International Relations of Permaculture: Phases of Cooperation-Building

At the 2013 International Permaculture Convergence in Cuba, it was formally recognised that the permaculture movement worldwide would benefit from greater coherence at an international level.  The Permaculture’s Next Big Step (PNBS) project was formed to facilitate a global consultation on what we need, how we can work together, and what we can achieve.

In short, what PNBS has embarked upon is an attempt to institutionalise international cooperation across the global permaculture movement.  My discipline—international relations—has much to say about international cooperation at a theoretical and practical level.  In this posting, and in others to come, I will consider PNBS from an international relations perspective to stimulate discussion on how the project might be brought to successful fruition.

International cooperation is an ongoing process which tends to develop over three main phases: setting the agenda, negotiating an agreement, and strengthening cooperation.  PNBS is proceeding in just this manner.  The take-home messages from comparisons with other international agreements are the need for patience, negotiation and practical compromise.

Patience, negotiation and compromise are the key.

Setting the agenda

The first step is the agenda setting phase.  The agenda for more formal international cooperation is set by defining and framing the relevant issue, establishing its basic parameters and the rationale for international action.

Agenda setting is the primary task of PNBS project at the present time, as articulated by PNBS Strategy Group facilitator Naomi van der Velden

A global consultation is underway.  This seeks first to understand the needs and capacity of permaculture organisations around the world – where are our strengths? What are the obstacles to overcome? Where is the permaculture ecosystem heading? Next, the needs and desires of everyone in permaculture will be considered – we want views from as many people as we possibly can; from all the countries and regions that permaculture has reached. Your answers will determine our future – to understand where we share views and can work together, and where there are regional or individual differences that need more local consideration.  Proposals developed from these consultations will be showcased at the next IPC in the UK in September 2015.  From there, we hope, any momentum to change will develop into actions to make both our ecosystem and the world it exists within better places for all to share.

As I wrote in my previous blog posting on this project, “By our very nature, permaculturalists are suspicious of vertical hierarchies and top-down power structures.”  The purpose of the work being undertaken through PNBS is to gauge what permaculturalists want and need from a global entity (if anything), and do the ground work to get buy-in for a global node from across the world-wide permaculture movement.

It is easy to get swept up in the excitement of the project such as PNBS and try for rapid gains too quickly.  It is sobering to think that the agenda setting phase for other global cooperative ventures can take a very long time.  For example, the opening for signature of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 was preceded by over three decades of argumentation, evidence-building and negotiation to marshal the international support necessary for a treaty to limit greenhouse gas emissions.  While PNBS is clearly not as a complicated a venture as an international treaty between countries as complex as the UNFCCC, the lesson here is that the agenda setting phase for PNBS may be longer than we anticipate as we gather the necessary support for a global permaculture node.  Fortunately, the project has a clearly articulated process to guide us through this phase.

What do you think? When you get the opportunity, your response to the PNBS survey will help to shape the permaculture movement’s new direction.

Negotiating the global node

In the second step—the negotiation phase—states and their representatives meet to negotiate the terms of this increased level of cooperation and coordination, which usually involves a complex process of bargaining and negotiation.

Negotiating across international boundaries, on behalf of domestic constituencies, can be conceived of as a two-level game, where national decision-makers are required to make decisions that will satisfy both domestic and international objectives and audiences.  At the domestic level, key players pursue their interests by pressuring their representatives to adopt favourable bargaining positions.  At the international level, representatives usually seek to maximize benefits in line with the preferences of key domestic constituents, while minimizing the adverse consequences of foreign developments.  To execute a successful negotiation, negotiators can only promise or concede as much as their domestic constituents will allow.  The two-level game dynamic exists wherever individuals are negotiating on behalf of larger groups of people.

PNBS exists because there is a growing recognition that there are benefits to be gained from organising the permaculture movement at a larger scale.  My contention is that this could be done “through horizontal networking that facilitates linkages, education opportunities and resources sharing across the movement while preserving local autonomy.”  There are other ideas for the global node being advanced within the PNBS group, and many more ideas again are likely to arise from the data that will be collected from the survey responses of permaculturalists around the world.

The ultimate shape and complexion of the global permaculture node is likely to form through bargaining and negotiation between permaculturalists across the movement and across the world.  As I have noted previously, the needs of permaculturalists are likely to be different according to local context, as is likely to be their preferences in terms of the role and functionality of a global node.  We participants in the PNBS project should be conscious that we are representing a number of broader constituencies and should never move beyond what our constituents have previously bought into.  The survey responses we are gathering from across the permaculture community will be integral in this regard.

Negotiation and compromise is inevitable, as the final product has to be something upon which all parties agree.  If the final product is not representative of the broader permaculture community, the global node will not receive the support it needs to survive.

This is another lesson from international law; in the absence of a higher governing power, states comply with international law because they have given their consent to be bound by those laws in pursuit of mutually beneficial outcomes.  If the benefits of cooperation are uneven amongst parties, there is little incentive for states to sign on.  In practice, this usually means that agreements initially tend to be watered down, non-prescriptive and non-binding to maximise the number of signatories.  Over time, such agreements can be strengthened as the shared interests of parties crystallise, trust builds and gains begin to materialise.

Just as international treaty negotiations between states are often lengthy and complicated, the PNBS negotiating phase may also be more time-consuming than has initially been anticipated.  Our initial proposal for a global node should be minimalist and focus on areas of shared interest across the permaculture movement where easy wins are possible, in order to gather momentum for further strengthening of the global node over time.

The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, a sobering reminder that setting the agenda for international cooperation takes time.

Strengthening and modification

Third, parties enter a strengthening phase, and ongoing iterative process that continues after an agreement or instrument has been agreed to.  During this phase, agreements are implemented and/or modified, a process continues for the life of the agreement.  Agreements that are flexible to new circumstances and can accommodate new members and ideas tend to last longer than brittle, inflexible agreements that are not responsive to change.

PNBS is not at this stage yet, but the resilience of the global node is something that needs to be considered in the negotiation phase as participants construct the structure and responsibilities of the global node.

As the PNBS project matures, we should not lose sight of the need for patience, negotiation and practical compromise as we craft a global node that could be truly transformative for the permaculture movement.

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