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Benji Ross

Co-Lead, The Design School for Regenerating Earth
Benji Ross

Table Talk Think Pieces are big-picture, connect-the-dots discussion papers inspired by the Legacy Table at The Cedars, a place to discuss the big stuff that really matters



Benji Ross, The Design School for Regenerating Earth

As our planet faces multiple, interconnected crises, the need for widespread collaboration is more important than ever before. But is that even possible with our current siloed, competitive structures? In an individualized culture, we've lost many relational skills. Before community, we need to (re)learn how to be "in communing" – or perhaps, "in commoning." 7-Generation GTB is about simultaneous social and ecological regeneration, because the two must go hand-in-hand. This post shares some thoughts on understanding and navigating tumultuous social waters.

I want to start with a story of how in one very important way I've come to see through the looking glass. This was only made possible through the gradual realization that there's something that I can't quite see. This is a story that I sense many others will relate to and one that feels important to share.

This story has a lot to do with my own reaction when I perceive imposed structure. There is a resistance that has long been with me and its origins are complex. It has a lot to do with modernity, with our global industrial society, and the experience of the individual therein. I think I can demonstrate my point with a glimpse of how "the system" prepared me for life.

My education felt more like a form of incarceration than a cultivation of curiosity. When that was finally over at the age of 22, uninspiring job prospects and an enormous debt burden left me feeling a sense of betrayal. The promise of following the largely predetermined pathway of learning ended up presenting me with few opportunities to be little more than a cog in a wheel. Nothing fulfilling there.

To make matters worse, as a young adult, I was also beginning to feel the faceless, unfeeling, and distant relationship between me and structures of government. Time and again I had the experience of following the prescribed path my culture presented, and feeling that somehow I was misled. I was participating in a process that I didn't really trust and to which, in hindsight, I would not have consented. 

I wonder how common these sentiments are in the modern experience? The human population must be filled with people who share this reflexive resistance.

Okay, time for a deep breath. Onward…

About five years ago my life took an abrupt change in direction. What was once a dream of becoming a regenerator by farming and ranching became a dream of regenerating communities. This change was brought about by a health crisis which meant I could no longer rely upon my body. It was roughly in the same period that I discovered Joe Brewer and began to develop a deeper understanding of the themes in his book The Design Pathway for Regenerating Earth

It was a revelation to so clearly see the destructive realities of our cumulative cultural evolution as a species, and why that leaves us entrenched in a separation from our landscapes and ecologies with a blindness to their state of health. A clear view of the cause of our planetary predicament also offered a clear view of, as the title of Joe's book states, the design pathway for regenerating Earth. 

It can only emerge as human communities all over the planet learn to adapt into interwoven and supportive relationships with the functions and expressions of local landscapes and ecologies. This will require that all local communities come into human relationships of collaboration, mutual support, and collective learning, on up to the planetary scale.

I'm talking about a LOT of cooperation here. And just think of all of the current barriers. To name just a few: private property, corporate and government control of "natural resources," and a profound cultural conditioning that we all need to be self-reliant individuals, reinforced by the many lonely and unsupported experiences so many of us have in life.

This brings me back to my reflexive resistance whenever I perceive imposed structure. When I first started having conversations with other Earth regenerators about how our species might turn the tide on our planetary predicament, there was a lot of mention of Prosocial. It was coming up all over the place. I remember agreeing that cultivating an orientation towards caring for and improving the welfare of others and society as a whole was essential. I knew and felt in my core that a cultivation of deep collaboration at all scales was the first step, the foundational process to enable regeneration. But, as I look back, I see that it took nearly two years before I really understood Prosocial. I'm left wondering, why did it take me so long?

With the clarity of hindsight, I can see that I had a lot of resistance. Not to the concept itself, but to what I saw as just another framework that I didn't trust. I'm now a bit embarrassed to say that I must have subconsciously overlooked many of Joe's eloquent explanations of Prosocial. I know I was there for several, but my understanding remained opaque, partial, and full of tensions. Eventually though – through experiences feeling into how regeneration can unfold in communities on-the-ground, through a lot of storytelling from Joe, and a gradual increasing understanding – I had a personal breakthrough.

I now see Prosocial as nothing short of a clear and compelling vision and pathway for our species to approach our collaborative potential. It is not another framework or model. It's the signposts that can guide us toward becoming wise managers of our own cultural evolution. The way that it does so may also be why I resisted it, because it's also a massive collection of knowledge and tools. It has a lot of structure.

This brings me to another lesson learned. I am now able to see structure with a bit more nuance. I see how training wheels are a form of structure. They provide us with the scaffolding to help us to learn to ride a bike more freely and more quickly. Also, language is, of course, structured. By learning vocabulary and grammar, we're able to lean on its scaffolding to communicate things about the world. It provides humans with a transcendent way of being and expressing ourselves compared to before it emerged. 

Let's take a quick look at the structure Prosocial provides. 

It gives us Elinor Ostrom's Eight Core Design Principles, offering a scientifically backed and Nobel Prize-winning understanding of how groups can successfully manage common-pooled resources. Forming and managing the commons, or as some refer to it, "commoning," is the foundation to any regenerative economy.

It also gives us a set of knowledge and tools for us to become managers of our own individual and group behavioral change. In this I'm referring to the field of Contextual-Behavioral Science. It offers ways of revealing individual and collective shared values, and a mindfulness around that, orienting action in ways that are in alignment with group identity and purpose. It also gives us a library of knowledge on the evolution of cooperation, so that we can feel into our potential as a species, and we can see with clarity how collaboration and teamwork are in our genetics, that we simply have to create the right conditions for that to be expressed.

Most importantly of all, Prosocial is not static. It is itself constantly evolving and maturing. It's a living system of knowledge. 

As I've seen new groups forming, intending to carry bioregional scale processes of regeneration, it's becoming clear how the formation of prosocial groups will be our greatest challenge. Navigating the many tensions and frictions to integrate into deep cooperation is where the crux of our work lies.

We as a species know how to regenerate landscapes. We know how to replenish groundwater, how to build and heal soil, how to guide ecosystems through stages of succession, how to bring back the rain, and how to design for beneficial climate change.  We know how to heal the Earth. But healing ourselves must come first.

For many people, that starts with seeing through the looking glass. It will become possible only after we put down our defenses and trust that Prosocial is worth learning, that it's not just another framework. It can be like a North Star that orients us together, no matter where we are.

To those of you who have felt tension reading this, I'll say that I understand. My hope is that this has simply created an opening.


How can fallible human beings entrenched in constraining existing systems move toward ways of life and governance that respect ecological systems at a planetary scale? That's a big part of what we're exploring in 7-Generation GTB.

The background and context for Elinor Ostrom's Nobel Prize-winning work are explored in this article. "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."

These are the Eight Core Design Principles that are needed by most groups whose members must work together to achieve common goals:

1. Strong group identity and understanding of purpose.
2. Fair distribution of costs and benefits.
3. Fair and inclusive decision-making.
4. Monitoring agreed-upon behaviors.
5. Graduated sanctions for misbehaviors.
6. Fast and fair conflict resolution.
7. Authority to self-govern.
8. Appropriate relations with other groups.

This video by the Founder of Prosocial World, David Sloan Wilson, introduces the Eight Core Design Principles and the ACT Matrix. We need ways to both improve our own psychological flexibility and to exercise our collaboration skills.

Finally, the video below is titled "7-Generation Healing: Lived Experience in Place" with Joe Brewer, Penny Heiple, and Susan V. Bosak. The story of the world is interwoven with our own life stories and relationships. For Indigenous peoples, everything rests on right relationships – with other people and with the land. The long-term effectiveness of any collective action we try to take depends on how well we can rise into collaboration – how we come together in relationship.

Questions? Get in touch with Brian Puppa at the Legacy Project by e-mail or call (905) 852-3777.