Ram Nidumolu interprets the Upanishad allegory of "Two Birds in a Tree" in his eponymous book, in this way: "It is the great quest to realize the higher, gold-hued bird within us while engaging with the world through the lower bird we embody. The end goal is business that is more holistic and sustainable in the long term because it continually nurtures the larger context in which it is deeply and existentially embedded." We find this same notion, that all work is "elevated" when it is undertaken with a holistic intent, in the "Levels of Work" Regenerative design framework of Carol Sanford, Bill Reed, and Pamela Mang, and in the very language of regenerativeness.
Resilience...Necessary but Not Sufficient
Capital Institute embarked on our Field Guide initiative in 2010 to study projects and practices that we believed, largely on an intuitive basis, to be taking a truly holistic approach to nurturing all forms of capital—financial, natural, human, social, and even spiritual. We started out calling our study series The Field Guide to Investing in a Resilient Economy, but as our thinking evolved we decided to substitute the word regenerative for resilient in the title. Here's why.
The dictionary defines resilience as “the capability of withstanding shock without permanent deformation or rupture or the tendency to recover from misfortune or change.” Striving for resilience is often considered to be the equivalent of striving for all the positive things we associate with sustainability. But we began to wonder whether that was always true. For example, we recognized that our flawed financial system exhibited remarkable resiliency, bouncing back from its recent near-collapse. However, it has, in fact, continued, in its relentless pursuit of exponential growth of financial capital, to drive the economy to the precipice of ecological collapse. Hardly a desirable resilience from the point of view of the long-term sustainability of our planet or our economy!
Resilience is also a term increasingly used these days in reference to recovery efforts from natural disasters. We see this kind of resilience often necessary for long-term sustainability, but also sometimes problematic. In New York post-Hurricane Sandy, for example, efforts to rebuild destroyed property, to defend property from rising sea levels, or to put in place a group of local first-responders are often described as attempts to create more resilient communities. Some (although we might argue not all) of these efforts need to take place. Still, we believe they won’t be sufficient to address the long-term devastating impacts of climate change. To navigate the challenging times ahead will also require fundamental systemic shifts guided by a higher-order capability—the ability to regenerate.
Regenerating is not about merely rebuilding what was, or even making what exists today more efficient or better fortified, although these activities may be important. Regeneration is about taking a systems level, developmental approach to the work required to move a place, an entity, or a community toward the realization of its highest (and ever evolving) potential.
We see this “reaching toward regenerativeness” everywhere at work in all our Field Guide projects.
Levels of Work ..."Above and Below the Line"
Below is a chart that illustrates "The Levels of Work," adapted from a paper co-authored by Bill Reed and Pamela Mang, “Designing from Place: A Regenerative Framework and Methodology”:
When Sanford, Mang, and Reed talk about working “Below and Above the Line,” they are quick to point out that all work at all levels is of critical value when the efforts are concerted. The “Above the Line” work (improving and regenerating) is about bringing into existence a project’s, place’s or enterprise’s potential, finding its "essence." But that “Above the Line” work will surely fail if the everyday, “Below the Line” work of maintaining and operating is not taking place in support of it. Said another way, when “Below the Line” work is occurring without an “Above the Line” direction setting, it devolves into mere problem solving or “the putting out of fires,” and the higher-order potential of a project will fail to be realized.
So the regeneration of a project, entity, or place requires that (1) its essence/potential be understood and reached for by all those engaged with it and (2) all Four "Levels of Work" are taking place in harmony with one another.
Examples from our first Field Guide story, Grasslands, a custom cattle-grazing business that operates under holistic management principles, are illustrative.
The Grasslands ranchers face numerous challenges in operating and maintaining their business (“Below the Line” work). For example they must sometimes manage difficult ground level conditions caused by excessive rain, and in the early days had to run fewer herds of cattle than was optimal because they had not yet convinced enough ranchers to become their clients—they had not converted enough of them to the value of holistic management!
As a result the “Above the Line” work—improving the quality of forage—can sometimes proceed more slowly than anticipated. (Improving the health and biodiversity of forage is key to the success of holistic management of grasslands.) Nonetheless, one senses that the ranchers commitment to their work never wavers. That is because their "Below the Line" work is always deeply embued with a sense of the transformative potential of holistic management.
So, for example, as ranchers attend to their daily chores and challenges they are simultaneously engaged in “Above the Line” work as they seek, through observation, a deeper connection to the land. As rancher Zachary Jones explains, they are all the while gaining “knowledge and understanding of the ranch lands themselves.” They are getting to “know what's over the hill, how the streams behave, what reservoirs hold up well, what paddocks provide better and/or worse quality (in context to all paddocks), how our labor can better be deployed.”
Grasslands ranchers talk about their commitment to their work in inspired, almost lyrical terms. Rancher Brandon Dalton reports that his own “passion for conservation is deeply aligned with the examples he has seen of holistic management in action” and, he has always known that it was his life’s work “to pursue this direction.” He describes how holistic management enhances whatever it comes in contact with, and the positive energy that it unleashes: "By enhancing the financial potential of ranching, holistic management makes it more attractive for young people to come back to the ranch (or to get into ranching despite growing up in town). By enhancing the health of the land, people build genuine bonds with the land, and with others working under similar circumstances. Holistic management practitioners … create tremendous positive energy directed toward those in the community with whom they interact.”
If we listen closely we hear all Field Guide project participants speaking in what can only be called the language of regenerativeness. As they describe their engagement with their projects—from the most mundane task to conceptualizing their organizational structures—it is clear that their work is infused with a passionate belief in their project’s transformative potential. In other words, here is “The Levels of Work” framework of Regenerative Design truly "at work" in the world.
We will be taking a closer look at the language of regenerativeness as expressed in other Field Guide projects through this lens in upcoming blog posts.—Susan Arterian Chang