The Reality of Regeneration

As I watered my plants today, I marveled again at their regenerative power. All they need is dirt, water, and sun, and they get bigger and healthier over time. Some of them don’t even need dirt, but that is a different story. Even the orchid, who holds back for months, surprises with blossoms when I least expect it.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if our social, economic, political, institutional, and knowledge systems could regenerate in the same way? Set conditions, and let them do their own self-replicating, self-healing processes? The emerging fields of regenerative agriculture, regenerative economics, regenerative education, among others, apply lessons from living systems to regenerate our over-exploited world. But, what does it really mean to be “regenerative?” How can the plant-growing paradigm apply to other systems that support human life and wellbeing? Here are some Simple Rules for engaging with regenerative systems. They are inspired by sciences of complexity and based on the theory and practice of human systems dynamics. They also resonate with indigenous wisdom and traditional practices.

Observe the system and give it what it needs to thrive. Outside of the laboratory, no two complex systems are identical. This plant has been damaged; that one is in a resting phase; yet another has outgrown its pot. Each one needs something special. The same is true of economies, markets, learners, and landscapes. No one protocol or checklist will meet the needs of all of the interdependent parts of the complex whole. These patterns of critical variability will only increase in coming years, as we and our environments respond to the unpredictable stress of climate change. Any successful effort at regeneration will be “re-innovated” to find what fits for a specific system and its unique situation.

Design for surprise. Regenerative systems are playing their own game. Even the bonsai gardener is ready to adapt when the plant makes an unexpected turn. We can set conditions based on current understanding, but we cannot predict or control how these lively systems will respond over time. We stay awake and creative to partner with the system as it finds its own generative way into the future. The high school chemistry lab where I taught (and learned) was an excellent example of surprise that emerged because of, and not in spite of, design.

Include externalities. Some systems fool us because they appear to generate value over time. Interest on a savings account or appreciation of real estate value or gentrification of a neighborhood all seem to be giving “something for nothing.” If you only look at local conditions or consider direct contributions, these may seem to be getting a whole that is greater than the sum of the parts. This is an illusion. New value is not generated by the system, it is merely transferred from one part of the system to another. If you draw a system boundary that excludes the source of the additional value, the process is exploitation, not generation. A true generative process leaves no losers behind. Everyone wins.

Leave the best and harvest the rest I never understood why my grandmother would leave some of the dill in the garden and not pick the last of the peaches. She knew that while much of the fruit fed us, the rest was needed to feed the garden for the next season. This principle is easy to see in arguments against clear-cut logging or strip mining. It may be harder to see from Europe when a trader makes a deal with a small-scale coffee farmer in Guatemala. And we ignore this rule when, we continue to over harvest our health care workforce globally. What are we leaving to feed the future of individual professionals, their families, or communities?

Practice patience. I track time by weeks and quarters, but my plants have a different clock and follow a different calendar. I can either water, watch, and wait as my generative system matures at its natural pace. Or, I can choose the path of exploitation and distort conditions to make it meet the expectations of my clients and me. The challenge of regenerative action is to ask, “What is happening and how can I help?” rather than demanding, “Why isn’t this happening and how can I force it?” This distinction is particularly stark when we work with clients to develop strategic plans. They expect to imagine an impossible future and wrangle their systems into compliance. We invite them, instead, to explore generative processes that are currently in play, and to explore ways to expand, maintain, and sustain those.

While these rules might seem perfectly logical in the garden, and you might even apply them to your parenting, they are not the common sense in our communities built on power and privilege. Modern, Western bureaucracies, businesses, professional associations, schools, and nonprofits at home and abroad run on a very different operating system. I believe one difference is the fundamental distinction between exploitative methods of the past and regenerative approaches for the future. Conservation.

This is not the conservation of the World Wildlife Fund or the Sierra Club. It is also not the conservative stance of one end of a political spectrum. It is a principle of natural philosophy that informs Newtonian physics, traditional thermodynamics, statistics, and algebra. It goes like this . . .

In any physical transaction, things may be transferred or transformed, but they cannot be created or destroyed. This principle is easy to see in physical systems. A cup of sugar can be divided into two, melted, dissolved, or added to other ingredients to make a cake. Still, nothing will totally disappear from the system, and nothing new will be created. The sugar is a conserved quantity, Einstein says mass can become energy and energy mass, but we think it is safe to assume that the total amount of mass-energy remains constant—always and everywhere.

An assumption of conservation is all well and good when we are talking about non-living, physical systems. It is not so true when we talk about living and/or nonphysical systems. In nine months, two cells become a human baby. When I take a cutting from my ivy and give it to my neighbor, we both end up with beautiful plants. When I teach HSD models and methods, I learn more along with my students. You can love all your children differently and equally, and giving civil rights to refugees does not automatically take them away from citizens. Some things are simply not conserved quantities.

Regenerative systems are the systems that offer the real potential to multiply without subtracting. They are generous and creative. They can bring miracles of health and wellbeing, or love and hope. But they are not merely miraculous, and they can be more than mystical or intuitive. They have rules and logics of their own, though those rules and logics of non-conserved systems are very different from our traditional, closed systems’ assumptions. We can learn how to engage with non-conserved systems to enhance and appreciate their generative natures, as they seem to create something from nothing. When we do, we will reach our goals of regenerative economy, education, agriculture, society, and humanity. We hope the Simple, but not so easy, Rules listed above can help you find and feed the regenerative potential of your gardens.

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