The first decade and a half of the 21st century has produced a rapid shift in our understanding of the seemingly intractable problem of global climate change. While emissions reduction is still a worthy goal, we now know that regenerating the Earth’s natural systems is the only way to truly re-balance the carbon cycle. The technology currently exists to enable living systems to absorb and hold far more carbon than they would on their own through natural processes. So why have these technologies not been widely adopted?
The obstacle is that massive global problems like climate change are systemic and can’t be solved by the simple application of technology. They require the simultaneous navigation of multiple complex systems—economic, social, and political as well as ecological. In other words, human beings must not only become capable of thinking like an ecosystem to develop new technologies—they must also become capable of applying that thinking to create new approaches and innovations in the space where complex ecosystems interface with complex, and often confounding, human systems.
Over the last two decades, we and our colleagues at Regenesis have made the argument that, while this work can be coordinated and supported by global entities, it is not possible to do the work at the global level. The interface between human systems and natural systems is only concrete and manageable within a particular place. And so we must regenerate the globe’s ability to care for itself and its inhabitants place by place, using approaches that are custom designed for each place.
This is at once self-evidently true and very difficult to wrap the mind around. It is also the core work of regenerative development, which requires going beyond sustainability to focus on the capabilities human individuals, enterprises, and communities must develop in order to be effective co-evolutionary partners with nature in their specific places.
To a growing number of advocates for regenerative work, it is becoming increasingly clear that the work of the 21st century is for human endeavors to develop the capability to reciprocally nourish the natural systems that feed them.
The level of nourishment that humans can provide to nature is only limited by our creativity and by our ability to observe and discern what’s needed in a specific place.
In this new era, those human-created systems that can bring themselves into alignment with their natural sources will not only flourish and thrive, but also have something to give to humanity and the globe writ large. Those that cannot will become not only increasingly brittle and vulnerable in an increasingly volatile world, but also increasingly unable to make an impact in the spheres that matter to them.
So how do we do this very important work, at the practical level? The following are some basic principles drawn from Regenesis’ work on hundreds of projects that have aspired to be regenerative.
Dispel Piecemeal Thinking
When practitioners seek to become more whole in their thinking about a system, they often make a list of all of the different parts of the system that they hope to work on—jobs, storm water, energy, entrepreneurship, social justice, education. But making a list of parts is not the same thing as understanding a living system.
To understand a living system, we have to understand not only how the parts fit together, but how they live together, dynamically, in the life of the system.
Imagine a person as a living system. It is intuitively obvious that we would not be able to understand the true nature of a friend or family member if there were only a collection of organs and bones available for inspection. Even if every single one of the person’s component parts were available, this would tell us nothing about who the person is and how they are yearning to develop and improve themselves. In order to do this we have to look beyond the component parts and see a system that is alive, moving through the world, relating to others and pursuing a destiny. And yet when we are striving to improve the life of the places that we love we so often collapse our understanding of these places into cold lists of anatomical features.
See The System’s True Order
To work in a way that is regenerative, we must see the true way that the parts of a system order themselves in an evolutionary process through time. A core frame of reference for beginning to work in this way is the understanding that ecological systems are not simply equal to human systems, as the three-legged stool of economy, ecology, and culture would imply. Rather, ecological systems are foundational to human systems. In the grand scheme of life on this planet, economy and culture do not exist without healthy ecological systems.
When looking at a particular system in a particular place or watershed, we cannot take this fundamental truth for granted. In other words, we cannot treat it as a generic truth about Earth’s generic “nature.” Rather, it is critical to develop a deep and detailed understanding of how the particular ecological systems of a place are foundational to its particular culture and economy. Without this understanding, there is no way to develop the system as a whole, and our work to improve the system will remain stuck at the level of piecemeal and incremental interventions.
Work Towards Unique Potential
Each place on the planet has the potential to contribute something of real value to the larger systems that it influences and participates in. This is easily observable in pristine ecological systems—as a healthy forest contributes clean water to its watershed, or an estuary contributes healthy baby fish its sea—and it’s no less true for systems that include human inhabitants. What we perceive to be problems or issues of sustainability in our places are really only the symptoms of a system that is failing to meet its own potential.
The challenge for communities all over the world is to discern what unique potential their place is capable of growing into, and then to design strategies for all of the individual parts of the whole that work synergistically towards manifesting that potential.
Commit to A Lifelong Process
As our colleagues Pamela Mang and Ben Haggard wrote in their book Regenerative Development and Design: A Framework for Evolving Sustainability, “Regenerative practitioners do not think about what they are designing as an end product. They think about it as the beginning of a process.”
This observation extends beyond a simple observation of the nature of practitioners who would strive to do this work, and is in fact about the work itself: There is no such thing as a regenerative object. There are only living beings, engaged in regenerative processes. And thus the question of what is or is not “regenerative” is a question of the capability that we are bringing to the process—both at a particular stage of our development and in each moment that we show up.
As we strive to address climate change, heal our planet, and create a just and healthy world for all living things, there will be no moment at which we—as practitioners, as community members, or as human beings—will have arrived at our destination. We are, instead, continually arriving.
About the Authors
Shannon is the Director of Communications for Regenesis and its education programs, where she has stewarded the development of educational offerings such as The Regenerative Practitioner™ series and the Story of Place® course. Her work focuses on enabling co-learning systems that can support practitioners in becoming agents for the regeneration of their places through the creation of programs, publications, and resources for outreach and engagement.
Bill Reed, AIA LEED
Principal of Regenesis
Founder of IDC
Bill Reed is an internationally recognized proponent and practitioner of regenerative development and integrative design. He has been a founding board member of the USGBC, a co-founder of LEED and a thought leader in the sustainability movement over the past three decades. Bill has consulted on over two hundred projects across six continents. He is the author of the book The Integrative Design Guide to Green Building: Redefining The Practice of Sustainability as well as dozens of articles and papers on integrative design and regenerative development, and has delivered keynote addresses and workshops at hundreds of conferences throughout the world.