Age of Awareness
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Age of Awareness

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Building a new normal

The path towards regenerative economies is made by walking it

[First published as the ‘Keynote’ article in the July/August edition 2020 of Resurgence & Ecologist]

Since the beginning of the global Coronavirus pandemic, there has been widespread agreement on the desire — and necessity — not to return to ‘normal’ once lockdown is eased. To co-create a New Normal, we have to start by admitting how deeply dysfunctional and murderous the Old Normal actually was.

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The World Health Organisation estimates that 42 million people die each year “as a result of (outdoor) ambient air pollution” and 850,000 people die every year due to lack of access to good water, sanitation and hygiene. For me personally, the heightened empathy I felt listening to reports of exhausted doctors and nurses during the pandemic allowed me to feel the tragedy of what has been going on for decades in a new way.

In 2019 Greta Thunberg, Fridays For Futures and Extinction Rebellion brought the conversation about the dangers of cataclysmic climate change into many households around the world. In the first half of 2020, as a result of Covid-19, most of humanity had a direct experience of how interconnected and interdependent we all are and how fragile our globalised world is.

Profound and rapid change is no longer a subject of hypothetical conversations full of arguments between visionary and conservative voices. It has become an embodied experience for many of us, while we came to value the work of nurses, medics, teachers, truck drivers, local farmers, and other ‘essential workers’ in new ways.

Billions of people were taken by surprise as they saw how quickly things can change. Maybe even more so by the fact that we can collaborate to achieve almost unimaginable transformative responses when we are challenged to do so. Covid 19 is forcing us to mobilise in unprecedented ways and we are doing so as one global species facing a calamity that we can only solve collaboratively — for all equally — or we will not solve it at all!

Does that sound familiar? The same holds for the climate crisis, only that what is at stake there is the future of our species and much of life on Earth. The systemic repercussions triggered by Covid 19 might become the catalyst for the transformation of the human presence and impact on Earth that climate change should have been but was too diffuse of a systemic threat for our species to come together in an effective way.

We need transformation

After more than 25 years of the United Nations process on Climate Change, it has taken a pandemic to shift the playing field enough to make a transformative response possible. Incremental changes will not suffice: we need a transformative response. I feel renewed hope that we are capable of such a response. It will be just in time before the window of opportunity to avoid cataclysmic climate change closes on our species.

The cascading effects triggered by the pandemic will continue to present us with partial systems failures and breakdown over the coming months and years. This will continue to reveal outdated habits, structures and behaviours which are no longer adequate ways of participating in the nested complexity and unpredictable dynamics of life in the 21st Century.

There are three aspects and two types of resilience. Type 1 resilience is based on:

i) persistence in the face of disruption and

ii) adaptation in response to disruption to recover the old status quo.

Type 2 resilience is based on:

iii) a (r)evolutionary or transformative response.

Our reaction to this pandemic and even more so to climate change will have to be a Type 2 resilience response at the scale of communities, bioregions and nations. We do not want to bounce back to the old system but transform outdated patterns and bounce beyond into a regenerative pathway (see above).

Without the pandemic the untouchable dogma of the ‘economic growth imperative’ would have made the 26th UN Conference on Climate Change this year in Glasgow another uphill struggle. Now the rank and influence of the fossil fuel and industrial lobbies has somewhat shifted. They will be little less able to influence the political process with their mantra “we can’t afford to endanger the economy”. Now that many of those lobbyists are cueing up to ask for government support and tax payers money.

The evidence is clear that upstream from climate change, cascading ecosystems collapse, biodiversity loss, and obscene levels of inequalities with devastating social, environmental and health impacts lies the dysfunctional degenerative economic system we are supposed to protect from collapsing. Never before have we faced a more urgent necessity and more timely opportunity to redesign our economic system. The time has come to change the playing field within which companies operate and the rules they operate by in services to people and planet.

Resilience around the world

The work of Kate Raworth and John Fullerton is already influencing cities and regions around the world to actively explore how to create regenerative economies. There are more than a dozen regional regenerative economy initiatives in the Capital Institute’s global ‘Regenerative Communities Network’, including the excellent Bioregional Learning Centre in Devon The city of Amsterdam has adopted the ‘doughnut’ as a central element of its regional development plan and the new Doughnut Economy Action Lab DEAL is engaging with local initiatives around the world.

Over the past four years I had the privilege of consulting on an initiative of the Commonwealth Secretariat that led to the creation of Common Earth. The organisation supports capacity building for regenerative development across the 54 member nations of the Commonwealth. Costa Rica, as a non Commonwealth member, has recently joined the initiative to help pioneer a National Regenerative Development Roadmapping Process.

Through my role as a judge on the Lush Spring Prize for Social and Ecological Regeneration, I got to know of hundreds of initiatives around the world that are already actively regenerating local and regional ecosystems, communities and economies.

E.F. Schumacher wrote in his book on economics as if people mattered “perhaps we cannot raise the winds, but each of us can put up a sail, so when the wind comes we can catch it.” During the recent AGM of Ecolise — a European network for community-led initiatives on climate change and sustainability — I reminded community activists from all European member states of this advice. For nearly 50 years we have been putting up sails. The flotilla of transformative change is ready, and the wind is here!

In their ‘post’ Covid-19 response, national and local governments around the world will have to spend unprecedented sums of money in support of their citizens, communities and businesses. Herein lies an opportunity for transformation, if we ensure that we spend that money wisely.

Building capacity to respond to future pandemics and disruptions can be achieved through the same measures as a transformational response to the ‘climate emergency’. The restructuring of governance systems in favour of subsidiarity that enables widespread participation of citizens and communities is an important enabler in this.

A transformative response would aim to increase community resilience through increased re-regionalisation of production and consumption. This would include the creation of strong local and regional food systems adopting regenerative agriculture and agroforestry as catalysts of widespread ecosystem restoration. Investment in decentralised renewable energy systems and improved zero-emissions public transport infrastructure would further contribute to the revitalisation of regional economies.

At the beginning of the ‘UN Decade onEcosystems Restoration’ the political commitment to ‘re-wilding’ as the most effective way to halt cascading ecosystems collapse and improve planetary health is growing. The regeneration of local soils, forests, and waterways is not only an effective carbon drawdown strategy, but a pathway to regionally focussed circular biomaterials economies that can support such efforts while improving bioregional resilience.

The Chinese-American filmmaker John Liu has documented large scale ecosystems restoration projects around the world and helped to create a rapidly growing global movement and capacity building process called Ecosystems Restorations Camps.

The work of the Dutch ‘Commonland Foundation’ with its “four returns, three landscapes, 20 years” approach is already demonstrating in Australia, South Africa, Spain and the Netherlands how landscape scale regeneration is possible. Their long-term systemic approach to regeneration is to create collaboration at the landscape scale that brings together diverse land-owners and a cross-sector alliance through the ‘return of inspiration.’ Through a shared commitment to bioregional ecosystems restoration they create the conditions for social and ecological returns. Over the longer term these will lead to regional economic returns.

At the Global Landscapes Forum last September the ‘1000 landscapes for 1 Billion People’ initiative of a broad alliance of organisations set an ambitious regeneration target for 2030.

Cultures of constant inquiry

The path towards regenerative economies that serve diverse regenerative cultures under the unique conditions of their bioregions is made by walking it. There is no destination sustainability that we will arrive at to live happily ever after. We have to live the inquiry itself, by holding answers and solutions more lightly, experimenting with them at local and regional scales where we can respond to the effects of our actions in a more agile way, and understanding solutions as temporary means to ask better questions rather than the other way around.

Nobody really knows what the New Normal will be. We have to ‘sit in the mess for a while’ and use this time to get more comfortable with uncertainty and more humble in acceptance of the limits of our knowing. Regenerative cultures are cultures of constant inquiry into appropriate participation in the nested complexity that human and planetary health depend upon. In cooperative inquiry we can move from arguing about perspectives to understanding our diversity of perspectives as a source of creative potential.

We don’t have to agree on everything before we can cooperate to regenerate ecosystems health, community cohesion and global solidarity, since all our future now depends upon this common ground. Clearly the New Normal will not come about through technological change only. Beyond simply changing what we do and how we do it, this transformative decade will be about changing how we are — as a change in being, not just in doing.

The experiences people had during the lockdown are already triggering profound changes in worldview and values systems. In this phase where the systemic domino effects of Covid 19 are still unfolding, let us pause and listen. Let us take this opportunity to ask deeper questions rather than rush to solution implementation and problem solving too quickly. Let us focus on the potential that lies in co-creating a New Normal in community, informed by the bio-cultural uniqueness of the places we are now invited to re-inhabit bioregion by bioregion.

We are invited back into the community of life. We are called into humility and audacity at the same time. As Gerald Midgely, professor for systems science at the University of Hull, pointed out so succinctly “everything is an intervention.” We cannot but change the world, each and every one of us. Everything we think, say and do has causal agency. The organising ideas that structure our experience of reality literally matter.

Education for regenerative cultures is about the life-long process of enabling and building the capacity of everyone to express their unique potential to serve their community and the planet and in the process serve themselves. This is a life-long process of learning in community patterned by place. The role of cultural institutions, theatres, museums, galleries, music and art in the creation of diverse place-sourced regenerative cultures will be critical in the transformation ahead.

Deeper knowing

Our future depends not just on a re-inhabitation of our bioregions but also a re-indigenization of our way of being. What does it mean to belong to place as a healthy expression of that place? We are coming home to a deeper knowing. Our bioregional indigenous ancestors always knew that we belong to the land rather than the land belonging to us.

The ancient Sanskrit word ‘Seva’ सेवा is most commonly translated as ‘service’ in the sense of ‘being in service to a larger whole’ and ‘giving more than one takes’. It is strongly resonant with the aim to nurture “co-evolving mutuality” (Haggard & Mang, 2016) which describes succinctly what working regeneratively aims to support.

It is in our enlightened self-interest to work regeneratively in service to all life as a constantly transforming and evolving planetary process. Our measure of success is the emergence of health and wellbeing at local, regional and global scales. To do so we have to develop and maintain the capacity of individuals and communities to manifest their unique potential, to respond to change, and to participate appropriately in nested complexity.

There is a caveat even to the popular call to move from ego to eco. We are in danger of denying the importance of self-care. Only by also caring for self can we effectively and over the long-term care for our human community and the community of life. The healthy way to integrate the dynamic polarity of ‘being for oneself’ and ‘being as part of a larger whole’ is to unleash the potential created by this polarity in service to life.

Most ancient wisdom cultures and indigenous guidance from around the world holds that important decisions should always consider three questions:

How does it serve the individual?

How does it serve the community? and

How does it serve life?

This article was first published by Resurgence & Ecologist in July, 2020:

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Daniel Christian Wahl — Catalyzing transformative innovation in the face of converging crises, advising on regenerative whole systems design, regenerative leadership, and education for regenerative development and bioregional regeneration.

Author of the internationally acclaimed book Designing Regenerative Cultures

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Daniel Christian Wahl

Daniel Christian Wahl

Catalysing transformative innovation, cultural co-creation, whole systems design, and bioregional regeneration. Author of Designing Regenerative Cultures

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