Paradigm Worker

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Regeneration Stories

A Seventh Framework for Action

October 31, 2021

By: Jonee Kulman Brigham

The September/October column from Paradigm Worker, a place for monthly reflections on how we think about things, and why it matters.

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Regeneration Stories

A Seventh Framework for Action

I am a huge fan of Paul Hawken. I have trusted him for decades to deliver powerful narratives that help us shift toward greater sustainability by reframing the human-nature story and pointing to new opportunities to repair our relationship. In Ecology of Commerce, he reframed business in terms of its ecological role and obligations. In Blessed Unrest, he reframed the many grassroots environmental and social movements as all part of one larger interrelated movement of “[h]ealing the wounds of the earth and its people.” And in Drawdown, he shifted the narrative of climate change from a focus on problems and barriers, to one of solutions and named the destination

Now in Regeneration: Ending the Climate Crisis in One Generation, he returns to the climate crisis focus of Drawdown, but with a new strategy for inspiring change by “putting life at the center of every action and decision.” Because people are not naturally oriented to topics as seemingly distant and abstract as climate change, Hawken takes a different tack than in Drawdown. In Drawdown the solutions emphasized their greenhouse-gas-reducing stats, whereas in Regeneration the stories center on people, and how their solutions provide for human needs, while also addressing the climate crisis. Many of the solutions are the same in Drawdown as in Regeneration. The difference is in the human-centered storytelling. And Hawken is a master storyteller of human-nature relationships. That is why I found it surprising that he didn’t include storytelling among his six frameworks for action and why I was concerned that he told a dualistic story of humans and nature, versus the more integrated views that some of his contributors represent. While I heartily recommend this important and hopeful book, I will explore these two areas where I feel the work could expand on its strengths, since there is already a wealth of book reviews that summarize and praise the book.

A seventh framework for action: Storytelling

In Regeneration, Hawken outlines six frameworks for action: Equity (act with care and kindness toward social systems and ecosystems), Reduce (greenhouse gas emissions), Protect (existing greenhouse gas sinks), Sequester (increase absorption of greenhouse gases), Influence (change upstream policies and decisions), and Support (join or support organizations and groups making the shift to regeneration.) These are all powerful principles and address many points for intervening in climate-equity systems to affect change. Perhaps because he calls them “frameworks for action” and storytelling doesn’t seem very active, he left the primary move he’s made in this book out of the list, but I think that is a mistake. Writing this book, and the stories he includes by other contributors are actions too. I re-read his section on “Influence” to see if storytelling lived there, but it focuses on “laws, regulations, subsidies, policies, and building codes.” These are all found in Donella Meadows' famous model of “Places to Intervene in a System,” but they are lower impact moves in her model than paradigms—which she calls “the sources of systems,” and which is where I believe storytelling lives as a cultural technology for systemic change.

The lack of storytelling in the list of frameworks for action leaves the artists, writers, musicians, filmmakers, and other creatives without a place for action that leverages their greatest superpowers – to shape and shift our emotions and beliefs--just like Hawken does. Of course, I am sure Hawken understands the importance of his work, even though he leaves it out of his action list. And in fact stories are used throughout the book, including excerpts from the novel The Overstory, and a concluding afterward by Damon Gameau which recognizes the critical role of stories and a call for storytellers to join the cause. So to strengthen the frameworks for action and make the book more internally consistent, I propose a seventh framework for action, for which the book itself is a great model: Storytelling.

Telling Integrated Stories: Goodbye, Human-Nature Dualism

Here’s what I love about the storytelling in this book. First, it positively frames the goal of regeneration. There is a sense of nurturing life, growing vitality, building richness, and enhancing lives. In contrast to a lot of resilience narratives that predict and prepare for impending crises to avoid worst case futures, the regenerative narrative is oriented to forward progress for a thriving future. Second, the book acknowledges that people (at least most people) are not really capable of digesting the enormity of the climate crisis nor finding meaningful ways to help address it and so he tells stories focused on people and their positive work to improve their lives while helping the environment. The third thing I love about the storytelling in this book is that it rejects the war metaphor for climate change. After all, the cause is traced back to us since as he says, the “earth’s biological decline is how it adapts to what we are doing.”

In support of this overall regenerative narrative, are a collection of solutions-focused stories of how we make the shift. In topics ranging from mangroves, wildlife corridors, urban farming, and energy storage—Hawken creates compelling visions of the future, with real world examples, and paradigm shifts about how we can live that makes the regenerative future feel like it is already underway. True to its larger narrative, the stories of these solutions are framed first and foremost in how they help people solve their problems and improve their lives.

He takes us pretty far with the clarity of centering life by which he means both human life and the life of the rest of the living world. But this centering of common life is in tension with concepts of the human-nature divide that he uses which reflect the ambiguity of this moment and introduce contradictions in the narrative.

He argues that the disconnections between people and nature, and within society and within nature are the both the cause and the field for solutions of the climate crisis. And yet, in retaining the separate concepts of humans and nature that linguistically fortify our separateness, he maintains one of the barriers for conceptualizing our interconnection. Humans are repeatedly distinguished from Nature, with different modes of behavior for example in, “Nature never makes a mistake. We do.” If humans and nature are separate in his narrative, perhaps “life” is what we have in common, but the categories blur and become confusing, for example where he says, “The only effective and timely way to reverse the climate crisis is the regeneration of all life in all its manifestations, human and biological.” Excluding humans from the concept of biological, is not only inaccurate, but furthers the conceptualization of humans as somehow outside of the natural workings of the rest of life. Environmentalists like David Suzuki and Daniel Christian Wahl amongst others have pointed to this conceptual separation of humans and nature as one of the paradigms that lead to our predicament as we think we stand outside of natural systems and they call for a more integrated view. We need to break out of this habit of dualism to go beyond kindly transactions with the natural world to truly understanding that we are part of the natural world, dependent on it, subject to its rules, and belonging to its community of life.

Integrated Stories Forward

In the afterward, Damon Gameau addresses the need for new stories. He speaks of a time before the Scientific Revolution when animistic cultures had integrated views of humans as part of the web of life, some without having a separate concept of nature as distinct from humans. He calls for a return to stories that heal our relationship to the living world. Hawken’s Regeneration centers life, equitable human well-being, solutions, and courageous action and is such a healing story. May we use this story to create a thriving future – not with nature, but as part of nature--in community with the rest of life on earth.

Notes: Photo collage based on an altered detail from Photo by Kourosh Qaffari on Unsplash and an image of earth as a Blue Marble by NASA.

©Jonee Kulman Brigham