TO BUILD A REGENERATIVE SOCIETY
This paper was presented at an August, 2019 meeting of the Family Office Association.
By Marc Ian Barasch
"Life to All Life." - saying of the Ibo people
So many of us have been exploring, in multiple spheres of our lives, new ways of being, doing, having, relating, and giving. We realize that humanity has reached an inflection point, an evolutionary bottleneck, that requires we transform our society’s business-as-usual or face unthinkable catastrophe.
Recent UN reports have documented that the world’s life support systems—forests, soil, oceans, biodiversity—face increasing rates of failure, threatening our vital supplies of food and water, and the very survival of our civilization.
The summer of 2019 has been an unequivocal wake-up call, making clear that even a not-quite 1 degree rise in global temperature is already causing climate chaos: 108 degrees in London, 110 in Paris, wildfires in the Arctic Circle, heat waves in Alaska, rivers drying up in Kenya, large sections of Greenland melting away. Nor is there any reliable picture of what the supposedly “safe” level of a 1.5 degree temperature rise might portend, let alone the 2 (or even 3 or 4) degrees that are our present trajectory without concerted global intervention.
Climate scientists report that we have less than 12 years to make a bold course correction (and many believe we’re confronting a 5-year deadline). In July, Prince Charles announced to a gathering of Commonwealth foreign ministers that “the next 18 months will decide our ability to keep climate change to survivable levels and to restore nature to the equilibrium we need.”
The prevailing model that has taken our society on its magnificent journey is now taking it straight off a cliff. There is a growing consensus that if we don’t transform rapidly from an extractive model to a regenerative one, we face planet-wide disaster from which no one, anywhere, will be immune.
What is to be done? Buckminster Fuller wrote: “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” We still have a narrow window to “flip the script” on dystopia and become “solutionaries” for a new era of human and natural thriving. But along with commitment, vision, and innovation, we need to mobilize the vast financial resources needed for a rapid transition.
The word economic comes from the Greek oikonomia, or “household management.” Our current system has managed to make a designer’s showcase of the upper floors of our planetary home, but has made a desperate shambles of the rest. If economics is less a science than a philosophy of values, what then are our deepest values? To what extent are we willing to fully embody them in order to ensure not only the wellbeing of our own families, communities, and nations, but of our irreplaceable biosphere and the billions of household members of the greater human family? How can our we achieve maximum congruity between our authentic being and what we actually do in world?
The juggernaut of the current financial system is not preordained, but always has been and remains a dynamic human construct. We have the power to remove our support from the “degenerative” economy (the carbon divestment movement has withdrawn $6 trillion from fossil fuel stocks ) and re-invest in a truly regenerative one. This may also be sound financial planning: Changes wrought by climate change, coupled with advances in renewable energy and transportation, are predicted to create trillions of dollars in stranded assets in petrochemical and related industries within a decade.
The J. Walter Thompson Agency has officially declared regeneration to be a mega-trend. Anticipatory investment in the regenerative economy is now perceived by some wealth managers as a key to personal and shared prosperity. After all, is there a more basic underlying store of value than a healthy environment---land, water, air, biodiversity---and communities thriving within their ecological limits? The challenge is to support, through a “blended value” approach of philanthropy and impact investment, through public-private funding, those enterprises and nonprofits that can rapidly go to scale. Donor-advised funds (DAFs), Program-Related Investment (PRI), “green bonds,” “Slow Money,” land trusts, carbon “insetting” (as opposed to offsetting), PES (Payment for Ecosystem Services), fixed rate returns offered by co-ops, and new blockchain “fintech” are among emerging financial instruments for climate change-resilient asset classes of a new regenerative economy.
The Boston-based company Indigo Ag recently announced a “Terraton Initiative” to draw down a trillion tons of atmospheric CO2 into healthy living soil. It will support farmers who commit to regenerative land use in the 2019 crop season by paying them $15/ ton for verified carbon sequestration. (Over 5 million acres have now been submitted to their Indigo Carbon marketplace, with an ultimate goal of 3.6 billion acres of farmland worldwide). General Mills has pledged to source all its grains regeneratively by 2030, while calling for the transformation of 50 percent of American agriculture to regenerative practices by 2025. A new report titled “Soil Wealth” describes some 70 investment strategies with assets under management constituting over $47.5 billion in regenerative agriculture investment in the U.S. alone.
There is also renewed attention to agro-ecology, an ancient “indigenous technology” still used by 600 million smallholder famers worldwide, in which trees and crops are planted together to sustainably produce food, medicine, and materials while maintaining biodiversity and biota-rich, carbon-storing soil. The UN has declared that integrating such methods into the global agricultural value chain is the only way to feed 9 billion people without destroying the environment. How can these be most effectively supported, and the public persuaded of the value of nutrient-dense, regeneratively grown foodstuffs that benefit both people and planet.
What do we mean by regeneration? If there were a shibboleth to sum it up, it would simply be: “Give More, Take Less.”
Regeneration includes sustainability, but goes a distance beyond: If the shibboleth of sustainability is “do less harm,” then the emphasis in regeneration is “do more good.” If sustainability aims—laudably—to reduce humankind’s negative footprint, regeneration focuses on creating positive handprints (lots of them; quickly). If our planet were a sick body, regenerative “therapy” goes beyond treating symptoms to the root causes of the disease, restoring the entire system to robust health. If sustainability means lowering emissions to prevent further climate change, regeneration means “drawing down” carbon to potentially reverse it. If sustainability tends to conserve the apex structure of the existing order, regeneration calls for building true prosperity for all stakeholders, including those at the so-called bottom of the pyramid.
I was once asked to supply a formal definition of regeneration, and here, with apologies for awkward syntax, is an attempt: “Regeneration fosters the self-healing and co-evolving capacity of natural systems and human communities to achieve progressive levels of dynamic, mutually reinforcing wellbeing.”
Increasingly, across many disciplines and multiple domains, there is a ferment of inquiry about how we might locate our entire civilizational project within a regenerative framework. How do we build “The Regenerative Society?”
How could new forms of regenerative finance empower a “wellbeing economy” that serves both nature and humanity? How might regenerative cities enhance the environment rather than depleting it? How can the built environment be redesigned to produce clean energy, air, and water? How can regenerative consumer goods be produced in ways that do not degrade but actually renew landscapes and seascapes and communities? How can regenerative culture restore the common ground between us instead of building more walls? How might we design new frameworks for regenerative education, transportation, energy, justice, and healthcare?
Our personal wellbeing and collective security now rely on meeting our human needs in ways that serve the systemic health of the entire planet— soil, atmosphere, glaciers, forests, oceans, animals, plants, all people of all nations. It depends on our recognition that we cannot continue to shred the web of life, stripping it of millions of species (1 in 4 now face extinction) and expect our own species to survive, let alone thrive. (The Extinction Rebellion is a cri de coeur from the next generation for their now-imperiled right to a viable future.)
In my book, The Compassionate Life, I defined compassion as “seeing that everything and everybody is connected everywhere at all times—and being willing to act on that knowledge.” If we can understand, deeply, that we are each woven into the same great web, from the phytoplankton at the bottom of the food chain to the alpha predators up top; that our fate is inextricably bound to each other, to the pollinating bees, the spawning trout, the blossoming trees, and the entire biosphere whose shared DNA means we truly are what the Lakota call Mitákuye Oyás'iŋ (“all relations”); then we are compelled to think and feel and act only in ways that support the Whole.
Many of us are already well-rooted in this vital perspective, and are striving to incorporate it into all aspects of our lives. As we take this collective journey that today is a race for the planet, may we be ever more resourceful, as well as ever more giving of our resources (whatever these may be). As we work with and play with and learn from each other, let us resolve to bring about, with more urgency than ever before, a “world that works for all.”
Marc Ian Barasch
Founder/Executive Director, Green World Campaign
Founder/CEO, Green World Ventures
Author, The Compassionate Life