The Design Pathway for Earth Regeneration

In a previous post, I described the work of Joe Brewer and a community of Earth Regenerators in Barichara, Colombia. I cannot do justice to the book with the above title, which reveals Brewer’s large vision and is free online: …But here is a very brief introductory summary of the first eight chapters, offered in hopes that you’ll be drawn to read the book.

Critical planetary thresholds

Some believe that climate change is the most important threat to life on the planet (especially our human lives). But earth system scientists from the Stockholm Resilience Centre have identified nine critical thresholds that define a safe operating space for humanity (see diagram above).

1. Biosphere integrity — species extinction due to human activity and population increase

2. Climate change — primarily due to fossil fuel combustion

3. Land system change — deforestation, filling of wetlands, mining, unsustainable agriculture, grazing have degraded 37% of the earth’s land surface

4. Flows of nitrogen and phosphorus — due to chemical fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides & industrial agriculture

5. Freshwater use — deforestation and pollution mean less freshwater availability

6. Ocean acidification

7. Atmospheric aerosol loading

8. Stratospheric ozone depletion

9. “Novel entities” — a catch-all category

To have a future, we cannot afford to cross any of these nine thresholds; yet we have already crossed the first FOUR, some as long ago as 1990, and all are compromised. We have overshot the Earth’s ability to regulate itself in these interdependent, interactive domains of planetary function.

To this list of threats to humanity, add the collapse of functioning democracies and real economies as wealth-hoarding speculators buy elections.

Are humans the problem?

Students of permaculture, landscape restoration, conservation biology, and other ways that humans co-create, know that humans can have a net positive effect on living systems at small and large scales.

Look at the Amazon Rainforest of South America, which has had human inhabitants for at least 10,000 years. Rainforest soils are fragile, yet indigenous populations learned how to enrich the soils by creating terra preta, a form of biochar that leads to enormous fertility. The Amazon has been a carefully tended food forest for thousands of years, until recent deforestation. Healthy soils store carbon; damaged soils release it. Caring for the soil can help heal the climate. Just a 1% increase in organic matter in one acre of soil can sequester ten tons of carbon.

Brewer writes, “Not all indigenous cultures are sustainable. But all human cultures that have been demonstrated to be sustainable so far are indigenous … We can study which cultures have co-evolved with their environments to create resilience and sustainability and which cultures have not.” Indigenous cultures have sacred relationships with other life forms, including rivers and mountains.

Designing a pathway

The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (17 goals, 169 targets) are not achievable in the current economic system, because some of them contradict others; continued economic growth is not compatible with overcoming poverty, because extractive economic growth patterns create the conditions for poverty. Creating a pathway to exist within the critical thresholds model mentioned above holds more promise. Prosocial behaviors built on trust, cooperation, generosity, and good faith relationships are essential for regenerating the planet.

“Regeneration occurs in the human body when individual heart cells are able to functionally interact with blood cells, kidney cells, and more than 200 other kinds of cells through tissue complexes, organs, organ systems, and the body as a whole,” Brewer writes. “The same will be true for Earth regeneration. Our design pathways must exhibit the properties of self-organization and internal dynamic harmony that is expressed in the aliveness of all living things.”

Regenerating degraded land starts with observing, listening to the land, and making changes to help it retain water and prevent erosive runoff. Native plants and trees can then be planted and tended.

Regenerative Economics

John Fullerton’s eight principles of regenerative economics are:

  • Right Relationship: Every living being is part of an interconnected web with all other life. Each must be in right relationship (size, pace, and function) so that the web remains harmonious.
  • Views Wealth Holistically: The health of the whole is the source of wealth for the parts.
  • Innovative, Adaptive, Responsive: Regeneration requires the ability to adapt to changing contexts in intelligent and effective ways.
  • Empowered Participation: All parts of a living system are empowered to participate in ways that support the health of the whole system while also ensuring that the parts are able to maintain health.
  • Honors Community and Place: Each human community is a unique mosaic of peoples, traditions, beliefs, and institutions shaped over the long term by geography, human history, local environments, and changing human needs.
  • Edge Effect Abundance: Creativity and innovation flourish synergistically at the edges of systems, to cultivate adaptive responses to changing conditions (a Permaculture concept).
  • Robust Circulatory Flow: Economies depend on circulation of money, information, and other resources to maintain systemic health.
  • Seeks Balance : Regenerative systems must harmonize many variables instead of optimizing for one. They never achieve equilibrium, yet continually flow toward balance.

Regenerating watersheds and bioregions

How can regenerative models be “scaled” so that they may become fully self-regenerating?

After years of colonial extractive practices such as deforestation and tobacco farming, there is no way to bring the Barichara River and its 15 tributaries back to life on a single plot of land. Even a skillful permaculture practitioner on a five-acre farm cannot rejuvenate the flow of clean water. Only an effort organized around the entire watershed holds the potential to do this. The pattern of human settlements prior to colonial conquest had self-organized into a network that existed in relative harmony with the ecosystem of the region, because both had co-evolved for thousands of years.

Brewer envisions organizations at the level of watersheds, bioregional economies, seed banks, and bioregional learning centers. Best practices spread via demonstration projects and education. Bioregional economies can form networks.

Ecoagriculture Partners’ framework, Integrated Landscape Management:

  • Convene key stakeholders in a region
  • Together, map the key systems, including assets, strengths and challenges
  • Construct possible future scenarios
  • Choose the scenario and design pathway that best represent the interests of the people, and set goals
  • Set up monitoring systems; prototype and test different models for reaching the goals.

Another model: Berkana Institute’s Stages for Developing Leadership-in-Community. Here’s Joe Brewer’s version (abridged):

Name the emergent activation and purpose. Identify regenerative leaders and convene them around territorial goals.

Connect regional networks in communities of practice. Build a platform for cross-pollination of ideas and inspirational support from one regenerative economy to another.

Nourish and support with cycles of engagement. Help community practitioners develop regenerative patterns; offer workshops and gatherings to network of regenerative economies.

Illuminate to build a movement of regenerative economies. Increase interaction among regenerative economies, cultivate a shared narrative of restoration for planetary health.

Redefine the economic policy agenda. Build a story of regenerative economics that conveys the patterns of living systems, tracks flows of value through them, and creates regenerative economies in diverse cultural and ecological settings.

Example: In Costa Rica, 56 shareholders own land and are regenerating it with permaculture as a cooperative, called Verdenergia. Regeneration can create livelihoods based on sustainably harvested forest products.

These models are quite different from any top-down hierarchical system like a nation-state, but are based on interactive networks gathered around shared purpose. These networks create favorable conditions for cooperation and collective intelligence.



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Cathy Holt

Cathy Holt

Cathy is a member of the Earth Regenerators Network. She’s passionate about regenerating landscapes with water retention, agro-forestry, and biogas digestors.