Systems researcher and
Founder of the Legacy Project
Susan V. Bosak
Systems Design Engineer,
of the Legacy Project
Brian A. Puppa
Systems researcher and
Founder of the Legacy Project
Susan V. Bosak
Systems Design Engineer,
of the Legacy Project
Brian A. Puppa
Susan V. Bosak with Brian Puppa, Legacy Project
This piece is intended as a probe for broad discussion as we work toward the 7-Generation Bioregional Earth Summit – in partnership with the Design School for Regenerating Earth and the Indigenous Environmental Institute (IEI) at Trent University – taking place in Toronto, Canada in February, 2024. One of the main themes will be regenerative economics, including creating bioregional funding ecosystems.
This exploration emerges from a series of recent meetings that included thought leaders working with foundations to expand their philanthropy around bioregions and Indigenous stewardship, as well as the Executive Director of a prominent nonprofit looking at systems approaches to creating new economic systems and addressing urgent global challenges.
The context for our questions is that we're in a polycrisis – converging climate, environmental, economic, political, technological, social, health crises that go far beyond a linear problem/solution paradigm. 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."
Underlying this is that we are in ecological and cultural overshoot, already on the downside of the civilizational curve, as explained so well by Michael Dowd in a presentation to the Canadian Association for the Club of Rome. A recent update on the Planetary Boundaries and an analysis showing we are "ahead of schedule" on the Limits to Growth modelling underscore the fact that the world as we know it has started a collapse process.
This is the clear-eyed context in which we're working. We are in a complex predicament, and all we can really do at this point is navigate through with as much wisdom and care as possible in the hope we can plant regenerative seeds.
The 7-Generation GTB (Greater Tkaronto Bioregion) work is looking at approximately 3 million hectares on the northwest shore of Lake Ontario, with a population of around
7-Generation GTB is systems complexity work. It's about creating parallel structures and processes, through social and ecological regeneration, that take a "short-term for the long-term approach" – helping/saving as much as possible now, while centering life in every decision and action. Metaphorically, we talk about this as growing a Tree of Life.
Our North Star is working to #ChangeTheStory, the fundamental story of how we live with each other on this planet, to regenerate the entire Earth, across bioregions, in the spirit of ecopsychosocial wellbeing on the timescale of lifetimes across generations.
To do this work, what do we value, how is that value recognized, and how might it flow in a "regenerative economy" – one that truly centers life?
At the most basic level, economics should be concerned with two things: 1) stewarding resources to meet the needs of and create value for all life, and 2) a system of coordination for human activity. Our current global economic system doesn't speak effectively to either and is, in fact, fundamentally unsustainable.
Note that economics is inextricably intertwined with everything around it – physical infrastructure, culture, governance, law, defence, information systems, education, human development, etc. These systems co-evolve and co-influence each other.
Says economist John Fullerton, "I know that the current economy is driven by finance and if the economic premise of our entire global economy is in conflict with the laws of physics, we have a serious problem."
It's interesting that "economy" and "ecology" share a common etymological root. As much as we try to align economic and ecological principles (note that only one is "real"), as biologist and regenerative thinker Daniel Christian Wahl points out, "the only way we seem to be able to value ecological capital, social capital, or living capital is to bring it into financial economy. I would argue that converting natural capital into a monetizable measurable thing, means you work in the current paradigm… What we actually want to regenerate and what sustains the web of life is the quality of the relationships of the whole, optimizing for all, in nested wholeness."
In our current economic system, value is most often in terms of money and productive capacity. For example, a young person may be given more value than an older person because the young person can do more physical labor. The fact that each person represents life, and has value in their own way, is irrelevant.
In a changing world, we see some shifts in "currency" – for example, fresh water is becoming the "new gold." This brings in the question of what's real? In a time of transition/collapse, how do we illuminate (i.e. make more visible) and vitalize (i.e. bring energy to and encourage more of) all real value? We need to be able to see/value ecological and social regeneration, and create tangible, life-affirming value.
Social researcher Daniel Schmachtenberger explores the idea of value: "Value is complex. With dollars as a simplified value metric, we can extract a tree from its environment, decontextualize it from the system that it co-evolved with, and turn it into 2×4's. Now it's worth $1,000 – to one beneficiary who owns it and claims it on their balance sheet. And can now exchange it for other extracted resources. This slaughtered animal might also be $1000. And this person's labor. And this piece of intellectual property. All now exchangeable abstract wealth, none of which could have been exchanged in their contextual environments for the real complex value they served… Going back to the example of the tree, the decontextualization of the tree from its environment and its transformation from the type of value it had as a living tree to the type of value it has as lumber, is already an abstraction (reduction) process: the real value of a tree in an ecosystem involves an indefinite number of metrics to an unspecifiable number of beneficiaries: nectar to pollinators, homes for birds and squirrels, food for aphids and the ants that harvest them, fruit for animals, sequestering CO2 from the atmosphere and creating O2, stabilizing the topsoil, preventing flooding and runoff, symbiosis with the mycorrhizae and mycelial network that connects the whole forest, etc. It might be positively affecting coastal ecosystems hundreds of miles downstream because of its effects on water quality due to preventing runoff. And benefitting the genetics of other plant species by the pollinators it supports. And people that won't be born till after it dies, via these many distributed effects."
Yes, value is complex.
For those of us doing regenerative work (who often feel under-valued), we need resources and energy. In our current system, that looks like money. Hospitals caring for sick people get big philanthropic donations; dying landscapes don't have as much immediate emotional appeal. Systems work, process work, doesn't get funded. "Go to the grant application portal and fill in our intake form." Yes, but we don't fit any of the boxes. Where does "we want to regenerate Earth" go?
Critical to regenerative work is a core team that can hold the vision and process over the long term. In a turbulent world, without a core team that brings integrity, care, and steadfastness, you simply cannot move forward in a credible way, as the work of Commonland has shown. Regenerative work is about r/evolution – big and bold (revolution) AND slow and steady (evolution). 20-year funding for a core team sounds like a ludicrous ask. Yet, in the context of collapse, it's vital.
Daniel Schmachtenberger has researched the difference the right people can make in the right moment in history. "What we really need in this moment," he says, "are to support the people who have the heart of Jane Goodall with the cunning strategy of Henry Kissinger." They are worth their weight in gold.
As we said, the North Star of 7-Generation GTB is working to #ChangeTheStory, the fundamental story of how we live with each other on this planet, to regenerate the entire Earth, across bioregions, in the spirit of ecopsychosocial wellbeing on the timescale of lifetimes across generations.
To do this work with integrity and ensure meaningful impact, we need to wrestle with a number of questions, many of which are interrelated…
Drawing a line across a river, so that one part of the river is in one city and another part is in another city, is a fiction. Drawing on earth systems science, the bioregion – not your neighborhood or even your city – is the smallest scale where we need to take action that will make a difference. If we do the right things in the whole of our bioregion, and connect across bioregions, this can affect planetary-level processes and have meaningful long-term impact. The bioregion is the difference that makes a difference.
The bioregional vision emerged from ten years of meetings in the 1980s of some of the best minds in the world, the Balaton Group. The group was named for the lake in Hungary where they held their first meeting, and was led by systems scientist Donella Meadows who was the lead author of The Limits to Growth. The Balaton Group explored the big question of how humans could live sustainably on the planet. The answer took the form of a vision of bioregions around the world: "Helping people and cultures all over the world develop and express their own capacity to solve their own problems, consistent with their own needs and with the ecosystems around them. And doing that through enhancing the power within all cultures and peoples to combine intellectual knowing and intuitive knowing, reasoning about the Earth and living in consonance with it."
The fact that we live in arbitrarily-defined nations in which municipal governments manage large swaths of land called cities, and people own property and accumulate wealth by doing so, is a fundamental challenge. How can you really "own" land? That automatically cuts our planet into disconnected little bits managed by different interests. Plus, for Indigenous peoples, "land" means the earth, water, air, and all that live within these ecosystems.
In the GTB, we're bringing together a portfolio of regenerative projects that, funded as a whole, would have meaningful long-term impact while minimizing risk across many projects. There are a number of benefits to a bioregional approach.
How can private landowners across a bioregion come to see themselves as interconnected? Can we mobilize every backyard, for example, in service to the whole? In the GTB, we're working with an organization that does very effective tree planting and education with local municipalities to experiment with a holistic backyard vision across the bioregion.
Common Asset Trusts are a possible vehicle for bringing more land under common, long-term stewardship. There are some existing Land Trusts in the GTB. But how can they be expanded widely, quickly, and effectively?
The GTB has the benefit of Conservation Authorities organized by watersheds. However, they are arms of the provincial government and are increasingly being constrained in terms of what they can do.
The Greenbelt is another unique feature of the GTB. It's become an international model for effective land planning. But it, too, is coming under increasing pressure. And, although the land is protected to some extent, large acreages are privately owned by developers "waiting for the land to open up." They allow the land to sit unused and unstewarded, with no incentive to regenerate it.
This question strikes to the heart of the modern economic system.
A fungible currency encourages hoarding. If you have too much lumber, for example, storing it becomes a problem. Too many apples, and they start to go rotten. But when you have something that's not real/alive, and the name of the game is to get more of it than the next guy, you have a root problem that works against funding regenerative work in service to life and the circulation of value/resources.
A related issue is the debt-based money system. We can't create money without creating debt, but we can create debt without creating money. So, debt in our economy is perpetual, and the constant drain of money and resources from the producing economy to the financial sector is also perpetual. The system is fueling massive injustice and inequality and having disastrous effects on economic stability and human environmental impact.
What do we really need, what does life on Earth need, and how can an economic system support those needs?
Looking at humans, Maslow's Hierarchy of Human Needs has different levels, with self-actualization at the top. Is self-actualization really the pinnacle of human needs?
In our work, rather than a hierarchy of needs, we draw on a constantly shifting "ecology of needs" which we express as to live, love, learn, and legacy (as a verb). To "live" is the basic needs of air, water, food, shelter, and is tied to the living Earth. To "love" is about care, belonging, community, etc. To "learn" is about exploring, experimenting, adapting, evolving. And "legacy" is about meaning, purpose, generativity, etc. Note that sometimes one need (for something to be meaningful and moral) overshadows another like food and water (as in a hunger strike).
Real economic transformation has money meeting human needs and centering life – while looking at value across time scales: daily exchanges of value for everyday immediate needs; drawing on the Commonland model, illuminating and vitalizing value over the 20 years of creating a regenerative economy on the ground; and illuminating and vitalizing value in the context of lifetimes across generations (honoring both what we have received from our ancestors and what we give to our descendants).
In collapse, the dreams of the young and the legacy of the old are both being broken. As we look to mobilize money, especially from the Boomer cohort, the idea of legacy becomes germane. Regenerative financing requires money that doesn't expect an immediate monetary return – but is looking for something of more meaningful value.
Memento mori: remember that you must die. Much is dying now, and that death must be honored.
The idea of legacy may remind us of death, but it's not about death. Being reminded of death is actually a good thing, because death informs life. Legacy is fundamental to what it is to be human. Research shows that without a sense of working to create a legacy, adults lose meaning in their life.
The giving and receiving of legacies can evoke, all at once, the entire spectrum of basic human emotions: hope, longing, regret, anxiety, fear, dread, jealousy, bitterness, rage, a sense of failure, a sense of accomplishment, pride, contentment, joy, gratitude, humility, love. When you start thinking about legacies, you take stock. There is tremendous power here.
Meaning is a notoriously vague concept. Yet the very nature of being human means we venture into the web of what meaning is to try to understand ourselves, our life, our world. We want it all to "make sense."
If we can help people "make sense" of where we are in this moment, we can unlock value for them and for the planet. Joe Brewer's book The Design Pathway for Regenerating Earth encourages both personal and community reflection in the context of big-picture consequences. Can we empower older adults to step into the role of elders and create a regenerative economic shift? That would be a radical and redeeming final act.
The private ownership of land (as part of a larger system of wealth accumulation) is not an Indigenous concept; the idea that land can be owned, monetized, bought and sold arrived with the settlers of Turtle Island. In Indigenous cultures, land means more than property – it encompasses culture, relationships, ecosystems, social systems, spirituality, and natural law.
The concept of "right relationship" is central to many Indigenous cultures, and it must be central to any kind of new economic system.
In Western culture, there have been some attempts to move toward right relationship, like the Earth Charter and the Wales Wellbeing of Future Generations Act. The Capital Institute has also proposed Eight Principles of a Regenerative Economy.
Right relationship is about bringing yourself into alignment with the flow of life, knowing with humility that you are no more important than any blade of grass under your feet. Being in right relationship means to embody respect and reciprocity to foster healthy relationships. It means to move through the world with an awareness of your impact on the communities and ecosystems with which you share the Earth – with an understanding of Natural Law (which goes back to you can't argue with physics).
The planet is in an unprecedented moment in history – never before have humans affected the entire planet, causing planetary changes that usually happen slowly over thousands of years to happen in decades and trigger various tipping points. We desperately need the best of Indigenous ways of knowing with the best of Western thinking.
Dan Longboat has spent much of his career working to connect Indigenous environmental knowledge with Western science, and we draw on his expertise and work.
Can a regenerative economy, one that centers life, draw on characteristics of an Indigenous economy? Part of this would involve renegotiating our relationships with everything around us – from the plants and rocks to the air and stars.
Legal scholar Robert Cover once described law as "not merely a system of rules to be observed, but a world in which we live." Law is a "resource in signification."
For a regenerative economy, with bioregional funding ecosystems, how do we measure and monitor value? Maybe we don't – because that takes us back into the old paradigm.
Says Darcy Riddell of the McConnell Foundation, "In my view, traditional metrics are used by Foundations to manage anxiety (their own staff and board's). They worry that what they're spending money on isn't working, so they better measure it more. This approach kills systems change every time. For systems change experiments to work, we have to lighten up on the metrics piece for a significant chunk of time at the front end of a project. Ultimately, this comes down to trusting grantees."
From systems thinker Nora Bateson, "Again, and again, and again… it comes back to the warnings and wisdom of the people who knew how to be in the world without plans and strategies. They didn't need deliverables and impact measurements to know that the seasons were changing, or which species would be abundant or sparse in the coming year. They could read the conditions of environment. The nuances of the leaves, the texture of the dirt, the timing of the flowers and birds. The ancient ways of not-knowing, were in fact ways of knowing. But without a plan or a clear vision of the goal, the mechanistic thinkers of today get anxious. The addiction to the spreadsheet and the board approval for a specific outcome is not just not working… it is in fact prohibiting real work at a systemic level. Most of the groups who now hold a mandate to work with systemic or complex systems are looking for ways to manage and measure their work. This justification is an apology to an old system. It is dangerous."
We may need to let go of first-order measurement of things like carbon and expectations of transformation on a three-year timeline. Instead, perhaps we can focus on people of integrity engaging in actions that are in right relationship, and that follow the best of Indigenous wisdom and the best of Western science.
If we can do that… what a wonderful world we'd be regenerating.
None of this is easy. But we must consciously wrestle with all of it – or we are wasting our precious time.
7-Generation GTB is working closely with Joe Brewer as part of the Design School for Regenerating Earth. As we build the three foundational pillars for the 7-Generation GTB work, including a Portfolio of Projects ready to go, the GTB can fractal scale-link into the Great Lakes Basin, the continent, and the planet for meaningful impact. There is care, strategy, and momentum here.
If you're working on regenerative economics and bioregional funding ecosystems, we welcome you to collaborate with us.
We end with a provocation courtesy of Nora Bateson: "Are we double checking that what we're calling transformative innovation is going to make sure that we end up with butterflies and not with caterpillars with wings?"