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Defining Our Desired Future
Issue Twenty-Nine: The Understory
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Is a new future emerging in the journey from sustainability to regeneration?
With a keen eye to publishing the most replete dictionary in the English language, Samuel Johnson wrote in The Plan of a Dictionary of the English Language (1747) his intention to “fix the English language.” Johnson foresaw the need to bring discipline to a language that was “copious without order, and energtick [sic] without rules.” Eight years later after compiling the Dictionary of English Language, Johnson wrote in the Preface on first publication:
“Those who have been persuaded to think well of my design, require that it should fix our language, and put a stop to those alterations which time and chance have hitherto been suffered to make in it without opposition. With this consequence I will confess that I flattered myself for a while; but now begin to fear that I have indulged expectation which neither reason nor experience can justify.”
Wiser in years and practice, Johnson realizes that the idea of “fixing language” is an impossibility. The nature of language, much like complex living systems, is to adapt over time. The task of a definer is to record the language of the day rather than to fix its position to a stationary state. Nearly three centuries ago Johnson learned the lesson in language that we are just awakening to in our economies—our systems must remain adaptive to support the conditions of life. The definitions we use are culturally adaptive responses to our changing conditions. Is it not altogether fitting that we continually adapt our words as the emerging future unfolds?
Issue Twenty-Nine looks at the (in)significance of the very definitions that colonise our language and imaginations in the pursuit of social and planetary flourishing for all life. Language and its offspring—words—are intricately connnected with systems of power and control. On the one hand, our dominant economies are based on deeply rooted systems of resource extraction, accumulation, and enclosure with mythologies that justify their perpetuation. On the other hand, we are recognizing the externalities of business as usual is a threat to individual, societal, and planetary well-being. In this transitory moment between systems, many of us are awakening to the biospheric imperative to change our direction of travel. We are grasping for an emergent future that has let go of one system to make way for the next one.
Our approach to language, in particular the desire to keep it in stasis, affects our perceptions of the desirable future and our pathways to reach it. As global leaders gather in the Glasgow halls of power to commit to that future, I wonder whether any working definitions will be worthy of their conceptual magnitude?
The “net positive” shift (Paul Polman & Andrew Winston, 2021) of regeneration is seemingly so basic in principle that it is often difficult to comprehend why it is so difficult to execute, nor why it needed a new definition. We are learning to move with and within natural systems rather than creating our own closed loops whose externalities surface the Sisyphean task we now find ourselves in—to radically alter our trajectories while simultaneously removing the social and planetary harms liberalism endowed for over two centuries. Regeneration is the journey to learn how we ascend to the mountain summit to gently place the boulder on level ground. The rolling of the boulder back down the mountain one last time is now more than a frustrating inconvenience. It is an existential threat.
Much like the attempted fix in language by Johnson, Sisphyus tries to fix his mortality by entrapping death in the heavy chains Zeus sent for him. Death (Thanatos) remains imprisoned in Sisyphus’ home during which time nothing could die. The wounded and bloodied wander the Earth in a “sustainable” state of undying, begging for release from the pain. This is the entrapment of sustainability that Josie McLean writes about in the misnomer of “sustainable change.” While immortality is a sustainable state of undying, it is contrary to the adaptive cycles necessary to support all life. Ares, the god of war, becomes so frustrated that battles being waged suffered not a single casualty, he eventually frees death and thus returns regenerative cycles.
In “Market-led Sustainability is a ‘Fix that Fails’ (October 2021),” Duncan Austin writes that now decades in, we are recognizing that regardless of the specific terminology we use to describe sustainability, voluntary market-led strategies are a “fix that fails”—offering us yet another mythological archetype to parallel the mighty struggle of Sisyphus. We are caught in a self-designed system in which our first “sustainability” fixes trigger delay or externalized second-degree consequences. Systems loops of fixes result in further consequences that perpetuate a new set of problem framings and ensuing fixes for them too. This is the futility of Sisyphus’ ascent up the mountain enacted at a planetary scale.
The very concept of voluntary market-led sustainability strategies—regardless of which label we ascribe to them—are interwoven with systems of power and control. As Paul Kingsnorth writes in “The Language of the Master” (2019), words become a “crude weapon of warfare” rather than our most glorious tool to inspire symbolic thought. Language often ensnares concepts of social and planetary well-being in political and cultural battles. These battles distance us from the very origins of words and the intended purpose when they came into being. Kingsnorth writes,
“Define the terms that others must use, and you already have the upper hand...Now, people are not arguing about issues—about ideas, proposals, feelings, approaches—they are trading in which insult is most likely to stick….Language is used dishonestly across shifting political and cultural spectrums to disguise intentions and to make excuses for tyranny of both mind and body.”
Tyson Yunkaporta offers an insightful distinction to the problems of language Kingsnorth identifies by differentiating between wrong and right stories. In “All our landscapes are broken” (2021), Yunkaporta suggests that right story is always interwoven with land, and therefore is determined by the laws of the land rather than dictates of human fabrication which he calls wrong story. Land imposes natural limits in right story, which “regenerates every entity of the landscape in perpetuity, including our own species, the custodial species of the Earth.” Yunkaporta, like Austin, uses the metaphor of a stack to describe the tectonic layers of which cultural wisdom is built. The inalienable law of the land is the foundational level of our evolutionary stacks.
In 1995 Donella Meadows finally sat down to put pen to paper for what many had been asking of her for decades—the “Definition of Sustainability”. She begins by making clear that the true definition of sustainability is felt, not spoken: “We sometimes say that it’s like jazz, or quality, or democracy—you don’t know it by defining it, you know it by experiencing it, by grooving with it, by living it—or perhaps by mourning its absence.”
A definition was a reasonable request to ask of Meadows given that in the 1972 Introduction to the seminal work, The Limits to Growth, she concludes that it is indeed possible to reach sustainable ecological and economic stability far into the future while meeting everyone’s basic needs. As Meadows later points out in her essay, the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED)’s report, Our Common Future (1987), already offers a “perfectly good official definition” of sustainability: “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
From the Brundtland definition, Meadows isolates two component parts whose relationship still defines the field of sustainability today: 1) “meeting needs and 2) doing so in a way that preserves the natural, human, and societal resources from which needs are met.” She laments that sustainability has already become commoditized—bifurcating into camps of those who chose part one or part two, but seldom finding those who insist on both. Self-described “sustainability folks” unify the two parts. They live by “Herman Daly’s Three Rules” written by Daly when he was Senior Economist at the World Bank to clarify what he felt was an unclear definition by the Brundtland Commission. In an interview, Daly describes how “development” conflicts with “sustainability” and he wants to ensure that “sustainable development” does not mean that “development is sustainable.” He suggests three principles of a sustainable human society:
Renewable resources shall not be used faster than they can regenerate.
Pollution and wastes shall not be put into the environment faster than the environment can recycle them or render them harmless.
Nonrenewable resources shall not be used faster than renewable substitutes (used sustainably) can be developed.
Meadows is quick to point out that groups in all forms—nations, companies, cities, farms, households—violate each of these rules and typically all of them (which would still hold true today). However, Meadows interprets the Brundtland language as “preservation” and “protection,” both of which imply maintaining an original state of being. Daly on the other hand wrote of regeneration, which is an adaptive living systems approach to considering natural capital decisions and utilization.
It would be absurd to suggest that Meadows did not understand and revere complex adaptive living systems, as she was one of the great systems thinkers of the 20th century. So is the semantic distinction between “preservation” and “regeneration” important? Does the definition of sustainability matter? Is there a distinction between “sustainability” and “regeneration” in describing our ambitions and work?
Rather than distinguish one market-based sustainability response from another and parse their respective definitions, Austin aggregates corporate social responsibility, socially responsible investment, ESG, impact investing, divestment campaigns, and disclosure frameworks under the singular banner of “VML (Voluntary Market-Led) strategies”. Austin writes, "For all the apparent differentiation, these strategies share the view that voluntary behaviour within existing market frameworks will be sufficient for human culture to become ‘sustainable enough before it is too late.’" This chart shows the adaptive response to language in which little changes in actual sustainability while new words and definitions come in and out of fashion.
Vandana Shiva insists that we need to distinguish between sustainability of nature and that of the market (“Recovering the real meaning of sustainability,” 1992):
“Sustainability in nature involves the regeneration of nature’s processes and a subservience to nature’s laws of return. Sustainability in the market-place involves ensuring the supplies of raw material, the flow of commodities, the accumulation of capital and returns on investment.”
These two different meanings of sustainability seemingly co-exist, and further confound our understanding of which definition someone is referring to when using the word. Shiva insists that one definition of sustainability must become primary. Her vote (of course) is for sustainability to be of nature’s economy, not of the market/money economy. “Sustainability therefore demands that markets and production processes be reshaped on the logic of nature’s returns,” writes Shiva. “In nature's economy the currency is not money, it is life.”
As sustainability and regeneration practitioners, we are learning what it means to develop knowledge, strategies, and ways of being that are in keeping with adaptive living systems rather than fixed to a system at a point in time. “Unextraction” of fossil fuels is a perfect case in point. To limit warming to 1.5 °C, the authors of this Nature article project that we will need to leave 58% of the world’s oil reserves, 59% of all gas, and 89% of all coal in the ground. By doing so, we not only limit warming and fix natural capital stocks, but also create the conditions for the Earth to regenerate natural capital faster as Daly’s law requires.
The next system, regeneration, embodies the diversity of complex living systems. This is what some have called the pluriverse—spaces where diversity thrives by creating the conditions for both independence and interdependence. It is an unwinding of what Ian McGilchrist describes in The Master and His Emissary (2009) as our neurological “emissary” of the left hemisphere overtaking the “master” right hemisphere which favours the fragments rather than the whole. We’ve learned to dismiss intuition of “belief without knowing” in favour of “reason that knows but does not believe.” Regeneration is a turning backwards while looking forward. We retrieve that which we’ve deleted from the logs of history or trampled underfoot because they were threats to a colonial way of being and knowing.
Even though regeneration is one less syllable than sustainability and perhaps a better encompassing concept of how we need individuals, companies, and governments to operate in this moment, I wholeheartedly agree with Meadows that any single word is inadequate to the task. As she wrote about sustainability:
“Any word of six syllables is way too long to organize a popular movement around and at the same time way too short to encompass a whole vision. And too many people hear it as “sustaining” the world we have now, whereas I really mean fomenting a revolution.”
Indeed, what we are looking for is that cultural revolution. Just like jazz, we know it when we hear it, and can indeed groove to it. Regeneration demands a shift in how we come to know. What patterns we are able to see and which ones we perpetuate as we go about our work to contribute to the social and ecological field. In order to see different patterns, we have to open ourselves to new ways of knowing. Those steeped in innovation circles know that creativity requires the ability to see different connections and possibilities at the edges, which is where new spaces open. Regeneration requires radical innovation.
“On our long journey into the age of ecocide, we forgot how to speak, or even what we should be saying. We certainly forgot how to listen, and what to listen to. Silence beckons, now. Attention must be paid. The Master must be returned from his long exile. Come. Begin.” (Paul Kingsnorth)
There is no single definition of sustainability any more than there is one of regeneration or capitalism. Defying the precision of these definitions is an important act of resistance. Attempts to pin down language are unavoidably riven within structures of power and enclosure. Not only do definitions endow tyranny through their singular precision, but they simultaneously displace the symbolic holism that we need in order to repair our social and ecological crises. By living in right story whereby the pluriverse in our languages represents diversity and locality, we build a richness that is worthy of the complex adaptive living systems of which we depend.
Perhaps the next time someone asks you to define sustainability and regeneration, you might ask “how much time do you have?” Because definitions of complex ideas should unfold over generations. And in that span of time, language will have adapted alongside the movement of the land.
Go forth and make a difference in the week ahead.
PS If you’d like to spend more time considering the construct of language and its relationship to our planetary consciousness, please see The Understory Issue 19: Terrain of Language
PPS Starting in November, Solvable is hosting bi-weekly conversations on eight dimension of Regeneration: Futures, Reporting, Cultures, Finance, Cities, Agriculture, Design, and Leadership. All conversations are free and open to subscribers of The Understory. You can register conversations in the series at https://www.solvable.ca/new-works.
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Why I Write The Understory
We have crossed the climate-change threshold from emerging to urgent, which demands a transformative response. The scale of the issue demands not only continuous focus but also the courage to take bold action. I've found that the persistence of climate consciousness improves resilience to the noise and distractions of daily life in service of a bigger (and most of the time invisible) long-term cause.
The Understory is my way of organizing the natural and human-made curiosities that capture my attention. Within the words, research, and actions of others lies the inspiration for personal and organizational journeys. I hope that my work here will help to inform not just my persistent consciousness, but yours as well.