The entirety of our world is alive! We are a part of, and integral to this living, breathing, moving, speaking, listening, touching, defecating, squirming, decomposing, growing, interacting, complex whole of Life. We are surrounded by, immersed in, and a part of the living world. We co-inhabit a living planet in reciprocal relationship with all other living beings. Without our fellow beings we would not long survive. We depend on other beings to pollinate plants, produce food, provide air to breath, clean water, regulate climate, decompose waste, make edible matter from sunlight and living soil, manifest beauty and soothe our soul.
“The opposite of nature is impossible.” – Buckminster Fuller
It seems, though, that we have forgotten this, as if we are trying to remake our living world into one almost bereft of life. We seem hell-bent on remaking our world into something we are not even sure can survive. This invites pause to acknowledge the implications: over the past 40 years, more than 50% of our fellow beings on the planet have disappeared. During the same period, our human population has doubled. Trees, insects, birds and animals of countless species are in decline or have ceased to exist. We are practicing ecocide at a global scale. Our agriculture, rangelands, suburbs and cities appear purposely designed to reduce – or virtually eliminate – the diversity of life that embraces and sustains us.
Agriculture, for example, is increasingly dominated by large-scale monocultures dowsed in herbicides and pesticides designed specifically to kill competing plants and all insects, including those who are beneficial. Organic agriculture often simply replaces these chemicals with others that may not be quite so lethal or persistent. Our rangelands and pastures are managed to benefit only a few select domesticated grazing animals. Their grazing mutually reinforces dramatically reduced diversity, favoring a few select plant species across the vast majority of our remaining agricultural lands. The planet’s diversity of life is purposely designed out of these agricultural systems, which comprise more than 50% of the land area of the US. The abundance and diversity of our living world is increasingly being converted to scarcity and monocultures that minimize and concentrate the flow of resources into a stream of money.
Relative to agriculture and rangelands, the land area we use for human habitation is small but extremely impactful. About 3% of our land area is urbanized, a three-fold increase over the past 70 years. Urban land is home to 75% of the human US population, located mostly in areas that once held the greatest concentration of life’s diversity. This land will not easily revert to any sort of “natural” functioning, and it seems virtually devoid of life (beyond humans) when compared to healthy natural areas. Some states in the northeast are 40% urbanized. Another 3% (73 million acres) is composed of rural or suburban residential development, 40 million acres of which are planted in turf grass, or lawns. These lawns often irrigated and sprayed for weeds and bugs, severely limit habitat, virtually eliminate biodiversity, encourage water runoff that carries herbicides and pesticides into our waterways, and require large amounts of fossil fuels to maintain. Most remaining landscapes consist of non-native species that have not co-evolved with local insects, flora, fauna, microclimate, etc. and do not support species diversity. In other words, we create landscapes as virtual dead zones that in turn spread compromise, instability and dis-ease to surrounding areas, carried by the waters, winds, insects, birds and animals (including humans).
So about 60% or more of the land in the US is purposely designed to significantly reduce and often eliminate life. We seem to be engaged in a collective consciousness steered by a death drive. According to Freud, life is a tension between the drive toward death (Thanatos) and the drive toward life (Eros). These forces collide every day in our psyche, which then manifest in our physical world – but instead of reconciling these forces, our collective will seems more channeled toward death and destruction than toward Eros, or life-enhancing creativity. The interaction between these two drives appears to be devolving into compromise rather than evolving into reconciliation. Death is dominating, and our apparent desire for continuity of the familiar builds inertia in this direction.
Nobody really knows how much diversity is needed to sustain our fellow beings and ourselves. Only 23% of the planet’s landmass is currently “wilderness”, primarily consisting of areas that are too cold or too dry to support agriculture and larger-scale human development. As the planet warms, some of these areas will become inhabitable, and the cascade of destruction appears likely to continue. In his latest book, Half Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life, E.O. Wilson advocates preserving 50% of the planet as wilderness. The operative assumption here is that we need to exclude humans from these areas, because according to this way of thinking, we are inherently destructive to biodiversity. He may very well be right about us. Given the current paradigm and associated inertia, it seems that such preservation efforts may be impossible to achieve. So are we just destructive creatures with a murderous tendency ultimately bent on slow and painful species suicide? Perhaps.
“The major problems in the world are the result of the difference between how nature works and the way people think.” – Gregory Bateson
Let us consider a different path . . .
We frequently ask our fellow humans whether we as a species possess the capability to reverse the destruction we are causing. Almost universally, they answer “yes”, agreeing that we do indeed have the capacity and capability to do so. So why don’t we do it? Simply put, our cultural norms, mores and customs – even the myelinated neural pathways in our brains – have been structured and conditioned to encourage more of the same. It is those underlying values that inform our worldviews and reinforce this current paradigm. Ultimately, this paradigm is what needs to shift if we want to effectively address the imbalances we are creating in the living system we inhabit.
We believe that humans do possess the capacity to change the current paradigm, to be nurturing, constructive and creative, to reconcile the tension between Thanatos and Eros. There is considerable reconciling energy already emerging. Many are seeking to “do less bad” at the very least, and in many cases, actually do good. One hundred percent less bad might allow us to sustain our way of living a bit longer, but even this is not sufficient for Life to continue evolving, and frankly, it is uninspiring. Our predominant Western worldview needs to transcend the current paradigm so that we can align our thinking and activities with the way Life works. We need to regenerate our cultural worldviews and ourselves in service to augmenting and enhancing Life.
Regenerate means to “bring forth again”, to reconstitute, to make over in a better way.
Regenerative practice reconciles the learnings of the past with the potential of the future. It implies recognizing, relearning and re-membering our participatory role as a species in the larger living world. Building regenerative capacity begins with working on ourselves as unique individuals. It requires working on our own personal development. It calls upon each of us to observe carefully, think ecologically, design systemically, engage gratefully and act humbly. To do so, we need to evolve our own capacity, and the capacity of our communities, to serve the larger whole systems within which we are nested, concentrating nodal efforts where they will have the greatest systemic impact for the least effort. Less may indeed be more.
Regeneration is not a list of ingredients or prescriptive practices. We can’t recreate some idealized time frame or restore some condition from the past and go back. Too much has changed; further, life is constantly evolving. Regeneration begins in the now and images the future to understand the cyclical rhythms of Nature. It focuses on the Potential of all those who benefit through reciprocal relationships and the processes of nutrient exchange upon which life depends. It helps evolve the capacity of all affected parties to augment both the quantity and quality of these processes.
Regeneration relies on a set of living system principles. These principles (discussed below) are embedded in the way Life on this living planet works. They align with a worldview based on ancient wisdom passed through the ages by many indigenous cultures. Guidance by these principles helps us shift beyond our predominant Western worldview, beyond what seems as given, as if no other worldviews of any value exist. Pointedly, living indigenous cultures have a very different way of seeing and inhabiting the world.
Traditional ecological knowledge grew out of long-term observations of how whole living systems work. Such understanding emerged from direct experience, over time out of mind, of how the interrelationships between entities composing a particular ecosystem have been evolving and co-operating. Strict objectivity is impossible, since the observer is always immersed in, and a part of, what is being observed. Gaining ancient insight is qualitative rather than quantitative. Everything is viewed as connected and interrelated in reciprocal kinship, each being or entity playing a valuable (and valued) role in serving the whole. Relationships are the thread that binds all beings together in the world to which we all belong.
Understanding how any particular place or ecosystem (from local to planetary scale) works (when it’s working well) arises from sensing the unique patterns of relationships between that system’s beings/entities and how they affect (and are affected by) that whole. Such a worldview sees all beings in Earth as alive and sentient, communicating and possessing a form of intelligence. Human beings are seen as capable of being in deep communication with these entities. Humans are understood as vital members of this larger ecosystem, alongside all other members. This worldview understands that human vitality depends on interrelating with other members of the larger whole. Earth is understood as our Mother, not as a collection of resources or “things” placed here for our appropriation and exploitation. From this perspective, all beings are sacred gifts, and the only proper responses to such gifts are the expression of respect and gratitude.
The very dominance of our current Western worldview often prohibits understanding – or even acknowledging – the values in such other worldviews. Those who hold an indigenous worldview tend to understand the constructs and effects of our Western worldview; the opposite is generally not the case. The issue here, though, is not about determining which worldview is correct or morally superior; such attitudes typify Western binary mindsets tending to focus on things more than processes. The point to consider is: to what extent is our thinking bound and limited by the dominant culture we inhabit?
Without question, the Western worldview has produced amazing advances throughout the arts and sciences. We are not advocating discarding it (even if that were possible); rather, we are advocating a regenerative approach to shift our worldview, an approach rooted in understanding living system processes, which by their very nature constantly evolve. Our Western worldview often blinds us from seeing these processes; it clashes against its own limitations fostered by its underlying assumptions. It sees humans and Nature as separate entities, sees each being as separate from every other being acting in their own self-interest.
We believe that we are currently being called to shift the dominant worldview and harmonize it with an indigenous worldview based on a reverence for all living beings. What is needed is a reconciliation of worldviews – a harmonizing shift that brings the abstractions of the Western worldview into direct contact with palpable experience of how Nature works, a melding that helps us create and regenerate a new paradigm for humans’ role on this planet, a paradigm grounded in humility and guided by a set of principles aligning with ecological integrity. In certain respects, some of the differences between these worldviews are dissolving already, as advances in Western science find increasing commonalities with – and greater levels of understanding from – ancient wisdom traditions . . . after all, our technological advances would be impossible without a bit of topsoil and a little rain.
A Regenerative approach is guided by a set of organizing principles that builds our capacity to shift the current paradigm into a new one, grounded in ecological systems thinking. It is based on a perspicacious worldview that understands how humans can play an essential role in enhancing the capacity of Life to evolve in a way that benefits all beings in Earth. Hence, we can use our development for healing the wounds we have caused. To paraphrase Donella Meadows (Leverage Points in a System), the most effective way to intervene in a system is to shift the paradigm, and to paraphrase Buckminster Fuller, the best way to transcend the current paradigm is to create a new one.
“Regenerative Development builds the capacity of living systems to regenerate themselves.” – Joel Glanzberg
Regenerative practice is always in service to transforming or actualizing a larger whole. It calls upon each of us to work on building our own capacity, to see with a different mind, to think systemically, to view ourselves as members of an evolving whole, to recognize the broader patterns embedded in ourselves and the ecosystems in which we are nested. Since change is constant, a regenerative mindset constantly regenerates itself. This requires regular practice. Most of us have not been educated or trained in how to think and act this way. Since this is not our “normal” mode of being, work is required – work on ourselves, work on building our capacity to express our unique perspective, and work on building our will to contribute through manifesting that uniqueness.
Regenerative practice, when working on projects, is always aimed at transforming or actualizing a particular larger whole. Such projects seek to have developmental impacts on the larger systems they serve. The vitality of these systems calls upon all stakeholders associated with and affected by the project to play a role. Such projects seek to build the capacity of these stakeholders to do so, to deepen their reciprocal interrelationships. As such, regenerative project work is distinct from employing any certain construction practice, or adding solar panels, or using a specific technology, or restoring a specific ecology, or implementing any specific design strategies (although these may be important and necessary elements); rather, regenerative design seeks to serve the people and ecosystems it affects. Any given project then, is simply an instrument for helping all members of that living system build their capacity to evolve the vitality and viability of life in the place they inhabit.
The RE Farm Cafe is a wonderful example of a project seeking such holistic systemic impacts through regenerative design practices. The name RE is based on the prefix and implies “again and again”. The project seeks to transform the entire “fooding system” in Central Pennsylvania’s Nittany Valley through the construction of a seasonal farm-to-fork cafe on a very active Windswept Farm. The building project is pursuing the Living Building Challenge as a means to also influence design and construction practices. Windswept Farm will produce a wide variety of food products following an agro-ecosystem approach that incorporates a diversity of fooding practices. The farm and the building project are envisioned as a central gathering place for the community to facilitate exploring systemic change in how food is produced, transported and consumed locally. RE will source from itself and from the larger farm community in the region with food offerings driven by what is available locally. RE and Windswept will serve as an enlivening source that fosters community and place-sourced learning for all ages, focusing on regenerating a healthy, sustainable and local food system, manifested in unique and delicious fooding experiences. These efforts are aimed at creating a “world class” small farm approach for engaging the dynamics of larger social-economic-ecological systems. As such, the RE Farm Café project serves as an instrument for deepening understanding of the living systems in this unique place and strengthening reciprocal connections through action that intentionally serves its community of stakeholders.
During the earliest stages of the RE project, the project team developed a regenerative design process through a series of co-learning workshops. These workshops engaged a larger set of key stakeholders in developing and aligning around the project’s Purpose and its targeted effects in the Community. The owners (Duke and Monica Gastiger) became so fully immersed in this integrative/regenerative process of learning experientially that they took a leap and facilitated a Community Alignment Workshop themselves . . . they developed such deep caring that they made a “promise beyond ableness”, which resulted in generating deep caring, co-learning and participation by several entities and organizations in the Community. The Gastigers continue to use this process to develop their own capacities, as well as those of the project team and community volunteers. As a result, the set of participating stakeholders has continually grown dramatically, with dozens of entities currently working together to manifest their vision of transforming the fooding system in the Nittany Valley and beyond. . . and by the way, they happen to be building a café.
Regenerative projects are both purposeful and developmental. RE Farm Cafe embodies both. Its purpose embodies the systemic affects the project aspires to achieve in building shelter and producing and consuming food in the region it serves. The stories, learnings and processes discovered along the way will be documented (including a video documentary being produced by 7group) and used to continually regenerate the health of the land, flora, fauna, people, farms, earth systems, community and economy in this particular place. In short, the project serves as an instrument for building the capacity of all inhabitants to regenerate the vitality and viability of the lifeshed in which they live indefinitely.
In conclusion, this article introduces an eight part series aimed at exploring how regenerative practices can be used to build such capacities. In particular, we’ll examine how built environment projects can serve as powerful and effective instruments for doing so. These practices are grounded in the Seven First Principles of Regeneration. These principles emerged through the work of Carol Sanford, a wise and insightful elder, and through our work with Carol, Bill Reed, Joel Glanzberg and others over the past decade. Inspired by this continuing work, we will unpack these seven principles through the context of our experiences co-creating habitation. The principles include:
Working with Wholes
Focusing on Potential