I've spent a dozen years reporting on ranchers, farmers, and groups in North America, and another dozen years measuring soil carbon change on 100+ ranches and farms. My experience is that:
Yet the self-evident 'best practice' approach for governmental, research, and advocacy groups remains external or extrinsic motivations: rewards and penalties, carrots and sticks. These are usually aimed at practices such as cover cropping or manure handling, and include incentives or cost shares for soil health practices and carbon "sequestration," market certifications, credit trading, "best practice" advice and technical assistance, policies, taxes, regulations, and buyouts, all backed by predictions, promises, and threats.
External motivations work well for increasing production in an input-output system where cause and effect are mostly linear. Higher corn prices result in more acres planted, more inputs applied.
But external motivations, along with the expert information model that often informs them, have disadvantages, especially where internal incentives such as curiosity, love, feedback or active learning, or sense of possibility are weak or absent, and where causes and effects have mutually influential relationships (water cycling and carbon cycling for example) and form feedback systems and loops.
can be much more than a grade from a school teacher or an evaluation; it can be a co-creation or co-production, a relationship, a possibility.
"Simple causal reasoning about a feedback system is difficult because the first system influences the second and the second system influences the first, leading to a circular argument. This makes reasoning based upon cause and effect tricky, and it is necessary to analyze the system as a whole."
—Karl Johan Åström and Richard M. Murray, Feedback Systems: An Introduction for Scientists and Engineers
In complex, feedback-driven domains such as soil health or regenerative agriculture, internal motivations are essential, which require participation and empowerment. Learning networks are an increasingly popular way of developing, articulating, sharing, adapting, and testing these intrinsic motivations and values. In some academic literature these are called "communities of practice" engaging in "transdisciplinary co-production of knowledge." They can take advantage of generations of advances in the theory and practice of people-centered learning.
"We suggest that a more promising approach to scaling up RR [regenerative ranching] will involve government-led peer-to-peer learning programmes . . . . We have also proposed that, although top-down incentives such as carbon markets may help incentivize RR practices, more important is recognizing RR as a bottom-up movement that calls for in situ research involving producers in the co-production of knowledge . . . ."
—Hannah Gosnell, based on interviews with 50+ Australian and U.S. ranchers
It's not that external motivations are always wrong, or that internal motivations are always right. It's a relationship issue, with possibilities for complementarity and synergy as well as antagonism or dissonance. Where internal motivations are undeveloped, hidden, or unconscious, external motivations may form a pervasive monoculture without a working, participatory, learning and inquiring feedback loop, and thus a high tolerance for unseen risk.
Everyone wants better soil health and watershed function. Learning networks can help align external incentives such as peer pressure with internal incentives such as curiosity, learning, and a land ethic.
|Problem-oriented: When dealing with complexity, this structure becomes risky. Positions, predictions, and advocacies may overshadow evidence. Fragmentation and resistance is guaranteed, and there is little accountability for results. Diversity of opinion or perspective becomes a threat.
Antagonism or "balance" between external and internal motivation
|Opportunity-oriented: a diversity of framings and contexts, and wider participation by both people and land, become assets to a shared intelligence based on local evidence, with collaboration between internal and external motivations.
How can the structure on the left transform itself into the structure on the right?
As humans in society, we will always be concerned with judgments—our own and those of others. It's easy and tempting to stop there, but we can also add bigger questions, learning questions:
|Judgment questions||Learning questions|
|Am I doing the right thing?||What results am I getting?|
|Are we doing sustainable or regenerative practices?||Is our soil covered, do we have living roots for all of the growing season, and diversity of plants and animals? How might we find out?|
|How do I kill this weed? How do I get rid of this person or group, or solve this problem?||What conditions or relationships can I begin to create, what position do I need to be in, so that this weed, person, group, or problem is no longer a problem?|
|Is it good or bad? (Cow, wolf, carbon dioxide, knapweed, etc.)||How does it function in the system as a whole, and how to find out?|
|Having identified best management practices, how should agencies or organizations increase producers' adoption of them?||Who are the caretakers of the land, the circle of life? What are the relationships between and among them? How to create situations and contexts in which caretakers learn from each other?|
|add a judgment question here||add a learning question|
These essential roles, which can be shared, require commitment, skills, and experience in people-centered approaches, as well as some form of continued local support. Facilitator roles, which could be filled by employees, part-timers, contractors, or volunteers, include:
In combination with good questions and effective facilitation, a questioning and reporting platform can help groups move beyond the information delivery and advocacy stage to active, evidence-based participatory learning and a shared intelligence. (This is the design of soilhealth.app, a web app for learning networks; but online or digital is not the only answer here.)
Functioning learning networks can improve the relationships between external and internal motivations, and introduce learning, curiosity, creativity, autonomy, participation, real feedback, and integrity into the conflicts between external motivations and the backlash and resistance that emerges everywhere. So, two new questions:
How might learning networks, existing as well as potential, be better supported, for example through locally hired or supported facilitator/coordinators?
How might learning networks add participatory, evidence-based learning to ongoing efforts of information sharing, technical assistance, and advocacy?
Institution or association? A brief comparison from managingwholes.com
recent Australian article on learning groups or communities of practice
"Do civilizations fall because the soil fails to produce—or does a soil fail only when the people living on it no longer know how to manage their civilization?"
—Charles E. Kellogg, 1938
"Underlying every single conflict is power—who gets it, who doesn't get it. You have to know how to balance power, to empower, to create an environment where I empower myself."
"The Nation that destroys its soil destroys itself. . . . The [Standard State Soil Conservation Districts Law] provides for the organization of `soil conservation districts' as governmental subdivisions of the State . . . . Such legislation is imperative to enable farmers to take the necessary cooperative action."
—Franklin D. Roosevelt, in 1937 letter to state governors (emphasis added)
"Subsidies and propaganda may evoke the farmer's aquiescence, but only enthusiasm and affection will evoke his skill."
"Obligations have no meaning without conscience, and the problem we face is the extension of the social conscience from people to land. . . . In our attempt to make conservation easy, we have made it trivial."
"If you want to make small changes, change how you do things.
If you want to make big changes, change how you see things."
—Don Campbell, Saskatchewan rancher and facilitator of learning networks
Soil Carbon Coalition is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization