ON THE GROUND
"Regenerative design can bring a river back to life. It can restore the health and vitality of an individual and their family. It can transform grief and trauma into vital pathways of healing for people, community, and ecosystems. Combining Indigenous lifeways with the best scientific knowledge about human behaviour, cultural evolution, and the dynamic Earth, a path can be made by walking it throughout the rest of this century and beyond."
To help launch 7-Generation GTB, Joe Brewer is visiting the Greater Toronto Area January 30 to February 4, 2023. Click here for an events listing.
We all know we can't keep doing what we've been doing. This regenerative, systems complexity, 7-Generation ground work is different, aligned with many similar quiet yet determined efforts around the world. It may feel unfamiliar and confusing, because we're not working in straight lines. It's grounded in evidence – and then takes an intuitive step beyond.
The blunt fact is that we're in a polycrisis – converging climate, environmental, economic, political, technological, social, health crises.
We can't stay in an isolated room at a white board using
straight-line problem/solution mindset and ignore the messy, complex reality just outside the door.
From the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (2019): "We require transformative change – a fundamental, system-wide reorganization across technological, economic and social factors, including paradigms, goals, and values."
Says Thomas Homer-Dixon in Commanding Hope: The Power We Have to Renew a World in Peril: "Anyone who grasps the severity of humanity's predicament and tries to figure out how we might respond with something like a new organization, technology, or social movement to make things better – not just for ourselves narrowly, but for all of humanity – confronts an unforgiving conundrum, which I've come to call the enough vs. feasible dilemma. On one hand, changes that would be enough to make a real difference – that would genuinely reduce the danger humanity faces if they were implemented – don't appear to be feasible, in the sense that our societies aren't likely to implement them, because of existing political, economic, social, or technological roadblocks. On the other hand, changes that do currently appear feasible won't be enough."
The Legacy Project
is interested in ecopsychosocial wellbeing in lifetimes across generations.
To face enough vs. feasible head on, in a way that meets the polycrisis at a reasonable scale,
our 7-Generation work in the "Greater Tkaronto (Toronto) Bioregion" (GTB) is part of the newly-created global Bioregional Activators.
This is a deep systems approach of cultural and ecological regeneration, from the ground up and fractally scale-linked. Said another way, we're helping multiply meaningful impact across silos – from health and education to climate and economy – through right relationships with each other, especially across generations, and the land.
THE DESIGN PATHWAY
The approach to bioregional cultural and ecological regeneration draws on the work of
Joe Brewer, a complexity researcher and transdisciplinary scholar. He outlines his research in The Design Pathway for Regenerating Earth.
Every bioregion is unique in its context, with bioregions designing locally while learning globally.
In a powerful North/South collaboration, GTB will prototype real-world action together with Brewer's Living Laboratory in the 500,000 hectare bioregion (corresponding to the regional climate system) of Barichara, Colombia.
Nestled high in the mountains of Colombia, Barichara is home to a population of 7,000. It's registered as a national monument, with beautiful vistas and classic local architecture.
Located in the heart of Indigenous Guane territory, it's the only "High Andes" tropical dry forest on Earth.
There is a network of small landowner farms providing food to the town, which depends on tourism. Many of the river systems have dried up. More than 90% of the native forest was destroyed to make room for monoculture crops like tobacco, beans, and squash.
There is a rich Indigenous culture in Barichara, and a number of regenerative projects. The Barichara work, connected into other bioregions around the planet, includes development of bioregional investment platforms, an approach to integrated landscape and project infrastructure and management, and cultural learning and regeneration. Find out more in this video with Joe Brewer.
Drawing on a structure developed by Commonland, this kind of work results in four returns: inspiration, social, natural, and financial.
Adapting for the Canadian, urban context of the GTB, 7-Generation Strategy adds a dynamic of intergenerational relationships in the context of place and time to nurture ecopyschosocial wellbeing. Particularly in affluent Western societies, we must #ChangeTheStory of who we are, what we value, and how we live with each other on a rapidly changing planet.
The challenges are big and our responses remain small. This is big-picture, connect-the-dots work – across people/groups, generations, regions, issues and ideas. What we do locally has to make sense in the context of global patterns. The ultimate goal of this groundbreaking work is a fractally scale-linked network of activated bioregions in the context of the 1,000 critical global ecological landscapes.
THE FUTURE IS BIOREGIONAL
We're used to seeing a world map divided into countries. One Earth has mapped the 185 broad bioregions of the world, which can then be further refined into more localized bioregions practical for bioregional activation.
Bioregionalism reconceptualizes political, cultural, and economic systems as being grounded in place, specifically their bioregion.
Bioregions are defined through physical and environmental features, including watershed boundaries, geography, soil characteristics, and weather patterns. Bioregions also take into account cultural and historical connections, including Indigenous land uses.
Each bioregion is unique, so context is important to understanding local human, animal, and plant population relationships and needs. The bioregion directly influences the ways human communities act and interact with each other which are, in turn, related to those communities surviving/thriving in their environment.
Bioregions aren't the same as ecoregions. Ecoregions, as defined by the World Wildlife Fund or the Commission for Environmental Cooperation, are scientifically-based and focus on wildlife and vegetation. Bioregions are human regions, informed by the natural world, with a social and political element.
People and their environments evolve together. When the focus is the bioregion, then one person's backyard makes more sense in the larger ecology – and activities coordinated across the bioregion have more impact.
GREATER TKARONTO BIOREGION
For the "Greater Tkaronto Bioregion" (GTB), we're specifically using the Indigenous name for what's now known as Toronto to reflect the history of this place on the planet. "Most scholars now agree that the city's name comes from the Mohawk word tkaronto, which means 'where there are trees in the water.' As many as 4,500 years ago, native people drove stakes into the water to create fish weirs – enclosures – to catch fish as they swam through Atherley Narrows, where the water moves quickly as it flows between Lake Couchiching and Lake Simcoe. This continued for centuries, and was so successful that the place was considered sacred, a spot where the creator had guaranteed a bountiful source of food."
There's a long history of Indigenous use of the watersheds along the north shore of Lake Ontario. Humans began to migrate into this area following the last ice age, about 12,500 years ago. Archaeological evidence indicates the first inhabitants were the Paleo Indians who moved into the Toronto region after the glaciers retreated.
The GTB is in the Carolinian ecoregion. The Carolinian ecoregion occupies only 0.25% of Canada's landmass, yet is home to a quarter of Canada's human population. We share this relatively small sliver of landscape with over 40% of Canada's native plants, 50% of Canada's birds, and 66% of our reptiles. It's one of our most biologically diverse ecological regions.
The Carolinian ecoregion is the northernmost edge of the deciduous forest region in eastern North America, and is named after the Carolina American states. The climate of the Canadian portion of the region has the warmest annual temperatures, the longest frost-free seasons, and the mildest winters in Ontario.
We're defining the GTB based on the seminal 1992 report by The Hon. David Crombie (Mayor of Toronto 1972-1978, PC Member of Parliament 1978-1988, President and CEO of the Canadian Urban Institute 2001-2007), Regeneration: Ontario's Waterfront and the Sustainable City.
Selected paragraphs from the Interim and Final Reports follow…
The GTB is "bounded by the Niagara Escarpment on the west, the Oak Ridges Moraine to the north and east, and Lake Ontario to the south. The lands and waters in this bioregion share climatic and many ecological similarities. The soils and landforms are based on the glacial deposits of the Lake Ontario plain as it rises from the shores of the lake to meet the gravelly hills of the Oak Ridges Moraine. The watersheds arising in the moraine drain southwards to Lake Ontario and northwards to lakes Simcoe and Scugog. Most of the bioregion now falls within the commuter and economic orbit of Toronto. In this sense it is our home – the ecosystem in which we live, work, and play."
"The greatest natural force shaping the area was the retreat, starting about 15,000 years ago, of the Wisconsin Glaciers. As they slowly withdrew to end the last ice age, the glaciers carved out the rivers flowing north to Lake Simcoe, east to Lake Scugog, and south to Lake Ontario, and they left behind the fertile soils characteristic of much of the area. In the northern part of the bioregion, the retreating glaciers left in their path the hilly Oak Ridges Moraine, a unique formation of sand and gravel deposits. For thousands of years, rainwater has filtered downwards through the moraine, migrated laterally, and then discharged upwards to form wetlands – the headwaters of virtually all the rivers flowing south and north in the area. As the ice age loosened its frigid grip and temperatures rose, river valleys were flooded and fertile marshes developed at river mouths. Natural forces left us a unique, varied, and complex bioregion."
"There are 16 major rivers flowing into Lake Ontario in the Greater Toronto Bioregion, and approximately 65 river valley systems in the area. Although few of the river valley systems are in a totally natural state, they continue to fulfill important functions for human activity (including recreation) and as corridors or links for the movement of wildlife."
The region is "both literally and figuratively, at a watershed. Not long ago, society believed that the environment was endlessly able to absorb the detritus of a modern, industrial-based economy. More recently, the assumption was that the environment and the economy were inevitably opposed: opting for one meant damaging the other. Today, however, it is clear that the two, rather than being mutually exclusive, are mutually dependent: a good quality of life and economic development cannot be sustained in an ecologically deteriorating environment. The way we choose to treat the Greater Toronto waterfront is crucial. If governments and individuals recognize – and act on – the need to resolve past environmental problems and forge strategies to protect the waterfront now and in the future, we will, indeed, have successfully crossed a watershed."
Here it's important to note that Toronto is on Lake Ontario, one of the five Great Lakes. The Great Lakes have 84% of North America's surface fresh water, and about 21% of the world's supply of surface fresh water.
The Great Lakes basin has nearly 25% of Canadian agricultural production. 5% of Ontario is farmland, with all Class 1 and 2 farmland in the GTB.
Included in the GTB is Rouge National Urban Park (primarily in Markham and Toronto), Canada's largest at 7,900 hectares, and the protected Greenbelt lands, over 800,000 hectares. Note that both of these areas are part of the legacy of David Crombie's 1992 report.
The GTB itself covers about 1.25 million hectares, and has approximately 18% (around 7 million people) of Canada's population.
Crombie has a warning: "The Greater Toronto Bioregion has important natural assets: beaches, wetlands, and bluffs along the waterfront; deep, wooded river valleys; the moraine's rolling, pastoral hills; majestic rock cliffs along the Niagara Escarpment; cool trout streams; fertile soils for agriculture; and more. Despite these blessings, there are many signs of environmental, social, and economic stress in the region."
The region is complicated by the fact that it's "governed by five regional municipalities,
53 local municipalities, four counties,
six conservation authorities, and numerous federal and provincial ministries, departments, boards, agencies, and commissions. In an era when it has become clear that governments cannot solve environmental, social, and economic problems by themselves, the thousands of businesses and [millions of] residents of the bioregion also have a role to play."
Crombie quotes from a 1985 book, Dwellers in The Land: The Bioregional Vision by L. Thomas: "Our deepest folly is the notion that we are in charge of the place, that we own it and can somehow run it. We are beginning to treat the earth as a sort of domesticated household pet, living in an environment invented by us, part kitchen garden, part park, part zoo. It is an idea we must rid ourselves of soon, for it is not so. It is the other way around. We are not separate beings. We are a living part of the earth's life, owned and operated by the earth, probably specialized for functions on its behalf that we have not yet glimpsed."
Crombie notes, "The ecosystem approach is both a way of doing things and a way of thinking, a renewal of values and philosophy. It is not really a new concept: since time immemorial, aboriginal peoples around the world have understood their connectedness to the rest of the ecosystem – the land, water, air, and other life forms. But, under many influences, and over many centuries, our society has lost its awareness of our place in ecosystems and, with it, our understanding of how they function… In the words of Professor Bill Rees of the University of British Columbia, 'people must acquire in their bones a sense that violation of the biosphere is a violation of self'… A key to understanding ecosystems is to recognize that everything is connected to everything else."
Crombie quotes a 1986 article on the Great Lakes Basin that draws in the idea of time: "The ecosystem concept recognizes that you are new, yet not new. The molecules in your body have been parts of other organisms and will travel to other destinations in the future. Right now, in your lungs, there is likely to be at least one molecule from the breath of every human being who has lived in the past 3,000 years; the air around you will be used tomorrow by deer, lake trout, mosquitoes, and maple trees. The same is true of water, sunshine, and minerals. Everything in the biosphere is shared."
He points out that "thinking about the whole bioregion helps focus attention on the interdependency and links that exist within it: between city and countryside, natural and cultural processes, water and land, economic activities and quality of life… We view regeneration as a healing process that restores and maintains environmental health, as well as anticipating and preventing future harm. This means striving to ensure that existing land uses and activities are adapted, and all new development is designed, to contribute to the health, diversity, and sustainability of the entire ecosystem: the physical environment, human communities, and economic activities."
Crombie concludes by saying, "There is an urgent need for regeneration of the entire Greater Toronto Bioregion to remediate environmental problems caused by past activities, to prevent further degradation, and to ensure that all future activities result in a net improvement in environmental health. In a region experiencing dramatic economic growth and rapid urbanization, it is crucial to heed the warning signs of ecosystem stress, so that the quality of life that attracted people here can be restored and maintained, for existing and future generations."
And now here we are, 30 years later, crossing six of the nine Planetary Boundaries. "Mother Earth has given us nine planetary credit cards to assist in our development. We've charged six of those nine credit cards to the hilt, and are pushing the credit limit on two others… Mother Nature abides by the laws of physics, and defaulting on just one of the loans we've taken out could be catastrophic."
The Legacy Project's 7-Generation work has in part been informed by the Principles of Blue Marble Evaluation. "Blue Marble Evaluation is principles-based because to deal with the complexities of global issues and problems we need principles to guide us, not a rule book to tie us down. The principles direct us to view the world globally, holistically, and systemically. This means examining interconnections across the artificial boundaries of nation-states, sector silos, and narrowly identified issues."
The 7-Generation work draws on an Indigenous concept of holistic, long-term thinking across seven generations while at the same time reflects the modern context of a historic demographic shift. For the first time in history, as more people live longer we will personally know (in our family and/or community) seven generations – our own generation; three before us (parents, grandparents, great-grandparents); and three after us (children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren). There is comfort, insight, and power in this ability to "touch time," to connect more generations than ever before.
The Legacy Project's 7-Generation work locates people in the place/time (in Indigenous cultures those concepts are often one) of YOU 177 – YOU (also an acronym for Young and Old United) in 1 World crossing a pivotal population of over 7 Billion People across 7 Generations.
7-Generation Strategy multiplies meaningful impact through right relationships with each other, especially across generations, and the land in the context of lifetimes across generations. We're empowering generations to connect the dots and create a bigger 7-Generation story of change – a meaning-making bridge in the midst of a polycrisis – for ecopsychosocial wellbeing. Ecopsychosocial wellbeing = ecological (and by extension economic) integrity, personal wholeness, and social coherence.
We've sketched the 7-Generation GTB work. This represents a systems ecology (ecopsychosocial) for cultural and physical regeneration, both intentional actions and serendipitous opportunities.
In the center of the sketch is the coming together of people, place, and time. Generations are the seed, themselves a living manifestation of time. Learning and transformation have the most meaning and impact in an intergenerational context. Young and old can mutually support their own wellbeing, and be truth-tellers, pulling in middle generations. The intergenerational dynamic is discussed further in Generations (Re)United below.
The outer circle is the Doomsday Clock, a "globally recognized indicator of the vulnerability of our existence." We have no time to waste, and our actions now have repercussions far into the future.
The middle circles are the fractal scale-linking of impact – community projects networked into the bioregion, all connected into planetary systems. The community projects – which we frame as legacy projects – can be smaller or larger, each unique yet connected in spirit and action to the larger whole.
Since our emphasis is on #ChangeTheStory, Joe Brewer reminds us to keep Blue Marble in mind. "The Blue Marble creates mental connections between the stories we live out daily in our local environments and the Epic Story of Planetary Change that will accumulate as the local stories influence planetary processes. We will need this awareness built into the ways we perceive, think, feel, and act upon the world around us so that we can direct our collective journey toward a design pathway for Earth regeneration."
The work is literally grounded in the land. This is something very foreign to urban dwellers – who often don't know where their water comes from or where their waste goes – and potentially transformational. Land is something you can see, smell, touch. It's a way to ground people in both new ways of seeing their world and acting in that world. Says Brewer, "I'm feeling the depths of change… and comforted to know that the land remains present to be my guide."
As a counterpoint to an often sterile Western consumer culture, the land is also alive. It invites people into the shifting complexity of life of all kinds. Explains Brewer, "When we talk about regenerative design, it is the intentional application of knowledge and tools to create solutions by making use of the regeneration that is inherent in all living systems. Thus regenerative design is collaborative and co-creative. It is a dance with life. More deeply still, it is a dance of life."
The work interconnects across seven broad themes: environment and climate change, economy, community, health, education and lifelong learning, life course and aging, Indigenous worldviews and knowledge. Each of these themes is discussed in more detail in Action Across Seven Themes below.
All of this is personally grounded in story. Novelist Thomas King has remarked that "the truth about stories is, that's all we are."
In this big game of Connect-the-Dots, we're connecting people/generations, issues/silos, to the land, as well as your life story to the story of other lives/life on the planet into the even bigger story of lifetimes across generations.
As discussed in #ChangeTheStory below, this is generations co-creating an ever-evolving Overstory that helps us navigate through uncertain, difficult times.
From Brewer's work and the Commonland structure, you can see this work at the bioregional scale is, in essence, a new kind of "infrastructure" project. It's building the appropriate social and physical infrastructure over a time span of at least a couple of decades.
Working at this scale requires a strategic core team that can hold the process, nurture evolving structures and processes, manage the risk, move beyond silos to holism, and help build a meaning-making bridge. As 7-Generation Strategists, Susan Bosak and Brian Puppa are starting this local work. A 7-Generation Strategist works across organizations for the commons, carefully weaving together a new kind of bioregional tapestry that can, if done properly, rise above some of the politics. Without the "art of hosting" for bioregions, there will be no holistic plan. Nor will there be effective implementation of it. Anyone who has worked on large infrastructure projects knows that nothing less can possibly work with all the complexities involved.
For the 7-Generation GTB work, different levels and types of activities are being woven together simultaneously. This is emergent work.
Drawing on Indigenous worldviews, "weaving is intergenerational, making deep ties visible between generations alive today and their far distant ancestors. Weaving is interspecies, reconnecting us to what makes us truly human – our membership in the community of life as a planetary process… Our collective challenge is to weave ourselves back into the fabric of life… We are the weavers, we are the woven-ones. We are the dreamers, we are the dream. It is now, when the future of all beings hangs by the frailest of threads… In invoking the archetype of the weaver we are connecting with ancient Indigenous wisdom from around the world."
In a deeply age-segregated society – children in schools, elders clustered in other parts of the community – we re(unite) generations in support of each other and to mobilize intergenerativity.
Intergenerational connections are valuable in themselves; young and old can help each other's wellbeing. There are opportunities hidden in plain sight.
But there's more to the intergenerational dynamic than mutual support and wellbeing.
In some Indigenous cultures there's an understanding that, if you want to get something done, you bring together a "fired-up youth with a feisty granny." Young and old balance each other and become a formidable force. Science supports this idea. Some brain research indicates that neuroplasticity slows significantly in your mid 20s and then ramps up again after 50 years of age. That means if you want creative innovation, your best bet is those two age groups – even better combined.
These relationships across generations aren't about "buddies" or "mentorship." It's more along the lines of what Indigenous academic and author Tyson Yunkaporta calls "us-two." This is the dual first person, a coming together in a profound way through relationship. Says Yunkaporta, "Solutions to complex problems take many dissimilar minds and points of view to design, so we have to do that together, linking up with as many other us-twos as we can to form networks of dynamic interaction."
Generations enable us to personally touch time. This is a vital human connection for healthy psychosocial development and ecocultural wisdom. Our understanding and experience of time fundamentally influences how we think and act. Anthropologist Margaret Mead asserted that "connections between generations are essential for the mental health and stability of nations."
We often praise the young, saying "the future is in good hands." The future isn't in the hands of the young. It's in all our hands, right now. The young bring energetic potential, and the old lived experience. One without the other is only one side of the coin.
Says educator and systems thinker Nora Bateson, "The future lies in the relationship between the generations. What kind of education will they need? And how can we as adults open our minds to thinking in new ways with them? Intergenerational learning is not a new project, it's as ancient as time."
Can young and old create a meaning-making bridge across generations into the future? "Much of today's media coverage on the climate is fixated on youth movements, but handing over the reins to untrained and untested youth risks wasting the progress and learnings painfully built over decades. Youth activists and old-hands need to find a way to build intergenerational movements that integrate the skills and passions of both groups… Campaigns that involve activists of several generations hold an advantage."
Because the two ends of the age spectrum are closer to birth and death (a beginning and an end), more vulnerable, and less invested in the status quo, young and old can be truth-tellers. They remind us, show us what really matters, often simply by being.
Generations working together can become a kind of "super organism." The two ends of the age spectrum can effectively capture the attention of middle generations. For example, a team made up of a high school student and an older adult doing energy audits together in homes has been shown to be more effective in prompting home owners to make changes.
Social change research has several examples of the young influencing adults for societal shifts, like the use of seat belts and the social acceptability of smoking. Recent research shows children can shift adult attitudes on climate change. The results suggest that "conversations between generations may be an effective starting point in combating the effects of a warming environment. This model of intergenerational learning provides a dual benefit. [It prepares] kids for the future since they're going to deal with the brunt of climate change's impact. And it empowers them to help make a difference on the issue now by providing them a structure to have conversations with older generations to bring us together to work on climate change… If we can promote this community-building and conversation-building on climate change, we can come together and work together."
This can start with something as simple as an elder and a young child planting together. Shares Joe Brewer, "Perhaps the most important community support we have here in Barichara is the elders who care for the forest… [As Don Jesus and my daughter Elise planted a cactus], we were immersed in a cultural structure of exchange between an elder and a child… We were immersed within a living metaphor – the elders standing over our children and guiding them into a safer future… Find your elders. BE an elder. Bring contact between children and elders."
A society is very much about the bigger story we all share over time – the meanings, values, and structures that guide us collectively. As our stories crumble, we crumble – individually and collectively. People are feeling fear and uncertainty about what the future holds for themselves and even our human civilization. Deep narratives from our past are breaking down and we're trying to recraft them.
Story is not a trivial thing. From an article on Relational Systems Thinking: "Most of us trained in the Western traditions of the academic world have been taught to rely on our chronically overdeveloped reason… [But Indigenous understanding] lives in stories… These stories are of course archetypal, they are dynamic, there is always an unfolding going on, whereas Western culture which has largely displaced other cultures over the past several hundred years, particularly the last 75, privileges abstractions; succinct, clear, de-contextualized characterizations. 'Tell me what you know; don't tell me a story.' We go from lived experience, something you can touch and feel and tell stories about, to an abstracted description and we consider that a higher form of knowledge. We consider that more refined, which is kind of bizarre in a way. They both have a function… The danger of the Western approach is that all you get is abstraction, you end up with almost no lived experience. Somebody is considered an expert because they can talk a lot about something, or they've written books about it. In the social science or the domain of human living, the consequence of this disconnected abstracting is that we struggle and struggle with how to 'implement' ideas, how to do it, because we start off thinking that's a lesser kind of knowledge. This creates a false dichotomy between knowledge of the head and knowledge of the hand."
Story is the most effective way human beings have to navigate through the world, find psychological cover, nurture healing, imagine possibilities, pass values on to generations that follow us. Stories bring mental order to chaos, some meaning to the seemingly meaningless. Says author Virginia Burges, "A story is a fundamental system on which to create an experiential palette, an understanding of life. Stories are the nearest thing we have to a map of the soul's journey."
Stories also provide us with a collective decision-making matrix.
But just as a map is not the territory, a story is not the thing that the story is about. In a relatively stable system, there will be a number of standard stories we can use to guide collective decisions with some reasonable expectation that outcomes will be positive. The biggest problem with stories is when we substitute telling them for meaningful action to deal with the real issues the stories are about, especially in a dysfunctional system. When the overarching system is breaking down, one by one the stories that were reasonable become more and more clearly absurd – and we're increasingly left to face a void of meaning, alone.
In the 7-Generation work, the intent is what master storytellers call a new Grand Narrative, an Overstory, meaningfully and vitally connecting us in the context of all other living things on this planet at this moment in time that holds past, present, and future (long now). This is as vital as water – and just as difficult to grasp.
To be clear, this isn't a single, written story with a beginning, middle and end. It's a living, multifaceted story that really has no beginning or end, only an evolving middle. It may be expressed and take shape in many ways.
This is also a story that should slide in time. As we re-evaluate stories of history (e.g. North America was "discovered"), three narrative opportunities are in play: the story of what happened (rethinking historical stories, who told them and from what perspective), the story of what now (if we change our understanding of history, how does that change what we see/value today), and the story of what next (can we find the imagination and courage to see and pursue new possibilities). We have a chance to reconceptualize the past, present, and future.
If the ultimate goal is at the scale of an Overstory, then the storytelling has to be both intensely human in the current moment and timelessly mythic, co-created across generations. In the words of Nobel-winning poet Octavio Paz, "The myth is not situated on a definitive date, but on a 'once upon a time,' a knot in which space and time are intertwined. The myth is a past that is also a future."
A 7-Generation Overstory, by its very nature, is a complex story. Journalist Amanda Ripley wrote an insightful piece on complicating the narratives. How do we respond effectively to the different stories different people hold, and move forward collectively in some way? We must "go beyond the clichés and name-calling and excavate richer, deeper truths, at a time of profound division… Anyone who values truth should stop worshipping reason… The lesson for anyone working amidst intractable conflict: complicate the narrative. The natural human tendency is to reduce that tension by seeking coherence through simplification. Complicating the narrative means finding and including the details that don't fit the narrative – on purpose. First, complexity leads to a fuller, more accurate story. Secondly, it boosts the odds that your work will matter – particularly if it is about a polarizing issue. When people encounter complexity, they become more curious and less closed off to new information. They listen."
Human beings, through relationships with each other, create stories of meaning. Professor, author, and ecophilosopher Dr. Roy Scranton writes, "The human ability to make meaning is so versatile, so powerful, that it can make almost any existence tolerable, so long as that life is woven into a bigger story that makes it meaningful. It's at just this moment of crisis that our human drive to make meaning reappears as our only salvation… if we're willing to reflect consciously on the ways we make life meaningful – on how we decide what is good, what our goals are, what's worth living or dying for, and what we do every day, day to day, and how we do it."
In a polycrisis, very little "makes sense." Novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald said that "the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function." We need to exercise that ability.
To help all ages, as well as various local groups, build relationships and develop their ability to think in complexity, we're using Warm Data, developed by Nora Bateson of the International Bateson Institute in Sweden. Says Bateson, "Developing an understanding of the patterns and processes of interdependency in complexity is the single most practical capacity that we can support in ourselves and each other."
More possibilities open up through the practice of Warm Data. Explains Bateson: "Thinking in complexity requires the ability to perceive across multiple perspectives and contexts. This is not a muscle that has been trained into us in school or in the work world. Warm Data Labs are group processes which illustrate interdependency and generate understandings of systemic patterns for ordinary people with no previous exposure to systems theory. Warm Data Labs enable new societal responses to complex challenges."
As youth, adults, and elders develop their complexity muscles, they become community sensemakers. Systems work can only happen if there's a continual, "alive" flow of human information.
We're using the sensemaking work of Dave Snowden (Cynefin Centre, UK), who recently released a field guide on Managing Complexity (and Chaos) in Times of Crisis for the EU. A citizen sensemaking network is important in times of crisis and change.
Community sensemakers take stories from their own life and connect them into a bigger context of stories. The emphasis on "story" opens windows to perceive differently and imagine possibilities – to make new sense.
Particularly in the GTB with such a large area and large population, we need to know what's going on and where the work needs to go in any given moment. Cynefin's SenseMaker software translates the stories of individuals into visual sensemaking patterns.
From the Cynefin website: "Imagine the rich, sense-making, actionable insight gained from diverse, individual meaning, motivation and reason at scale. Imagine the compelling, empowering decision-making support gained from hearing the whispers of change, the stories from the streets, the out-of-earshot coffee-break conversations and other weak currents of social stirring. Then, imagine how real-time tracking of the impact of decisions with continuous data gathering enables the ability to pivot and adjust interventions proactively. SenseMaker combines the best of both worlds: numbers and data analytics with stories and human wisdom."
Making sense ultimately becomes a function of sharing stories and acting together, an ongoing, mutually-informing process.
ACTION ACROSS SEVEN THEMES
The GTB is large and complex in land area, population, and politics. Equally, it's crucial to the people who live here, and to both the province of Ontario and Canada as a country.
We're in a polycrisis. Difficult challenges will continue, increasing in intensity. Systems are already crumbling and people are already suffering – as the pandemic, floods, fires lay bare. Says systems thinker and climate scientist Dr. Elizabeth Sawin, "Losses that can't be fully prevented can still be honored. They can be honored by making meaning out of the experience and by applying lessons learned in ways that could prevent future suffering and loss."
The 7-Generation GTB work is a very different systemic, intergenerational, land-based approach. Grounding in the real world of the land across time is important. The work opens possibilities for different structures and processes. There's a shift in focus away from organizations, issues, and ideas in isolation, or even in competition, to weaving them into coherence and multiplying impact.
As we work to help navigate the polycrisis, we're doing a complex dance between mitigation, adaptation, and seeds.
7-Generation GTB interconnects across seven broad themes: environment and climate change, economy, community, health, education and lifelong learning, life course and aging, Indigenous worldviews and knowledge.
We've brought together a local Group of Seven big-picture thinkers as guides in this work.
Weaving together effective action across the themes, in the specific GTB context, is a process held over the long term by the core team and guided by those working on the ground.
Below is an introductory overview around action areas for each of the seven themes. Keep in mind that each action is designed and implemented to multisolve across more than one theme/issue (i.e. it's all interconnected to multiply impact).
ENVIRONMENT AND CLIMATE CHANGE
"If you ask me, it'd be a little short of disastrous for us to discover a source of clean, cheap, abundant energy because of what we would do with it. We ought to be looking for energy sources that are adequate for our needs, but that won't give us the excesses of concentrated energy with which we could do mischief to the earth or to each other."
Amory Lovins, physicist and Founder/Chief Scientist,
Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI)
- Guided by the principles of the Earth Charter.
- Scientists once ridiculed the idea of a living planet. "Not anymore… All living and nonliving elements of Earth are parts and partners of a vast being who in her entirety has the power to maintain our planet as a fit and comfortable habitat for life… Humans are the brain – the consciousness – of the planet. We are Earth made aware of itself. Viewed this way, our ecological responsibility could not be clearer."
- A land-based approach emphasizing ecological regeneration – from regenerative agriculture to agroforestry – while simultaneously working on cultural regeneration.
- Integrated landscape management/stewardship across the bioregion, from the ground up. Interconnecting the multitude of existing projects (including the efforts of small family farms and even individuals in their own backyard) both to each other and up the fractal scale.
- Emphasizing food and water security.
- Leveraging technology, starting with home/building retrofits. "There's been no change in carbon emissions from direct fossil fuel use in homes and businesses in decades. Local leaders are realizing the need for a neighbourhood-based approach to cut home/building emissions to have any hope of meeting their climate goals." (Rocky Mountain Institute, 2020)
- Using neighbourhood Hub Houses for everyday social support, information sharing on retrofits and regeneration, and also as an emergency network (including providing power if, for example, they're the only house that has solar panels).
"The economy used to be about livelihoods and the provision of a household, but we've lost that purpose. An economy should be about fairness and equity. It should be for the wellbeing of your people and the sacredness of creation. You take care of your place because it provides for you. And the place provides for you because you're protecting it."
Rebecca Adamson, Cherokee, Founder of
First Nations Development Institute and First Peoples Worldwide
- Illuminating and mobilizing different kinds of value, including ecological and social capital.
- Exploring value over time – from the daily exchanges for everyday needs, to the 20-year span of the Commonland model, to the Indigenous concept of thinking in terms of lifetimes across generations, illuminating the value for future generations. This ties into how we might locally activate something like the Wales Wellbeing of Future Generations Act.
- Using the Capital Institute's Eight Principles of Regenerative Economics to help create a bioregional regenerative economy that can bring in more funding and circulate value locally.
- Creating new financing structures and methods of tracking value flows.
- Explains Joe Brewer, "Think about land as a bank for regenerative investments. The land itself is the anchor, it's the commons (even if privately owned). It operates as a bank by creating a circulation of value that can create a local economy. The land does things like retain water and build soils. It allows for the cycling of nutrients and the creation of material flows. It's a place where you can train people and provide livelihoods. It provides things like housing and growing food and other benefits that people need to survive while they're doing regenerative work. The land itself is the foundation on which regenerative investments can grow the capacities of local economies and weave them with other landscapes."
- Brewer adds, "Measurements of local improvements create value that can then be recognized by the economy. By creating tracking systems for ecological and social metrics, it becomes possible to build investment platforms that track value-creation so that the improvements can be incentivized, de-risked, and resourced financially to help regenerative economies grow. One example might be the use of carbon credits to increase the valuation of investment portfolios for regional economic development."
- A bioregional/territorial foundation holds funds and supports a decentralized governance structure. Locally, the Toronto Foundation might evolve into this role.
- Governance draws on the Nobel Prize-winning work of Elinor Ostrom. She looked at the processes people used to work together to protect their common resources: forests, pastures, fisheries, water systems. Her work led to the Prosocial Principles.
"The world is so empty if one thinks only of mountains, rivers and cities; but to know someone who thinks and feels with us, and who, though distant, is close to us in spirit, this makes the earth for us an inhabited garden."
- Community is both a feeling and a set of relationships among people. People form and maintain communities to meet common needs. Members of a healthy community have a sense of trust, belonging, safety, and caring for each other. They have an individual and collective sense that they can, as part of that community, influence their environments and each other.
- The Chief Medical Officer of Health of Ontario presented a report in February, 2019 titled Connected Communities. In it, he says, "Being socially connected to family, friends and our communities – having a sense of belonging – is important to our wellbeing. People who are connected are happier. They enjoy better health and use fewer health services. They are more resilient in the face of adversity, and they live longer. Communities where people feel connected have less crime and stronger economic growth… Their citizens are more involved; they are more likely to benefit all members of the community… Our sense of community is threatened by large systemic pressures and changes. These large systemic pressures require system-wide approaches."
- In an individualized culture, we've lost many relational skills. Before community, we need to (re)learn how to be "in communing." Bringing generations together and using the practice of Warm Data begins to build a foundation.
- Each of us belongs to many "communities" at once. The complexity inherent in this multiplicity of relationships is useful to systems work. One person can help make many interconnections.
- We are "in community" with each other and with the land and all of the life it holds. Embodied action on the land is a very effective way to nurture community.
- As misinformation and polarization increase, the sharing and weaving together of stories, especially across generations, is where a participatory culture can begin (see Making Sense above).
- Too often, community feels like an imposed external force. It's shaped from above – people are classified into roles as economic actors, energy users, taxpayers – rather than developed from below. A participatory culture of spirited citizens inspires human beings to be engaged in community and governance. Supporting both community sensemakers and community scientists (who gather data for professional scientists, especially around ecological and energy issues) is key. Behaviour change is the hardest thing; with this kind of approach you're raising awareness, creating learning opportunities, and helping people naturally embody action.
- As things get worse, we need each other and to refocus on critical physical and social infrastructure. Dr. Aisha Ahmad has lived and worked on conflict dynamics in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Mali, Kenya and Somalia. It became clear to her fairly early in the COVID-19 pandemic "that many of the people around her had no experience surviving the systems-wide failure brought on by catastrophe… Your soccer club is gone and your swimming pool and your favourite restaurant, all of those things that maybe you felt defined you have somehow been taken away and so it almost feels like an assault on the person yourself, on your own personal identity. But you have yet to breathe into this new world and create new parts of who you can be under these conditions, new ways to be… A pandemic is a great time for you to make sure that you have an understanding of your food security, that you're in touch with your loved ones, to ensure that your home space is safe. That's the correct reaction to a global crisis."
- Human beings are selfish and social, emotional and rational. Can we find a realistic pathway to learn together, work together, to find power in the commons? "How can fallible human beings achieve and sustain self-governing ways of life and self-governing entities as well as sustaining ecological systems at multiple scales?… There are four core motives for decision making in social dilemmas: understanding, belonging, trusting and self-enhancing. None of this is particularly utopian. It turns out that we needn't be selfless communards… The portrait of human nature that emerges from work on commons governance is that of a species fundamentally self-interested, incorrigibly social and perfectly capable – under the right conditions – of rational, bottom-up stewardship of commonly owned resources… The message of five decades of research on commons governance is ultimately hopeful: we don't have to despair of human nature any more than we have to idealize it… We can work this thing out."
"As aspiring doctors, students think they are getting into the business of making people healthy…
[But] the most important factors that determine people's health are social, and the most effective solutions are political. Health services – the response to ill health – have much less effect on ultimate health outcomes than social determinants… What the students learn is that, while they can indeed have the power to heal, they cannot act alone. The response to illness is not limited to one profession or sector: it must be societal."
Ryan Meili, physician and politician
- A One Health approach combines animal, human, and environmental health. It recognizes that the health of people is closely connected to the health of animals and our shared environment. Many factors in the modern world have changed interactions between people, animals, plants, and our environment. More than half of the infectious diseases that affect humans have a non-human animal source.
- We exist in relationship – with our own bodies, each other, and the living planet. Then the smallest unit of health isn't the cell or the individual, but the community. Without healthy communities, you can't have healthy people or families. And if the planet itself is not populated with healthy communities, then it will not be healthy.
- Many Indigenous peoples have a holistic perspective around health. For example, the First Nations Health Authority in BC has created a multicoloured depiction of health as a series of concentric circles. "The colours of the sunset were chosen specifically to reflect the whole spectrum of sunlight, as well as to depict the sun's rotation around the earth which governs the cycles of life. The Center Circle represents individual human beings… The Second Circle illustrates the importance of Mental, Emotional, Spiritual and Physical facets of a healthy and balanced life… The Third Circle represents the overarching values that support and uphold wellness: Respect, Wisdom, Responsibility, and Relationships… The Fourth Circle depicts the people that surround us and the places from which we come: Nations, Family, Community, and Land are all critical components of our healthy experience as human beings… The Fifth Circle depicts the Social, Cultural, Economic and Environmental determinants of our health and wellbeing." Clearly, much more goes into "health" than a blood pressure check.
- Taking a systems-level, rather than program-oriented, approach to the social determinants of health. The list of health determinants includes income, education, social supports.
- Using social prescribing as a way to give healthcare professionals more options as more people experience anxiety, loneliness, and existential angst. Patients can be "prescribed" into community-building and nature/regeneration activities. These actions become more meaningful in the context of the bioregion.
- Paying attention to intergenerational healing. There are psychological and physiological effects that trauma experienced by people has on subsequent generations. Collective trauma is when psychological trauma experienced by communities/groups is carried on as part of the group's collective memory and shared sense of identity.
EDUCATION AND LIFELONG LEARNING
"We move from data to information to knowledge to wisdom. And separating one from the other… knowing the limitations and the danger of exercising one without the others, while respecting each category of intelligence, is generally what serious education is about."
Toni Morrison, novelist and professor
- Dr. Daniel Christian Wahl looks at biologically-inspired systems design and innovation: "I believe the process of 'living the questions together' lies at the heart of how we can co-create regenerative cultures. I also believe that lifelong learning and education play a critical role in the now necessary redesign of the human impact on Earth and on each other… Truly transformative education supports us on a lifelong path of learning – a pilgrimage and an apprenticeship – of how to participate appropriately in the wider community of life… To adequately enable people with the capacity to respond to the uncertainties and complexities of our world we need to redesign our educational ecosystems in ways that enable lifelong learning. Furthermore we need to not only nurture the ability to excel in a specialty but also nurture the capacity for joined-up systemic thinking that can build up multi-faceted understanding of the world."
- From Joe Brewer, "This is more than a portfolio. It's not simply a collection of projects. It's not simply a fund that is catalyzing resources across the projects. It's actually a learning journey itself – because these are things we've never done before. No one actually knows how to create a full-fledged bioregional scale regenerative economy."
- Each bioregion has a learning center, what might also be called an ecoversity. This is a community-facing learning lab in the context of place for real-world resilience. Personalized learning journeys help people better understand the history, geology, and ecology of their location on the planet. The learning center connects across sectors – from water, food, and energy to health, culture, livelihoods. It may be virtual, or in various places, or in one place. Says Brewer, "These learning centers for each bioregional regenerative economy take root in place. In these centers, there must be ways to retain and pass on practical knowledge about native species, understanding how to build homes in the local climate using locally-sourced materials, comprehension of what it means to have sustainable food systems in this particular place, complexity thinking, prosocial skills, and incorporation of the performance arts that cultivate sacred relationships with local ecologies in respectful and persistent ways… Bioregional learning centers around the world learn from each other."
- Connected into bioregional learning centers, Elders-in-Residence become a part of every elementary and high school. The individual and societal need for generations learning with and from each other, and a belief in the importance of lifelong learning, motivated Dr. Peter Whitehouse to found The Intergenerational School (TIS), a public charter school in Cleveland, OH. Students are grouped by age clusters rather than grade, and elders (even those with cognitive or physical limitations) are woven into the fabric of the school day such that young and old learn together across the curriculum.
- A Village Learning process brings generations together in learning in the real-world context of the community, especially on regenerative legacy projects. Various organizations are woven into this ongoing process.
LIFE COURSE AND AGING
"There are timeless elements which can connect us to the universal ground where nature renews itself and culture becomes reimagined. Youth and elder meet where the pressure of the future meets the presence of the past. Old and young are opposites that secretly identify with each other; for neither fits well into the mainstream of life."
Michael Meade, author
- Too often, when we talk about programs and policy for older adults, we tend to focus on their needs, which diminishes and marginalizes older adulthood. The pinnacle of life becomes empty when it's only about needs and leisure activities, rather than the life experiences and skills elders have.
- We're reconceptualizing elderhood. Elders today have more education, skills, and wealth than previous generations of elders. They can rise into a meaningful role of support and stewardship for both younger generations and the land.
- Seeing ourselves as elders-in-training (at any age). This is reinforced through local learning. The last third of our lives becomes rich with meaning and purpose, and something to which each person aspires.
- Supporting aging in community. Homes are multigenerational, with more options for redesigning single-family homes into homes that can properly accommodate two or three generations (e.g. a student living with a widow, an older couple living with a single parent and child). Communities are age-inclusive and intergenerational, with different generations recognizing – and intentionally acting on – their mutual interests in building family and community as a part of daily life.
- Creating shared sites as the new normal, with accompanying cost savings. Co-locating daycares with long-term care homes, or schools connected to seniors housing, are proven examples of using the design of our physical infrastructure to support our social infrastructure. Studies have shown significant benefits to physical, social, and mental health for both young and old, along with the academic achievement of the young.
INDIGENOUS WORLDVIEWS AND KNOWLEDGE
"I could hand you a braid of sweetgrass, as thick and shining as the plait that hung down my grandmother's back. But it is not mine to give, nor yours to take. Wiingaashk belongs to herself. So I offer in its place a braid of stories meant to heal our relationship with the world. This braid is woven from three strands: Indigenous ways of knowing, scientific knowledge, and the story of an Anishinabekwe scientist trying to bring them together in service of what matters most."
Robin Wall Kimmerer, botanist and author of Braiding Sweetgrass
- For Indigenous peoples, everything rests on right relationships and community is based on relational thinking.
- In keeping with Indigenous approaches, the 7-Generation work starts in respect (listening; ears/eyes), flows into connect (relationship; heart), then builds to both reflect (thinking; mind) and direct (action; hands).
- The idea of respect is foundational to the work – not only between people of all ages and backgrounds, but also non-humans, future generations, and the Earth itself. In an article on Relational Systems Thinking, Dr. Dan Longboat explains that "one of the things that's really central in engaging with different perspectives and different knowledge systems, in how they interact, is this idea of sacred space; it is really about ethical space. Within our context of it as Haudenosaunee, whenever individuals or two things come together to make an agreement, whenever they collaborate… then the space in between them is the sacred space; you can kind of think about it in terms of how they are respectful towards one another, how they are caring and compassionate towards each other, how they are empathetic with one another… We are both sailing down the river of life together. And our responsibility is to help one another but more specifically, the river of life is in danger right now and there will be no more river of life. So, it behooves us now to utilize our knowledge together to work to sustain, to perpetuate, to strengthen the river of life. Why? So that all life will continue. And at the end of the day any social innovation or systems stuff should be all about the continuation of life and however we understand it to be – not just human life but all of it, for this generation right to the end of time."
- In the Canadian context, we must continue with the process of truth and reconciliation – and go one step beyond to weaving together holistic Indigenous wisdom with the best of Western scientific thinking to try to find a "third way."
- Indigenous peoples warned colonists that going against Natural Law (which starts in your bioregion) is like going against life, toward your own demise. Indigenous Faithkeeper Oren Lyons was involved in the creation of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. He has said it can be summed up in four words: values change for survival. We need a new/old story.
LET'S PLAY IN THE SANDBOX
We started with the assertion that we all know we can't keep doing what we've been doing. We must face enough vs. feasible head on, in a way that meets the polycrisis at a reasonable scale. Come play with us in the GTB sandbox – not tinkering at the edges but getting right into the middle of it all. It's time. It's the only direction that makes sense.
The starting "place" for 7-Generation GTB is Markham (population 350,000; most diverse city in Canada with 78% of its population having a place in a minority group). We're already doing work, with initial funding for a small core team to get things rolling and rippling out. The local collaborative includes the City of Markham, Markham Public Library, Social Services Network, and York University. We're working with York University on planning a Bioregional Learning Center. We're exploring new structures for regenerative financing, and weaving together a portfolio of regeneration projects. We're also collaborating closely with the Barichara, Colombia bioregional work, as well as others around the planet, so that we can learn with each other.
We're working toward ecopsychosocial wellbeing in lifetimes across generations.
The 7-Generation GTB work is hard. There are no guarantees. This is the slippery, messy, vital work of our time. As hard as it is, it's also life-affirming.
If this work resonates with you, we need you. This isn't "ours." It belongs to all of us. This isn't a project or a program, a whim or a one-time thing. It's the challenge of y/our lifetime.
Regenerative action is legacy action. As a profound connection across time, legacy can be either a burden or a gift. It's where the power is. Weave your life story into the story of the land and into building a meaning-making bridge in the context of lifetimes across generations. Our legacy, the things we do and say and think every day, is creating the future right now.
Curious about 7-Generation GTB? E-mail us to find out more, and feel free to reach out to Brian Puppa, Executive Director at the Legacy Project, at (905) 852-3777.