Designing the Future

When I’m sitting with my 8-month-old son in quiet hours of the night, the scarcity part of my brain likes to come out and play. It’s during those 3am feedings that I linger on our talent for separation from and condemnation of one another; government stewards’ confusion of violent bullying for governance; biodiversity loss and species grief.

Reflective practice has been my touchstone. My feelings and thoughts are valid— even the hopeless ones. Creating safe containers to fully express my hopelessness and despair composts them into thoughtful analysis and compassionate action.

Today, that rich new soil looks like “Designing the Future: Pathways through Fibersheds to Regional Economic Development, Natural Resource Management and Bridging Cultural Divides”.

My thoughtful analysis began with questions. How bad is the political divide (really), and is it insurmountable? What would or could have impacted the half of American voters who stayed home in 2016 because they didn’t see themselves anywhere? When story and fact come together, could there be a version of the American dream that can transition us into an economy that works for all? Can we fix the damage we’ve done to the planet in a way that puts money in our pockets AND heals the oppressive cultural/racial legacies of economic development?

My compassionate action crew (Fibershed, the 11th Hour Project, Osayi Endolyn and Beth Raps, Ph.D.) went deep and reached out. We listened to 40+ folks from a dozen sectors and even more cities and towns: tech CEOs and fashion designers; a Kentuckian Alpaca farmer and an expert on Biomimetics; journalists and movement builders.

We wove their heart, soul and innovation into a story of hope for those of us who find ourselves despairing in the wee hours of the night.

Here’s what we found.

The roots of a healthy economy lie in healthy relationships.

We must support and invest in the economic development work and entrepreneurs who are actively regenerating our cultural bridges with each other and our ecosystems. We must prioritize solutions that “do it all”, consideringour current political and environmental climate.

Designing the Future shows how local farmers, manufacturers and artisans can power truly fair, fulfilling labor systems; nurture soil and ecosystems; and even heal the human divide. There are many sectors in which this is true — we chose to focus on textiles as an example.

More specifically, we focused on “fibersheds”. A fibershed is an aggregate of local artisans who are both producing textiles and creating the capacity for large-scale soil-to-soil natural resource management systems. It’s people who are — right now — building regional economic wealth in the US, aligning the interests of historically divided groups, and actually restoring the environment through regenerative production practices. It’s economic development that starts with people and has a regional approach grounded in affection for the land, the work, the product — and each other.

Image from Fibershed

Take wool. A current proposal for a mill system in Northern California would more than double the state’s wool production, would produce cloth (something close to non-existent in the state’s wool industry today), and would even incorporate the return and compost of products at the end of their use. It would boost the local economy, have no additional draw on California’s water supply, and create meaningful, positive employment all down the line, from sheep to shawl. And it could be done today with just a $26 million investment. (Let’s all say it together: safe investment of state funds.)

This is true soil-to-soil production — an ecosystem-embedded process that acknowledges how the life cycle of our things intersects with our own. Ignoring this fact leads to acid rain, birth defects, landfills, and cancer. Embracing it, and centering all of our industries on good, regenerative soil practices, makes it impossible to degrade the ecosystem. In fact, it builds it up, along with the health of our bodies, economies, and human relationships.

What’s your role?

So what’s your role in this? Think about where you put your money, and what the world “value” really means. Reality means most of us will shop at big-box stores once in a while (or even most of the time), but find ways to invest in products with a story, that last and support the fair livelihood of craftspeople who care about the products they make and the impact those products have on the earth. Understand the difference between “natural” (a hollow word that can mean anything) and “regenerative” — and choose to put what money you can toward soil-to-soil products. Make the effort to look for them, because they’re usually not sexy or flashy or “innovative.”

This work is subtle, requiring care and nuance. It’s quiet by nature, and can be hard to see. Big, flashy economic theory at the national level is easier to embrace than the slow, sometimes painful work of uniting local communities. I’m learning this right now with my new baby: any mom can tell you that “momming” day-to-day isn’t easy. It’s a steady slog of consistency, and that consistency is what’s going to build a healthy family. It’s like Anita Baker said: from beginning to end/365 days of the year/I want your same ol’ love.

It’s why my work in the world focuses on interpersonal AND systemic change. You really have to know yourself to find the magic in the mundane. It takes maturity and personal presence to get back to the basics of being respectful, generous, and compassionate with ourselves and each other — especially as we set boundaries against spite, pettiness and actual violence.

Producer or consumer, we all need to feel like we’re in this together. We need solutions that hit it all at the same time, and those solutions exist. Fibersheds are one. There are more — and we’re the ones who will determine whether they thrive or perish.