Watershed Restoration Groups and Democratic Forest Trusts as Evolutionary Learning Communities

Gus diZerega


Civil society rather than either the market or traditional political processes is the most institutionally compatible context within which evolutionary learning communities can be established. This point will be developed using examples drawn form watershed restoration communities in California and Washington. They are examples of evolutionary learning and gradually shifting cultural awareness through confronting the concrete challenges of becoming native to and caretakers of a place. These examples also help explore how evolutionary learning can be integrated into existing society, the weaknesses and strengths traditional governmental and economic institutions bring to this process, and why outside civil society evolutionary learning institutions face systemic environments that are not conducive to their values.

The lessons gained from these examples will be applied to other environmental problems where the ELC model holds great potential, particularly the national forests.

In terms of the preferences of the sponsors for this section, my paper will explicitly discuss the following”

• Human, social, and natural capital
These associations all incorporate human, social, and natural capital into the core of their mission and actions.

• Self-directed sustainable development
These associations only function when they are autonomous, although this very autonomy enables them to be effective learning organizations with respect to discoveries, insights, and experiences by other associations that are relevant to their tasks.

• Community empowerment and participatory/anticipatory democracy
These associations are perfect illustrations of the viability of discourse models of democratic practice as developed in the work of John Dryzek as well as the promise of a bioregional framework for ELCs.

• Socio-ecological competence and the evolution of consciousness
The ability of the earliest of these associations to engage large portions of their community, shift cultural perceptions, and recruit new leadership over several decades indicates their success

• Design of ELCs as evolutionary guidance systems
The most relevant findings of my research so far support James C. Scott and F. A. Hayek’s emphasis on local knowledge as fundamental to the success of learning within complex systems such as dispersed watershed restoration groups. In addition, these examples support Elinor Ostrom’s argument that local groups are necessary because even successful groups within one environment cannot generate reliable principles concrete enough to enable other successful groups to be organized elsewhere.

• Evolutionary Systems Design as praxis
These above points provide essential insight as to how such groups can be encouraged. I will argue that the model of democratic forest trusts suggests how these lessons can be applied to a very different ecological context, the National Forests.

• Syntony as an organizing force in societal evolution
The experience of watershed restoration groups demonstrates how decentralized learning networks are able top spread and evaluate their and others’ experiences in the absence of organizational hierarchies. They thus exemplify emergent order processes.


evolutionary learning community, emergent order, watershed restoration, Mattole, land trust, national forest

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