“Mythologist Joseph Campbell once said, “People who don’t have a concept of the whole can do very unfortunate things.” But the corollary is rarely considered: People who understand the whole can do very fortunate things.” – Linda Booth Sweeney

Humans possess the capacity to think in wholes – to see whole systems at work. Our ancient ancestors did so without the aid of our current dependence on machines. Everything in creation was viewed as inter-related and connected. Then a new story emerged, slowly and then almost all at once. This new story focused on the idea of separation instead of connection. It tells us that humans are simply rational actors behaving in our own self-interest, ultimately seeking to transcend this world for a better place. This story now dominates our culture and inhabits our very being. The way we think and feel are both structured and influenced by a cultural and educational focus on fragments instead of wholes, thereby prescribing the nature of our human relationships and our worldviews.

This dominant worldview exudes a reductionist mindset, a way of knowing that believes breaking life into fragments and carefully examining the pieces will yield complete knowledge and total understanding. This way of thinking is baked into all our technical and scientific endeavors. In an effort to create relative simplicity, this approach often loses the nuances of complex interrelationships. It tends to distort reality because the parts and pieces never actually exist in isolation from one another. It creates significant omissions in our thinking because we are not actually working on a functional whole. Reductionist thinking leads to siloed fragmentation, which creates a self-limiting perspective. These limited perspectives are all pervasive in our culture. In many ways we have designed our culture deliberately to not see the forest for the trees. Seeing whole systems requires a different mind, a different way of knowing.

Viewing parts and pieces in isolation has produced some major “advances”; however, such advances often come with unintended consequences, a sure sign that we are not working with wholes. Our work with technical systems in building projects are full of examples where a particular building system is fully optimized in isolation without a careful examination of how that system interacts with the other systems in the building. HVAC systems are typically designed in isolation; designers simply respond to what they are given by another designer, but each designs their system in isolation. As a result, they are not an optimal part of the building; rather, they become just another part spewing out unintended consequences in the form of wasted energy, increased costs and often discomfort. The core of an integrative design process applies systems thinking to closely examine the interrelationships between building systems in order to optimize the performance of the whole building.

Systems thinking is a necessary prerequisite to addressing complex problems. Understanding how systems work is a necessary and vital part of examining and evaluating solutions. However, systems thinking alone is insufficient for understanding functioning living wholes.

“A system is not the sum of the behavior of its parts, it’s the product of their interactions.” – Mieke van der Bijl

“The insights, the research, the smarts, the intellectual heft part of this world gets you to a certain place and everything after that is about relationships.” – Cheryl Dahle

A system is a collection of interacting parts organized for a purpose. The definition of a system often includes reference to forming a unified whole. While this is a type of whole, it is not the type of whole to which we are referring in regenerative practice. Regeneration works with evolving living wholes. A living whole includes “structures, systems and processes of its own” (Carol Sanford). Living wholes include ecosystems, watersheds, biomes, lifesheds, communities, neighborhoods, processes associated with larger systems (obtaining food and shelter for example), human organizations, groups of animals and individual organisms.

As Bill Reed says, “Your project is not the project. Your project is the health of the ecosystem. Why else do we do green buildings?” A building project is not a living whole, but it can be viewed as a transformational instrument embedded within one or more living whole. A building project affects such wholes. It has the potential to have significant systemic effects on larger wholes. Regenerative practice calls us to identify the larger wholes we are addressing and the systemic effects we seek through developing the particular entity or project we are working on.

The whole of life functions well or poorly depending upon the nature of the interrelationships between all of the various processes comprising life. You are in fact a whole living system, an ecosystem in and of yourself. You are not just you alone; you comprise a microbiome that aids your processes and out-numbers your human cells by about 10 to 1. You are also more than your bodily functions. You are a complex web of thoughts, feelings, needs, emotions and various levels of consciousness. Often our cultural constructs do not allow us to bring our whole selves to our work. We are told that there is a need to have a work “you” and a personal “you” and that the two should be separate, so we seek our passions and interests in our “spare time” outside what we must do to earn a living. Regenerative practice seeks the development of a unified whole you.

While working on a recent project (facilitating regenerative process workshops and energy consulting for the Phipps Garden Center in Pittsburgh), Marcus experienced the power of such a “whole you” and tells the following story:

“I have been engaging in my own personal development – seeking ways to better align my essence with the work that I do. My early career choices were made by rationally evaluating environmental impacts and then seeking to create expertise that aligns with these choices. I became an energy consultant with a national reputation. Until recently, that was fine; it aligned with my principles and passion for environmental work. I was making a bit of a difference, but something was missing. As I began to operate more from my heart, something kept telling me I needed to move closer to where my true passions lie. I needed to move closer to nature, I needed to move closer to my authentic self. So, during the fourth Phipps workshop, I was participating in small group discussions and wandered outside to look at the part of the building we were discussing so that I could get a better visual. I looked up into a tree, and there was a black squirrel. The squirrel told me, in no uncertain terms, that we needed to consider his needs when designing the building. Although we had been applying biophilic concepts to the project, we were looking at the project strictly from a human perspective, we had not been considering the perspective of the squirrels, or the birds, or the myriad other-than-human beings that make this park and this part of Pittsburgh their home . . . A Living Whole. So I became inspired and told the 30 or so workshop participants that we needed to look at the project from the squirrel’s perspective. Between this encounter and the next workshop, I started researching ways we could incorporate habitat (food and shelter) directly into the building project instead of addressing biophilia by designing representations of nature. I talked with the biophilia consultant and offered to make a presentation at the next workshop. All of this was completely outside our scope of work. This felt much more in alignment with my passions and therefore my essence. The presentation flowed from me and affected the whole team. It inspired participants to think differently about how we could design the project, shifting from an anthropocentric to an ecocentric focus. I was able to bring my whole self to my work and was afforded the support and community that enabled me to say out loud that I was talking to squirrels! We all should be able to share our genuine whole selves with all our friends and colleagues, personally and professionally, a supportive community focused on regenerating living wholes.”

The story also helped us see that the same idea scales to organizations and projects seeking to explore the application of regenerative principles. In this case, the Phipps Garden Center project team developed principles for guiding all actions and decision-making that aligned with the seven first principles of regeneration, and the following principle associated with living wholes emerged:

Understand the project as an instrument for continuing Pittsburgh’s shift from an extractive to a regenerative paradigm.

What whole living system do you really care about and seek to transform?

This article continues an eight part series aimed at exploring how regenerative practices can be used to build our capacity to engage with larger living systems. 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

Energetic Fields

Manifesting Quiddity

Nested Roles

Nodal Discernment

Developmental Processes