Thinking regeneratively

I’ve written about regenerative agriculture a couple of times recently (here and here) as I explore how this way of thinking can influence our food systems. In this piece, I’m sharing some perspectives on what it means to think regeneratively more broadly. These are personal musings, but much of the inspiration draws from my work at Forum for the Future. I’d be interested to hear any thoughts and feedback.

The regenerative paradigm

Within sustainability circles, a regenerative paradigm has been gaining momentum. It speaks of vitality and replenishment, encouraging us towards the continual improvement of the health and sustainability of key systems on which we depend – covering natural capital, social capital, human capital, and all other forms of capital

As our planetary health has become increasingly stressed and fragile, we’ve reached a point where active regeneration is critical. It feels the language associated with sustainability is no longer enough, we also need a regenerative vocabulary. The illustration below shows some of the words often found in this vocabulary. 

For those readers interested in systems change theory – thinking regeneratively has a lot in common with the mindsets required for systems change.

Figure 1. Common words used to describe regenerative (own illustration, feel free to share and adapt under CC license)

Healthy interconnections and working with complexity

The regenerative mindset takes inspiration from nature, where it’s recognised that the most resilient and healthy ecosystems are highly diverse, complex and interconnected. 

Understanding how we can design to support healthy interconnections is a crucial part of any regenerative design. Let’s explore this by example. Consider the human body which is composed of several complex and interacting systems such as the digestive system, circulatory, immune etc. As we engage in unhealthy behaviours, such as smoking or unhealthy eating, the systems in our bodies can cope for a while but eventually, damage occurs, our overall health declines and we become more vulnerable. Although our bodies are composed of highly complex systems that we often don’t fully understand, staying healthy is generally not complicated. Simple principles around regular exercise and eating well (such as Michael Pollan’s Food Rules) will support healthy interconnections, giving us a much better chance of good health.

This analogy demonstrates that when we engage with highly complex systems, we don’t always need complicated solutions. This may be obvious to some readers, and it can be applied to our interactions with all sorts of systems, from soils that buzz with billions of microorganisms (many undiscovered and their interactions unknown), to ocean ecosystems and even in the way we interact within businesses and our communities – through the values and practices we bring.

As the pioneering systems change expert Donella Meadow’s said: “We can’t control systems or figure them out, but we can dance with them!”.

A journey, not a destination

Another interesting aspect about thinking regeneratively is that it’s not a destination, rather it’s more evolutionary; a dynamic journey where the context is shifting as we constantly strive towards greater health. 

Despite this, the word regenerative (and the word sustainable) can sometimes be referred to as a status or destination that we reach. This “mission accomplished” mindset is problematic when the nature of the challenge is complex and ever-changing. Complex challenges, such as climate change, don’t get “solved”, rather they evolve without a finish line. As Daniel Wahl writes:

we have to “understand that this will be a continuous learning journey that will need many adjustments of course and constant redesign to adjust answers and solutions to changing conditions.”

Daniel Wahl (2018)

Having a “mission accomplished” mindset can limit or mislead our regenerative ambitions. Rather, a continuum mindset might offer a better way to conceptualise and work with our regenerative ambitions, as articulated by Ethan Solinez in this article, which explores levels of regenerative and the boundaries of what we can achieve are not limited.

Interdependent and co-operative

Many of our prevailing business models are challenged by a regenerative paradigm, which favours cooperation over competition and a much greater fairness in the way that we share and distribute value through supply chains. For many of us, moving from competitive to co-operative is a giant leap. Competitiveness and tribalism is deep in the bones of our culture and education systems. This is a big transition. Especially for businesses who thrive on vying for increasing market shares, or those on a seemingly relentless mission for cross-market domination

But, it’s just a paradigm…

As one colleague I work with said, this regenerative paradigm offers a renewed hope, at a time when sustainability feels stuck. Regenerative concepts have galvanised our imaginations, towards new possibilities and ways of thinking. 

While many inspired leaders paint a beautiful picture of what this regenerative framing might offer us, we must remember, it’s just a paradigm. It can mean different things to different people. Paradigms can also shift with time, get hijacked, corrupted and diluted. So there’s questions about how we might uphold this regenerative framing to continually challenge us, so it can be transformative and not just the latest buzzword. This feels important because we know small incremental improvements are not enough in the drive to restore our ecosystems and protect future human civilizations. 

…and back to regenerative agriculture

The roots of much regenerative thinking can be found in agriculture, where the concept has existed, arguably, for millennia. Regenerative ideas can be found in many indigenous systems, as well as the work of many farming pioneers from Dr George Washington Carver to Robert Rodale and the founders of the permaculture movement, Bill Mollison and David Holmgrem.  I recently had a chance to explore this in the USA-context, working on Forum’s Growing the Future project where we explored what a regenerative agriculture system looks like, the barriers to getting there and a 7-point plan for accelerating a just transition towards it.

Envisioning the goals of a regenerative agriculture system, co-developed with stakeholders from across the USA agriculture system, in the Growing Our Future project.

For many, regenerative agriculture offers new perspectives on how we practice farming and re-organise the rest of our food system. It’s within agriculture where thinking regeneratively is most tangible and accessible. It’s here where we can be reminded of it every day, through every meal, every garden and every landscape, that yearn for regeneration.