David Lorimer (Scientific & Medical Network) reviews Designing Regenerative Cultures

I am not surprised that this seminal book has been so enthusiastically endorsed by the likes of Fritjof Capra, Hazel Henderson, Joanna Macy and David Orr. If you only read one environmental book this year, this should be it. Daniel has a background in biology, holistic science, natural design and sustainability, and is also a colleague from the International Futures Forum. His experience and study have enabled him to pull together many disciplines and strands and convert these into a readable and practical narrative with which the reader can engage deeply.

One of the most interesting features of the book is the number of questions — over 250 — and the injunction that we should live these questions rather than impose answers that do not do justice to the complexity of our overall situation. The four main elements, illustrated on the cover, are transformative innovation, biologically inspired design, living systems thinking, and health and resilience.

In his introduction, David Orr reminds readers that cultures are not designed from the top down, but grow organically from the bottom up, starting on a small scale as a seed initiative. On this journey, we need to begin by changing our perception of and therefore our relationship with Nature, no longer standing apart but realising that we are integral to life and co-creators of the future. All chapters also take the form of questions, with a number of subsections. We need to move from a perception and narrative of separation to what Thich Nhat Hanh calls interbeing based on relationality, cooperation and collaboration rather than rivalry and competition.

Gregory Bateson is quoted as saying that ‘the major problems in the world are the result of the difference between how nature works and the way people think.’ Readers will emphatically agree with this statement once they have read this book as they will very clearly understand that our current economic system is structurally unsustainable, depending as it does on continuous extraction of natural resources to turn them into economic assets while externalising the ecological and social costs. (p. 210)

A key transformative theme is that of health. As pioneers like Sir Albert Howard demonstrated, the health of the soil is primary, because on it depend successively the health of plants, animals and humans. A healthy ecosystem is a resilient one, and Daniel shows how regenerative agriculture can turn depleted soil as a source of carbon to healthy soil as a carbon sink. Nothing could be more important than this kind of regenerative agriculture, as supported by a major 2013 UNCTAD report, given the impact of agriculture on ecosystems.

Our own degenerative diseases are a major drain on government ‘health’ systems around the world, and much of this could be prevented by changes in diet — but these are unlikely to happen on a sufficient scale owing to our current agricultural and food systems. Fundamental change, as Naomi Klein also observes, will require social mass movements using all the communication power of the Internet.

We can also learn a great deal from indigenous perspectives, which Daniel sums up as a perspective where ‘the world is alive and meaningful and our relationship with the rest of life is one of participation, communion and co- creation.’ (p. 159) He also points out that their modes of communication involve deep listening and close community. They are no strangers to what we now call biomimicry, which poses the critical question of how humanity as a whole can become a life-enhancing presence on Earth. There is in fact much more progress in this field of applied technology than most readers will be aware of, and of which Daniel gives some interesting examples.

The design element in the title is a very important one as an enabler of cultural transformation, which will also entail a transformation of thinking through the educational system. I remember David Orr making the point in a book on eco-literacy that clever university graduates trained in old thinking are a hazard to the planet. In this respect, it is encouraging that the Scottish curriculum has as a central preoccupation learning for sustainability.

Design or praxis can provide a meeting point for theory and practice, which also constitutes a learning journey with adaptive feedback. We also need to instil a biocentric ethic based on ecosystem health, including ourselves, with the adoption of ecological public health. All this involves developing new forms of literacy within the system and introducing systems thinking more generally — I only came across systems thinking through my own reading and research.

Thank you David for this enthusiastic review!

Daniel makes it very clear that regenerative cultures are rooted in cooperation. Although our crises demand a collaborative response, we are currently enmeshed in short-term and competitive systems that have resulted in a cumulative ecological overshoot. In his final chapter, Daniel gives many potential avenues for progress involving redesigning economics based on ecology, creating regenerative and circular economies, shifting from quantitative to qualitative growth, and co-creating regenerative enterprises.

Consistently with his own advice, Daniel has been active in Majorca, using the very processes and questions set out in this book. I am sure he is right that we need to start on a local and small- scale, and indeed a great deal is already going on although under- or unreported. He takes to heart-and we can too — the practice of the activist May East who, after her morning meditation, consciously chooses where to put her attention that day, and which conversations and projects she will activate through the power of her attention. We can all ask ourselves how we can be the change we want to see in the world and work with others in nurturing the seeds of a new and life-enhancing culture. In this respect, Daniel has written an essential handbook.

(Previously published in Network Review, Summer 2016, pp.55–56, see Scientific and Medical Network)

Dr. Daniel Christian Wahl on Twitter: @DrDCWahl


Triarchy Press, 2016, 287 pp., £20, p/b — ISBN 978–1–909470–77–4

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