Cultivating Change Amidst Collapse

Cultivating Change Amidst Collapse

To meet the magnitude of this moment we must work collaboratively in ways that promote decentralization over top-down hierarchies, relationships over transactions, and emergence over control.

(Photo by Mark Graves, The Oregonian/OregonLive)

“We never know how our small activities will affect others through the invisible fabric of our connectedness. In this exquisitely connected world, it’s never a question of ‘critical mass.’ It’s always about critical connections.”—Grace Lee Boggs

As individuals alone we cannot make durable change on massive and complex issues like the ecological crisis or the current global pandemic. Personal habits like recycling or limiting airplane travel—or complying with quarantine orders—are good practices, but they alone will never result in the changes we need to save ourselves from disaster. Carbon dioxide levels will continue to rise, increasing numbers of species are on the verge of extinction, and our health systems are in crisis: We must lean into strategies that honor our interdependence.

Like the pandemic, our planet’s ecological crisis is a collective challenge that demands a collective response on a scale and in a timeframe never before seen by humanity. Indeed, even the crises are related, as we are likely to see more frequent pandemics due to climate change. These are not issues that can be “solved” with money, technology, or government alone. Our ability to meet the overwhelming scale of the ecological crisis, along with other systemic crises, will require building movements and decentralized networks that engage large numbers of people and organizations, promote trust over transactions, and embrace an emergent approach to learn their way into the future. 

We have experience building networks and working in solidarity with social justice movements. We define networks as interconnected groups of people capable of exchanging information and advancing action, and movements as interconnected groups of people aiming to shift power and change culture. For instance, the CLIMA FundBlue Heart, and the Santa Cruz Mountains Stewardship Network, are three networks working to advance economic, racial, and ecological justice while addressing issues of the climate emergency. And we are learning from social movements the principles and practices that can most support network-building to resource those same movements. 

As two white people born in the United States, we’re learning how our own socialization, and how we’ve been complicit with white supremacy and its patterns of control, has harmed our ability to effectively collaborate. And we’ve embarked on a lifelong journey to unpack and unlearn those tendencies. 

What we’ve learned is that we can catalyze our ability to create systemic change when we emphasize decentralized leadership over top-down hierarchies, relationships of trust over transactions, and an emergent approach to strategy rather than one of control. Each of those principles is hindered by the dominant culture of individualism, competition, and top-down decision-making we swim in. To create a future where both human and natural systems thrive, we must embrace these principles of bottom-up collaboration while unlearning patterns of control. Our ability to transform systems of injustice and confront the global ecological crisis depends on it.

Decentralized Leadership Over Top-Down Hierarchies

To embrace true collaboration, we must first address the dominant practice of top-down, hierarchical management and decision-making that is often advanced by default over more decentralized, collective strategies that build power from the grassroots. The majority of climate funding has been channeled to top-down policies that have largely failed, in part because they do not involve the communities directly impacted by the problem they seek to solve. There remains little recognition of the importance of collaborative grassroots solutions that are led by local communities rather than those led by international policy or corporate actors. With COVID-19, mutual aid networks are again serving to protect communities in place of governments, and grassroots groups will be on the frontlines of rebuilding like in Puerto Rico.

In her book “How Change Happens,” Leslie Crutchfield found that movements with a decentralized network model often triumph over more conventional, top-down models. The most successful movements, she writes, “purposely push power out to the grassroots, vesting authority in local chapters rather than controlling from the top.”

Responding to the ecological crisis will require imagination and interconnected strategies far beyond those developed by any one nation or actor: Our political and ecological context changes more quickly than an isolated organization can reflect. Rather than relying on solutions conceived in boardrooms or in offices, we must respond to our interlocking social and ecological crises by building and supporting decentralized networks and movements that address underlying drivers and nurture local resilience, what frontline communities—those experiencing the climate crisis first and worse—are doing across the globe.

An example of a decentralized movement is La Via Campesina (LVC), a global movement of 200 million peasant farmers advancing agroecology, the science, practice, and movement to return our food production to ecological processes. Our industrialized food system creates roughly half of global emissionsconsumes 70 percent of freshwater withdrawals, is responsible for 70 percent of biodiversity loss on land, and has taken out 80 percent of forests. To put a finer point on it, our compete-and-control industrial agricultural system only produces 30 percent of the world’s food, yet uses 70 percent of the world’s agricultural land. Agroecology, on the other hand, if globalized, could mitigate the same amount of carbon dioxide equivalent as China would emit from now until 2050 and plays a key role in minimizing pandemics like COVID-19. That’s the difference between crisis and a liveable future for many human communities.

LVC, working in 81 countries, is coordinated via decentralized and democratic leadership. They will never “win” against industrial agriculture when it comes to privatizing seed, dealing in land grabs, and destroying biodiversity if they go head-to-head on a global scale. Instead, they propagate food sovereignty by organizing at the local scale, strategically connecting those efforts via regional and cross-continental exchanges, and resourcing peasant farmers to respond to place-based climate impacts. Their results have been impressive. They were instrumental in passing the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas in 2018 and their members are reclaiming vast tracts of land for sustainable food production (e.g., 7.5 million hectares of land in Brazil). 

Relationships Over Transactions

With species extinction, climate change-fueled weather catastrophes, and social and economic inequalities on the rise, the Global North is becoming increasingly practiced at turning away from each other, letting ideological differences cloud our view of our common humanity, and engaging only when it has a clear, beneficial outcome. Yet there is a common antidote: turning toward, engaging across difference, and promoting true belonging through what john a. powell calls “bridging.”

The ecological crisis is rooted in a transactional relationship between human communities and the Earth, evident in increasing wealth disparities and dwindling resources. We see this in the United States in the logic of American capitalism—“big banks, big oil, and big box stores”—whose inception is inseparable from the extraction of profit from black lives during slavery, and in how developing countries have bankrolled the development of rich countries through resource and labor extraction.

Transactional relationships limit groups to short-term gains that often benefit only the few with the most power. But while transformational change addresses root causes and shifts systems, it takes time, it’s messy, and tangible outcomes are not always clear. Consequently, transformational change is only possible through a more generous approach to collaboration that does not count transactions or require immediate outcomes (even though this is often what is expected of movements by philanthropy).

It’s not a coincidence that so many of the attributes integral to effective collaboration have been designed out of us by our extractive culture and economies: trust, patience, curiosity, discomfort, and humility, among others. While each one of these attributes could warrant special attention, we consider trust in particular to be the single most important ingredient of an effective network, as networks are only as strong as the ties that hold them together. Trusting relationships create cohesion amidst disagreement and help to increase comfort with emergence when the future is uncertain. As Jane Wei-Skillern has found from almost two decades of research into collaborations and networks, “The single most important factor behind all successful collaborations is trust-based relationships among participants. Many collaborative efforts fail to reach their full potential because they lack a strong relational foundation.”

Our experience in networks is that when trust is present, more perspectives are heard. Power becomes more distributed as individuals feel confident in asserting leadership. And conflict becomes generative, rather than destructive, when individuals trust their perspectives will be heard. For networks and movements, therefore, enduring relationships are not a “nice to have”; they are a “need to have.” The web of relationships that bridges communities, organizations, and clusters of activity is the underlying structure that makes networks and movements work.

For example, the CLIMA Fund is a collaboration across four public foundations resourcing grassroots climate justice movements in 168 countries. The CLIMA Fund’s success rests on the trust sustained between organizations that are structurally set up to compete for scarce resources, as well as the trust developed with thousands of movement organizations globally, overcoming a wretched history of foreign aid. The CLIMA Fund is learning how to build its network of grant-makers by listening to the movements they accompany: rather than alienating funders connected to “dirty money,” they recognize that funders are navigating deep contradictions in advancing justice. Success is dependent on the relationships built between those with monetary capital and those without, and how traditional power is redistributed within those relationships. Rather than believing that they have the right answers, they believe that they will take the next step by bringing the right people to the table. And rather than orienting only around their similarities as a network, they recognize the strength in their distinct strategies and work cultures.

Emergence Over Control

In the US, we often assume we know both what needs to be done and how to do it, adopting a predict-and-control approach to strategy and decision-making. We see this predict-and-control approach when funders and leaders focus single-mindedly on a productive output, pre-determining metrics of “success” before participants even have a chance to engage in conversation. We see it when climate change is framed as something to solve, rather than an invitation to shift the underlying root causes and mental models that created the crisis. While this approach might work in simpler domains, healing human communities and the planet is far too complex for predictable solutions designed from the perspectives of a few. The ecological crisis cannot therefore be meaningfully confronted with the same type of predict-and-control thinking that created it in the first place.

When working to create change in our volatile, uncertain world, on issues as complex as the ecological crisis, we are better served by not-knowing, expanding our field of awareness, and embracing emergence to learn our way into what needs to be done and how to do it. Creating meaningful change in complex environments requires embracing a more generative process of identifying a shared, visionary purpose, and cultivating opportunities to increase connection, communication, and collaboration throughout the whole system. An emergent approach to strategy means connecting first with actors from across the system and sensing our way into the future, together.

The most successful networks and movements are defined not by their strategies for action, but by a common purpose informed by shared values and principles. By a process of collective sensemaking and discovery, informed by work happening on the ground, they bridge differences and embrace the discomfort of not knowing exactly where things will go next. Trust is built through consistently acting in alignment with that shared purpose, and pathways forward are charted through a process of collective discovery that illuminates new connections and opportunities to collaborate.

Take, for example, the Santa Cruz Mountains Stewardship Network, a collaboration of twenty-two groups—government agencies, land trusts, nonprofits, research institutes, a Native American tribal band, and a timber company—with a focus on improving land stewardship in the Santa Cruz Mountains region south of San Francisco. During an initial convening in March 2015, there was little consensus about what the network should accomplish, how members would work together, and how they would know if their efforts had succeeded. Rather than forming the network around clearly-defined goals and a set of measurable outcomes, the network’s formation allowed outcomes to emerge from a process that cultivated strong trust-based relationships. Those relationships allowed participants to move through cycles of divergence and convergence, share their varied opinions about stewardship, and subsequently recognize points of alignment and collaboration.

The resulting network is a group of committed participants who have worked to reconcile historical tensions and are improving stewardship throughout the region in ways that no one organization could accomplish alone. Throughout its evolution, the network has maintained a minimum viable structure: just enough structure to focus and coordinate its efforts without stifling its ability to adapt quickly. Outcomes have continued to emerge in ways that nobody could have predicted at the network’s launch. For instance, two network members—an environmental organization and a timber company that, as The Mercury News describes, “haven’t traditionally agreed on many issues”—recently came together to preserve almost 1,000 acres of redwood forests in the largest transaction of its kind in nearly a decade. And a collaboration between the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band, California State Parks, and the San Mateo Resource Conservation District is working to restore the ecological vitality of the Quiroste Valley using the stewarding techniques of the tribe’s ancestors.

Cultivating the Collective

As our global economies experience increasing precarity and as we approach ecological limits, doubling down on the logic of transaction and separation is not an option. We are grateful to the networks, social movements, and individuals that show us a different way to be in relationship. Global South communities have built community, in place, since time immemorial and they are teaching us how to be rooted in reciprocity and listening, antidotes to the “winner take all” ethos of the Global North. These ways of being are how life has flourished throughout Earth’s history, from decentralized ant colonies to the mutualism of fungi fertilizing forests to the goal-less balance of our atmospheric systems.

Even if collaborative approaches do not enable humanity to reverse or even mitigate the effects of our ecological crisis, they do serve to increase the resilience and regeneration of the communities that do survive. Investing now in our capacity to work with one another across difference may give humanity what we need to balance hierarchy with the adaptive capacity of decentralization; the humility to accept the limits on our ability to know and control; and the wisdom to recognize that, ultimately, human beings survive by cultivating relationships of love and trust with one another.

Originally published at Stanford Social Innovation Review


Lindley Mease is the director of the CLIMA Fund, which resources Indigenous, women, peasant, and youth-led climate justice movements globally. She is also the co-founder and director of Blue Heart, which organizes millennial donors to give to frontline organizations in the United States.

David Ehrlichman has dedicated his career to helping others create social and environmental impact through a collaborative network approach as a co-founder and coordinator of the Converge network. He has worked as a network coordinator for the Santa Cruz Mountains Stewardship Network, for Sterling Network NYC, and for the Fresno New Leadership Network in their formative years.

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