Wednesday, October 29, 2014

From water to agriculture, more evidence that human relationships matter

The interest in and recognition of the value of relational work when it comes to science and conservation, and really across all sectors, seems to be reaching a critical point. Just this week, several pieces on everything from farming to water scarcity to forest management directly addressed the generative power of relationships between people in environmental work. I am thrilled, to say the least.

Brett Walton at Circle of Blue reports on the Water for Food Global Conference, a gathering of experts from around the world focused on the role of "big data" in global water and food security, where a University of Nebraska agronomist argues that data is not as useful as it could be without the human relationships that lead to social change. Walton writes something that will sound familiar to any regular readers of this blog:
"Data has to travel up to policymakers to inform decisions about research and development and investment. Data also needs to spread downward to farmers, who will use it to decide when to plant and when to irrigate. In both cases, relationships matter." 
In the New York Times, Thomas Friedman writes about the longstanding Israel-Palestine issue, arguing that diplomatic efforts from the US are not what is needed there, that instead it comes down to the day-to-day work of regionally-rooted relationships. As an example of how this might work, he talks about the freshwater challenges in the region, noting the successful efforts between Israel and Jordan to create a cooperative water bank, concluding:
"It’s relationships of trust between neighbors that create healthy interdependencies — ecological and political. They are the hardest things to build, but also the hardest things to break once in place." 
Finally, in an excellent long-read that is worth the time of anybody interested in the real work of conservation, Nancy Averett reports on efforts in New Mexico to broker collaborative relationships between a number of diverse communities to cooperate on better forest management that balances drought, water conservation, wildfires, and climate change concerns. She describes the long efforts of Laura McCarthy of The Nature Conservancy to facilitate this work, which is relational through and through. Says McCarthy:
“To me a ‘no’ is a challenge to develop deeper relationships, to understand their perspective more.”
All of these are such stellar examples of how much relational work matters, particularly when it comes to environmental issues. While there is a lot of valuable work being done to analyze social networks as a way of looking at relationships, what I am really interested in is the meat and bones of interpersonal interactions and how this work can be better facilitated in the sciences. In some ways, relational work is just intuitive to us as human beings, and, at the same time, we can probably all attest to its challenges. But, the more explicitly we talk about relationships, the more hope it gives me that we will be able to transform our work with each other and the planet.

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