I have a great deal of respect for nature, and I have a great deal of respect for humankind as well, but those forms of respect are different. Nature has practiced making sure life thrives for over 3 BILLION years – she has a track history of making that work. Humankind has a recent history of thinking that being clever is more important than being life affirming, an addiction we are in the middle of, right now.
Given that everything we have depended upon seems to be under threat, disorganized, and falling apart, including our weather, it appears to me that actions that are life enhancing might be more important, than even our collective ego. If staying alive, if staying healthy, if thriving, is more important than being clever and even more important than ‘getting my way,’ where should I look for support and inspiration?
I’ve spent decades trying to understand nature, trying to learn how she’s ‘done it.‘ Many others have looked into this as well and I’m eternally grateful to them; Janine Benyus (Biomimicry), Thomas Berry (The Great Work, among others), Brian Swimm ( The Universe is a Green Dragon, among others ), Wendell Berry (Poet), Andreas Weber (Biology of Wonder, among others) Fritjof Capra (Hidden Connections, among others), James Lovelock (Gaia, among others) and so many more. We continue to learn. It turns out that deep learning is hard because we have stood outside of nature and that distorted our understanding and even the questions we asked, let alone the answers we received.
I’ve taken a values-based approach. I learned from Jane Jacobs (Systems of Survival) that values form systems. Bringing my learning about living systems from Capra into play, that was revolutionary. Earth’s values are also a system. All living systems behave the same and have the same attributes – this was critical to my newly awakened understanding of value systems and how they operate. If all of this interests you, please take my course, “Values for the Coming Crisis” where I go into these ideas in more depth.
A start to understanding Earth’s Value System, is understanding the intent(s) she has for life. Her first intent is the foundation , the key, the whole point – she intends for life to continue to thrive! Now you may say, duh, to that, but really think about it. She doesn’t want it to thrive, she doesn’t hope that it thrives, she INTENDS it will thrive. Everything she does is to that end, and more importantly all of the parts of which she is comprised intend that life thrives too, or almost all of the parts. The only part that is also a part of her that does not always adhere to that principle, is humanity.
Humanity, under the cover of free will often does things that limit the ability of life to thrive – pollution comes to mind. WE soil our own nest. WE poison the atmosphere; WE poison the oceans and foul them with plastic. WE kill our soil – a living system in its own right, by our manufacturing style of farming. WE do not consider, nor seem to care, if our actions make it impossible for others to also live.
The second intent is connected to the first, as are all the rest. These are components of a living systems after all. The second intent is continuity – making sure that life, once formed, continues. She has clear ways of being and doing that make sure things flow and move forward. She knows how to make the very best out of what currently exists. Earth is a closed system, except for power, which comes from the sun. What we have is what we got. Everything living system on the planet understands that and lives in ways that support that. Every living system, except one, us. WE burn, pile up, and create inedible stuff all the time. WE act as if there is no tomorrow, as if there is an unending stream of materials for us to use forever – and there isn’t.
The third intent is resilience, the ability to adapt and continue on under stress. The ability to dance with changing times in a way that ensures life continues to thrive. Understanding the magic of how that happens is mind-blowing! WE – all living systems that are part of the living system that Mother Earth is, are SO exquisitely designed to do this – It. Is. Amazing! We all actually know how and even do it, but only one living system chooses to not listen, to disbelieve OR to believe impossibilities, and in so doing flies in the face of…nature – yup, us. She destroys to facilitate rebirth, we destroy to eliminate.
The fourth, and most fun intent, is evolution. Evolution is how she learns. Each living system continues to learn and in so doing, makes continual adjustments as it learns to finesse and improve its chances at life. If those adaptations are really successful, then it may choose to keep them and pass them on to its progeny. New life forms happen all the time and some stay and some don’t make it. Nature experiments in SO many ways, and some of them work! WE are the only living system that intentionally makes changes in other living systems. WE are the only living system that makes changes in our own system – without natures help or encouragement.
Each intent has four values that activate it. These intents and values constitute a living system of values by which Earth keeps it all together AND is able to grow in complexity – to thrive. All other living systems play their part. There is only one other living system that actively works to simplify the living systems of which it is a part, and that, of course, is us. We seek to simplify, to limit, to eliminate complexity and diversity, there-by weaking the fabric of nature. WE seek to reduce the number of species, the number of kinds of species, and in so doing we make the whole system much more vulnerable to collapse as we are eliminating a key aspect of resiliency.
So here you have four aspects of nature against which you can check your own actions in life, your decisions, the decisions of your local, state and even federal government. How do they stack up? Are the actions you support life enhancing, do they ensure life continues with ease, do they reinforce the adaptability of the life it impacts, and finally does it support an evolution into a more complex and resilient world? Are you engaged with your life through connection or are you acting on your life from outside, form a point of separation? Each of us is responsible for our own actions. Each of us can only control our own actions. If we all shifted so that we could say YES to supporting each of these intents, then we will get through all these shifts and changes, just fine. WE will become partners with the Earth, with Mother Nature. WE will have learned to listen to nature not in the ‘what should I do,’ conversation, but in the ‘how should I do it’, kind of conversation. And, that’s one that has been missing for centuries.
Gaia is a Living System. What is true about systems is that they are wholes, composed of parts. We are not used to seeing wholes, we see only parts. That is not only confusing, but it is at the root of our deep misunderstanding. The parts are intrinsic to the whole – they can’t be removed or replaced; all of the parts are needed! Do you understand how very profound those statements are? Every part of Gaia is needed.
Our bodies are the whole we are most familiar with. Every part is needed! It is true that we can lose limbs and still function, but life will be much harder and more difficult. If we lose toes, then balance is affected. If we lose fingers, then our dexterity becomes difficult. Nature does not tolerate waste of any kind. New research suggests that the appendix is designed to protect good bacteria in the gut. That way, when the gut is affected by a bout of diarrhea or other illness that cleans out the intestines, the good bacteria in the appendix can repopulate the digestive system and keep you healthy. Nothing is useless, we just aren’t always smart enough to understand why something is important. All parts of any whole are necessary but, not all the time.
Gaia is no different from our bodies. ALL of her ‘parts’ are necessary – every life form on this planet is a needed and necessary ‘part’ of the whole that Gaia is. Let me say this again. Every life form on Gaia is a necessary part of the whole, of life. The parts fit, only because they are different, and I’ll say more about that later – that fact, alone, is glorious! Like the appendix, no part is superfluous, no part is extraneous, no part is not needed – that includes humans. For life to continue, it is imperative to maintain the integrity of the whole.
Humans are very good at interrupting that integrity. We destroy forests with an incredible nonchalance. Denuding vast areas without a thought. We replant trees and call it good, but lots of trees do not a forest make. We pave over grass. We kill soil in SO many ways. Think about that – we kill the life beneath our feet, we don’t even know that it’s there. We create huge dead zones where polluted rives run into the sea as the algae, encouraged by run off nitrogen and phosphorous, remove all the oxygen in the water. We encase rivers in concrete, and even change their course, and dam their waters. We poison enormous stretches of land, killing all life forms we don’t want, and assume it doesn’t matter. Yes, nature can limp along without her fingers and toes, but there are always consequences.
Our latest blasphemy is to propose sucking up all life on the floor of the ocean to acquire nickel and cobalt for electric engines. Impossible Mining, a B Corp run by a woman, Renee Grogan, proposes to use robots to pick up the nodules laying on the ground instead of killing everything. See the wonderful article about this in Time, April 13, 2022. There are even trees that ‘bleed’ metal. Researchers have been studying a specialized group, known as hyperaccumulators, that have evolved to take up the normally toxic metals into their stems, leaves and even seeds. We need to slow down and see what our beautiful planet offers.
A big part of maintaining the integrity of the whole is scale. We move too fast and there are too many of us, so we overshoot what the planet offers. The World Wildlife Fund says, “Humanity’s annual demand on the natural world has exceeded what the Earth can renew in a year since the 1970s. This “ecological overshoot” has continued to grow over the years, reaching a 50 per cent deficit in 2008. This means that it takes 1.5 years for the Earth to regenerate the renewable resources that people use, and absorb the CO2 waste they produce, in that same year.
How can this be possible when there is only one Earth? Just as it is possible to withdraw money from a bank account faster than to wait for the interest this money generates, renewable resources can be harvested faster than they can be re-grown. But just like overdrawing from a bank account, eventually the resource will be depleted.
At present, people are often able to shift their sourcing when this happens; however at current consumption rates, these sources will eventually run out of resources too – and some ecosystems will collapse even before the resource is completely gone.
The consequences of excess greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are also already being seen, like climate change and ocean acidification. These place additional stresses on biodiversity and ecosystems.”
The Doughnut Economics Action Lab (DEAL) uses this graphic to clarify what both overshoot and undershoot mean and how they impact our life on this planet:
I find it fascinating that we are overusing Earth’s resources, and at the same time, under serving our human populations. Maybe our ‘human centric’ way of being is just greed?
The integrity that is invisible and that we ignore all the time, is the pace of cycles. Our planet offers an infinity variety of options, possibilities, and resources IF we use things up at the same rate they are created. WE overdraw our back account regularly, doing so is out of integrity!
WE are part of the whole. We are special only in the same way everything else is special. We are unique and therefore offer unique capabilities in service to life, but we must move from a human centric approach, drop our greed, and move to a life centric way of being. We need to become part of the whole again.
The bible got it all wrong. Go forth and multiply, was a misunderstanding of the Prime Directive. That misunderstanding has made a mess out of our world. It has justified all the harm we have done. More of us is NOT the way to ensure life. High birthrates simply add more stress to the planet. More is not better.
What happened? Nature is not so much concerned with each individual life form, she is concerned about the health of the whole, about how all the various parts fit in ways that ensure that the whole remains healthy and viable. Nature, our planet, wants to make sure that life continues, and she needs all the various parts of her (including us) to help make that happen. There’s the rub. We stopped cooperating. We stopped caring about the whole. We stopped paying attention to the impact of our actions on others. We stopped playing with life and began rationalizing ways that dampened it down. We became human centered, instead of life centered.
James Lovelock makes such a fantastic case for why our planet is special. The ability to regulate our atmosphere is unique among all of the terrestrial objects we know about. Here, only here, does life exist. Only here is there an agreement to keep life going and here everyone is involved, everyone except us. We stopped playing the game a long time ago.
When there were just a few of us, it didn’t matter so much, but now that there are almost 9 billion of us AND we have learned to take with such expertise, it matters a great deal. Yes, we are a wasteful species and our waste products are suffocating life and burying it in plastic, but we are also a prideful species, actively engaged in getting rid of anything we deem as un-useful – to us.
By not understanding the fierce interrelatedness of all living things, by not understanding the mutual support each offers to the processes that make life work on this planet, we have been actively dismantling that life giving structure. Now, Earth has a decision to make, she can die, or she can remove the creatures that are causing the problem. She’s maintained a fairly narrow, and quite pleasant, range of temperature for millions of years. This range has allowed many, many, different forms of life to thrive. Now, as she heats up, new life forms will be brought forth and many old life forms will disappear. We may be one of those.
Many of us have already lowered our body temperatures a degree in an attempt to manage the heat. Will that be enough? What about all the other life forms we know we depend upon, cattle, chickens, corn, wheat, water, soil? Will they adapt fast enough? The loss of ice, millions of years in the making, interrupts the flow of both air and water, flows that have kept some parts cool and some parts warm. This is a whole new ball game that will require a whole new range of adaptive techniques. Our normal pattern of resistance – will it be sufficient; will it be enough?
We have been a bit short-sighted, thinking only of humans and what we think is best for us. Instead of the Prime Directive – ensure that all life thrives, ensure that LIFE thrives, we have been focused on ensuring that human life thrives, and we are beginning to see that we do not live alone. We’ve had a good run resisting the planet, now is the time to shift gears and begin to use our knowledge and expertise to work with the planet. Can we, do it?
There’s nothing like the human ego. Our belief in our specialness has given us things we have dreamed of for centuries, but at an exceptional cost. How attached are we to our egos? How attached are we to our specialness? In every process of maturation, there comes a time when the needs and desires of the individual must be reorganized in ways that acknowledge and contribute to the greater whole. We have been able to avoid that for quite a while, but no longer.
We are hard-wired to connect and cooperate. It is those skills that have made us so successful. Can we bring them out, dust them off, and shift gears? Can we expand our capabilities to include the whole planet, not just our species? Can we use the joy of connection, the bliss of right action as motivators to shift our actions to supporting life? Can we reimagine soil as life giving and not just dirt? Can we learn to clean up after ourselves by focusing on zero waste? Can we follow the termites and build in air-conditioning that doesn’t use energy? It’s all there, it is only our egos that are standing in the way.
The Prime Directive is contained in the first two values of the Resilient Values Set;™ All actions create the conditions that support life, and focus on maintaining the integrity of the whole. Simple? It is simply a shift in focus from us to LIFE. We can do this!
The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were a time when alchemists like Newton became enamored with their own egos, and they brought the rest of us along on that journey. The tension between control and understanding was resolved as the intelligentsia, the scientific, doubled down on control. I can only speculate that the anger and frustration felt by those who resented the inability to control nature was released in their desire to pull her apart in their attempt to control by manipulating or disobeying the ‘limits’ they found there.
Most of human history has been conducted in relationship with nature. Meaning was found in understanding how to be a partner, we worked to find and then grow our food. Our religious life was focused around supplicating or placating nature, and that relationship gave us a place in the universe. When we left that universe, we entered the modern world of science and capitalism. A world where people were taught to hate life, even as they feared death.
Unaware of the moral imperative to ensure life continues, we maintained the corrupted version of ‘go forth and procreate’ as being sufficient, embracing instead, entropy, which has resulted in the obvious result of a destruction of life’s ability to sustain life – at least as we have known it. Morris Berman, in his book, The Reenchantment of the World, makes the case for a re-enchantment that puts the Earth back into her rightful place. He argues, as do the indigenous folks, that we can and must reseat ourselves back into right relationship with life, and that we can do that, even using science, through appreciation and gratitude.
Perhaps just getting in touch with the amazing creativity and cleverness of nature allows us to marvel at the world and then to marvel at us, how amazing WE are, and maybe we can discover our own ‘fit’ with the rest of life. The loneliness and angst we feel, the lack of satisfaction and meaning, can be regained as we stand in wonder at the beauty of it all. The beauty of dance and the pair's competition in ice-skating is not just at the graceful and technically skillful moves, but at the fact they are done together. Perhaps we can find purpose and meaning if we choose to dance with life, instead of resisting her at every step?
We have been so seduced by parts we have lost sight of the whole, of context, of culture, of the water we swim in. Our world-view has blinded us to the tone and hue created by that world-view, which colors everything thing we see, distorting our vision. Instead of life, we have substituted survival, instead of life we grasp for success. Neither of these offers satisfying and meaningful experiences, once past the initial rush, they are not sustaining, but they are seductive.
The reenchantment of the world is not a ‘going back’ but a reawakening to the miracle that life is. A recognition of the amazing sophistication and elegance of nature, as evidenced by sea slugs and dragon fish. It is a deep appreciation of the magic created by following her principles and dynamics and watching life thrive. Few things are more thrilling than watching the miracle of life happen, as any parent knows. If we hang on to that thrill, and turn our faces to life, who knows what wonders we might not only discover, but be an integral part of making happen?
For many of us, our values are the water we swim in. They are the mycelium that live between us and that carry the information we pay attention to. They signal us to notice this, or notice that, making the rest of the information we live in, invisible. Our penchant for parts means that all of our values are equally important and when the results we expect aren’t forth coming we blame ourselves, or others, not seeing the water we are swimming in.
The Earth is a living system – a whole, composed of parts. Our focus on the parts has blinded us to the patterns and processes that hold the parts together and that make everything work. It is not the parts that are the cause, they are in relationship to each other in certain ways, and it is that relationship that makes all the difference. Our values are the same. It is the relationship between them that create a whole worldview, and it is this that makes all the difference.
The seduction of culture is that when we look around for guidance and validation we see ‘everyone else’ doing the same thing, and even though it isn’t working for us, we double down because ‘that’s how it’s done.’ We believe what the mycelium are telling us. What we don’t understand is that we have choice and options. All we see is the culture we are in, one that is caught in survival or one that is caught in ‘success’ defined as stuff and status. The sliver of truth contained in each of these is corrupted by the fear of life and the self-hatred that generates, because we are life. Both of these belief systems put us at war with ourselves as we dismiss, shut down or ignore all of our internal signals that tell us we have it all wrong.
The reenchantment of the world begins when we stand in amazement at life and at ourselves, seeing us as the mystical and magical beings that we are. Then, maybe we will have the courage to lift each other up, instead of denying who we are. Maryanne Williams said we are afraid of our own brilliance. We develop machines to be better than we are instead of doing the work to be what they do. We have lost respect for ourselves because we have ceased to take our rightful place in the gift called life. We hide behind our need for life in our fear of death, and we hide our need to be seen in our drive for success. Both of those are placeholders for reality.
It feels good to be true to ourselves, to tell the truth, to address reality squarely, but our cultures will tell us otherwise. The angst we feel is reflected in our teenagers’ suicides, in our vast addictions to drugs, television, technology and social media. All methods designed to distract us from engaging in the real world, the world of soil and water, wind and rain, plants, and animals – and us. We justify our agony by repeating the whispers of our culture that we will die if we care, that we need others to approve of us so that we become real.
We can begin the reenchantment by noticing how the world works and be amazed by it. We can reawaken respect as we notice the incredible effort everything makes to fit, and we can regain our self-respect as we strive to do the same and then witness the benefits of doing so. The book, Darwin’s Finches by David Lack shows so clearly how each individual is willing to change itself in order to find its own niche and so fit into the world with the least resistance. We do this too, but we are now working to ‘fit’ into a life hating world and so are bringing about our own demise.
It doesn’t have to be this way. We simply have to turn our faces into life. As we begin to seek the thrill of bringing forth life, we will create the path we have to walk. We will begin to actually SEE and experience the interbeing Thich Nhat Hanh talks about. Fit is not easy, but it is a wonderful driver for learning, creativity and reverence. Appreciating the skill and caring that goes into making ‘fit’ happen opens up a brand-new appreciation for life. As we see and acknowledge our own skill and creativity in creating our own fit we will also gain a new appreciation for ourselves and our own creative abilities. The world is waiting to welcome us back – we just have to say yes.
I am SO over the flaccid discussion about the 'intelligence' of animals. David Bohm wrote about the implicate order where he postulated that as the structure becomes more complex it becomes capable of new capacities possible because of the more complex structure. This is sort of a duh, particularly when you think of the brain, which was what he was talking about. That said, we now know that octopuses have 'brains' in each tentacle and that some life forms can 'think' without a brain. Consciousness as it is expressed in nature is capable of WAY more than we know, even now.
We have the human centric audacity to assume that if a life form is not concerned with mathematics and financial interest calculations, that it doesn't think. The cleverness of other life forms is always situated about survival, and more to the point, about how to 'fit' into their environment so that life is both safe and as easy as possible. Surly, you can relate to that.
Life is all about relationship. Most of us Westerners have missed the boat here as we believe that everything is about 'being the best we can be' when it really is about who we know. It's about the interdependencies we create that actually determine whether we live and how well. You may have seen this in your Linkedin stream, and I'm indebted to Ruchira Somaweera • 2nd Principal Environmental Scientist at Stantec | Adjunct Research Fellow at UWA | National Geographic Explorer for sharing this most amazing tidbit about Southern Dumpling Squid: CUTENESS. These cuties are Southern Dumpling Squids (Euprymna tasmanica), a type of bobtail squid, which are closely related to cuttlefish. They only grow to ~5 cm long and are mostly found over sandy areas in shallow coastal waters, during the night time. They will burrow themselves into the seafloor during the day and special mucus cells on their skin acts like glue to hold the sand in place. Fascinatingly, they have special acid cells on the skin that allow the sand coat to disconnect all at once when needed. Even more fascinatingly, they have a light organ on their mantle cavity (“body”) filled with symbiotic bioluminescent bacteria species Aliivibrio fischeri. The bacteria are fed a sugar and amino acid solution by the squid and in return hide the squid's silhouette when viewed from below by matching the amount of light hitting the top of the mantle (counter-illumination)! How amazing is nature!
How amazing indeed!! Now, THINK about this for a minute. Here we have a contract between a squid and bacteria. Brain size anyone? The bacteria measure the light at the surface and then match it. How long do you think it took to: know that was what was required, develop the capacity to both measure and match? Spontaneous? Casual? Come on - this takes practice, lots, and lots of practice.
We believe that we can design something that will solve long-standing problems as a sort of one off event. In the real world, ecologies take time, lots of time. Each member must divine how they can contribute and then figure out how to make that happen. Each member has to recognize what works and what doesn't and be willing to shift and change for the greater good. We, on the other hand, think we can do it ourselves. You can see where that has gotten us!
WE are an interdependent web of interconnected beings that functions through reciprocity and right relationship to form a more perfect union. That is what WE are, both as individuals and as community. Wake up! Love us, love us all, love all of us, and work to see what your unique contribution is and develop that!
The Integrity of the Whole
Ah, what a strange value, don’t you think? When the earth functions with this framework, it is the long view, the grandness of being, that springs to mind. Yet I’d like to suggest that since we are little wholes inside bigger wholes, that creating that resonance, that alignment, and coherence, is our key contribution to the integrity of the whole.
As little wholes, each of our actions brings into being more and stronger resonance or not. If we choose dissonance then the ripples are small and almost unnoticed, they go flailing out disturbing the resonant whole and dissipate. If we choose harmony, then those tiny ripples spread out and join the others, and we ride a gentle wave, almost unnoticed. Each of our actions seem so tiny, so unimportant, so unnoticed.
In my studies of ethics, these insignificant actions don’t ever seem to rise. Most discussions of ethics want to speak to the bigger actions, the ones we see and the ones that create very big ripples, yet life, LIFE is composed of many, many smaller ripples, the ones that we do every day and most often don’t even see.
For me, the ethical life is composed of context. It is context that informs us of the larger whole. It is context that can be misleading, and it is context that offers the mirror to see if our tiny ripples support LIFE or flies in the face it, dampening that possibility. The example I’ll use is the teaching of distrust. We have whole industries dedicated to this, take marketing, for example.
“Let the buyer beware” suggests that only fools believe what they are told. If it’s too good to be true, it probably isn’t. This is the institutionalizing of the corruption of innocence. It’s a way to ‘protect’ from and ’teach’ about the ugly facts of disappointment and misunderstandings we rationalize, but without developing the skills of discernment.
We teach distrust by not keeping our word, by making promises we don’t keep, by rewarding impossible promises and punishing truth tellers – politics is the fertile ground for this practice. We teach distrust when we laugh at humor that showcases the ‘fool’ being shown the results of her misplaced trust as the chair is being pulled out from under her.
Nature never lies. She always tells us what works, we have learned not to listen, and we have believed that we could ignore her, which we have done, ignoring Dynamic Stability, but that’s the subject for another time. We have gotten so good at believing our own cynicism that we don’t even notice what we are doing.
Harryette Mullen, in her poem, We Are Not Responsible, showcases this so very well when she says in her first two verses:
We are not responsible for your lost or stolen relatives.
We cannot guarantee your safety if you disobey our instructions.
We do not endorse the causes or claims of people begging for handouts.
We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone.
Your ticket does not guarantee that we will honor your reservations.
In order to facilitate our procedures, please limit your carrying on.
Before taking off, please extinguish all smoldering resentments.
Here she shows just how deeply we work to make sure people understand the ‘appropriate’ level of trust, so, we rationalize, we are not responsible….
Steven R. Covey, in his book The Speed of Trust, shows the damage and the ineffectiveness not trusting creates in the workplace. Our lives are built on trust – those lines on the highway – we trust other drivers to obey them, and so many other instances where trust makes things work, yet we want to defy it – to what end? Every time we teach distrust, we tear at the fabric of the whole – destroying its integrity.
We have been taught in the past few decades that people are NOT of good will. Our entire form of government is based on trusting that people are of good intent, that is why differences of opinion are so important. We need other eyes to see the whole – IF – the intent is to strengthen the whole to deepen the alignment with LIFE. Now we are being taught that there is only ONE way, but that is not how nature works. It is having many ways that gives nature her resilience, so that we can trust that she will keep her balance even if things change.
We are so inured to noticing how we teach distrust, we desperately need each other to begin to sharpen our discernment. We must hone that skill of seeing when trust is being destroyed and develop the social scaffolding to support each other in acting on that discernment. We do this much better and faster when we engage with others in a commitment to develop and build trust, than when we go it alone.
Begin to open your own eyes by actively noticing when our culture is teaching distrust. Find someone or someones who are willing to join you in this discovery, and then seek, together, to build countermeasures. This is such a crucial action to take at this time! This is a hero’s journey.
Leadership style fits the values – the foundational values that inform the world-view, of the leader. Leadership has evolved over time. New ways of moving people to do things have come into being as our confidence in living systems has grown. As a species we seem to be evolving, almost in spite of our selves.
The earliest leadership approach was framed by fear – fear of the other. The various values that inform this style are centered around loyalty. Loyalty was shorthand for acknowledging obedience to someone recognized as an authority. The assumption that ‘we’ need to be protected from ‘them’ justified many actions with the ‘other’ that would not be allowed with the ‘inside’ group. Secrecy, deception, vengeance are a few of the tolerated behaviors that this style of leadership allows. We have seen a very public demonstration of this on the American political stage just recently.
According to Jane Jacobs the second type of leadership came from the desire to trade with neighbors, people that may have recently been at war with us or might be in the future. How do you engender trust with such people? Here the core value is honesty, a value that is often at odds with loyalty. In such a fragile type of relationship it is imperative to get a voluntary agreement and to codify that in contracts. Innovation and a fierce commitment to competition are two other drivers in this second scenario. The focus on comfort and convenience have been at the heart of so much commerce that we have taken it for granted and not really paid attention to the impact. Now we are beginning to see that is one of the major drivers destroying our world and social entrepreneurship is striving to make a difference in other ways.
Given that we are watching so many of our foundational systems, medicine, education, law, etc. begin to collapse the visionary leader is starting to look for avenues that will build the world anew. To do that requires a dramatic shift in leadership. Leadership by autocratic command generates a more, faster, better approach to problem solving that does not yield the curious, creative approach that solves complex messy problems like those we are currently facing. Neither does the creative and innovation focused leadership that is seeking new products getting to the market faster. Leadership must now be much more strongly concerned with not only the what, but with the how. It is not paying attention to the how that has gotten us into trouble.
The regenerative leader must be concerned with the impact of business practices as well as sales. Design is key – modular to ensure ease of recycling, material resources – mimicking nature so that the earth is left better for her contribution using full cycles and no poisons or waste. These require way more curiosity and creativity than ever before. To mimic nature, you need to know nature, so biology becomes a new business skill. Here two key values from the Resilient Values Set™ become invaluable for setting the context for decision-making: Work to maintain the integrity of the whole, and all actions create the conditions that support LIFE. Regenerative leaders are LIFE centric, not profit centric.
LIFE centric leaders, care for their people, they care for their community, and they care for their planet. They use their understanding of living systems to manage and troubleshoot. They encourage experimentation to generate the innovation this new approach to business and life requires. Regenerative leaders love to see things around them thrive and they use that interior experience as a compass to tell themselves if they are proceeding in the right direction, or not. Using their heart to drive their head, they are curious, joyfull and exciting to around. The goal to thrive while doing good business makes work meaningful and exciting.
Be rightly suspicious when all you hear more, bigger, faster coming out of some ‘leaders’ mouth. Leaders now ask not what you can do for their company, but what can our company do for the planet?
I was talking with a girlfriend today and she asked me that question. When I was teaching, I ask that question of my students. They most often decided that ethics were ‘rules’ designed to help people manage their relationships and morals had to do with life and death decisions. That’s OK, as far as it goes, but let’s take a deeper inquiry.
One of my big ‘ah ha’s’ is that most of our ethical and moral structures are focused on humans – how we live and if we live. This way of thinking, however, leads to some logical difficulties from a moral stance, take death, for instance.
We believe that we shouldn’t die. Our entire medical system is predicated on that. We do everything we can to prevent our dying. What happens to animals who dare to kill us? We exterminate them! Even in death we prevent anything from eating us by burying our dead in concrete vaults holding massive, wooded caskets of embalmed bodies. On the other hand, we cheerfully kill each other if we disagree about something. We dedicate ourselves to killing others who want our stuff, who want our land, or who want our spouses. We kill animals just for the fun of it. What’s up with that? We’ve worked for centuries to try and create a logical system that will allow these disparities, but without much luck.
If ethics are ‘rules’ then we run into the differences in cultures about how to best interact. This inconvenient difficulty has been addressed using ‘situational ethics’ but that has not been very satisfactory and raises more problems than it answers. We kinda’ believe there should be some way of understanding how to live in our world that would allow for differences that would be foundational for everyone, but so far no luck. Maybe we’ve been looking in the wrong places and asking the wrong questions.
Actually, the world seems to work pretty well. For the past 3.4 billion years life has increased in complexity. Life forms have become more complex, and the number of species has increased as ecosystems have become more complex. Obviously, something understands how to keep life thriving and robust, why don’t we?
WE have been trying to figure things out all by ourselves. Holding ourselves as separate and ‘better’ than the wildness of nature so we rarely look at nature to see how she manages. As we became citified, we stopped interacting with nature – except when she gets in our way, so we don’t really know or understand her. Maybe it’s time to change that.
Indigenous people have always lived in better harmony with nature than we have. Their stories and culture were designed to maintain that harmony. Their goal was to live well for generations and they did that. The Ohlone lived for 2,000 years without war. The Iroquois learned to live together by forming the first democratic government. Our cultures are designed for self-expression and for wealth – we have achieved that, but at the expense of future generations and even our own existence on a sick and dying planet.
What might happen if we used what science is now learning about how nature is able to create and maintain such a robust and vibrant ecosystem to shift our culture to mimic nature? Books like The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben have shown us how wonderfully complex the forest really is. The film Fantastic Fungi explores how the forest communicates so we now know that cooperation is the key to a healthy ecosystem. It certainly helps human communities too!
What humans have not been too good at is understanding the implications of their actions. We don’t think about how our actions will impact future generations or even how they will impact our own near future. Even with risk management, strategic planning, and insurance companies we do not seem to understand how to predict the consequences of our actions. What if, what if we had a road map that contained instructions for how to make decisions, but not what decisions to make?
Jane Jacobs took 12 years to research the criteria that people used to determine what made an action wrong. She discovered two systems of values, one that focused on protection and the other that is focused on exchange between cultures or business. Each system has about 15 values. Why is this important? There are several reasons: we see all values as separate and distinct and not as forming systems, and we do not recognize how our emotions impact our choice of these value systems.
Living systems have certain characteristics, first is that they are wholes even though they are comprised of parts. This is as true of an ecosystem as it is of these value sets. Second the parts are not interchangeable from one system to another. Plants that live in a forest will not do well in the desert. The values from one system will corrupt another system and prevent the intent and purpose of the systems from being realized. I have three workbooks on Amazon that deal just with these two aspects of systems, for individuals/families, organizations, and teams. We are often slapped by the unintended consequences or our actions – even when we think we have adhered to our most prized values, and a reason why is we’ve mixed values from different systems and, unwittingly, created a mess.
From neuroscience we now know a lot more about how our emotions impact our bodies and brains. We ignore this science at our peril yet ignore it we do. Taking the systems Jacobs discovered it is easy to see that fear is what drives the protective value set. Fear shuts down our ability to both connect and learn. That would suggest that fear limits our ability to innovate and narrows the possible number of solutions we might discover in a crisis. Fear and its relatives, stress and anxiety, are not our friends unless our life is immediately in peril, a situation that is rather rare these days. This indicates that the use of the Protective Value Set™ limits our ability to be successful even though it feels like the right choice when we are afraid. Here the key value of loyalty comes into play and holds people captive in a relationship space that seems safe.
The Effective Value Set,™ on-the-other-hand is stimulated in business when we want to make a sale. These values, honesty in particular, help to create a trusting environment so that deals can be made not just once, but over and over again. When this desire is attached to either ego, as proof of competency or personal value, or to greed, or to the desire to win and win at all costs, then fear enters the picture and when that happens these values get mixed with the Protective Value Set™ and things often don’t go as planned. I’m willing to bet that the tension between loyalty and honesty is not too hard to imagine. This is a common issue in many organizations for just the reasons mentioned above. Mixing these two value sets means that it becomes very difficult to achieve either, both safety and success become elusive.
As we go forward there are two clear strategies for dealing with a sick and dying planet. One is to beat it harder. Here we have the doubling down on technology as the path forward. Artificial Intelligence and climate engineering are two strong contenders on the path of trying to subdue or manipulate nature. This is a continuation of what we have been doing for centuries. So far it hasn’t turned our too well. The road less traveled is to mimic nature. One thing nature seems to do well is to create and support life. What if that was our job too?
So many people, philosophers, poets, and scientists have been engaged in trying to discover just how nature works. I’ve worked to distill from their work, as Jacob’s did, the criteria, the values, that nature uses to ensure a healthy and robust planet. The Resilient Values Set™ is the result of that work. These values show the dynamics nature uses to manage life – for life. They form a set of guidelines for consideration when making big impactful decisions and small everyday ones. They help us think through the implications of our actions.
There are two resilient values I’ll share for you to contemplate applying in your own life: the first is to maintain the integrity of the whole, and the second is to ensure that ALL actions create the conditions that support LIFE (thanks to Janine Benyus of biomimicry fame). The first can be applied at every level from relationships and family to nation states. The second applies to every decision and action that happens between living beings.
So, back to the initial question, what is the difference between ethics and morals? Is there actually a difference? Isn’t that the wrong question? Isn’t the point to live good and full lives? The path to a ‘good’ life is paved with interactions with others that should make that possible for them too. In reality the path to LIFE is paved with the interactions we have with ALL life that makes LIFE possible for them too – we have had too small a circle of care. If we enlarge that circle to take in all the LIFE we interact with and depend upon, then maybe we will find the meaning that seems to elude so many of us. In this context all our choices are life and death choices. All our choices are moral choices and only choices that support a healthy and robust planet are ethical choices.
The only good and ethical choices are those that strengthen, in partnership with nature, the ability of LiFE to thrive on this big, beautiful planet of ours. It becomes our responsibility and duty to fulfill our own unique destiny and to do that in a way that allows everyone else to do so as well. That means that trees and rivers, waterfalls and meadows need to be supported to fulfill their destinies as well. If we stand on the side of LIFE then everything else falls into place. Yes, there might be some hardships and difficult sacrifices, but learning to balance our desires for comfort and convenience with the needs of a thriving Earth might just be the growing pains we need to make us adults.
The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben on Amazon
Fantastic Fungi - website, also available on Netflicks
Systems of Survival by Jane Jacobs on Amazon
For the Values and Unintended Consequences books on Amazon
For more on the Value Sets go here
I think we can do the energy piece to stop pushing the temperature by 2050. All that takes is will and I’m seeing enough push from business and some government to think we can and will do that. The need to sink carbon, however, is more complex.
The two biggest levers in making that happen are: planting trees and shifting agriculture. Many people are planting trees. You might question if they are actually creating forests because it is forests, we need, not just trees. I do not believe that we will have the time to establish thriving forests by 2050, but I do believe that we will have shifted in that direction by 2050.
Shifting agriculture is another matter altogether. The monetary dynamics involved in large scale farming will not shift unless government steps up and mandates change. That is a tall order, and that change would have to be focused on farming technologies like no-till and biochar in order to make enough difference. If the government did step in, then, yes, we could make that shift and Paul Hawkin thinks we can do it in that time frame.
For me, right now, I’m focusing on agriculture. Making that shift would address so many issues – all at the same time. No-till and biochar in particular, would create a tremendously large carbon sink. At the same time, it would refresh our soils and stimulate new soil life and perhaps slow down some of our species’ loss. Shifting agriculture this way would also improve our food system and thus human health and nutrition. That’s a huge impact for just a few changes.
This change would have to be government driven, I think, in order to rise about individual doubt and disagreement and to speed implementation. Whiteout that stimulus, I’m not optimistic.
Please share your thoughts below.
We all seek power and some of us are interested in #learning to use it well, with finesse and skill, others, not so much. For most of us power was learned when some one grabbed an ear and said go, or commanded us to our room, or beat our backside. The, and maybe even now, power, means power over. The ability to make someone do something.
Over the years #leadership has changed moving into transformational leadership, instead of transactional, or shifting to servant leadership. The changes are all predicted on working better with others; respecting them, appreciating them, and even teaching them.
That's not enough. Regenerative Leadership is about leading without fear, working to thrive not grow or 'succeed,' and mimicking nature not manipulating her or controlling her. This is a tall order!
Leading with out fear does not mean the leader is not afraid. It means his or her people are not afraid. And they are not afraid because they don't know to be afraid, but because they and their leader have learned to transform fear and fear is not used as a tool for obedience, or a tool for manipulation, fear is managed, it does not lead!
This type of #leadershipdevelopment is very different. The role of Regenerative Leaders is to keep people open to learning, creative, and engaged. The task of mimicking nature is challenging and rewarding, so fear becomes a distraction and time suck.
If you are ready to invest in the future, to be a first responder to the climate crisis by using the gigantic opportunity we have as our systems collapse, then get in touch. Our Group Resilience Coaching or our Regenerative Leadership Training maybe just the ticket.
Kathryn Alexander, MA
Regenerative approaches require a deep integration with nature. Collaboration requires different structures and ways of working together. If we want different results we have to do things differently!