Continuous Regeneration

Most of our problems arise from the difference between the way man thinks and the way nature works.” —- Gregory Bateson

Compression” refers to the big squeeze on both our planet and on our economic system. Doubters say no problem exists. Pessimists say that we are too short sighted and selfish to do anything. Optimists may tout magic solutions. A lot is happening, but perhaps too little, too late. Only a minority of people concentrates on the squeeze as a front-burner concern.

Multiple squeezes are pressing us in at least 14 different ways:

1. Energy source limitations 8. Toxic Dispersions
2. Water supply; water quality 9. Climate Change
3. Mineral resource limitations 10. Nuclear war/accidents
4. Soil degradation 11. Social breakdown/pushback/terror/war
5. Over-consumption 12. Cyberwar; Software complexity
6. Biodiversity in decline 13. System complexity: Over-specialization
7. Air pollution (emissions) 14. Mega Natural Disasters

Books written on each of these points explain why each one alone could doom mankind, or at least a Western way of life. However, since these threats reinforce each other, taken together, they numb our brains.

We can’t live without being optimistic, clinging to life to the very end. We don’t want to think about doom, so we tell ourselves stories, like blind belief in technological miracles, or that destruction may hit other people, but not us. But just maybe, we can bring ourselves to practice something dubbed Continuous Regeneration.

We have to crack a lot of barriers to our own thinking. None of us can track all these squeezes closely. We may be unaware that some exist, while even experts on each threat have big gaps in understanding. Each threat seems abstract and unlikely unless our personal experience is a base from which to project an outcome, something we often call common sense. Conventional business risk assessment says to wrap abstract dangers in the mental fog of uncertainty, ignore them, and maybe they will go away.

Taken together, our environmental threats demand to be considered when making decisions, large and small, but our human economic system emotionally separates us from nature. We considered nature very little when building a high-consumption, high-tech economy. Most of us like its benefits or we aspire to them, and neglect its environmental damage.

When the abstract becomes personal, like a garbage dump opening next to our dwelling, we begin to see the value of our surrounding environment. If the dump depreciates the value of our property, we can assign a dollar number. However, assigning a value to nature as a total entity is beyond the reference points of market-based valuation. Respect for nature develops perceptions and concerns beyond me-centered or company-centered valuation of assets.

Indeed, people who express appreciation for nature shun technical language. They create art and poetry. In art, connections are implied without the tedium of making them explicit, while emotional connection is intended.

Since we have long been overloading our life support system provided by our planet, human systems that presume unending physical growth cannot long endure, but what to do? Our business paradigms ignore this conflict. Restoring an imagined pristine environment is impossible. Even indigenous peoples’ rudimentary technology altered nature. For example, by depriving large mammoths of habitat, they drove them extinct.

Since 1950 our “Great Acceleration” increased our rate of consumption. It also accelerated the degradation of nature. However, being used to it, we assume that nature will adapt to our progress forever.

Humans having to adapt to nature is a revolting thought. Seeing neither need, nor knowing how, many of us revolt against any idea that inhibits anything we deem progress. But we are here, and nature is here – enough to support us, maybe, if we take care of it. So how can we develop novel, nature-linked systems by which we co-exist?

Intellectually, we can’t fully process this idea; business systems have accumulated too much detailed complexity, and we can never fathom the complexity of nature in detail. Could we adopt a different basic belief system to guide us? Perhaps. It’s not a new idea. The basic belief that we are symbiotic with nature has been called “deep ecology.”

We should re-label deep ecology as “deep learning.” To create novel systems, we must gain insight into our own psychology; plus natural systems; plus our “systems of business and economic thought,” testing assumptions and playing out scenarios from multiple viewpoints, including nature.

Continuous Regeneration. Continuous improvement is familiar as the waste-eliminating objective of lean and quality initiatives in operational settings. It improves efficiency of existing basic processes progressing along a predictable trajectory, uninterrupted by major surprises. Its best practitioners also use it to prepare for foreseeable disruptions, like fires, tornados, or riots. That increases resilience, the ability to keep going or to recover – and they also design resilience into new processes.

But Regeneration is the ability to morph into something else, to create a novel new system, to adapt to fundamental change. That is more than returning to normal; it is taking a different trajectory, possibly heading into the great non-normal.

In ecology, Regeneration is the ability to evolve as a healthy system, not diminishing or degrading, able to keep both us and itself going. We are at the point where human activity not only has to let this happen, it has to help it happen. We have to feed on the environment; the environment has to feed off us – be tended like a complex garden.

Several sci fi writers have conceptualized a nature-linked economy on a spaceship. If well done, the scenario describes the ecology on board as having a life of its own. You can promote it, but living evolution is never totally predictable. It is not a machine.

How can we promote regeneration of nature? Give it space and pay nature its due. On a macro scale, naturalists estimate that 17% of global land area and 10% or the ocean should be re-wilded. Don’t mess with it. Let it evolve unimpeded. (From MacKinnon, Once and Future World, 2013.) When we “develop” an area, take it from nature, we have little idea what we kick away, much less what value its future evolution might have for us. Nature may design molecules we can’t think of.

Geographic sequestration to preserve biodiversity has another consequence: declaring areas off-limits to resource extraction and dumping. That limits our access to raw materials, so we should learn to live better while using much less, which leads to the re-use, recycle mantras of a circular economy, preferable in small, local circles. If in addition, we consider micro-life, we must think more deeply about microbiological intervention – like large-scale dispersion of potential toxins, for instance.

We have to do danger-benefit analysis on new technology. (Cost-benefit analysis is too limiting.) For example, David Baker’s team at the U. of Washington is creating “designer proteins.” Conceptually, they could convert atmospheric CO2 into fuels and chemicals. Switch on genes that enable a body to break down toxins. Alert immune cells to disease-carrying invaders. Possibilities may be limited only by the imagination. (Science, 22 July, 2016) But case-by-case, will we foresee only consequences that we think benefit us, or will we rigorously exercise the Precautionary Principle on behalf of nature?

But probably our biggest challenge is Regenerating Us. Pessimistic futurists doubt that it can be done, that we can ever fully break from savagery and collaborate as a race. They paint Dark Age scenarios: nature wins; we lose; research labs, schools, and corporate campuses in ruins, overrun by RoundUp resistant weeds. But perhaps the out is becoming symbiotic with nature – if that is possible by only a tiny minority at first.

This is beyond anything mankind as a whole has ever attained. Human conflict and deception captivates us, fueling tabloids, conspiracy theories, politics, and war. Attention to common environmental concerns has to cut through this.

A brief mantra to guide us is to “leave nature better than you found it.” Developing this in detail will take a lot of learning from a different point of view. That implies new values, emotional learning, not just intellectual.

If we value a common nature, we may also open relationships with other humans with whom we share a common planetary heritage. If we become less competitive and more trusting we can engage in deep dialog, opening our own hidden assumptions to question.

Going all out in this way is what the Compression Institute dubs “vigorous learning.” Vigorous denotes that we learn from observation, from real experience, and that we can agree on facts. We are not tied to past myths.

We know that real people are capable of this. The elements of a Vigorous Learning Organization have been taken from observation of some of the world’s best companies over a 30-year period.

Find out how you can Get Involved with the Compression Institute.

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