We are in a time of breakdowns and breakthroughs. The experience of the global covid19 pandemic has cast a bright light on the frailty in our global economies, has highlighted our inability to adjust to complexity, uncertainty and volatility, and accelerated the conversation about what needs to change in our world. Not just to adjust to the possibility of future viral anomalies, but to the greater challenges following in its wake.
Climate change. Biodiversity loss. Soil degradation. Ocean acidification. Economic and social collapse.
We know that these challenges are driving deep systemic change. It’s no longer a question of why we have to change, but how. This series focuses on a key aspect of how we design regenerative economies to address the imbalances in our current thinking — the economy and power of place.
Places are living organisms that are all each completely unique. They are unique in biology, ecology and geology. They are unique in cultural heritage. They are unique in energy flows and patterns. In regenerative practice we describe places as having a unique bio-cultural identity and potential.
Lisbon is different to London. The Bay of Plenty is different from the Bay of Biscay. Mallorca is not Madeira. Some economies are built on the heritage of the land like Russia and New Zealand, others on pivotal geographic positions which became political centres across different cultures and regions – like Istanbul. Each watershed we live in has a unique potential to grow a flourishing economy based on its particular ecological and cultural heritage.
Our place can be a small village tucked away in the countryside. It can be a hillside farming community in a protected natural landscape. It can be a bustling city or a suburb. It can be a working farm or a grand estate. It can be new housing development or a whole new town. It can be an island community or it can be nested in an entire watershed the size of the Mississippi or Volga basin. Place can also be an organisatio nwhen it is deeply rooted in its geography and communities.
Whilst the idea of changing global systems can be overwhelming as a challenge in its complexity, there is something altogether more possible in our minds when we consider systemic change from the perspective of place.
Although our globalised economy — where we have the opportunity to travel to and live and work almost anywhere — has diminished our potential to be connected to place, we humans can still best experience intimacy, connection, consideration and caring for our natural surroundings from a perspective of place. Bill Reed of Regenesis Institute puts it very well:-
“We can’t save the planet. It’s too big; it’s an aspiration, but how do we work on it? …But when we work in place we can see the impact and respond. Place is the one unit of measurement that allows us to change our behaviour. If we save the places of the world, we save the planet.”
If we consider when the human species last lived in total harmony with the land and place, in partnership with the planet’s natural resources, we need to stretch back to the time of hunter-gatherers. Anthropology suggests that most sustainable human societies had a few foundational pillars that we still see today among the indigenous peoples who survive.
They lived within the constraints of the material flows of their locality, and only used things that ould be replenished in their natural cycles. So they didn’t chop down more trees that would grow again. They didn’t farm the soil to depletion. They built homes from locally available materials — which may have been dirt, mud or timber. They made their clothing from locally available materials, from animal skins to dried woven reeds. They sourced or grew their food in ways that did not damage their environment or destabilise the climate. They didn’t grow monoculture crops, they used a form of what today we call permaculture. Almost all sustainable cultures were place-based, regional in scale and did modest amounts of trade with neighbouring cultures.
No one should suggest that 7.7 billion people can return to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. What we nee to do is explore how to weave some of the intrinsic qualities of the times in which we lived in balance with the biosphere, with the modern global, advanced technology-driven economy in which we currently live.
The movement towards more localised economies has been gaining traction for some years. The bioregional movement, regenerative agriculture communities, eco villages and ecosystem restoration projects have steadily grown more prominent — particularly in areas where there are still original indigenous communities. Yet they have been seen as fringe and experimental by mainstream economics and perhaps, until recently, without a scale-linking model the drives robust economic practice in the way scale-linking patterns have shown what maintains the health of the biosphere. We look at critiques of regionalisation, and in particular bioregionalism, in a later part of this paper.
Leading thinkers such as Daniel Christian Wahl author of Designing Regenerative Cultures, bioregional economists such as Molly Scott Cato, visionaries such as Pamela Mang and Ben Haggard of Regenesis Institute— and many others — have highlighted the value of localised economies:
“We need to reinhabit the Earth as living expressions of the ecosystems in which we live, and we do so by aligning with life’s essential pattern of creating conditions conducive to life. As expressions of, and participants in, the community of life we are capable of healing our communities and the places we inhabit. We cannot save the world, we can only save places. The regeneration of planetary health can only happen ecosystem by ecosystem or bioregion by bioregion. Dr DC Wahl.
The primary reasons for re-localising economies in our current situation are about transition and resilience. Our global economic system is highly dependent on fossil fuels to maintain the level of transportation of goods around the world. Although all modes of transport are looking at a shift to renewable forms of energy, the fact remains that most cargo ships, the vast majority of land and air transport continue to be powered by fossil fuels. We need to reduce the distance products travel.
Does this mean no Peruvian blueberries on the store shelves all year round, and no Mexican avocados on toast for breakfast served on the marble worktops imported from Italy that Europeans have become so used to? Possibly. But what it really means initially is starting to look at how we do business and reimagine what can be sourced closer to home — even if that means reinventing whole industries. It means every economy creating zones of employment locally — where feasible — as a primary choice.
Additionally, local production would create greater resilience to the increasing number of systemic shocks from extreme weather and events such as the current pandemic. Many of us noticed during the first wave, how quickly innovative local food suppliers and tradesmen adapted to the new circumstances and made it possible — particularly for rural inhabitants — to get access to fresh food without having to travel into town to larger supermarkets for example. Local manufacturers who were not dependent on complex global supply chains continued to produce useful goods as their capacity was uninterrupted.
It also requires a fundamental look at how we share what is produced from the world’s resources — land, water, oceans. Where is the majority of profit held from those avocados produced in Mexico for consumption in Europe? Where is the majority of profit made from the cocoa beans harvested in West Africa for the chocolate delights we consume in vast abundance in Europe, US and now Asia too?
Perhaps most importantly, it would help to bring home right onto our doorsteps the devastating consequences our global economic activity is having on ecosystems and habitats around the world that we never see — from the palm oil plantations of Indonesia to the soy fields of the Amazon. Might the impact of a more localised economy encourage a different perspective on consumption i we renewed our connection with provisioning from the land that surrounds us – at least to some extent?
Social Political Psychological and Spiritual Benefits of G-Local
Whilst the primary dirver of re-regionalising economies might be the global ecological crisis we face, we should not miss the very real beneefits to social, political, psychological and spiritual life that regional economies might offer.
We also face considerable human crisis particularly in Western economies such as a rise in disconnection with work, increases in depression, suicide and self harm, alienation of families and inter-generational connection, lack of trust and loss of — whilst deeply craving — a sense of belonging.
What if we could recreate a modern sense of what was once described as ‘the rural ethic’ through greater connection to place? How could a new focus on place-sourced economies help re-establish a trust economy and raise identity and pride? What industries are we missing that could be derived from the specific qualities of a region we inhabit?
Whilst many of have become used to categorising farmers as ‘endlessly complaining’ or ‘over-subsidised’, that misses the nature of the relationship between the land and work ethics. The work of farmers, despite modern mechanisation, is relentless. Unlike in the industrial environment, you cannot negotiate better terms of work or relationship with weather, wildlife or land. You cannot demand a 35 hour working week from wind and rain. Of course returning to the drudgery of peasantry or doing away with workers rights and protections is not what we are pointing to, nor are we suggesting there is not real rural poverty and loneliness. Neither are we employing any kind of romanticism that takes away the hardship of working on the land. Yet there is something beyond the transactional relationship of the office worker that is embodied in those that connect through their work with the land that encourages greater flexibility, resilience and adaptability — the qualities we most admire in successful entrepreneurs.
When I first acquired 30 acres of land to live and work with horses in the early part of the 21st century, I started a journey that peeled away the onion skin of ‘civilisation’ from working in the city of London for 15 years and rekindled a sense of openness, honesty, depth and trust that was hard to achieve in the push and shove competitive work of global brand strategy.
We can also see from successful local community projects and indeed from family firms, that a sense of accountability arises from doing business with people you actually know and live amongst. That locality of customers fosters high ethics and trust between people at the highest level of responsibility and care.In early hunter gatherer communities, to be rejected from the clan for poor behaviour usually meant death without the protection of the group. In the 21st century that kind of accountability for being a good citizen is many layers removed from place through the offices of corporations, lawyers and global commerce.
Equally there is something important about crystallising the identity of place you live in, that gives confidence and positivity to individuals and business alike — without encouraging parochialism and within the context of the global market. The distinct identity of Provence in France gives value to its exports and thriving local economies that are at least, in part, provisioned locally. The identify of Scotland adds value to its spirits, food and tourism economy whilst providing its inhabitants with a rooted sense of belonging. That is not to suggest that local economies should always be focused on export opportunities; rather than should be focused first on local provisioning. It does however provide an appropriate window for a thriving economy beyond a mere brand narrative.
What principles are useful when designing regional economies?
Designing local economies that are economically viable, environmentally sound and socially responsible requires participation from all sectors of the community, both to determine community needs and to identify and implement innovative and appropriate solutions. The regenerative approach is co-creative and collaborative, and is soundly based on the unique biology and culture of a given region. Community organisation can support production and sound management of land, fishers, forests and woodland but also encourage economically healthy manufacturing and industry that is appropriate to the place in which it finds itself. It also requires reconnection between urban and rural environments — not just in food production and care of natural capital but also education, housing, tourism, planning and transport systems.
Many forms of regionally appropriate economies grow naturally, without design. You rarely see a business ecosystem exploring marine tech, ocean health and water-based tourism and leisure in a landlocked environment far from the sea! Similarly you see agricultural support services grow in rural areas where agricultural production happens. Universities and other learning institutions used to develop specialisation in their curriculum that was related to their place, yet as globalisation took hold, we have seen many top Universities try to cover everything bar the kitchen sink in their curriculums to meet the demands of growth.
When we were focused on natural resources alone as a basis for economy, nations with a smaller landmass, few natural resources but a growing population, look outside their own borders to develop their wealth. That’s how we arrived at colonialism. European nations bent on improving their quality of life and with growing populations to feed, needed to acquire other territories from which to source the raw materials for the manufacturing enterprises that would supply their ever-consuming publics. As mentioned in part 2, this is what we see China doing now in Africa. But what when the land to acquire runs out? What when there are no further natural resources to be exploited for the benefit of the people back home? Do we all jump spaceship earth and head with Elon Musk to Mars to colonise new destinations?
The circular economy is one of the first models to support a transition away from the industrial extractive economy. By simply recycling and reusing materials already in circulation we can continue to produce goods without further extraction. With the support of technology we are already overcoming the shortcomings of complex forms of plastic which can only withstand one or two forms of recycling before their functionality is too degraded. It is a model that arrests the disorder of our current system but does not yet regenerate it.
The sharing economy is another model that distributes use of existing materials differently and similarly to the circular economy, it arrests disorder but it does not yet regenerate natural capital. Where it is valuable is that it starts to shift perceptions in the world about the need to ‘own’ many material things.
But let’s see what we can glean by trying to understand the principles behind a sustainable society from the hunter-gatherer era and then re-design from that premise for a modern world. At first it may seem that it poses more questions than answers.
The principles and qualities of regenerative economies of place include:-
- Regenerative places are living systems. Living systems thrive and evolve on principles that have been established on our planet over 3.8 billion years of R&D in which they continually create and recreate the conditions conducive to life’s continuance. Not your life or my life or even human life — just life. How we design the conditions conducive to life’s continuance is an enormous subject that we explore in the rest of this paper. It raises questions such as:-
- What precise processes and principles do create the conditions conducive to life?
- How do we shift our economies to an energy source that is conducive to life (in biology this is the sun) rather than energy sources that are conducive to destruction (fossil fuels/nuclear)? We have many technological answers to this question but no volume answers for a whole planet — yet. But we’re closing in here.
2) Living systems find ways to equably share wealth. How do we reshape the relationship between sustainability and equity? We know that growth is not effective in allocating the output of that growth equably, so what policies, education, laws, structures do we need to allocate the resources that remain inside the planetary boundaries and in our place of inhabitation?
- How do we address that many of our remaining resources are under the control of corporations in a market system, rather than owned and managed by the people who inhabit the land in which they sit?
- How do we redesign for the natural cycles of birth, growth to a limit (like a tree), death and recycling of food as nutrients into the system when we are talking about businesses that are designed to grow ad infinitum?
3) Regenerative economies and places are whole in themselves, but sit within interconnected, nested systems in which we recognise that all parts of the whole are inter-dependent, related and have an impact on our place, its wider ecosystem and bioregion, and its place within the systems of the world.
- How do we incorporate awareness and understanding of our impact — both positive and negative — on the wider systems in which we sit into our local economic strategies?
- How do we identify the most appropriate geography for our regional economies, beyond or within the artificial boundaries of nation states, regions, counties, cantons and more in tune with the geology and nature we sit within?
- What is the nature, size and scale of a whole regional economy? How do we ‘map’ it?
4) All places have a distinct, bio-cultural uniqueness – ecology, biology geology, and culture – that is the foundational essence, soul and identity on which a regenerative economy can reach its full potential and thrive. Every place has a unique story to tell and contribution to make.
- How do we divine a story that is truly rooted in the biological, geolofical and cultural history of a place? How do we ensure we are designing based on something deeper than clever marketing spin?
- Are there regions that simply do not lend themselves to stable economies in the 21st century and how therefore are their inhabitants to derive a fair and just way of living?
5) Places have carrying capacities, and to operate within safe planetary boundaries, these thresholds must be understood and responded to on a local and global, social and ecological basis, and continually reviewed to meet changing conditions.
- How can we decouple ‘ownership’ of the commons that provision a place from the system of ownership of water and land, and return its bounty to the common good?
- How do we find metrics that help us to understand how our local carrying capacities might shape our economy in the future? We are so used to a global import/export economy, do we ever stop to think that access to water — one of the looming crisis worldwide — might ever come home to roost in developed nations with regular rainfalll patterns?
- How do regional authorities manage national government demand for building homes when the social carrying capacity for education, healthcare is constrained?
6) Regenerative practice in place is developmental and evolutionary; it deliberately lifts the capacity and potential of the people within place, the place itself, and the nested system it sits within. We work on inner development (self), outer development (projects in place) and systemically, and recognise that the conditions conductive to life are constantly evolving and changing according to the conditions and context around us.
- How do we introduce and develop understanding of the interconnectedness and relatedness of what we do and how we live in one place, to those other places to which we are adjacent — whether locally or internationally?
- How do we design organisations in those economies that are constantly adapting to the evolutionary nature of place?
7) Regenerative places raise the possibility for people to become conscious stewards of their place; practively protecting, renewing, regenerating life on land, air, and in water whilst also fostering developmental growth for the people that live and work within them, leaving people and place in exponentially better health than the extractive economy.
- How do we connect economics with philanthopy in a more regenerative way? We have come to expect that social and economic care should be delivered by charities, social enterprise and an army of volunteres – all funded by foundations that have built their funds on the extractive economy.
- Can we continue to lift up the social and spiritual good of community effort whilst creating a system that values the hidden economy that people like Maria Mies and Imogen Shaw have highlighted?
8) Regenerative places build capacity and potential for community to happen. Community building requires a commitment to lift capability to hold collaborative, caring conversations through dialogue and builds the ability to hold the challenging, messy, difficult conversations that are needed for the conditions of development to be met. Regenerative places also build capacity for community to be designed through self-organising, mutually contributive social structures.
9) Lifting up regenerative place-potential is an act of ecosystemic acupuncture; looking for the key points of intervention to create plae-based and systemic change.
The questions we have to answer are how do we redesign economies and the supporting infrastructure of those economies — such as education — to deliver against those principles whilst providing a reasonable quality of life for all inhabitants of our places. We will come back to the question of ‘reasonable’ in a later piece because it demands we discuss sufficiency which is almost always interpreted as ‘I get less and I don’t want less I want more’ rather than a change in our perception of ‘enough’ and quality, which in turn demands we rethink and rediscover what it is that truly makes us fulfilled, satisfied humans beyond material goods.
No economic transformation of our current system can be achieved without this change in perception.
The Economy of Place is a series of articles by Jenny Andersson that are edited parts of her unpublished book Renewal. There are 20 parts to this paper which will be published here in due course. If you would like early notification of future releases, please register at Really Regenerative — Economy of Place.
Many people have helped me shape these narratives. I stand always on the shoulders of giants in regenerative economics and business like Carol Sanford and Kate Raworth, regenerative leaders who understand place such as Pamela Mang, Ben Haggard, Daniel Christian Wahl, but also many anthropologists, ecologists like Joanna Macy, developmental psychologists, bioregionalists, regenerative finance specialists and many others. I know so much less than they. If I ever publish the whole book I will reference you all but my gratitude is not less because I can’t mention you all here.