Three Ways to Regenerate Bioregions

Joe Brewer
Jul 11, 2019 · 6 min read
There are many “edges” of intact ecosystems waiting to regenerate degraded lands.

Is it even possible for humanity to safeguard its future? Are we bound to a fate of extinction… a still-birth on the way to becoming a planetary species? Or might we evolve our diverse cultures toward the regeneration of landscapes and ecosystems — making it possible to continue existing?

These are not idle questions. Humanity is currently in overshoot-and-collapse. We are causing a Mass Extinction Event that will take us down with it if it really takes off. Simply look at the Earth from space and you will see how much we have degraded the mountain ranges and valleys, flood plains and coastlines, tropical forests and high plateaus, all over the planet. The human impact is impossible to miss and largely destructive at present.

But what if we learned how to regenerate landscapes at increasing scales? Might we learn how to organize our economies around regenerative principles that turn all of this around? It just so happens that there might be a way to save ourselves.

We need to organize our societies (and all of their material flows) around bioregions. Only then might we learn how to function as regenerative economies that restore ecosystems and heal the Earth. This is what my colleagues and I are supporting at the Regenerative Communities Network. We are mobilizing a growing number of existing efforts to create bioregional economies into a peer-to-peer learning network that shares tools and knowledge to speed up all our efforts.

In this article, I would like to share three ways that we are observing in our network of communities for how to design the regeneration of an entire bioregion. These are patterns of emergence we have observed arising on their own in each collaborative effort. And each is now a focused work stream for how we consciously evolve the global network.

#1 :: Regenerative Education and Transformational Leadership

At the heart of our present predicament is the miseducation of people. They have been taught that humans are separate from nature; that economies are “more important” than all life on Earth; that money is what creates happiness; and a lot more. None of this is true!

The reality is that humans arose within the tapestry of a living planet. We are of the Earth. Economies are the management systems used for communities to function — both for humans and for all other living things — so they must be designed to operate as the living systems they truly are.

We are finding that the way to start regenerating a bioregion is to identify who the regenerative leaders are and begin organizing them. Provide them with supports and tools to help them improve their skills. And begin educating youth to think differently so they will be prepared to join regenerative projects in the future.

In the essay Guiding the Emergence of Humanity’s Future we have outlined 42 thematic design elements for creating regenerative education programs. They are part of a much larger effort to create learning systems worthy of the unique times we are all living through today. Related to this is the call for Regenerative Campuses for the 21st Century recognizing that each bioregion needs at least one learning center dedicated to mapping its unique cultural and ecological history in service to future regeneration efforts.

There are forecasts for 100 million (or more!) climate refugees in the next 20 years. Where will these people find work and healthy livelihoods in the strained and broken economies they get displaced into? The only viable answer is to create work-study programs on an unprecedented scale to have these people re-skill and learn how to regenerate ecosystems that support resilient human communities.

Regenerative education is fundamental for the future of humanity. It is the cultural learning capacity we will need to evolve at the necessary pace and scales that the times demand of us.

#2 :: Regenerative Metrics and Evaluation for System Transformation

The world is awash in measurement frameworks. But what is most important to track if we want to make progress toward regenerative goals? This is an open question that requires careful deliberation for each context in which measurement occurs.

We are finding that the tools for tracking whole-system health are essential for guiding the regeneration of people and planet. For example, it is now known that biodiversity is a key indicator of resilience for entire ecosystems. Cut out too many interspecies relationships and the whole food web crosses a threshold and quickly unravels. Similarly, the importance of inequality in social systems makes clear how humans need to have healthy relationships with each other if we are to build and maintain the trust necessary for cooperation at ever-larger scales.

One framework that shows particular promise is Blue Marble Evaluation — which starts by taking the holistic approach of looking at the Earth from space. Every local intervention will have “glocal” (global-to-local) interactions that create nuanced interdependencies. It is necessary to work across multiple scales in both space and time to design for systemic change. The Blue Marble Evaluation toolkit helps practitioners learn how to do this.

Another framework is the Planetary Boundaries put forth by Stockholm Resilience Centre. It is a grand synthesis of scientific modeling for the Earth to discover nine thresholds that, if even one is crossed, will result in the collapse of global civilization. At present, we have already crossed four! This framework helps us see what the real targets are for restoring planetary health.

Plenty of others could be named too. The point here is that each bioregion needs to measure itself as a whole system while at the same time embedding this system in the larger nested levels of planetary systems that influence its evolution. The reverse is also true: discover how each bioregion is impacted by the whole Earth and you begin to learn how the regeneration of the bioregion can contribute to regenerating the whole Earth.

There is still a lot of work to be done in this area. What we hope to see cultivated are shared frameworks for monitoring progress from one bioregion to the next so that we can track our collective progress toward achieving planetary goals.

#3:: Bioregional Investment Platforms

Even if we start to educate more people about regenerative design AND put the right measurement systems in place, our efforts will still fail if we don’t set up investment platforms that track the real value-exchanges in the local economy.

A great deal is now known about how to measure the material flows of ecosystems. We can track “who-is-eating-whom” in food webs that tell us how life creates the conditions conducive to life at large scales. Yet somehow our major economies continue measuring their health around blunt instruments like GDP (Gross Domestic Product) as if it can stand in for these larger exchange-oriented complexities.

Imagine instead if human economies were able to track all of the value exchanges that occur locally and regionally. This includes “multi-capital” concepts that go well beyond money to include things like the social capital of trusting relationships; the institutional capital of functional organizations; the knowledge capital of expertise and practical skills; and natural capital of healthy ecosystems.

Build a platform that tracks all of these exchanges in a robust way and you have the food web for human systems — something you can use to create portfolios of investments and track progress toward shared goals. We have collaborators who are trying to build bioregional investment platforms that track all of the material flows in their local economy.

Investors know that they don’t have adequate information today for making the investments we all need. How do you measure the “value” of biodiversity? Or the “importance” of clean watersheds? What about the “critical role” of education in cultivating ethical character and appropriate forms of leadership? Most of our investment tools do a poor job of measuring these things — especially when trying to connect them together as a whole system.

This is an active area of work that is clearly of urgent significance. Communities all around the globe will need to monitor and track, invest in and support, guide and cultivate, the evolutionary pathways toward regeneration with financial and multi-capital flows.

There’s a Lot More

These three areas of active work are not meant to be complete or adequate in the efforts to regenerate bioregions. We are aware of many more focus points related to things like storytelling, institution design, ecosystem mapping, conflict resolution, political “capture”, and others that could be named.

My hope in writing this essay is to help you see where we are focusing our efforts with the Regenerative Communities Network to support regenerative efforts around the world. Stay tuned (or better yet, get involved!) to follow our progress in these areas.

Onward, fellow humans.


Joe Brewer is the executive director of the Center for Applied Cultural Evolution and capacity cultivator for the Regenerative Communities Network. Get involved by signing up for our newsletter and consider making a donation to support our work.

Joe Brewer

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I am a change strategist working on behalf of humanity, and also a complexity researcher, cognitive scientist, and evangelist for the field of culture design.

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