The first thing to regenerate is thought. The way we perceive the world and life and relate to it.
The predominant perception of separation – Humanity/Nature, Internal/External, and even the numerous fragmentations manifested between Human Beings, is the first aspect to be re-evaluated, because it is from this perspective that all our interactions emerge.
This perception of separation does not only affect the most primordial and basic issues, such as understanding that we are the Earth and caring for the Earth is caring for us.
It extends to complex and trivial everyday issues that cause us to perceive the world as “Us and Others”; “Here and There”; “Right and Wrong”; “Good and Bad”. Often leaving us in the “Good Team”, and the “Others” – Peoples, Governments, Leaders – in the Bad Team.
Generating an inability to distinguish, on the one hand, the various shades between polarities and, on the other, the manifestation of all of them in all living systems, which are dynamic, porous and relational.
Another important invitation that regeneration makes to us is to look at life, systems and places, focusing on potential. Up to now, we have been observing, thinking and acting from problem-solving. This is what we are always doing, both at the level of institutions and strategies – including the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – and at the level of our systems and organisations.
It is in a network and as a learner/practitioner that the path of regeneration is best taken
We are not against the problems, they exist. But what happens when we start focusing on the problem? Essentially we lose sight of the whole/ the larger system, of the place, of the relationships of interdependence and respective consequences that a directed action, even if well-intentioned, may end up generating.
There are many examples, but let us use one that touches (or will touch) us all:
Food crises, caused by wars, conflicts or catastrophes, tend to induce us to accelerate agricultural production cycles, naturally resorting to artificial means.
For those who deal closely with hunger, the impulsive and simplistic criticism of this attitude is delicate. But the truth is that the attempt to solve the problem of the food crisis and the massive destruction of soils has, over the last few decades, generated other problems that many of us are already well aware of. At the recent COP27, Zitouni Ould-Dada, deputy director of the UN Climate and Environment Division for food and agriculture, alerted to this issue, recalling that “we have 828 million people who go hungry every day (…) yet we throw away a third of the food we produce (…) moreover, we cannot continue with the current model of producing food and then degrading the soil, diminishing biodiversity, affecting the environment.”
If we know that agriculture has an important role in mitigating the climate crisis, we have to think of more sustainable, inclusive and fair ways.
For although small-scale farmers in developing countries produce a third of the world’s food, and it is they who in practice deal with droughts, floods, cyclones and other disasters, only 1.7% of climate finance reaches them, an embarrassing figure recalled by Sabrina Elba of the United Nations International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) recently at COP27.
And so more programmes and millions were announced to solve more problems, because the world is increasingly full of Rescue Heroes and Solvers.
Recalling a key idea of Daniel Wahl: “life is a syntropic force. It is not meant to be solved.”
Our original intention to divide and arrange matters, to better understand, manage, control, systematize, makes us lose and repeat the same patterns. As Einstein once said “we cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” Or as Nigerian Bayo Akomolafe teases us, “what if the way we respond to the crisis is part of the crisis?”
Vanessa Andreotti, a professor and researcher who is part of the transnational and interdisciplinary collective GTDF (Gesturing Towards Decolonial Futures – Global Citizenship Education Otherwise Study Program), reinforces this idea, recalling that when we look at problems in isolation, we will end up using approaches that reproduce three things:
- Simplistic solutions;
- Paternalistic forms of involvement;
- Ethnocentric ideals of sustainability, justice and change.
And all of this departs from the dynamics of living systems and the principles of regeneration. On the contrary, the problem-solving paradigm is very much linked to the sources of degenerative processes (adapted from Lucid and Carol Sanford Institute):
- Fragment: Focus on themes and problems (poverty, climate, food, gender inequality);
- Categorise: To be able to manage so much information;
- Generalise: To make everyone fit the idealised concepts
- Determining: Into categories, defining normality intervals. Systematising rigid processes where everyone has to fit in, forgetting the potential of the places/systems, annulling their essence, bio-intelligence and capacity of self-determination;
- Aggregate/linearize: Reinforce a world vision as better than another, as the “right” one;
- Escalate: Leading others to accept that worldview, those programs and measures and, of course, the “proven” best practices;
- Forget: Going into automatic mode, reproducing the defined standards (and literally saturating the markets with “solutions” that may no longer be appropriate – or have the right audience), without re-evaluating the results.
All of us who have created, implemented or participated in highly patented projects and programmes know that, in practice, there will often end up being a mismatch between need and reality, between supply and demand and, above all, between the solution and the impact it was supposed to generate and what actually ended up manifesting itself. Even so, it is above all to solve problems that we consultants are often called upon.
And the mindset to, in the midst of different interests and forces, honour and activate the collective intelligence of the system, on the way to its best potential, is a delicate exercise, which requires maturity, deep honesty and ethics and openness to ask for and receive mentoring and support. Because it is also in a network and as a learner/practitioner that the path of regeneration is best taken.
It is also important to add that constantly fighting problems limits us, wears us down, immobilises us and demotivates us.
This is an allopathic approach.
Starting from potential opens up possibilities, paths, strengthens enthusiasm, motivates and mobilises. It is a systemic approach.
All Places/Systems have a unique potential and are in constant evolutionary cycles, and those who know the Places best are their People, who are, in fact, the expression of those territories (or organisations).
Therefore, changing the paradigm of focus – from problem-solving to potential – only works in (and with) Places.
Neither democratic – nor intelligent, nor regenerative – are the models, agendas and programmes in which the decision-makers are the “owners of the better/certain world vision”, and in which the real experts of the Places are not called upon or properly listened to and valued.
Starting from the potential directs our perspective towards the future and towards the possibilities of life and harmony for the whole system, and not only towards part(s) of it and/or too short visions of the future.
Today it would be unthinkable (at the outset) to produce unbridled plastic, because what at the time solved and improved storage, mobility and transport problems has generated serious issues, because at the time of its creation the right questions were not asked, nor were the interdependence and consequences and the broad horizon of the future looked at.
When we start from the potential, the guiding questions we ask change.
Jenny Andersson, organisational consultant, gives us a practical example:
“A problem-solving approach asks the question: how do we reduce air pollution in this city? (…) We ban high-emission vehicles from city centres. We create pedestrian zones. We charge additional costs for private vehicle access, which we reinvest in air quality measures.
A regenerative potential approach would ask: “what is the potential of this city to become a healthy environment to live in all your life?” Other questions we might ask:
“what is the essence of this Place/System? What do we want to bring/make generate life? For all? Does it maintain identity? Or does it de-characterise? What is limiting the manifestation of the potential of this Place/System?
What forces of activation and resistance are present? What reconciling forces can harmonise and bring more vitality to this Place/System?”
It is not that the questions are magical or bring us definitive answers. But they open up a new field, of possibilities, of vitality, of life.
Still, the phrase that seems to me to best close this reflection is the one that begins the Book “Design of Regenerative Cultures”, by Daniel Wahl, and which we are not sure, but which is attributed to Albert Einstein:
“If I had one hour to solve a problem on which my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the right question to ask, and once I knew the question, I would solve the problem in less than five minutes.”