Graham Leicester introduces Designing Regenerative Cultures
This is a book about life and the love of life. It is also a book animated by questions rather than answers.
A moment’s reflection on our own lives helps us realise why this must be so. We are reflective creatures, always questioning, always aware that every advance in knowledge expands the scope of our ignorance: why else would ‘a little knowledge’ be ‘a dangerous thing’? We are all living with more or less acknowledged, more or less conscious, always creative doubt.
At one level we have learned to revel in this, to acknowledge inquisitiveness and curiosity as engines of progress — even in those domains, like the sciences, apparently most wedded to certainty. As the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead put it, life itself is “a creative advance into novelty”.
Yet at another level we see — and feel — the storm clouds gathering. Daniel Wahl reminds us that, since the early 1970s, humanity has been drawing more from living systems each year than they can effectively regenerate. We have already overshot or are in danger of breaching a number of critical ‘planetary boundaries’ — the systems that enable life on Earth. This knowledge inevitably makes us anxious and demanding of answers.
The danger is that unless we marry these two conditions, expansive exploration and anxiety to reach a conclusion, both equally present in most of our lives, we risk devoting our energies to finding perfect solutions to the wrong problem.
Don Michael, joint Professor of Planning and Public Policy and of Psychology at the University of Michigan, wrote in his final published essay about “tentative commitment”: the need to acknowledge “our vulnerability, our finiteness, our inevitable ignorance” and yet still commit to action, to change, to hope: “because one hopes that one can make a difference in the face of all that stands in the way of making a difference”.
This is the spirit of Daniel’s book. At every turn it invites us to consider a bigger picture. To see ourselves not as individuals but as living in a pattern of relationship with others; and that pattern of relationship not as separate from but as part of the wider living systems of nature; and these patterns not as stable structures but as constantly evolving, emerging processes that stretch over generations, over aeons, over centuries.
At the same time, he invites us to focus on our own actions, our own lives, the ‘tentative commitments’ we can make, are making, in the face of the great challenges we face. The reader looking for answers will find them here in abundance: frameworks for grappling with the big picture like the World Systems Model and the Three Horizons, and principles for effective action from diverse disciplines ranging from ecoliteracy to permaculture, biomimicry to mindfulness, all combined in the idea of design as the discipline where theory meets practice.
The sages of effective action are all richly present and referenced. Shining examples, including from Daniel’s own wide experience, are much in evidence and back up his belief that “a profound cultural transformation is already on its way”.
Supporting this cultural renewal means acting both as hospice workers for the dying culture and midwives for the new. This is the practice of ‘transformative innovation’ and Daniel captures the dual task well in the central question in his book: “How do we keep the lights on, avoid revolution and turmoil, keep children in school and people in work, yet still manage to fundamentally transform the human presence on planet Earth before ‘business as usual’ leads to run-away climate change, a drastically impoverished biosphere, and the early demise of our species?”
This book expertly maps the territory in which we will find effective responses to that conundrum. But it remains for us to take the first steps on the journey. In much of the literature on transformative change that metaphor plays easily and unconsciously into Joseph Campbell’s review of mythic narrative: the hero’s journey. That in turn feeds a demand for ‘heroic leadership’, ‘heropreneurship’ and other forms of heroic self-sacrifice in pursuit of world-changing goals.
Daniel avoids that trap by offering us an altogether different metaphor for the journey: the pilgrim. The image speaks to the spirit of humility and disciplined commitment that shines through this book. Daniel has chosen to live his own life as “a cultural creative, a transition designer and an evolutionary activist in the co-creation of regenerative cultures”. This is not the path of ease and leisure. But it is the pilgrim’s journey.
The metaphor sent me back to John Bunyan’s spiritual masterpiece of the late 17th century, Pilgrim’s Progress. It tells the allegorical journey of everyman, in the character of the pilgrim Christian, “from this world to that which is to come”. The book provides a metaphorical map, setting out from the “city of destruction” through the “slough of despond” to “the celestial city”, and also a set of resources for the journey. This book has something of the same inspirational and practical quality. Perhaps it is no coincidence to find that Daniel’s middle name is Christian.
Graham Leicester is Director of International Futures Forum
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Daniel Christian Wahl — Catalyzing transformative innovation in the face of converging crises, advising on regenerative whole systems design, regenerative leadership, and education for regenerative development and bioregional regeneration.
Author of the internationally acclaimed book Designing Regenerative Cultures