The sustainability movement, in the last few years, has figured out that “doing less harm” is insufficient. It is based on fixed ideas to which we implicitly agree to adhere. We become attached to their ‘rightness’ and do as much as possible to adhere to them and correct anything off course – e.g. fair trade may not make a village work better, it is just less bad. I call this approach “arresting disorder,” which translates to paying a lot of attention to slowing down destructive actions.
At every conference I attend and in most articles I’m reading now, there is a move to the idea of doing good rather than simply causing less harm. This is not even close to the required aspiration. Doing good is filled with ego, human-centered ideas and lots of ideological conflict, none of which are likely to focus us on the nodal changes needed to produce genuine benefits for communities and ecosystems. I have found that I can move people to care, even people who are not working on sustainability, by starting in a different place, one that works from a living-systems view of change.
The aspiration that can make a real difference is connection to the primal meaning of the idea of regeneration, but not as an alternative to renewal, restoration or rejuvenation. Regeneration is rooted in the science of life. When a starfish regenerates an arm, it initiates that from its own DNA, the code that patterns it. This isn’t restoration or reattachment of the arm that fell off. It’s not renewal, a simple extension of life, and it’s not rejuvenation. It’s regrowth, created anew from the core of the starfish’s being.
To understand regeneration, it is critical to connect with the truth that each starfish and each of its arms is unique. For the work of regenerating a lost arm there are no best practices, no programs, no standard measures. Only the particular DNA of this unique starfish has a say in its regrowth. And although in DNA there may be mutations from time, they always occur within the context of the unique entities who embody them.
So what does this have to do with getting beyond aspiration to do less harm or even to do positive good? How does it affect our living world on a larger scale than a starfish? My work for four decades — to educate and to reveal the DNA or essence codes of businesses, lifesheds, raw materials, customer buyer classes, children — has revealed to me how little we humans engage in this level of understanding about life. We have even less awareness of the critical importance of engaging with all forms of life only from their essences. We tend to categorize and lump living beings together, rather than search for and discover their uniqueness. We do not take the time to see the essence codes that make distinctive beings singular.
If you have children — or, for that matter, if you remember having been a child — it might be easier to grasp this idea of essence code or DNA or the singularity of each being from the point of view of parenting. A few years ago, when I asked my friend Stephanie Ryan, a senior associate with B Lab, to tell me what it was like having a 6-year-old boy, she first spoke of frogs, dirt, rebellion and all things characteristic of boys in particular at this age. This is the way we think when we make a grouping, like a demographic or gender. But when I asked her, “Who is Conner becoming?” she lit up. She described him as a detective searching out and understanding the lives of swamp critters, a protector of life in all forms on the inlet where they lived, who was heartbroken when any animal was harmed — a little boy who, when he was making this connection, would sometimes forget to eat.
Conner’s essence is unique to him. You can see it only by watching him or imagining him in your mind, at work engaging with the life in his unique place in the world. In terms of their levels of engagement, caring and innovation, the difference between the essence of Connor and the demographic of a 6-year-old boy is huge.
Let me do the same comparison with a watershed. Traditional watershed management, like lumping boys into demographic groups, makes them all the same, reducing them to commodities. Best practices arising from the commodity view spread across the nation, disconnecting us from the crests and valleys that we live in and travel through.
I worked with the community of Paonia, Colorado, at a time when there was enormous suffering as the result of this generalizing of life. All of the conversation about the local watershed was about its parts — water, timber, biota. When we engaged with Regenesis Group to discover the watershed’s Story of Place, its singularity and the unique ways in which it worked, the situation changed. The revelations that Paonia was a Learning Valley (even in businesses from mining, to solar courses, to 5 alternative approaches to scheduling this small Valley), that pow-wows shared ways of working, evoked tremendous caring. Everyone in the town remembered why they lived there or returned there. Ranchers and fruit tree growers were there for the same reason. Paonians could see this story going back even hundreds of years, to the original Native Peoples.
Paonia’s Story of Place fostered the connection of individuals from different domains to the unique life of their watershed and brought them together to regenerate the land, the community and, most importantly for them, the educational system. People stopped talking about all of the parts and the sustainability programs for each of them. They began to resonate with what was real — what they called “sacred.” The vitality and viability of this unique lifeshed, where living beings dwelled and nurtured one another, was understood and venerated within all political parties, all family heritages and all value systems.
Without this level of caring and deep connection, watershed management is only about policy changes and enforcement, and most often also litigation. It is only an abstraction, even to those with the highest intentions.
To see DNA – the essence and singularity of all living entities – you have to be connected to the unique life in which you are searching for it, whether it’s a watershed (which then becomes a Lifeshed) or a particular raw material, or a customer or value-seeking node of customers (such as attachment parents). Demographics, research in demographics and data collection from nature cannot change things for the better. Only caring and connection at an intuitive level, based on understanding of essence, can make truly regenerative contributions to the world.
The work of regenerating life requires us to continually regenerate the images of the boy or the watershed in our minds, in order to keep them alive. Otherwise, we see a demographic rather than a child, or a valley only as the place where we get our water. We see a business only as an entity that sells products and services, a raw material as something to bend with our will into a value-added product. Then we take down the mountain to extract the mineral because we don’t see its life and life force or the lives of its valleys and streams.
The mind that gave us the problems we have now is one that segments, categorizes and standardizes life. The new mind, the mind capable of regenerating what has been diminished, has learned to see essence. It understands that singularity, becoming and the principles of life guide work, not boxes of types and categories of things that we can count. This mind wishes to be present with real lives rather than concern itself with standards, just as, when we are the best parents we can be, we know our children as the individuals they are rather than as reflections of genders and demographics. The new mind has moved from counting to caring, from doing good to supporting each living entity it encounters to manifest its essence and to regenerate the essence in all that issues from it.
Read about ten entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs who work regeneratively in The Responsible Entrepreneur: Four Game-Changing Archetypes for Founders, Leaders and Impact Investors. You may already be on your way to becoming a Regenerative Entrepreneur, the highest of the four archetypes—and also the highest level of work described in The Responsible Business: Reimagining Sustainability and Success.