NPR’s Living on Earth show recently ran an interview with David Suzuki, author of “The Legacy: An Elder’s Vision for Our Sustainable Future,” where he shared a moving story illustrating the interdependence of the temperate rainforest ecosystem. He contrasted that to how compartmentalized our government agency approaches are to “managing” our forests. Coincidentally, the same day I heard this interview, I was reading a wonderful new book by Carol Sanford called The Responsible Business, where she offered a case study of how one good strategic question helped a room of government agency people who were responsible for overseeing that type of ecosystem to see their work in a more integrated way. First the rainforest story:
Suzuki described how in the thin strip of land from Alaska to California between the Pacific Ocean and the coastal mountain range, salmon are born in the rivers and go out to sea. In the ocean they accumulate nitrogen and then swim back up the rivers to spawn. Bears, wolves and eagles eat the salmon and their scat, which is deposited all over the forest, serving as a fertilizer. But that is only the beginning; as Suzuki goes on to explain:
“…[the bears] fish for these salmon, once they grab one, they hike off up to150 meters on either side of the river, they eat the salmon- they eat the best part- and they dump the rest of the carcass on the floor of the forest and go back for another one. As soon as they dump the carcass, well, salamanders and slugs and ravens begin to eat it. But the main things are flies that lay their eggs on the carcass. And, in a few days the carcass is a seething mass of maggots eating that nitrogen from the ocean. They drop onto the forest floor, and they pupate over the winter and the spring trillions of flies loaded with nitrogen from the ocean, from the salmon, hatch at the very time that the birds from South America are migrating through the forest on their way to the Arctic nesting grounds. So the salmon come back and they nourish the flies, which feed the birds… So you see this beautiful system where the ocean is connected through the salmon to the forest, and the birds from South America are connected to the northern hemisphere.
Humans come along, and we go ‘Oh, well uh, gee there’s a lot of salmon here. That’s a Minister of Fishers and Oceans for the fishing fleet. Oh, the trees, well that’s a Minister of Forestry. And the eagles, bears and the wolves, that’s the Minister of the Environment. Gee, the river that’s managed by the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Energy. And, the rocks, the mountains, that’s the department of mining. So, what is a single interconnected system, we come along, fragment into different bureaucracies and try to manage a complete system through this fractured way of looking at the world. And, we will never do it in the right way when we look at it that way.”
Now, picture a room of about 15 senior level policy advisors from various provincial ministries in British Columbia who are involved in natural resource and land policy. Carol Sanford, an organizational change and sustainability consultant was invited in to help them overcome “extreme bureaucratic compartmentalization that had prevented the development of an integrated and systemic land policy.” Instead of facilitating the meeting, she gave them this strategic question to shift them out of their comfort zone and make them think systemically:
“What question will we have to ask to shift us from isolated functional roles to an inter-ministry perspective?”
Instead of people participating in the meeting from the perspective of their title and functional role, to answer this question, they had to shift to a more connected way of seeing their work. She described how this starting point for the dialogue enabled the people to see their roles in an integrated policy process, “based on how nature defines itself, not on how government establishes its jurisdictions.” These stories speak to two key needs – the need to see and appreciate how our work fits into the larger system we are part of and understand the dynamics of the systems we are working to “manage” and change.