From Ego to Eco: Designing Regenerative Cultures

By Daniel Wahl, author of Designing Regenerative Cultures.  Permaculture

A new generation of designers are applying ecologically inspired design to agriculture, architecture, community planning, cities, enterprises, economics and ecosystem regeneration. Join them to co-create diverse regenerative cultures in the transition towards a regenerative society. Humanity’s impact needs to shift from degeneration to regeneration before the middle of this century. We will all have to collaborate to achieve this transformative response to the converging crises we are facing.

Life Creates Conditions Conducive to Life

Janine Benyus, co-founder of the Biomimicry Institute, eloquently expressed nature’s most important lesson and humanity’s main creative challenge for the 21st Century. The post-War Baby-Boomer generation was born at a time when humanity’s impact on the planet became catastro-phically degenerative. The following Generations X, Y and Z were more and more confronted with results of our collective actions. We are beginning to learn the hard lesson that on an overpopulated planet, faced with multiple converging crises, even those who seem to win in the short term will lose in the mid to long term if we do not regenerate vital ecosystem functions and create conditions where all of life can thrive.

No matter which generation you were born into, all generations alive today are called to join the Re-Generation. If we choose to, we can move from a zero-sum world (of winners and losers) to a non-zero-sum world where life as a whole flourishes. Regenerative design is about co-creating a win-win-win future where the individual, the community and the planet win; and social, ecological and economic benefits mutually reinforce each other through integrative whole systems design. Competitive advantages tend to be short-lived. We know how to create cultures based on collaborative advantage for all of humanity and the wider community of life.

Many of the pioneers of the regenerative design (r)evolution are permaculture designers. Applying permaculture principles, ethics and attitudes to the redesign of the human presence on Earth offers effective strategies for the transition towards diverse regenerative cultures every-where. These cultures will be elegant expressions of the biocultural uniqueness of the places they inhabit – thriving communities in global and local collaboration.

Whether ecological design, permaculture, systemic biomimicry, or regenerative design, all these approaches share a design-based methodology that applies life’s operating instructions and ecosocial literacy to co-creating a future where humanity and all of life can thrive. We are the Re-Generation! If not us, then who?
If not now, then when?

The Rise of the Re-Generation

Here are only some of the many examples of how the intention and practice of regeneration is spreading fast and wide. Holistic land manage-ment and holistic planned grazing – developed by Allan Savory – offers tested methodologies for the regen-eration of degraded grasslands and prairies. These techniques form part of the diverse toolbox of regenerative agriculture, which PM reports on regularly. The Australian permaculture designer Darren Doherty (PM69) helped to promote this approach globally,1 along with organizations like the Savory Institute,2 the Rodale Institute3and Eugenio Gras of MasHumus.4

Apart from the production of food and resources for regional bioeconomies, regenerative agriculture also offers an effective way to slow down climate change and eventually return to pre-industrial levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The same practices regenerate soil fertility, increase the water retention capacity of the soil, and replenish aquifers, by storing carbon under-ground in the form of organic matter and root-mass (see ‘Carbon Farming’ in PM88).

There are also many hopeful examples of large-scale ecosystems regeneration. The Chinese filmmaker, John D. Liu, has documented these projects over a number of decades.5 China regenerated 3.5 million hectares (8.6 million acres) of heavily degraded land on the Loess Plateau in only 10 years. Similar work is happening in the Ethiopian highlands and many other places (PM86 and 87). The Scottish company Biomatrix Water is pioneering biomimicry approaches to the regeneration of polluted waterways,6 rivers and lakes.

In the field of architecture and community design the Re-Generation also has globally recognized leaders. Inspired by the late John T. Lyle, these transformative innovators have demonstrated that buildings and communities can – by design – have a regenerative effect on place. Bill Reed co-founded the Regenesis Group7 and the Integrative Design Collaborative.8William McDonough launched the ‘Cradle to Cradle’ approach to indus-trial production, which is now at the heart of the transition to circular economies (see Dame Ellen MacArthur interview in PM68). Jason McLennan has created the ‘Living Building Challenge’ and ‘Living Futures Challenge’ that have been taken up by built environment professionals around the world.9

We are also beginning to apply our understanding of nutrient, energy and material cycles in mature ecosystems to the redesign of cities. The World Future Council and Herbert Girardet are calling for a transition from ‘petropolis’ to ‘ecopolis’ through the creation of regenerative cities.

Regenerative design is also a key component of Jon Young’s ‘eight shields’ approach to mentoring and leadership.10 He collaborates closely with the permaculture teachers Penny Livingston and James Stark who set up a Regenerative Design Institute in Bolinas, California.11 Over the last 12 years they have developed the 6.9 hectare (17 acre) site at the Commonwealth Garden into a wonderful example of regenerative design.

Ethan Roland and Gregory Landua pioneered the field of financial permaculture applying the design principles to the development of regenerative enterprises.12 Their
‘8 Forms of Capital’ maps an economy holistically beyond just financial capital flows and reframes entrepre-neurship as a regenerative activity based on the co-creation of regenerative enterprise ecologies (PM68).

John Fullerton, a member of the Club of Rome and founder of the Capital Institute, started the important conversation about what a truly regenerative economy might look like, at the local, regional and global scale. The institute’s white paper on ‘Regenerative Capitalism’ explores how an economy that functions like an ecosystem can regenerate wealth and resources in ways that serve people and planet.13

Last year the Centre for Planetary Culture published Towards Regenerative Society: Plan for Rapid Transition.14 Daniel Pinchbeck – the centre’s co-founder – is now working on a Manifesto for a Regenerative Society. My own book, Designing Regenerative Cultures,15 explores many more examples of how the Re-Generation is on the rise and what questions might guide us in charting our course towards a regenerative future.

Designing Regenerative Cultures – Learning to Design as Nature

The false separation between nature and culture is the root cause of many of the converging crises we are facing. We have to move beyond simply learning from nature. We are capable of design as nature: maintaining ecosystem integrity, safeguarding diversity, nurturing systemic health, and strengthening the planetary life support system we depend upon! Human beings are perfectly capable of creating conditions conducive to life.

The good news is that we are already doing it. There are inspiring examples ranging in scale from green chemistry, product design, sustainable architecture, community design, industrial ecology, to urban and bioregional planning, and global-local collaboration and knowledge exchange. When practicing whole systems design aimed at improving human, ecosystems and planetary health, we need to pay attention to how all these different scales of design relate to each other and practice scale-linking design to weave the synergies between them.
Nature’s processes are inherently scale-linking. Regenerative cultures will be elegantly adapted to their locality and region. To achieve this everywhere we need national and global collaboration and solidarity. The health of individuals, commun-ities, ecosystems and the planet are intricately interlinked.

The evolutionary framework for regenerative design, created by Bill Reed, transcends and includes green, sustainable and restorative approaches as stepping-stones on our learning journey, as we explore how to live in ways that contribute to transforming humanity’s impact on Earth from being predominantly destructive to being regenerative.

Business as usual falls just short of breaking the law, sticking to the limits of what is allowed – what companies can get away with in their pursuit of profit. ‘Green’ often overly celebrates small voluntary steps to do a little less damage (e.g. so-called green building or industry standards). By the time we get to sustainable practices – what Bill McDonough called 100% less bad – we are no longer adding to the destruction that we have already caused. Yet, after a few thousand years of destructive agricultural practices and a few hundred years of exploitative industrialisation, that is not enough!

To create a thriving future for nine billion human beings and for all of life, we need to begin to reverse our destructive effects and start to heal communities, ecosystems and the Earth. Many, often well intended, restoration projects are still done with the arrogance of humanity as the ‘master of nature’ and we end up with projects such as planting Eucalyptus monoculture forests in already water-stressed areas and call it reforestation. We need to become humble apprentices of life.

Only if we heal the entirely mind-made separation of nature and culture, only if we truly understand our interbeing with all of life, can we reconcile humanity with the rest of nature. Once we take that step – which is primarily a shift in the way we think about ourselves and our participation in life’s evolutionary journey – we can begin to design as nature by co-creating elegant solutions adapted to the biocultural uniqueness of place.

The central task for the Re-Generation was summed up perfectly by Buckminster Fuller. Our design challenge is:

“To make the world work for 100% of humanity in the shortest possible time through spontaneous co-operation without ecological offence or the disadvantage of anyone.”

Daniel Christian Wahl works internationally as an educator, activist and consultant, specialising in whole systems design and transformative innovation for regenerative cultures. He is a member of the International Futures Forum, a fellow of the RSA, and a Findhorn Foundation fellow. He co-authored all four dimensions (social, ecological, economic, worldview) of Gaia Education’s UNESCO recognised online curriculum in ‘Design for Sustainability’.16Designing Regenerative Cultures, Daniel’s first book, was published by Triarchy Press in May 2016. It is reviewed on p.70 in PM89.


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The optimization of resource-sharing and processing in order to (re)generate and share abundance and systemic health, rather than competition for scarce resources, is the basis of life’s way of doing economics!  We have to evolve wise societies characterized by empathy, solidarity and collaboration. Wise cultures are regenerative and protect bio-cultural diversity as a source of wealth and resilience (Wahl, 2016). We are now challenged to integrate this precious diversity into a globally and locally collaborative civilization acting wisely to create conditions conducive to life.  As Elisabet Sathouris (2014) said: “We have now reached a new tipping point where enmities are more expensive in all respects than friendly collaboration; where planetary limits of exploiting nature have been reached. It is high time for us to cross this new tipping point into our global communal maturity — an integration of the economy and ecology we have put into conflict with each other, to evolve an ecosophy.” 

A holistic understanding of modern evolutionary biology suggests that life evolves by a process of diversification and subsequent integration of diversity through collaboration (John Stewart in BioSystems, 2014). As our focus shifts from individuals and individual species as the unit of survival to the collective of life — its complex dynamic interactions and relationships — we begin to see that collaborative and symbiotic patterns and interactions are of more fundamental importance than competition as a driving force of evolution. Life’s key strategy to create conditions conducive to life is to optimize the system as a whole rather than maximizes only some parameters of the system for a few at the detriment of many (Wahl, 2016).

The patterns of evolution show a general trend of diversification and subsequent or parallel integration at a higher level of systemic complexity. This integration tends to happen predominantly through the creation of more complex organismic or social entities, primarily by collaboration and symbiosis. John Stewart suggests that this is moving us towards a ‘global entity’ (2014). Maybe this entity already exists in the life-sustaining processes of the biosphere?

The biologist Peter Corning, former president of the International Society for Systems Science and director of the Institute for the Study of Complex Systems, suggests that “one aspect of this more complex view of evolution is that both competition and cooperation may coexist at different levels of organization, or in different aspects related to the survival enterprise. There may be a delicately balanced interplay between these supposedly polar relationships” (Corning, 2005; p.38). He emphasizes that collaboration has been a key factor in the evolution of our own species. The socio-economic payoffs of collaboration in response to ecological pressures and opportunities among early humans have shaped the evolution of languages and cultures, both require and enable complex patterns of collaboration.

If a society is viewed merely as an aggregate of individuals who have no common interests, and no stake in the social order, then why should they care? But of society is viewed […] as an interdependent collective survival enterprise,’ then each of us has a vital, life-and-death stake in its viability and effective functioning, whether we recognize it or not.” — Peter Corning, 2005, p.392

If we want to re-design economics based on what we know about life’s strategy to create conditions conducive to life, we need to question some basic assumptions upon which the narrative underlying our current economic systems is built. The narrative of separation has predisposed us to focus on scarcity, competition, and the short-term maximization of individual benefit as the basis on which to create an economic system. Life’s evolutionary story shows that systemic abundance can be unlocked through collaboratively structured symbiotic networks that optimize the whole system so human communities and the rest of life can thrive.

We are not the masters of life’s diversity, and have the potential to become a regenerative presence in ecosystems and the biosphere.

Both collaboration and competition contribute to how life creates conditions conducive to life. The biologist Andreas Weber explains: “The biosphere is not cooperative in a simple, straight-forward way, but paradoxically cooperative. Symbiotic relationships emerge out of antagonistic, incompatible processes” (Weber, 2013: 32). Weber stresses that we have to understand how the works of the economist Adam Smith and the political economist Robert Malthus influenced Charles Darwin in his attempt to construct a theory of evolution.

Example of collaboration in leaf-cutter ants.

The limited narrative of separation, with its exclusively competition- and scarcity-focused understanding of life, is supported by outdated biological and economic theories. Weber calls this an “economic ideology of nature” and suggests that an ideologically biased perspective “reigns supreme over our understanding of human culture and world. It defines our embodied dimension (Homo sapiens as a gene-governed survival machine) as well as our social identity (Homo economicus as an egoistic maximizer of utility). The idea of universal competition unifies the two realms, the natural and the socio-economic. It validates the notion of rivalry and predatory self-interest as inexorable facts of life” (pp.25–26).

The optimization of resource-sharing and processing in order to (re)generate and share abundance and systemic health, rather than competition for scarce resources, is the basis of life’s way of doing economics! In attempting to create a life-friendly economy, we need to understand the profound implications that the emerging ‘systems view of life’ has for our undertaking. Here is a 7min video of Fritjof Capra presenting the book with explicit reference to economics.

Fritjof Capra on ‘The Systems View of Life — A Unifying Vision’, Capra & Luisi 2014(7 minutes)

As the twenty-first century unfolds, a new scientific conception is emerging. It is a unified view that integrates, for the first time, life’s biological, cognitive, social, and economic dimensions. At the forefront of contemporary science, the universe is no longer seen as a machine composed of elementary building blocks. We have discovered that the material world, ultimately, is a network of inseparable patterns of relationships; that the planet as a whole is a living, self-regulating system. […] Evolution is no longer seen as a competitive struggle for existence, but rather a cooperative dance in which creativity and constant emergence of novelty are the driving forces. And with the new emphasis on complexity, networks, and patterns of organization, a new science of qualities is slowly emerging.” Fritjof Capra and Pier Luigi Luisi (2014b)

Integrating economy and ecology with wisdom

The evolutionary biologist and futurist Elisabet Sathouris describes how in the evolution of complex communities of diverse organisms a ‘maturation point’ is reached when the system realizes that “it is cheaper to feed your ‘enemies’ than to kill them” (personal comment). Having successfully populated six continents and diversified into the mosaic of value systems, worldviews, identities (national, cultural, ethnic, professional, political, etc.) and ways of living that make up humanity, we are now challenged to integrate this precious diversity into a globally and locally collaborative civilization acting wisely to create conditions conducive to life.

We have now reached a new tipping point where enmities are more expensive in all respects than friendly collaboration; where planetary limits of exploiting nature have been reached. It is high time for us to cross this new tipping point into our global communal maturity — an integration of the economy and ecology we have put into conflict with each other, to evolve an ecosophy.” –Elisabet Sathouris (2014)

The challenge of a fundamental re-design of how we do business, of our patterns of production and consumption, of the types of resources and energy we use, goes hand in hand with the structural redesign of our economic systems. We have to challenge economic orthodoxies and basic assumptions, and find ways to integrate multiple perspectives if we hope to redesign economies at multiple scales and learn how to manage our household with wisdom (oikos + sophia).

If our Homo sapiens sapiens wants to continue its fascinating yet so far relatively short evolutionary success story we have to evolve wise societies characterized by empathy, solidarity and collaboration. Wise cultures are regenerative and protect bio-cultural diversity as a source of wealth and resilience (Wahl, 2016).

[In the remainder of this module on Economic Design of Gaia Education’s course Design for Sustainability] we will take a closer look at the social and ecological impacts of the current economic and monetary system, and will explore why the globalized economy behaves as it does before we explore strategies for re-design and inspiring examples of best processes and practices in the transition towards sustainable and regenerative economic patterns at multiples scales. By revisiting basic assumptions about economics we can begin to integrate ecology and economy in full reconnection of the interbeing of nature and culture. We need wisdom to re-design an economic system fit for life. Here are some insights that can help us:

  • The rules of our current economic and monetary system have been designed by people and we can therefore re-design them.
  • We have to question the role of scarcity, competition, and the maximization of individual benefit has cornerstones of our competitive economy.
  • In redesigning economic systems at local, regional and global scale we should pay special attention to how the system incentivises regenerative practices, increases bio-productivity sustainably, restores healthy ecosystem functioning, while nurturing thriving communities.
  • Modern evolutionary biology transcends and includes Darwinian justifications of competition as ‘human nature’, as it acknowledges that complex patterns of collaboration have enabled the evolution of our species and the continued evolution of consciousness towards planetary awareness.
  • Our ability to cooperate has shaped who we are in equal and possibly more profound ways than competitive behaviour, hence we need to re-design economic systems to establish a healthy balance between the way competition and collaboration are incentivised in the system.
  • Rather than maximizing isolated parameters or the benefit of a select few, a re-design of our economic system to serve all of humanity and all life will have to optimize the health and resilience of the system as a whole (understanding humanity as nature; and the economy as a sub-system of society and nature in interconnected eco-social systems).
  • The dominant narrative of separation creates a focus on scarcity, competition and individual advantage, while the emerging narrative of interbeing challenges us to create a win-win-win economy based on the understanding that it is in our enlightened self-interest to unlock shared abundances through collaboration.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: This is an excerpt from the Economic Design Dimension of Gaia Education’s online course in Design for Sustainability, which I recently revised and re-wrote on the basis of an earlier version by Jonathan Dawson (now head of economics at Schumacher College). The 400 hour on-line course offers a whole systems design approach to taking part in the transition towards thriving communities, vibrant regional economies and diverse regenerative cultures everywhere. The Economic Design Dimension starts on March 6th, and runs for 8 weeks (80 study hours). The above is a little preview of the nearly 140 pages of text, links and videos, that participants explore under the guidance of experienced tutors and as part of a global community of learners. For more information take a look at the content of this on-line training for global-local change agents in economic design. Much of the material I used in authoring the curriculum content for this course is based on the years of research I did for my recently published book Designing Regenerative Cultures.