I want to talk to all of you today about the humans that survived the current planetary predicament. How did they organize their lives? What was the key to their success? It is no secret that we are in the midst of a severe period of ecological collapse. The exploding human population lay flat on its growth curve for hundreds of thousands of years until the invention of industrial agriculture. Then it shot skyward in an exponential arc corresponding with the rapid depletion of intact ecosystems, healthy environments, and stored materials across the Earth. All of this happened in the blink of an eye in a few short centuries.
It has become fashionable to talk about sustainable businesses and the greening of economic growth. Yet rarely do these conversations go deeply enough into the ecology of our species to see how profoundly unsustainable this growth arc has always been. Ecologists like William Catton Jr. in his classic text Overshoot have called the period of exponential growth for any species the “exuberant” phase. It is quickly followed by a peak and subsequent collapse. Those of us who study history will recognize that the Great Myth of Progress arose in Western Civilization just as it was embodying the most brutal forms of colonial expansion into the Americas. Terms like manifest destiny and self-reliance were blended within the microspheres of this macroscopic pattern, blinding many to the ecological limits of the Earth that were soon (in geologic terms) to be leapt beyond in a giant pulse of destabilization.
Ecologists have a practice of defining species according to their ecological niche. How does this ant make its living? Where does that bird call its home? What are the conditions of thriving that enable this particular kind of tree to live in this particular kind of environment? In our case as the last surviving remnants of the hominid family tree, the secret to our success has been the ability to create cultural niches that alter our environments to serve the needs of our own kind. Joseph Henrich wrote a book summarizing what the science of cultural evolution has to say about human uniqueness — appropriately titled The Secret of Our Success: How Culture is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter — that was published in 2015. The main takeaway was that humans create cultural patterns of change that can build upon that which came before. We create social niches that act as a kind of scaffolding to build our way into novel environments. And we do so in ways that accentuate the role of culture in the double bind of biological constraint with ecological limits coupled to the potential for compounding of exponential change in our cultural developmental pathways.
In other words, we are able to create the conditions for our own demise by blindly building upon what at the time feels like success. Grow an economic system that expands and extracts all in its path and it will do what all patterns of this kind do by terminating itself. I write these words in late July of 2020 as globalized humanity struggles to grapple with a pandemic that exemplifies this point. We created giant population centers in our great cities and connected them with each other using fossil fuel technologies to create international airports. This enabled a network of connectivity to grow that is prided for its creativity and innovation. Yet it is the very same connectivity that allowed ecological destruction of nonhuman habits to give birth to a virus that could jump on those same airplanes to consume the bodies of people all over the planet in the span of a few short weeks.
You might be asking yourself at this point why I am writing in this way for a book about economies based on wellbeing and human thriving. My motivation is to dispel the myths that enable so many of us to hide from the plain truth that our globalized civilization — like all civilizations that came before — is going to die. It is in its death throes right now. There are zero historical antecedents to suggest it might miraculously survive. All empires and civilizations arose during a brief period of warm, stable climate known as the Holocene. All of them also collapsed and went away. The current system is only different in complexity and scale. It is no different in kind and will also suffer this fate.
Yet in our mad rush of progress something miraculous truly did occur. We gathered in the scientific enterprise of studying our home planet a massive volume of knowledge about the world around us and how all living beings survive. The secret of life’s success is to establish a viable niche. This means creating integrated patterns of being alive that achieve robust circulation of material flows in a local environment. There is a name for this way of organizing an economy. It is called the bioregion. Some readers may have heard about the back-to-the-land movement of the 1960’s and 70’s when this term came into being. There were dirty hippies and guerilla gardeners seeking to go off-grid and learn how to live on a piece of land.
I encourage you to dispel this nostalgic image and instead hold in your mind every sustainable human culture that has ever existed. All of them (yes ALL of them) were organized as hunter-gatherer societies or subsistence horticultural societies. They were indigenous to a specific place. They built their homes with local materials, gathered what would be woven into their clothes with knowledge of local animals and plants, invested their innovative talents in the use of these capacities in their regional landscapes, and achieved resilience by trading with neighboring tribes who did the same thing. A bioregional economy is one that grows niches around the habitats available to it. This is true for all living beings and it also applies to our species.
There are marine bioregions for starfish and sea urchins that organize their lives around the intertidal zones of coastlines. There are forest bioregions for the symbiotic relationship of mycorrhizal fungi that exchange nutrients with the root systems of trees. There are mountain bioregions with cliff sides and slot canyons for the livelihoods of large cats like the puma or the tiger. And there are human bioregions like the Mayan food gardens that combined the “three sisters” of beans, corn, and squash with other native plants to establish resilient food supplies for more than ten thousand years across much of Central and South America.
Last year, I had the honor of working as part of the team at the Capital Institute with John Fullerton and Stuart Cowan. Our mission was to support the learning within and among those seeking to create regenerative bioregional economies. We watched as multi-stakeholder processes were employed to cultivate a shared vision and coordinate actions in the complex landscapes of places like biodiversity hotspots in Costa Rica and recently collapsed fisheries in the Gulf of Maine. There was always something shared at the pattern-level. Each region was striving to build soils and diversify production with agroforestry and regenerative farming. Each region was seeking to partner with its indigenous past to bridge the gap wrought by extractive economies to enable the restoration of human institutions to manage affairs in the recovery of that which had been polluted, degraded, or destroyed.
This inspired me to write a book called The Design Pathway for Regenerating Earth and host an online study group that has quickly grown to nearly 2000 members in the first half of 2020. There is a real hunger for honesty about the predicament we are in and the need for viable pathways into the future that actually can work for creating the conditions of human thriving for long-term resilience. A key insight alluded to above is that bioregional economies organize themselves around the functions of landscapes. They structure their material flows to the local ecology, geology, shape and structure, of the land itself. This means human culture is nested within watersheds and mountain ranges, coastal estuaries and alluvial floodplains. These territorial characteristics are linked in scale to larger structures that shape weather patterns and entire continents. The Andes running north to south for several thousand miles. The Himalayas holding water in thousands of glaciers to feed dozens of major river systems. The great plains of North America and Africa with dynamic movements of large animals across grasslands that regenerate the soil.
Those of use lucky enough to become ancestors in this dangerous period of planetary overshoot will be the ones who recognize that all sustainable cultures — human or otherwise — are organized around the functions of living landscapes. They are bioregional through and through. This is like going down Alice’s rabbit hole to discover a labyrinth of solutions hidden from sight. The majority of people alive today are in cities. They work for corporations. Their job is to create financial returns. Their survival depends on global supply chains and stable climatic zones. This majority of people will not survive what is coming. They are not organized bioregionally and do not have the ecological training to know how to live in the landscapes they currently inhabit.
So I invite all who read this essay to walk open eyed into the dark night of your soul. Are you dead sunlight re-animated by burning fossil fuels that will walk steadfast into collapse unaware of your true condition in this larger pattern? Or will you learn to see that a pattern of thriving can be found that is far from your perceptions of normal in these extremely bizarre and unprecedented times that all of us were born into? I do not ask these questions lightly. My wife and I chose with eyes wide open to birth a child. Our daughter is going to turn four in a few months. And we are doing all that we can to organize our lives around a bioregion in serious need of regeneration in the Northern Andes of Colombia where we have recently staked a claim in the land and call this our new home.
We are living in a landscape denuded of trees before we were born. The forest was cut down to grow commodity crops like tobacco that were sold on the global markets decades ago. We are living in a landscape devoid of ancestral humans. The indigenous Guane people were driven to cultural extinction 500 years ago when the Conquistadors arrived to set up these systems of economic extraction. We are living in a landscape on its way to becoming a desert. The cycling of water and nutrients no longer flow in the soils after the forests went away.
And yet there is hope. We know how to build water retention systems. There are local people who protect and propagate native plants. A reforestation effort began ten years ago in the Móncora Bioparque that is a community food forest and teaching ground for the people who will take on this vital work. Many of the campesino farmers have already organized themselves into cooperatives so they can help each other survive. A rich culture of earthen construction, use of natural fibers to make baskets and clothing, and other aspects of subsistence living remain intact here in this remote mountain town. We can see inklings of survival for these people who raised their children a generation ago during the 57 year civil war that wrought violence upon Colombia and made it far easier to extract local wealth while the locals themselves were too poorly organized to stop it from happening.
Hold to the honesty of what history reveals. Let the science of ecology show you the way. Become bioregional or die. This is a stark choice that most of us will not consciously learn how to make. There are hundreds of thousands dying in the pandemic of 2020 because they are so deeply embedded in the connectivity of the globalized system. Most were not aware that it must be bioregional systems that take the place of this globalized system as it kills itself. How many more will die before this secret of sustainability becomes widely shared?
My hope is that this essay will add at least a few to the numbers of us working to keep human extinction at bay. We have work to do regenerating landscapes all over the world. It has already begun. And you can join the regenerative movement right now. Come and experience what it means to live bioregionally.
Onward, fellow humans.
Join us in the Earth Regenerators study group to learn more about regenerative living. These study sessions and design immersions will be freely given in the spirit of a gift economy. Please feel encouraged to support this work with monthly donations on Patreon or make a one-time donation here.
Teaser photo credit: By Cesar21694 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=65223376