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Can regenerative economics & mainstream business mix?

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By Daniel Christian Wahl

· 21 min read

“As more and more companies start to see the limits of what being ‘less unsustainable’ can deliver, new models of thought are coming onto the radar and finding their way into long-term strategy thinking. Regenerative Economics looks like one of the more exciting ways forward but it fundamentally means starting new ways of working rather than improving the old ways.”

— Brodie Partners

The title question and the quote above are part of an invitation to business leaders to join a morning conversation at The Conduit in the centre of London (Nov. 8th, 2019). I will be one of four speakers who are meant to stimulate a collective exploration. Brodie Partners’ Nigel Slater will moderate the conversation to explore “the challenge and potential of Regenerative — why it’s needed, what it means, what it will take to deliver and how business can start to embrace it.”

I appreciate that we are starting by living the questions. Giles Hutchins — co-author of Regenerative Leadership — will also offer his perspective, along with Mike Barry — former Sustainability Director at M&S — and Guy Morgan, who is Global Sustainability Director of the luxury brand CHANEL. The diversity and the willingness to acknowledge the need for profound transformation — turning into something completely different — excite me about this invitation.

I firmly believe that we need to focus on transformative rather than incremental change now that there is a sudden surge in interest by many large corporations and international businesses in going beyond sustainability, being net-positive and aiming to be regenerative.

This is a pilgrimage into ‘terra incognita’ for all involved. Most of the companies now exploring regeneration are still far from the zero negative impact that would characterise them as ‘sustainable’. So it serves to keep in mind that sustainability is still an important bridge we have not yet crossed!

The step from sustainability to regeneration is more than a change in simple terminology. It is a change in mindset and worldview that will drive profound transformation. Yet there is no need to dismiss anyone striving for sustainability on the journey towards a regenerative human impact on Earth.

I know that there are companies out there run by people who are absolutely sincere about the desire to have a regenerative impact on the world. I have worked with some of them helping to explore how that might happen. In the process I have come to wonder whether asking how mainstream business and regenerative economics can mix actually invites us to ask a more fundamental question first:

Are truly regenerative businesses actually possible within the confines of our structurally dysfunctional and degenerative economic system?

The answer to that question — in my opinion — is probably not. We would do well to follow Buckminster Fuller’s advice “don’t fight the existing systems, create an alternative system that makes the old one obsolete.” My sense is that we will have to create alternatives focused on a very different scale and towards very different outcomes, building regenerative business ecologies at the bioregional and local scale through global cooperation. These might eventually make the degenerative globalised system — that is simply too big not to fail — obsolete.

Changing the playing field while transforming the players

I genuinely empathise with the well-meaning and motivated people working with or within large corporations trying to help them to become regenerative in their impact. Such efforts are creating many projects that do have a positive impact and provide great opportunities for learning and innovation. Yet they are playing within the zero-sum playing field of winners and losers that is part of the structural design of our current economic system.

The inbuilt growth imperative and structural redistribution of wealth from the bottom — most of humanity — to the top — a small layer of ever wealthier people — drive those playing on the playing field of 20th-century economics to exploit people and the planet. Businesses operating in this system which needs losers so that the winners can prosper can’t but behave in accordance with the rules set by the playing field.

Systems science can show how structure drives behaviour. Many of the converging crises humanity is facing from climate change, cascading ecosystems collapse, biodiversity loss, poverty and inequality are symptoms of the misplaced incentives, hidden subsidies, and externalised social and ecological costs of this system which is based on a false narrative about who we are, what life is, and what real success looks like. We are trapped in a structurally violent system of our own making and it is high time to redesign it!

Patagonia’s founder Yvon Chouinard recently reflected on his company reaching the billion-dollar-turn-over scale. He understands that it might actually be too big to ever truly be regenerative. He and his team have understood that the drive for scaling up might be an evolutionary dead end. In order to be truly regenerative we will not only have to fundamentally challenge the current form of degenerative capitalism but also the scale at which businesses operate.

“We’re going to get another huge recession, and everybody’s going to lose out on their stocks. There we go again. It’s a system that’s got to change. The whole stock thing is dependent on growth. … It’s all growth, growth, growth — and that’s what’s destroying the planet. I’m dealing with that myself. We’re a billion-dollar company, over a billion, and I don’t want a billion-dollar company. The day they announced it to me, I hung my head and said, “Oh God, I knew it would come to this.” I’m trying to figure out how to make Patagonia act like a small company again.”

— Yvon Chouinard

So we face a dual task: we need to transform our economic and monetary systems to incentivise a different way to do business, and we need to simultaneously innovate ways that existing businesses in our current degenerative economic system can contribute to or at least experiment with preparing for this transformation.

Chouinard’s statement above affirms my belief that multinational corporations need to explore the dissolution of their gigantic scale into networks of collaboration that re-localise and re-regionalise production and consumption. Maybe the trick is to actually become many small companies again? Such regionally adapted companies would owe part of their success to their global network of knowledge exchange and cooperation.

At the heart of true transformation is always a release of patterns that no longer serve — a death of a former self or way of being — and simultaneously a living into new patterns — a being born into a new cycle of existence. We are challenged collectively to fundamentally redesign the human presence and impact on Earth within the lifetime of the generations alive today. In doing so, we have — as Joanna Macy has put it — the dual role of acting as hospice workers and midwives. We have to give care to a dying system while simultaneously co-creating a life-sustaining human presence on Earth.

If we succeed, we will have created diverse regenerative cultures everywhere that maintain and celebrate our human diversity and the diversity of the ecosystems we inhabit. Such regenerative cultures will be elegantly adapted to and born out of the bio-cultural uniqueness of the places they inhabit. Regeneration is also a process of re-inhabitation of our bioregions and of re-indiginisation — coming back to place and creating conditions conducive to life. But, let me come back to the questions that Nigel Slater invited Giles, Mike, Guy and me to explore with the 75 business leaders and innovators at the event in London:

Why is regenerative practice needed?

On November 5th, 2019, the journal BioScience published the ‘World Scientist’s Warning of a Climate Emergency’ signed by over 11,000 scientists from around the world. It stated:

“… we declare, … , clearly and unequivocally that planet Earth is facing a climate emergency. … Mitigating and adapting to climate change while honoring the diversity of humans entails major transformations in the ways our global society functions and interacts with natural ecosystems.”

— Ripple et al. 2019

Clearly, business as usual is no longer an option, and only rapid civilisational transformation with give us a chance at avoiding cataclysmic climate change. There is a fierce urgency to respond to the converging crises of climate change, cascading ecosystems collapse, biodiversity loss, resource depletion and the disgusting levels of inequality we are faced with.

For too long a mistaken view of ourselves as somehow separate from the community life we depend upon has led us to exploit each other and the planet at our peril. We have been irresponsibly slow in responding to climate change and as a result, millions are already suffering and billions will. There are no guarantees that we are still able to reverse global warming to a point that will re-stabilise climate patterns but try we must.

As Kevin Barron so aptly put it: “We now must do the impossible, because the probable has become unthinkable.” It also serves to remember that there has never been any certainty that life as we know it will continue. Maybe the very fact that the mid-term survival of our species now become uncertain will help us in the deeper transformations we now need to co-create.

We are at one and the same time emergent properties of and co-creative agents in a nested complex dynamic systems which links the personal to the planetary. Complex systems are by their very nature fundamentally unpredictable and uncontrollable. We simply have to embrace the limits of our knowledge and yet still aim for appropriate participation in this wholeness.

In the words of Gerald Midgley — professor of systems science at the University of Hull — “everything is an intervention.” So everything we do, or fail to do, will affect the world we create together. Over 8000 years of agriculture we have denuded the planet of its forests and 250 years of industrialisation and fossil fuel age have released tens of thousands of chemicals and pollutants into our atmosphere, soils and water which will affect the future of life on Earth.

Simply not adding any more damage is not enough, we have to heal the damage we have caused to the ecosystems we inhabit as well as to the communities we live in. The 21st Ccntury will have to be the ‘century of regeneration’ if we hope to have a viable 22nd century and avoid unprecedented misery over the coming decades.

What does it mean to practice regeneration?

Regenerative practice is place-sourced. It is informed by the story of a place and aims to manifest the potential that is created in the tension between local and regional opportunities and challenges. Regenerative practice starts with personal development enabling people to cooperate towards creating shared abundance rather than reinforcing outdated patterns of competitive scarcity.

Working regeneratively is about unveiling the unique essence of each place, individual and culture. It is about local and regional capacity building that enables individuals and their communities to help themselves by adding health and value to the nested wholeness they are embedded in from the local ecosystems and bioregions to the planet as a whole.

Regenerative cultures are characterised by elegant solutions carefully adapted to and born out of the bio-cultural uniqueness of place. Such cultures will mirror the diversity of species and ecosystems in their own diversity as an expression of life’s creativity, adaptability and health. As we learn to live regeneratively, humans will become keystone species in the ecosystems they inhabit, nurturing diversity and health. As life, we are capable of creating conditions conducive to life!

What will it take to create regenerative businesses in regenerative economies?

Marshal McLuhan foresaw that the trend of rapid globalisation would inevitably lead to a renaissance of the local. The only way that we can learn to appropriately participate in the complexity of the modern world is by combining the best of global cooperation, solidarity and knowledge exchange with the best of local collaboration, community and adaptation. The future of humanity and the future of business is global!

To prepare for the turbulent decades ahead, as we live through the collapse and breakdown of many of the systems that no longer serve. We will need to build local and regional resilience to climate change. We will need to work locally and globally to restore ecosystems' health and draw down excess carbon in the atmosphere back into standing forests, healthy grasslands, mangroves, sea-grass meadows, coral reefs and the soil.

The transformations we are now challenged to catalyse in and through business are less about how regenerative economics can serve business to become regenerative and more about how businesses can become active agents of change in the redesign of the human impact on Earth from being exploitative, destructive and degenerative to being restorative, healing and regenerative.

At the 2019 conference of Reporting 3.0, I shared a stage with Kate Raworth, Joe Brewer and Nora Bateson. After two days of explorations into how new reporting systems and transformative change in the business world could put us on the road of regeneration aiming for a thriving future, Nora made an excellent point:

“With all this talk about the need for transformative innovation, we would do well to check whether the innovations we are proposing will truly give us butterflies or whether we might end up with caterpillars with wings.” — Nora Bateson

As a caterpillar transforms into a butterfly, during the cocoon phase it has to dissolve completely — die to its old caterpillar self — in order to be transformed into a butterfly. By analogy most of todays businesses and especially large corporations might have to consider planning for their own obsolescence and disintegration in ways that the valuable skills, creative people, and resources the harbour may serve as building blocks for what they might transform into.

I sense creating regenerative businesses in regenerative economies will be about re-localisation and re-regionalisation, and in this transformation we will have to be hospice workers to the megalithic structures that no longer serve, and midwives to many locally and regionally attuned regenerative business ecologies.

What can business today do to embrace regenerative practice?

One of the changes in perspective that comes with regenerative practice is that we understand that everything changes constantly and that death and dissolution are — as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe put it nearly 200 years ago — “life’s ingenious way to create plenty of life.” If we take this lesson to heart we can begin to question whether our businesses' licence to exist may have expired and whether it might most serve by releasing its structures ready to transform into something fundamentally new.

Another shift in focus is to take questions much more seriously and be less obsessed with solutions and answers. History has shown us how over and over again yesterday’s solutions become today’s problems. So why should we be so arrogant as to believe that our sustainable or regenerative solutions might last forever?

Maybe the appropriate compass to hand from one generation to the next is not a list of solutions or commandments, but a set of questions that can help guide appropriate participation in constantly transforming complexity. Maybe living the questions together can help us co-create in ways that are more flexible and adaptive to change and more elegantly attuned to the uniqueness of place and culture.

My book Designing Regenerative Cultures contains more than 250 questions that might help us navigate the profound transitions we now face. To start with we might want to experiment with what happens when we turn John Fullerton’s eight principles of regenerative economics into a set of questions and explore what business might do differently in such an economy:

  1. How do we create an economy with its operations based on cooperative relationships (between each other and within the ecosphere)?
  2. How would a regenerative economy nurture the entrepreneurial spirit?
  3. How would a regenerative economy enable empowered participation?
  4. How can we ensure that the economy promotes robust circular flows?
  5. How would we design balancing mechanisms (feedback loops) into the economy?
  6. How can we enrich the interactions in our economy by mimicking “the edge effect” (the point where two ecosystems and their diversity meet)?
  7. How can we nurture regenerative economic activities that honour place by expressing the culture and ecology of place in their relationships?
  8. What would an economy that views wealth holistically look like?

The last question has been brilliantly explored by Kate Raworth in Doughnut Economics. Her work maps out how regenerative economic practices will have to help build social foundations while respecting the limits and opportunities of planetary boundaries.

As uncomfortable as it might feel — similar to the caterpillar dissolving in its cocoon before turning into a butterfly — we may just have to sit with these questions for longer before we can live into the answers on how to create regenerative businesses in regenerative economies.

Our culture is somewhat obsessed with quick-fix solutions and answers, which leads to our predisposition to address symptoms rather than causes and then be surprised that the underlying pathologies remain and continue their degenerative influence.

We also tend to be trapped in our linear understanding of time and causality and hence interpret living the questions more deeply as theory and rushing into ill-considered solutions as practice. The separation of theory and practice might be yet another false dualism just like the separation of mind and body, self and world, and humanity and nature.

In a truly interconnected and interdependent world manifested through nested complexity that is constantly transforming “everything is an intervention” and hence conversations and contemplation have causal efficacy contributing to the repatterning of the future by paying closer attention to the future potential of the present moment.

During a recent meeting at the Commonwealth Secretariat in London on how to promote regenerative development among the 53 nations and 2.4 billion people of the Commonwealth, I had the opportunity to explore these ideas with a Maori elder. I learned that in their indigenous wisdom culture the co-presence of the past, the future and the present is called ‘wa’ and community meetings aimed at finding appropriate pathways into an uncertain future are called ‘wa tanga’.

Such meetings do not result in a set of action points and a roadmap that attendees afterward go out and implement, rather the very process of living the questions together is believed to have causal agency in itself — repatterning the future in the presence of the simple act of sharing multiple perspectives.

Maybe the best business can do today to embrace regenerative practice is to live the questions more deeply and let go of chasing the illusion of certainty. Maybe once we understand how everything is an intervention we will become at one and the same time much more humble and much more aware of our own powerful agency to affect the whole regeneratively.

This article is also published on the author's blog (dated 2019). illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Daniel Christian Wahl is one of the catalysts of the rising reGeneration and the author of Designing Regenerative Cultures. He works as a consultant, educator and activist with NGOs, businesses, governments and global change agents. With degrees in biology and holistic science, and a PhD in Design for Human and Planetary Health, his work has influenced the emerging fields of regenerative design and salutogenic design. Winner of the 2021 RSA Bicentenary Medal for applying design in service to society.

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