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Coming Alive to Regeneration

Beyond Sustainability; Beyond Impact

Greetings, Ladies & Gents. This is where I step out on stage, in front of the curtains, and prepare you for what you’re going to see (not me, but the real stars of the show.) So for those of you just now arriving, and those tuning in at home — I’m here to warm up the room to prepare you for an amazing assembly of creative visionaries around the globe carving a regenerative way of putting together time and resources at landscape level, for the betterment of us all. —Are you ready?

What you’re about to see is shaping up to be the next real economics. Maybe economics bores you but need I remind you what’s unreal economics? In a nutshell, that’s an economy predicated upon the assumption of unlimited growth, like Jack and the Beanstalk, up in the clouds, up up up, seems unreal. What’s the only living system defined by endless growth?

[ Answer: Cancer. ]

Hurtling along this way, soon there might not be any ecos left to speak of. Ecos is a common root to ecology and economics (Greek: οἶκος | ςeikos), and means our house hold … family dwelling … the common place … the biosphere … Gaia, our Mother Earth.

Ecology = care of our mother earth. Economy = managing her natural abundance.

For those just tuning in, the premise of unlimited growth is fraught with peril. To put that in perspective, it’s necessary to place economics within the context of ecology — not vice-versa, as is typically done. Without the container of our biosphere, all bets are off. And I said “soon,” but that may actually be very soon. At this month’s inaugural ReGen18 conference, attended by 300 visionaries from around the planet, Hunter Lovins, author, teacher, and promoter of sustainable development for over 40 years, reports we may have 2 (two) years left to turn things around if climate change is to remain at a tipping point.

Hence the need for regeneration: coming alive to what’s important. This humble 6-minute memo hopes to prepare the ground for conversation around regeneration, what it looks like, and its possibilities for the future.

Regenerative economics is nothing new: it’s been practiced for millennia by our indigenous brothers and sisters, our elder aunties and uncles. (And, I might add, against all odds, they’re still here.) Hence this conversation is necessarily indigenized: we are not reinventing the wheel, but returning to what’s been sound ecological / economic practices for thousands of years.

The question is: what might such traditions look like today in a networked, globalized world? How do we practice regenerative economics where, in our case, given conditions are post-industrial, late-stage, and possible even eventually post-capitalist?

To begin the conversation, might locate regenerative economics within a context of some prior iterations of recent green, sustainable economics.

Getting back to basics–consider what happens when we earn more from a week’s work than we can spend in a week. When there’s something extra. When there’s gain. Profit.* What do we do with it? Donate to the church? Render unto Caesar? Pay it forward? Invest for more? How do we manage economic abundance?

One pertinent precedent comes to us via religious tradition. In the U.S., since the 19th century, Quakers wouldn’t participate in the slave trade. They also kept away from anyone trafficking in liquor, tobacco, and guns. Now flash forward. More recently, that Quaker policy is now identified in the financial market place under such acronyms as SRI (Socially Responsible Investing–now renaming itself Social Responsible Impact, to align with the newer impact investment movement … which brings us to our next slide … )

What’s the “impact investment movement”?

You might consider it this way: SRI began by screening out what not to invest in. Now the conversation’s expanded to include positive impact, such as through community capital (neighborhood economics, right in our own backyards), shareholder advocacy, and impact investing. Impact is defined in terms of what a well-defined mission can accomplish: impact on the planet and its people as well as financial profit, a triple bottom line. Investments benefitting social and environmental themes. Philanthropy with a reasonable rate of return.

-={[ Digression ]}=- Historians decades hence might note: impact investment makes a big appearance on the scene around 10 (ten) years ago. 2008, for example, saw the launch of the first SoCap conference, to amplify the conversation around these issues and themes. Little did the founders know that their inaugural conference would take place the same time as the fourth largest investment bank in America, Lehman Brothers, filed for bankruptcy. As we know, intervention stepped in and Merrill Lynch, AIG, Freddie Mac, Fannie Mae, HBOS, Royal Bank of Scotland, Bradford & Bingley, Fortis, Hypo, and Alliance & Leicester were spared a similar fate. Bottom line: one report estimates 2008 cost Americans $12,800,000,000,000 (twelve point eight trillion dollars). Can you visualize just $1,000,000,000,000? My fingers get tired just typing that many zeros.

So what, if any, connection might exist between that crash, on the one hand, and the rise, on the other hand, of impact investing. Well, I’ve since heard a plausible theory, told to me by a veteran systems thinker engaged in organizational change. It might be worth adding in to the mix. This line of speculation posits that 2008 showed members of the economic elite (aka the 1%) that our financial system is broken, and there needs to be a better way.

Now, to underscore that, consider that the 1%, being human, are thinking about their presumptive heirs. They are the “silver tsunami”–referring to boomers’ grey hair, not the precious metal. According to my pocket calculator, about fifty trillion dollars ($50,000,000,000,000) in the U.S. is yet to change hands intergenerationally in the next decade–arguably the greatest wealth transfer in human history. So investing via alternatives to tracks that seem torn up has that motivation, as well. -={[end digression]}=-

How well are we doing, along those lines? According to my read, we’d had a big chance in 2008 but squandered it. Nothing I’d call substantive was done within the system to alleviate the risk of another crash occurring again. America’s debt is now $21 trillion ($21,000,000,000,000). (We recently added trillion more in just one year.) Yet our debt is 100 times greater than our GDP. (Our buddy Japan’s is 200 times greater.) Can this be viable, long-term?

Impact investment, in its many forms, is burgeoning. Last year, impact investors reported $114,000,000,000 ($114 billion) is invested in the impact space. That’s hefty bunch of zeros. And yet –

We come now to the next question. If impact investment is sustainable, what if it’s only sustaining a system that is itself fundamentally flawed? In a probative article in Medium earlier this year, entitled Wealth Inequality and The Fallacies of Impact Investing, Rodney Foxworth, Executive Director of the national neighborhood economics organization BALLE (Business Alliance for Local, Living Economies), asks if impact’s mission of doing-well-by-doing-good,-with-a-profit-motive “deliberately avoids addressing the root cause of so many of our social ills: extreme concentration of power, wealth, and privilege”? Soon thereafter, also on Medium**, Nina Sol Robinson asked Who Pays for the ‘Social Impact’ in Impact Investing? — noting:

The current impact investing framework relies on wealth inequities in order to exist and we must re-examine the business model.

So if SRI and impact might bear some degree of doing the same thing over and over while expecting a different outcome, it’s time for the new star of the show— regenerative ecomomics. Here’s a preview …

-={[ Stay tuned ]}=-

Some of Gary Gach’s prior articles on new economics are at his author page. His next book (September) is Pause Breathe Smile — Awakening Mindfulness When Meditation Is Not Enough.

* In the 5th century, a word made its way into Hebrew for this phenomenon: יִּתְרוֹן (yitron). A traveling wisdom teacher named Koheloth questioned its value, asking, “What’s our gain? What remains for all our work — hard work, which we toil at under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 1:3)

** For the record, Medium is, to the best of my knowledge, one of the best media spaces right now for articles and conversation around regenerative economics. That’s why, as of this article, I’m basing my humble coverage of regenerative thinking and action here.