Thursday , 23 May 2024
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Getting uncomfortable

By Heidi Marttila-Losure

“What if …?”
Those two words convey a powerful idea: The willingness to consider another way of looking at the world, which is how innovation happens.

That’s the kind of shift in perspective that’s happened in the last decade or so in the Netherlands as they reconsider their approach to managing water.

The Dutch have battled back the sea throughout the country’s existence. Historically, they approached the task with massive infrastructure, including the dikes, dams and windmills for which the country is famous.

But lately, as described in an April 9 article in The New York Times, they are approaching the problem differently: They are letting the water in.

The impetus for their change in thinking is the rise in sea levels that climate change is likely to cause. There’s not a whole lot of room for denial when much of your country is at or even below sea level.

“With the increasing threat caused by climate change, Dutch engineers have developed strategies that go beyond trying to keep water out,” writes journalist Russell Shorto. “They city of Rotterdam, for instance, is building floating houses and office buildings and digging craters in downtown plazas that will be basketball courts most of the year but will fill up with water during high-water periods, taking the strain off surrounding streets.”

The Dutch are also looking beyond planning at the city level; they are planning in regions, because water does not respect political boundaries. The goal, Dutch planners say, is “the dawn of a 21st-century approach to living with nature,” building in ways “that take ecology, economy, infrastructure and weather uncertainty into account.”

I invite you to read the entire article, (, which gives a really interesting perspective on how a nation’s citizens realized that they were all affected by the problem, and they could all be part of the solution.

If we used those criteria of those Dutch planners to measure our approach to managing water in the Prairie Pothole Region—considering ecology, economy, infrastructure and weather uncertainty—how would we rate?

We probably would do fairly well on economy. Our local economies are in large part based on the farm economy, and that does much better with the water management practices that are common now.

How about ecology? Are we considering what works for the natural system?

Are we considering infrastructure that is affected, or additional infrastructure that is needed, because of our water management decisions?

Are we planning for increasing weather uncertainty—both downpours and droughts?

What if we added “community” to the list: Are we managing water in ways that respect and enhance the communities we are part of, or the communities downstream that are affected by our actions?

I am not going to answer these questions for you. But in researching for this issue, what I learned left me a little bit uncomfortable. I don’t think we’d get a stellar report card if this is what we are tested on.

I hope that small feeling of discomfort finds you also. Not because it’s pleasant—it isn’t—but because without that little bit of dissatisfaction, we aren’t going to move forward. If we think we’ve already achieved the best we can achieve, there’s no point in thinking differently or trying something new.

Our world doesn’t stand still. Yesterday’s ideas don’t always work with the information we learn today, and today’s solutions may not work in the world of tomorrow.

One idea I’d like to challenge is the idea of the inevitability of trade-offs: That if one side wins, another has to lose. John Mackey, the CEO of Whole Foods, argues that doesn’t have to be the case. He’s built his business model on the idea, working to ensure that all the stakeholders in his business benefit—from its investors to its newest employees, as well as its suppliers (including the farmers who grow or raise the food they sell).

“If you look for trade-offs, you will always find them—that is guaranteed,” Mackey said. “But if you look for win-win synergies, more often than not you will find those too. Human creativity is essentially unlimited, especially when it is motivated by a deeper purpose than just self-interest.”

Are there ways to manage water on our land in which wildlife, water quality, and downstream neighbors (both near and far) all benefit—and farmers get an adequate income?

The purpose of this issue is not to call out any one stakeholder as wrong or right. The purpose is getting us all to edge into that uncomfortable space where we think a little harder about creating a system that is better for all of us.

Read. Consider. Ponder past the point where it’s comfortable. Then give those powerful words a try:

“What if …?”

Our world doesn’t stand still.

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