Good news. There is an incredible system that can save humanity and will enable us to thrive on planet Earth.

Here’s how it works. 

  • It is entirely powered by the effect of the sun and the moon.
  • Using simple elements it can establish itself in new locations and in a few iterations it can rapidly scale up, complexifying and adapting to meet its operating conditions. 
  • The system produces no waste at all – all outputs from one process are inputs to others.
  • It creates incomprehensibly complex structures from a small palette of abundant, local materials.
  • The system purifies and circulates water. 
  • It keeps the air in the atmosphere breathable, and maintains levels of greenhouse gases at a level appropriate for system survival.
  • It even screens out harmful rays from the sun.
  • It creates food and nutrients.
  • It even creates abundant construction materials.
  • The system has built-in resilience to enable it to respond to shocks. 
  • It has the capacity to learn and to develop new designs. These designs are optimised to ensure the health of the whole system, not just the individual element within it.

It is the system of life in the biosphere of planet Earth. If we step back and think about it, there is no system that humans have created that can compete in terms of its resilience, life-giving potential and ability to adapt. 

This life giving system is out there, it surrounds us, and it is still just about intact. This is good news.

There is more good news. 

We, human beings, have been evolved as part of that system, and it is interwoven with us. As I heard fellow Regenerative Design Fellow Michael Pawlyn describe, there are more microbial cells than human cells in our bodies. So there is no meaningful separation between us and this system. 

And if all parts of the system have evolved to increase the health of the system, then we too have been created by that system to fulfil a role. 

So, there is this incredible life giving system that we are in extricable part of. So far so good.

Now some not so good news. Since the Enlightenment, in the Global North we have started to see ourselves as separate from that system. That same school of thought which used reason to take power away from the divine, placed rational ‘man’ at the top of the hierarchy of life. 

We became separate the system and then we started exploiting it. Initially the system had enough elastic capacity to respond to the damage being rendered by its human population.

But having become separated from that wider living system ourselves, we no-longer paid attention to the feedback loops that might otherwise have limited our behaviour.

Enraptured by our our own reason, we lost sight of the incredible power of the capacity of the wider living world to heal us, for it to be important for us, and so we devalue it even more. Dazzled by the spectacle of our own creations, we lose sight of the incredible, overwhelming, delicate, powerful and fragile system that we are part of.

Now to the really bad news.

We are like engineers working for a foolish developer who asks us to take bricks out of the foundations to build extra storeys at the top. We have extracted, depleted and destroyed so much of this system that it is about to collapse. Without this life-giving support system, we stand little chance of surviving on this rock in the solar system. 

And so, what do we do now? Clearly we need to revive the health of our life-support system.

We can think of our ailing living system on planet Earth as a sick patient displaying multiple symptoms. Without being doctors, we can probably see that if we treat one symptom at a time we may never treat the underlying cause of the disease. Holistic medicine in contrast seeks to consider factors that enable the health of the whole person. Things like diet, sleep, exercise, living environment. Adjusting these factors to increase overall patient health can increase the patient’s ability to respond to illness. Long-term observation of the patient can help work out what factors are having the best effect. 

This approach recognises the body as a complex system that is not fully knowable and so needs cycles of careful intervention and observation. This approach also recognises that when this system is thriving it is much more resilient and therefore able to respond to shocks and recover. 

Applying this same logic to the living system on planet earth, if we can enable the conditions within which it can flourish again, then the system can do what it needs to heal. The questions we should be asking are what are the equivalents to diet, sleep, exercise and living environment for our living system on Earth, and what can we do adjust these conditions to bring the system back into a healthy state?

Creating the conditions for flourishing is an example of intervening higher in the system. Rather than treating the individual elements in the system we are seeking to change the relationships that dictate how the system behaves. 

But there is one fundamental relationship that we need to change. And that is the one between humans and the rest of the living world. Its decline has led to our almost total separation from the ecosystem that supports us – physically, culturally, psychologicically and in relation to our concept of power. 

In the analogy above we treated the Earth’s living systems as a patient that we are treating. To change that fundamental relationship between humans and this wider living system, we have to see ourselves as the patient. We are part of that living system. We are inextricably linked to it. When it is healthy, we are healthy. When it is sick, we are sick. 

So, how can we conclude this news bulletin?

  • We are part of an incredible system. 
  • If we want to heal it we need to treat it holistically. 
  • We need to rediscover our role – not as controllers, not all-seers, but as a unique part of the system that can help the system bounce back and change course where it needs to. 
  • We are new on the planetary scene. We have evolved incredible brain powers, very recently we have seen that, used unwisely, our powers can be hugely destructive, but re-tuned to the system we have evolved in, humans could add terrific resilience to our living world. 
  • If we can create the conditions for the system to thrive, then the system will take care of the rest.
  • And if we help it thrive we will, by dint of being part of that system, be thriving too.

More blog posts about regenerative design

My work on regenerative design is generously supported by the Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851. Read more about my Fellowship in Regenerative Design.