December 15, 2015
The novelist Terry Pratchett once wrote, “people think that stories are shaped by people. In fact, it’s the other way around.” However it seems these types of dichotomies are often both/and more than they are either/or. It is true that we are shaped by the stories that we inherit, but we are also co-creating these stories through the actions that we consciously — or unconsciously — take. It might be closer to the truth to see as us and our stories as co-emerging and co-evolving.
All stories worth telling are essentially about the transformation of relationship. Whether it is the relationship between a person and themselves, between two people, between a people and a place, or all of the above. In a good story, characters grow and evolve in the context of events that help them to deepen their own understanding of their purpose within the systems in which they exist. These systems are stories in themselves — one level nested within another in either direction, to a degree that we don’t fully comprehend.
The story of Humanity is an incredibly fascinating one. In a sense it is so complex that it could never be fully told. Yet we can identify the general patterns of this story to better understand why things have turned out the way they have. How have our fundamental relationships — with ourselves, amongst ourselves, with the places we inhabit — evolved over the course of its unfolding?
We might see it all as an emergence of purpose, whereby we can ask ourselves: what is the rightful role of humanity on Earth? We have inherited a narrative in which humans are the owners and dominators of the planet, which evolved into the “responsible owner” of the well-intentioned sustainability movement. In this we cling to the idea that it is our destiny to gain complete control of our place — yet in the back of our minds we somehow know that we cannot, and our stories are tragedies ending in doom and death. As far as we are shaped by our stories we are spearheading the fulfillment of those grim destinies painted there.
On the other hand, many are waking up to the nature of the human storyteller: one that does more than imitate and repeat those inherited narratives but points them forward to help guide us in the shaping of our own future. We learn from them what does and does not work. For the human being, they are what drives adaptation; they are very much alive.
Now looking to the tremendous challenges we face to adapt to the changing climate and severe mismanagement of natural resources, our role within the story is shifting. We are moving through the notion of “sustaining” life on the planet and touching on a deeper aspect of human potential: that we are not destined to be merely apologetic destroyers trying our best to minimize the damage, but co-creators — and that this planet can actually be better off with us than without us.
Take a minute to study the image below, created by Bill Reed of the Regenis Group, and think about how it might relate to what we’ve been talking about so far. Then we’ll dive in a little bit and see if we can make some sense of it.
As we evolve we begin to identify with larger and larger systems, recognizing the nested nature of subsystems and the uncountable interconnections between them. Using the terminology from Reed, we can see this process of transforming identity (role & relationship) as a function of expanded human consciousness and pattern harmonization. The more aware we become of how nature works, the more clearly we recognize that we are an integral part of the planetary system (Gaia). The separation between man and nature perpetuated by those lingering narratives is wilting away — though there is a lot of important work to be done to send it on its way once and for all.
The above graphic highlights what Reed calls “Ecological Strategies” in the movement from a degenerating to a regenerating function of human activity. Let’s take a quick look at what these terms represent:
Biophilia means “an urge to affiliate with other forms of life.” The biophilia hypothesis states that “there is an instinctive bond between human beings and other living systems.” In other words, by nature we long to be surrounded by life — plants, animals, and other human beings. Here we may still see ourselves as separate from nature, but we recognize our contact with it as an important part of our overall health.
Biomimetics looks to nature as inspiration for human design and development — imitating nature to produce the built environment and to create man-made systems. Nature is a guide and a model from which we gain important insights about what serves us best. These insights are derived from an understanding of how nature works. Again, still perhaps seeing “nature” as a separate concept from that of humanity and civilization.
In the restorative paradigm a role for humanity in nature emerges. We see nature as a system with an inherent self-organizing capability — and our job is to return it to its natural state. Once we have succeeded in doing so, and in what Reed calls a “finite agreement,” the human’s job is done. Time to move on and let nature do its thing.
With regenerative development and design the role of the human being merges with nature. Nature is no longer seen as an “other” — it loses its usefulness as a distinctive concept. Here the purpose of humanity aligns with the purpose of the planetary system itself, having an evolutionary function that looks to continuously improve through feedback loops, learning, and adaptation toward ever-increasing levels of diversity, resilience, beauty, abundance, etc.
In other words, we are not here by accident. We have an important role to play and it’s time for us to step into it, to transform the narratives that have cast us as separate from an environment designed to serve us.
Those operating from the regenerative paradigm have a deep-seated belief in the potential of the human race — that we are capable of much more than merely “minimizing our impact” or “leaving no trace.” In fact, and contrary to popular belief, many indigenous peoples understood this well and actively managed the land to create greater states of health than would have been if left alone.
M. Kat Anderson writes about this in “Tending the Wild”: “Wilderness is a negative label for land that has not been taken care of by humans for a long time . . .California Indians believe that when humans are gone from an area long enough, they lose the practical knowledge about correct interaction, and the plants and animals retreat spiritually from the earth or hide from humans. When intimate interaction ceases, the continuity of knowledge passed down through generations, is broken, and the land becomes ‘wilderness’.”
Many of these skills have been lost and need to be re-discovered. Others need to be created to apply this thinking in the modern context with modern tools. We have a lot to learn to fully embody our emerging role as modern regenerative developers and designers, and our challenges are not few — but if we hold close to our belief in the potential of humanity to create a mutually beneficial relationship with the planet as a whole, anything is possible.