional Learning Centre.

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