May East is a sustainability educator, spatial planner, and social innovator. Her work spans the fields of cultural geography, urban ecology, and women’s studies. Designated one of the 100 Global SustainAbility Leaders three years in a row, she leads a whole generation of regenerative designers and educators in 55 countries working with community-based organizations and intergovernmental agencies in the development of policy guidance and projects strengthening climate resilience, food security, and livelihood action.
May addresses the question of “What Could Possibly Go Right?” with insights including:
- The importance of edge-work, ”not about the dying of the old world, or the emergence of the new world, but the edge between the two.”
- That edge isn’t marginal, but is actually at the center of change.
- The potential of ”ecotone” areas, the buffer zones in nature where different landscapes meet. These edges of high intensity and diversity provide conditions for new species and life.
- Her coined concept of “sociotone”, recognizing that societies in tension is where new structures will emerge.
- That serendipity happens in the edge and that surprise is not a question of luck, it is a question of alertness and enactment to turn these into something useful.
- That we need to move beyond sustainability to regeneration. “We need to train ourselves to become regenerative practitioners at the edge, because if we maximize edge, we maximize diversity and potential of life.”
Connect with May East
Hi, Vicki Robin here, host of What Could Possibly Go Right? a project of the Post Carbon Institute. We interview cultural scouts, people who see far and serve the common good, asking each of them in a short deep dive interview, our core question: In the midst of all that seems to be going wrong, what could possibly go right? Our guest today is May East. May East is a sustainability educator, a spatial planner and a social innovator. Her work spans the fields of cultural geography, urban ecology and women’s studies. Designated as one of 100 global sustainability leaders three years in a row, she leads a whole generation of regenerative designers and educators in 54 countries, working with community based organisations in projects strengthening climate resilience, food security, and livelihood action. A UNITAR fellow, she has an MSc in Spatial Planning, with a specialization in the rehabilitation of abandoned villages. Her passion is to co-develop project-based learning trajectories, supporting indigenous and migrant communities and their traditions to survive in rapidly changing environments, while enhancing their opportunities to become designers of their own desired futures.
Her website says: I’m an edge-worker. Edge-work can be practised anywhere in the world. What you most need to thrive on is alertness, so that the chances of discovery increase. I think that is such a great definition of cultural scouting, the alertness to the possibilities that are rising every moment. You will see all of these elements I just talked about May in this interview, I hope you enjoy it.
Welcome, May East, to What Could Possibly Go Right? Since April of 2020, I’ve been recording conversations with people I call cultural scouts, people who see far and serve the common good. I think I needed to see with a lot of help from my friends, as the world as we knew it started to unravel last year. You and I have been in the sustainability biz for many decades, promoting communitarian Earth-aligned ways of life. I think we first met at the Alternatives to Consumerism conference hosted by Sulak Sivaraksa in 1997, and again in Brazil sometime around 2014, promoting Transition Towns. So we’ve been in this for a while. For people like us, the breakdown of the old seems to open space for something better, to grow a more compassionate, flourishing, just way of life on Earth. So actually, do you see alternatives to consumerism sprouting now? What lights do you see on the horizon? Here we go. In the midst of all that seems to be going wrong, May, what could possibly go right?
I think one of the potential regenerative trends that is emerging right now, and it’s the one I would like to explore with you, is not about the dying of the world, or the emergence of the new world, but the edge between the two. So when we look at ecosystems, for instance, in my home country, when Savanna meets tropical forest, you have a buffer zone. You have a zone of transition, where you have species of the forest, species of the savanna, and you also create conditions for new species to emerge that are unique from that buffer zone. It’s called ecotone, from the ecological sciences. It stands for ecologies in tension. It’s a Greek word. This is a place of high intensity, high potential, and diversity. So if you are an ecological designer and you want to bring more life into your system, there is a law that says, “maximise your edges”, because the edges are very productive and then you bring more diversity, more life to your system. I see right now, this edge being very much awakened, because it’s very clear that for years, we have those who have been midwifing the new; the Transition Towns, the ecovillages and all that. So we are prototyping the new, and we also see a dying world, in terminal, and we have all the nurses, but we had few of us who are very much in the edge between the two of them.
Right now with this convergence of multiple crises, super imposed by a global health crisis, many people are transiting to the edge. And knowing that at the edge, there is this great potential. Those who have been the pioneers, they’re still very important to continue pioneering, and those who are tending a dying system, that still has the good and the beautiful and the truth; they’re still there. But there are many edge workers right now. I think the most important for us now is to develop attitudes or protocol for how to work at the edges. That’s where my thinking is right now, because working at the edges is very different than prototyping, or tending something that is dysfunctional. For many years, I have worked into deconstructing. I would wake up in the morning, and where do I put my thinking? I put my thinking in deconstructing dysfunctional patterns of a dying world. Then, from the 90s onwards, when I moved to Findhorn, I said, Oh, no. Thinking about Buckminster Fuller saying, “When you want to create the new, focus on the new until the old becomes obsolete.” So I focus only on the new and when I wake up in the morning, that’s what I was activating.
Then suddenly, I moved to the edge. I realized that I need to work with the structures, I needed to work with the mega trends, with United Nations. I need to do, but also not losing the sight of the mosaic of emerging regenerative communities, entrepreneurship, businesses and lots of things growing from there. So I think what is emerging, to address this provocative question and to say, what is the protocol for edge workers? And I have some thoughts, but I would be interested to hear from you. What do you think about this proposition?
Honestly, you’re singing my song. I actually wrote a book about freedom and limits 20 years ago, that never got published. (My cat is screaming at me right now, she may join us.) But trying to work with this, that the ideology of freedom that is dominant in Western societies, sort of the sine qua non, actually denies the power of limits. So I was trying to talk about the power of limits, and I came across this idea of ecotone. Basically, I said I wanted Americans to fall in love with limits the way we’d fallen in love with freedom. How can we make limits sexy? Borders, boundaries; how can we make those things not just something to break through or break away from, but something to engage with? I’ve been on this thought for quite some time, and was so excited to find that term. I’ve also been a bit of an edge-walker, not super-courageous, but I’m always curious. I’m always going to the edge, looking over, seeing what’s out there.
So I agree. And yet, I think there are few who can tolerate the ambiguity of edges; who can tolerate the necessity to let go of your conviction that your way of doing things is the right way of doing things. Because a lot of the edges that we’re bumping into now, when you see this in the world… I mean, we have rising right-wing militias in the United States, and I’m sure this has happened in other countries, and that’s quite an edge. These are people who come up to the edge and just decide: I’m going to win. The deal is I have to squash what’s on the other side. So I think what you’re saying is that there are a set of requirements for becoming comfortable on edges. I think it would be brilliant – we could start it right now – to start the School of Edge-walking in cultural and social transformation. Sounds so highfalutin, that people would probably sign up tomorrow. I think in these interviews that I’ve been doing, these conversations, I’m picking up a lot from the people who are willing to speak with me. I’m really going eclectic because I need to see every edge. One thing is that we have to question our assumptions.
That’s part of edge walking, is you have to be willing to question the things, like you were saying: Oh, I was first certain that we analyse what’s wrong. Now I’m certain we promote what’s right. Now I’m like, you have to be willing to be in a sort of grounded confusion. I think also about, I call it, framework literacy. You have to love the frameworks that you bring to things but understand that’s only one way to sort out the onslaught of reality as it comes at you. You know what I mean? My framework is just one framework. And if you can even entertain one more framework for understanding what’s going on, that’s what’s required.
Edge-workers have to be able to try out a lot of frames. Even the ones that seem aggressive, that are coming from the Cerrado: “No, that’s not the way to do things, you don’t understand. Us forest people understand, but the savanna people don’t.” You have to go over there, try on their framework and see if there’s anything in there that you love. That’s a piece of it, a sort of grounded confusion, a framework literacy. And I think you have to start reading in a range of disciplines. It’s not a melting pot. It’s not multiculturalism. It’s sort of that each one of us comes with a basket of things we’ve studied, embarrassingly none of them fitting together. If you’ve been in a profession and you’ve executed well in one domain, you are probably not an edge-walker. You have to start to be an academic, and a dancer, and a swimmer, and a knitter. It’s that sort of multilingual thing. I would love if, I call it cultural scouting – I’m sort of interviewing myself in your presence – but I’ve been thinking this is a teachable skill. I think edge-walking or cultural scouting, or being able to see in the confusion of the times, is a skill, a way of being. I even think this question, What could possibly go right?, is a piece of it. It’s a way of looking at what’s coming, that asks you to suspend some of your assumptions. So, I’m all in.
Yes, I’m touched by your resonance and the fact that you have paved your way also by thinking those aspects of edge work. I’ll say that, the edge, I don’t think is marginal. Edge actually is at the center; that’s already a shift in thinking, that you think that always edges are marginal. I’m thinking about edge at the center. I have coined a concept of sociotone, which is societies in tension. Within the societies in tension that we are living, so much in every country right now; it has exacerbated with the global health crisis. It is like homoeopathy, it is like giving like, so it is within the sociotone that new matrixes of society will emerge. It is not only on the prototypes or in the old. It is there, so we have to hold our breath and be at the edge, because it’s from there that I think that the patterns that are at the border of manifestation, will be manifesting from the edge.
I think also there is a way of you practising systems thinking for systems change, because while you are very much curious on this or on that court, maybe you won’t be able to see this multitude of belief systems that have been stressing more and more with great strength. So, systems thinking for system change will be, I would say, enhanced, or we create the conditions for this within the edge. So it is a working hypothesis, it’s something that I’ve been working in. There are some principles that I’ve been practising. One of them is about positioning yourself in the flow and letting life unfold to you much more. Sometimes, positioning the flow means a very gentle stream where everything’s going wrong. You know, you wake up in the morning and one thing unfolds after another, in a very graceful way. Sometimes it seems that you are in a hurricane. There’s so much energy, so much intensity at the edge. And these times you can use moments to capture some of the intensity and keep this intensity for future use.
And serendipity is something else that happens in the edge as well, because the edges are full of surprises. Surprise is not a question of luck, it is a question of enactment. So if you work the edges, and serendipity thrives on alertness, while you’re in the edge, surprises emerge; but surprises you need to enact in order to turn surprises into something useful. So that’s another principle, becoming really alert with your eagle eyes while you’re at edge because new patterns can emerge from there. It is intense, it’s systemic. It can be full of surprises, and you can thrive in alertness. It can be really tiring, but sometimes you can take refuge at the tower from where the flow comes and then gain an aerial view of what’s happening before you plunge back into the system and continue activating and doing your piece of service at the edges, which for me are not marginal, they are very much at the center of our generation right now.
Oh my god, this is so great. In the melee of politics in the United States in the last four years, my heart and soul is sort of Bernie. That’s what I would love politics to achieve, a good life for everybody, a fairness and just society for everybody. As everything was flying apart so extremely and surprisingly, I didn’t know what to do with it. I found myself saying that the most radical thing I can do is stand in the center. In a way, I was losing my credentials as an articulate progressive. I wasn’t saying no, we have to be centrist. It’s not like reconciling everything short, underneath the dome of the way things are. But it is the capacity to stand at the center and actually listen for what’s trying to happen, because standing on the edges is actually contributing to a polarization that is going to intensify the distress. And maybe I want to do that, and I can stand on the edge and I can shout from my soapbox. I’ve done that plenty of times.
But in fact, it’s radical to be able to stand in the center, and to overcome your own tribal instincts to agree with your people; you know, this is my language for it. And to be inquisitive, in a society where people are forming armies and lining up against one another, and taking stands. To stay inquisitive, I felt, was the most radical thing I could do. So that’s a piece of it. When you and I started out, and you started differently, it did seem that there was a long runway to the future. There were many choices that we could lean into our surfboard one way or another, and make something in the future different. Now, I think the future is upon us. We’re in it. There isn’t something that we’re preparing for; this is it. So it does require something that’s between humble, a cheerful willingness to be wrong, and bold, a cheerful willingness to step in and experiment, because that’s also what happens on edges.
I love this reframe about edges, because to say the edges are out there, is to say I am the center of the universe and I define edges by my centrality in this story. But to say that edges are these eddies that are opening up everywhere, edges are everywhere; every supermarket encounter, every Zoom call is an edge. It’s edgy now. Things are edgy now, and people are on edge. They are less willing to tolerate difference, because different people are frightened. To be honest, it’s not like I consciously feel fear, but I know that I’m living in a destabilized reality, where I have very little control over my story at all. And at my age, the story is, well, I’m getting older. I can’t create a perfected story around myself because everything’s on edge.
So it is like the word maturity. That’s where my hope is. It’s a tolerance for complexity, a capacity for systems thinking, a willingness to acknowledge that your point of view isn’t the only one on the planet, a sense that you can only do so much, but almost a reckless courage that you’re going to do it. You know what I mean? I think we’re both trying to describe this way of being. I do have a little quiet hope for this podcast, that it encourages people to think in this way. I don’t have hope for the future, but if I have a faith, it’s a faith that, number one, a faith in life, but number two, a faith that maybe grownups will behave in a way that allows what needs to happen to happen in such a way that something of what’s beautiful about the human presence on the planet persists. Over to you, May.
I would add to this conversation, the fact that the greatest design challenge for our generation is to redesign our human presence in the planet and why we are all talking about sustainable development goals. Sustainability became a topic of those who have been prototyping this for a long time. I say we don’t have any more time for sustaining an impacted balance of presence. We need to move very fast into regeneration, fast in the sense of not the same rapidity in which GDP is measured, which is the pace in which we subtract, produce, consume in a linear way that generates GDP. That’s how we explain prosperity. We need to train ourselves to become regenerative practitioners at the edge, because if we maximize edge, we maximize diversity and maximize potential of life; and doing this in a regenerative way, not in a sustainable way. Regenerative in the sense that every every action, every thinking, every pattern of thought, needs to add more life into the system, so that the system can continue to survive. Even the day you’re not there anymore, the system creates its resilience to continue co-evolving with the whole evolution type of it. So it is edge-work, it is regenerative intention through design, that I think are the good news for our times.
There’s so much wisdom in what you’re saying, and courage and strength. Honestly, I would love to continue this conversation about beautiful, luscious edge-workers, bringing everything that they’ve ever done and been to this moment in time, and being everywhere in Brazil and in Edinburgh and in Pacific Northwest and everywhere. And I think that is actually going on, when you come right down to it. I think it’s actually going on. So thank you, May, so much.
Thank you for the invitation. A pleasure.
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