Health as a holistic pattern and a qualitative indicator of regeneration
“Sustainability is a relationship between dynamic human economic systems and larger, dynamic, but normally slower-changing ecological systems, such that human life can continue indefinitely, human individuals can flourish, and human cultures can develop — but also a relationship in which the effects of human activities remain within bounds so as not to destroy the health and integrity of self-organizing systems that provide the environmental context for these activities.”
— Bryan Norton (in Costanza, Norton & Haskell edits., 1992, p.25)
Health is, both, an emergent property of and the pattern that connects viable complex dynamic systems. When the system is healthy at the local, regional, national, continental, and global scale, life as a whole thrives. Any disturbance of this holarchically structured pattern of health, at any of the scales, affects the vitality and wellbeing of the whole system. The health of our ecosystems and the health of the planetary biosphere affect the health of all the organisms living within them.
Health as a holistic pattern is difficult to assess in numerical or quantitative terms, as there are so many different variables one would have to measure and they would only ever be an indication of ill or good health. On the other hand, human being have the ability to intuitively assess the state of health of an individual, community, or ecosystem. This qualitative and subjective way of assessing health also result in a relatively accurate indication of ill or good health.
As subjective participants in a system (eg: a familiy, community, organization, or ecosystem) we reach this intuitive judgement based on a vast diversity of often subconscious assessment of the qualitative aspects of that system. We are intuitively assessing the pattern of positive health or disturbances of it. We are assessing the aesthetics of a healthy system.
The aesthetics of complex dynamic systems are rooted in valuing diversity, interconnectedness, and cooperative exchanges or symbiosis as the basis for the dynamic stability of the system. Such dynamic stability could also be referred to as resilience or health. McHarg provided an early formulation of the same thought. He wrote:
“Because this whole system is in fact one system, only divided by our minds and by the myopia which is called education, there is another simple term which synthesizes the degree to which an invention is creative and accomplishes a creative fitting. And this is the presence of health”
— McHarg, 1970
McHarg’s definition of ‘design with nature’ was a practice of design that increases interconnectedness, diversity, fitness, complexity and health throughout the system as a whole.
McHarg understood this system as the unity of nature and culture. Culture is the most rapidly adaptable means to re-establish a creative fit between human civilization and the rest of nature. Biological adaptations to a changing environment take a lot longer to evolve than cultural adaptations! He foresaw the shift from a culture that is intent on controlling and exploiting nature, to a culture of appropriate participation in the restoration of the earth and active safeguarding of ecosystems and planetary health.
The American artist Timothy Collins describes the new emergent aesthetics of diversity. An aesthetics that is sensitive to the relationships between diversity, complexity and health.
“Health is a term for the aesthetic understanding of complexity. There is a thread connecting biodiversity, cultural diversity and economic diversity. This is the metaphorical understanding of the health of a complex dynamic system. This is an idea that few of us will ever be able to conceptualise in detail, but I think that many of us are beginning to sense in terms of aesthetic pattern. The relative health of a landscape, an organism, the health of a system, even the health of a technological construct, is a material problem of diverse complexity. … The perception of health is a relative term, it requires intimate knowledge over a period of time and a caring critical attention. In turn, a lack of health can be described in terms of emergent dominant systems that mitigate the constraint of diversity. Diversity is healthy expression and perception is an integrative, dialogic concept. This concept departs from the autonomous object of classical aesthetics, defined as unity, regularity, simplicity, proportion, balance, measure and definiteness. Within the aesthetic perception of diversity lie systemic relationship, dynamism, complexity, symbiosis, contradiction to measurement and indefinite and procreative vitality. I believe that an aesthetic of diversity is emergent but not yet cogent. It is a theoretical view with an experiential basis that must be identified and pursued by many. It will not be captured in terms of a singular theory, a definite practice or primary authorship.”
— Timothy Collins, 2004, p. 172
The practice of regeneration is about building the capacity of people in place to improve the health and add value to their community and bioregion. The inquiry process of living the questions of how to create a unique expression of a place and its people which contributes to the healing of local ecosystems and the biosphere is in itself part of the process of capacity building. The co-creative inquiry helps to catalyse the emergence of diverse regenerative cultures.
In engaging in bioregional regenerative development we connect people and their cultural history and meaning making to the uniqueness of the local ecosystem and climate. Regeneration done well is about unveiling the most creative expressions of health and wholeness of a particular place and its people.
This process is systemic and scale-linking in its very nature. It recognizes that life is a planetary process. Therefore place boundaries of scale — like community, city, bioregion, nation, and biome — are fractals of interbeing that are more connecting than separating. Life is a regenerative community across all boundaries of spatial scale.
Regenerative practice is a gentle nurturing of relationships, information flow, and collaborative exchanges that reconnect people with each other and their place in ways that work towards collaborative rather than competitive advantage. Regeneration optimises the whole system rather than maximising individual parameters for a few to the detriment of the many.
In short it is about nurturing health as a scale-linking emerging property. The emergence of systemic health across scales is the most reliable qualitative indicator of successful regeneration. Precisely because they are systemic, holistic and participatory both regeneration and health are elusive to being quantified through measurable proxies.
With so many calls for how to measure progress in regeneration or judge business performance against some kind of regeneration dash board, we would do well to ask ourselves to what extent we are taking the ‘warm data’ and qualitative aspects of systemic relationships and capacities into account when developing indicators of regeneration.
It is the qualitative relationships and holistic (systemic) transformations that express successful regeneration. I am not sure whether assessing them from an analytical rather than a holistic mode of consciousness actually serves as an indicator or evaluation of successful regeneration or regenerative impact.
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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