Mike Shipley reviews Designing Regenerative Cultures
Much has been written about the destructive nature of our society and of the multiple crises that plague our every day lives and that threaten our future existence on Earth. While acknowledging these crises and firmly placing them at humanities doorstep Daniel Wahl in ‘Designing Regenerative Cultures’ considers how we can move from our current state towards a better future for all life on Earth.
At the heart of his analysis is the fact that our cultures have allowed people to believe that we stand apart from nature and the living Earth — that at best we hold stewardship over the Earth and at worst we have a God given right to exploit all the fruits of the Earth. This attitude of separateness is deeply embedded in culture and religion but also in our politics, in economics, in the way we do business, make decisions and the way we are educated. Therefore all of these structures and institutions are in need of deep change before they can address the problems rather than add to them.
The aim of Wahl’s book is to describe a process by which we can bring about the changes that are needed if we are to avoid a bleak future. Rather than proposing grand schemes for reform and building sustainable societies, he encourages us to question our assumptions and values that underpin the decision making process. Simply doing the wrong thing ‘righter’ will not help us. Reform is not enough and can indeed be counter-productive.
Questions are important to Wahl and his book is punctuated by many deep and profound questions. They are not just aimed at the established order that has led us in to crisis, but also at ourselves, to understand our own motives and to challenge the assumptions on which we build our lives.
- What kind of world do we want to leave for our grandchildren?
- How can we meet everyone’s needs while protecting biodiversity and reversing Climate Change?
Wahl encourages us to have vision, how else will we know if we are traveling in the right direction? But he cautions against both dogmatic assurance and impatience in wanting to achieve that vision. He points out that we live in a complex structure, and it is the nature of complex systems to be unpredictable. This is something that we need to accept and learn to live with.
Rather than focusing on predicted outcomes we should concentrate our efforts on the process of bringing about change. This is because we are living within the process of transition to a future that will be very different to the present and recent past. At present the process of change is helping to create crisis and a loss of personal well-being. Therefore the process must change if we want a better outcome.
Wahl has developed a useful mental approach to learning to live in a time of change. He describes three Horizons that we can envisage. The first horizon H1is the base line, it is now, where we are. The third horizon H3 is our collective vision, something that we need to give us a sense of direction and measure of progress. Between them is H2, the horizon of transition that many of us are trying to implement.
But again he cautions us to consider the elements of these horizons carefully. H1 is what supports us now, both for better and for worse. We will need elements of the present as we build the future. This is why revolution is wrong and can’t work. If you sweep all away there is nothing to transform, you end up recreating what’s familiar to give you something to work with. There is a danger that the transitional structures, built on H1 will simply serve to reinforce the H1 horizon — think of fracking as a means of maintaining the fossil fuel economy and strangling genuine transitional structures. Wahl recognises that transition must work to make the established ways obsolete and not simply reform them. In his words they need to be disruptive transitions, not simply replacing the old but also fulfilling the necessary services provided by these old structures while paving the way to better outcomes.
He refers to these disruptive transitions as a regenerative processes. He sees sustainability not as an end to be directly worked for but as an emergent property of regenerative cultures. Cultures that focus on regeneration of living processes and not destructive exploitation.
Wahl reminds us that society is part of an evolutionary process, for evolution there is no final outcome, we live in a continual process of change. We need to deeply question this process: ‘is it life enhancing? Is it inclusive, drawing on all of our creative diversity? Does the process itself increase our collective wellbeing, our ability to be happy, to experience joy, to create beauty now? Does the process allow all of nature, and therefore people as part of nature, to flourish? If so, the process creates a good life, it is progressive, it will create a sustainable present. If not, then we must change the process. That is our mission.