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Regeneration: Bringing the World back to Life

Regeneration might sound like just another buzzword, but it’s fast becoming much more than a shiny new label to replace sustainability; it’s an approach that is increasingly being taken up by business leaders, industries and communities around the world. Paul Hawken defined regeneration as ‘putting life at the centre of every action and decision’. ‘If putting the future of life at the heart of everything we do is not central to our purpose and destiny, why are we here?’ he asked. ‘Regeneration is not only about bringing the world back to life; it is about bringing each of us back to life. It has meaning and scope; it expresses faith and kindness; it involves imagination and creativity. It is inclusive, engaging and generous. And everyone can do it.’

Regenerative practices see the do-less-harm approach of conventional sustainability approaches as not nearly enough when we consider the monumental tasks we have to build more capacity, resilience and healing to improve the quality of our lives in all dimensions. Regenerative change, wrote expert in the emerging field Carol Sanford, is built through taking conscious charge of our thinking processes and helping other people to do the same. ‘Without the exercise of conscious awareness and choice, we are condemned to endlessly cycling through old, predetermined patterns, making it nearly impossible to transform ourselves or our world.’

Sanford, an executive educator of Mohawk ancestry who has spent more than four decades evolving her regenerative business design approach with Fortune 500 companies and new economy executives, wrote that regeneration has its basis in the science of living systems. ‘We humans are all works in progress, we can continue to grow and evolve throughout our lives,’ Sanford said. ‘But to do so requires a certain kind of mental discipline. We must challenge the many fixed beliefs we hold about who and how we are.’ To work regeneratively, Sanford argued, we need to consider wholes, a person, an organisation, a community or a planet, rather than break entities down into individual component parts. We also need to work from the basis that every entity is unique and has potential that can be realised, rather than spending all our energy focusing on the endless list of problems.

‘The future could turn out to be very ugly for humanity—but then again, it could be brilliant.’

Glen ALbrect

Josie Warden, Head of Regenerative Design at London’s prestigious RSA (that’s the Royal Society for Arts, Manufactures and Commerce in the UK), wrote that a ‘regenerative’ mindset is where one sees a world where living beings and ecosystems rely on one another for health, where reciprocity and co-evolutionary relationships abound and we are shaped by and are shaping our connections with one another. ‘Interdependencies and relationships have never been more important,’ she emphasised. ‘The social challenges that we are grappling with are nested within our environmental ones, carbon emissions are intertwined with community health, biodiversity with social justice, and so on. The world is made up of living systems that are complex and emergent, not linear and predictable. But humans are hardwired to thrive in this world and the potential to act is already within us and our communities.’

Regenerative thinking, Warden wrote, recognises the inter-connectedness of the social and environmental challenges we face, with an understanding that we need to rebalance and restore these relationships. ‘Designing regeneratively involves a developmental outlook and requires us all to work on ourselves and our mindsets and behaviours as much as on the infrastructure, institutions, services and products in our external world.’

This way of seeing the world isn’t anything new; it’s more something we’ve lost as technology and economies developed and our individual, competition-based economy has come to dominate our culture. It doesn’t take much effort to see more interconnected communities and, frankly, more sophisticated ways of thinking, collaborating, working and potential-realising springing up, from the brewer’s warehouse to the farmer’s pasture. So why is it that we can sometimes feel stuck, considering the world’s problems to be too hard to change? Cognitive linguist George Lakoff said it comes down to frames, or ‘the mental structures that shape the way we see the world’. Frames are activated all the time from what we’re exposed to, and a single word can be all it takes to activate and reinforce the way our brains have organised our worldview. If you encounter ideas or words that sit outside this worldview, they can be perplexing for your brain to comprehend. (If you’ve ever locked horns with an outright climate-denier, frames might offer some explanation on why you can’t get through on facts or logic alone.) It can be difficult for people to get their heads around climate change, Lakoff said, because it is a systemic problem that requires systemic solutions beyond the frames already established in our brains: unfortunately, most of us haven’t achieved a PhD in systems thinking by the time we’ve graduated from high school. So when we talk about ‘reframing’, we’re working out how to shift the boundaries of what is considered plausible and possible. ‘When we successfully reframe public discourse, we change the way the public sees the world. We change what counts as common sense,’ Lakoff said.

Our words shape the way we think and how our emotions play out, so the way we shape our language makes a difference in terms of what we think can be done and what will compel us to act.

Is it possible to change mindset fundamentally given entrenched frames are activated in our brains every time we hear a word or two? One telling example shows how language and people can shift is from United States communications strategist Frank Luntz. In 2003 Luntz advised the Bush administration to shift the term ‘global warming’ to ‘climate change’ because the latter is more controllable and less emotional a challenge: and it’s harder for people to pinpoint who is responsible. It’s hard to believe people make a career out of doing this degree of unconscionable damage, but what’s interesting here is how dramatically Luntz shifted his own mindset on climate, and his recommendations on how we should talk about it. Almost two decades after penning that memo and, following wildfires that came achingly close to his Los Angeles home in 2017, he was sitting in front of a 2019 United States Senate hearing, saying he was wrong, climate change was real and action was necessary and urgent. Luntz then made a series of recommendations for climate change communications, stressing the need to jettison extreme language in favour of a practical ‘get it done’ approach. People want to know the positive, not just the negative, Luntz said. The recommendations align with multiple climate change communications research projects conducted in Australia in recent years.

Above all, Luntz said, there is one word that is most powerful and compelling that we should be using far more often, and it’s a good one: imagine. Imagine, Luntz said, is one of the most powerful words in the English language because it individualises and personalises communication. ‘If I asked you the question “Imagine life at its best?”, you don’t hear my voice anymore, you hear yours,’ he said. When I hear the word ‘imagine’, I think of the future I want, I feel excitement and it activates the belief I have in the creativity and problem-solving abilities of our species.

Environmental philosopher Glenn Albrecht created the evocative word solastalgia in 2003, which he defined as ‘the pain or distress caused by the ongoing loss of solace and the sense of desolation connected to the present state of one’s home or territory’. Putting it another way, he wrote: ‘It is the existential and lived experience of negative environmental change, manifest as an attack on one’s sense of place.’ It’s essentially a feeling of homesickness when you’re still at home but the place has radically changed around you. Solastalgia has permeated our culture and society, with it being used across a range of academic disciplines and in the creative arts too: Australian musician Missy Higgins’ album Solastalgia ruminates on the complex emotions that surround considerations of environmental collapse. Albrecht has, encouragingly, always argued that solastalgia is not necessarily a permanent state: it might only need a satisfactory restoration of place to bring solace and comfort to those experiencing the negative emotions.

A relentless, optimistic and practical view of the future sits at the heart of what Albrecht named the Symbiocene, a term drawn from the word ‘symbiosis’, which originates in the idea of the companionship of life, and ‘-cene’, which means a period in the planet’s history. The Symbiocene is designed, he wrote, to counter the ‘ruthless pessimism from the critics of the Anthropocene’, the definition of recent history, when humans began to have a significant impact on the earth’s climate and ecosystems. Albrecht has also produced new words to describe an array of positive earth emotions, and for me soliphilia is the most compelling. Soliphilia is essentially a reversal of solastalgia, where love of place is combined with a responsibility for protection and conservation. ‘The story of soliphilia is one of local and regional people responding to Earth desolation by political and policy action,’ Albrecht said. These actions will result in places that are repaired and revitalised, which will lead to us experiencing more positive emotions that will sustain and heal us too.

Do you have an unconscious list of what’s impossible or what’s possible that you find yourself referring to when you’re making decisions? Perhaps you have both. But imagine if the walls you’ve drawn around the potential for yourself, your family, your community, your country or world shifted or dissolved altogether: what could happen? Perhaps the way to begin for us climate freaked-out folks is as simple as making the shift from asking yourself ‘What can I possibly do now?’ to make the slightest change of mindset to ‘What I can possibly do now.’ It’s clear to me that, as Albrecht told a Sydney TEDx audience in 2010, we’re going to have to shift our mindsets on a massive scale to realise our collective human potential. ‘If we’re going to solve many of these globally significant environmental problems, if we’re going to solve them at global, national or even local levels, we’re going to have to sort out what’s going on in our heads,’ he said. After all, he continued, without a hint of sarcasm: ‘The future could turn out to be very ugly for humanity—but then again, it could be brilliant.’

Reframing our thinking is going to require reframing the language we use, the frames we activate and, ultimately, the way we view the world. Regenerative change, Carol Sanford wrote, is built on the power of taking charge consciously of our processes of thinking, and helping other people do the same thing. Or perhaps, as George Lakoff said, the simple first step we can take is realising that the way you think is not the only way to think.

This is an edited extract from Claire O’Rourke’s new book:Together We Can. It’s is an invitation for anyone worried about what climate change means in uncertain times, and a challenge to take action that reconnects. It’s hopeful, empowering and important.

Together We Can is published by Allen and Unwin. Find it at your local independent bookstore or online.