Updated: Feb 27
I like to shine light on the path to the regenerative economy. But since future footsteps are hard to see, I am going to borrow from the past, with the help of some great literature. I will do this in layers – a sort of nesting Russian doll approach if you will.
Outer Doll: The Idiot Was No Dummy
I remember reading Dostoevsky’s The Idiot a few years ago during my squished subway commutes from Manhattan to Brooklyn back when I worked with SustainAbility.
I was struck by the way Prince Myshkin’s innocent goodness led the supposedly more savvy characters to assume he must be an idiot. I would look around me at the crowded faces and think, “Are we really idiots for seeing good…?”
And then I would arrive at the office and set to work on my sustainability consulting chores. That commuting question would linger as efforts to shift the gears of the global industrial complex sparked the occasional flash of purpose in and among the quarterly earnings pressures of our clients. I further wondered, “… or am I an idiot for thinking these corporate sustainability efforts are doing any good?”
Smaller Doll: Nested Layers of Willful Ignorance
Years before I found actual Dostoevsky, I enjoyed reading another great writer’s take on someone else finding him. In Thomas Wolfe’s The Web and The Rock the protagonist, Monk, a young university student, accidentally discovers Dostoevsky in the library one day.
Monk had been hanging out with other students under the persuasive, somewhat cultish leadership of a certain Jerry Alsop. For all Alsop’s popularity, something didn’t seem right to Monk so he set out to learn more on his own and stumbled on the Russian literary giant.
Alsop mocked his young follower’s new discovery, referring to Dostoevsky alternately as “Dusty-whosky” and “Mr. Dusty What’s-His-Name”, suggesting a substandard writer in his esteemed view. Monk and Alsop have it out and although the younger one is ridiculed by his mentor and the other men gathered round, he holds his ground. The dust-up is described by Wolfe:
“A cat-and-dog fight broke out at this point, a dozen angry, derisive voices clashing through the air trying to drown out the rebel, who only shouted louder as the opposition grew; and it continued until the contestants were out of breath and the entire campus was howling for quiet from a hundred windows.”
There was much fuss and contention about bringing new ideas – even ones known by many to be great – into a group of people supposedly gathered to think about new ideas in an educational institution. Rereading this passage the other day reminded me of the cognitive dissonance described in James Hoggan’s book, I’m Right and You’re an Idiot (New Society Publishers, 2019) about the state of today’s public discourse.
Even Smaller Doll: Getting At the Thing
And now as I seek knowledge and inspiration about regenerative economics I sometimes feel like the “idiot” Myshkin, seeing seeds of a better economic reality and being viewed as therefore somehow unfit for conventional corporate conversation.
I also find myself in Monk’s shoes, on the receiving end of questions essentially asking, regener-whatsky? As if it could possibly mean anything worthy among what we already know to be true and right about economics (endless growth) and sustainability (steady progress towards less-badness).
Yet, perhaps a bit like Monk knowing that good old Dusty-whosky was actually a pretty decent writer, and Myshkin perceiving goodness that really was there, I am pretty sure the regenerative economy is worth pursuing. And I’m not alone.
The thing is Myshkin, Monk and I confront similar system issues – from societal norms that incentivize bad behaviour to flaws in educational institutions. But that doesn’t mean we should stop trying to change things.
Inner Doll: It’s What Inside That Counts
Fine. But regener-whatsky indeed. What is the regenerative economy? To my mind it’s a few things. In part it’s a reaction to the degenerative economy. There is broad consensus that business as usual needs to change to avoid catastrophic collapse of natural and social systems, that endless growth is not a viable economic model. This is why mainstream investors are seeking out climate friendly places to put their capital and the super-rich are creating back-up plans to get themselves and their loved ones to places like New Zealand if all hell breaks loose, while the financial media are anticipating another global recession.
But beyond a reaction against something bad, regeneration is about moving into the beautiful. It’s about acknowledging that the current state is based on a series of decisions – human choices – and we can make different ones.
What does the beautiful mean in this context? It means that as a premise of their business models (not side projects or isolated initiatives) businesses would:
1. sequester more greenhouse gases than they emit;
2. increase biodiversity by restoring ecosystems;
3. create quality of life by means that are fair for all people and other species.
There are important nuances lurking behind these three elements. I don’t mean to glaze over details. But I do mean to suggest that we have to believe these things are possible before getting into the throes of how. We have to believe The Idiot wasn’t an idiot. And that Dostoevsky was a great writer who – like so many great artists – was trying to tell us something whenever we are ready to hear it.
But That Doll Looks Funny
Try talking about an economy that is regenerative. It’s a serious regener-whatsky conversation in some circles. It’s as if it’s perfectly normal that society serves the economy, versus the other way around. The very idea of an economy that is aligned with natural cycles – carbon, water, or nutrient cycles for example – while enabling people to thrive seems absurd. People literally snort when they first hear this (I am pretty sure I did, too).
“Pshaw!” they sputter. “Who is this strange creature peddling such hooey?”
Yet the more this idea about regeneration gets discussed, the more its potential is revealed. It’s a self-reinforcing feedback loop – not only do more people come to understand, but more refined and tested examples come forward. (That’s actually a neat feature of regeneration – it’s self-propagating, in a good way, unlike the self-reinforcing feedback loops that degenerate - like adding lanes to highways that ease traffic, only to invite more cars onto the roads...)
Oh really? Note the Jerry Alsop’s out there. Where is all this regener-whatsky? Good question. I have a few answers and I think they’re going to keep emerging, and I’m just one little student stumbling through the library of life here. I see things that give me hope, though I’d like to see more, including more large-scale companies with significant resources getting really serious about shifting away from extractive, degenerative economics and focusing instead on net-sequestering CO2, restoring ecosystems and supporting life on earth by dint of being in business.
More Funny-looking Dolls, Please
I chirp about inspiring examples as I get to know them.* For example I wrote about industrial group Votorantim’s young new company – Legado das Águas – whose business model incentivizes biodiversity while engaging different communities and cities to support the Atlantic Forest. And I built a little Instagram story with breadcrumbs so you can follow the trail to the worker-owned grocery store, Instituto Feira Livre, in São Paulo, which has a radical take on transparency and low-cost organic food, a promising example of the Solidarity Economy which offers a lot of regenerative tendencies.
I am encouraged by the soil-carbon market that recently launched, Nori, which I am happy to tweet about as they make so much of what they do open-source. It’s about much more than participating in their marketplace - it’s about fomenting the shift towards regenerative agriculture, another promising aspect of the economy I’m dreaming of. And although I haven’t (yet!) met in person ultra-marathoner, turtle advocate and all round single-use-plastics eliminating champion Karoline Hanks, we’ve bantered back and forth on the airwaves and I gladly share information about the inspired work she’s doing to change the game in waste-free running races. (Because it turns out road-races are big business, too.)
These are just a few tiny regenerative-leaning examples that I’m aware of. But there is so much more with the potential to create the new economic norms needed to bring about the shift.
A wonderful visual portal into this regenerative future comes to us from McGill University professor Dr. Elena Bennett through her TEDxCERN talk Seeds of the Good Anthropocene. What makes this great video even more inspiring is that although Dr. Bennett works for a university I can walk to in 15 minutes, I found out about her work through a professor from a university in São Paulo. Seeds are high-potential little code-delivery devices, and this video is a great example.
I am not immune to the serious concerns of the day. But I feel fairly sure that being an idiot is a worthwhile approach.
* I don’t have a commercial relationship with any of these folks, I just think it’s information worth sharing.