Updated: May 2
“Where do you think I can make the most positive difference in my work?” It’s a common question these days, growing in urgency.
I have more questions than answers in response when I get asked this. I recently found a memo to myself that I sketched out last year trying to answer this question in a shareable way, ever on the lookout for shortcuts. Then I got busy with other stuff. But I realized I was avoiding the very advice I sketched in the memo, so I’m taking another pass at it here.
The sketched idea went something like this:
To transition to a regenerative economy, one where we (humans and billions of non-humans with which we are interdependent) can thrive, three things need to happen. We need to …
1. remove that which currently undermines our ability to thrive;
2. create that which encourages the conditions for thriving;
3. cope with the transition.
These things are easy to write down, and in a few testing discussions I got ready nods and a sort of, “Well, of course!” But (also/of course) the transition being suggested here is no small thing. Accepting the scope of what needs doing yields a lot of Why not’s interspersed with a good dose of, Because they’s… But that can’t stop us from moving forward.
To help make sense of it, I thought I’d create a simple visual to inform this new mental model. I like visuals and find they can help frame ideas where words sometimes aren’t ready yet. And then, to paraphrase one of my favorite New Yorker cartoons, some time on the eve of 2020, things got way gnarly.
My “simple” attempt to model what the other side of this transition looks like got complicated.
This is a (short) video of my rudimentary attempt at mentally modeling the transition, in particular the remove/create pair of the three-part concept. You’ll be reliant on your own voice over – there is no soundtrack. I am curious what it says to you. I offer notes at the end about what I was thinking as I drew in case you want to compare your soundtrack with mine.
There is a lot more to be said and done by all of us on each to Remove, Create and Cope. A universe of activity for each dot on the right hand of the … er … diagram, really. But perhaps the following provokes a few ideas in relation to the short list of three.
“Remove.” What does this mean?
Physically - Dismantle, repurpose, reintegrate those elements of our current industrial complex which undermine our ability to thrive.
Financially – Stop paying for, investing in, promoting, and building market infrastructure around any economic activity that undermines our ability to thrive.
Culturally – Cease celebrating, advertising, funding, promoting products, services or lifestyle attributes that undermine our ability to thrive.
More hints, please!
There are lots of examples of an industrial activity being physically dismantled and resources being put to a more elegant, integrated use. Toronto’s Brick Works come to mind as one I know well. I remember when it was an active, open-pit clay mine a stone’s throw from my childhood home. It took vision, commitment and a lot of hard work to create the place it is today, i.e. a beloved urban gem that educates, feeds, and supports a diverse swath of the human and non-human populations. But first, the damage had to stop. No more mining, no more polluting the Don River with industrial waste. And no land-grabbing for housing developments in the sole pursuit of profit.
From a business model and investment perspective, the Future-Fit Business Benchmark* is a tool that can help determine where financial resources should (and shouldn’t) flow. The benchmark aims, in the Future-Fit Foundation’s words, “to protect the possibility that humans and other life can flourish on Earth forever.” If a company applies this benchmark with rigour, they can see where they are (or aren’t) on course to do no harm. If they are interested in having a net positive impact (and, just checking: who isn’t interested in having a net positive impact?) they can apply the Positive Pursuits of the benchmark. Several companies around the world have already done so, some of whom are mentioned here. Because it’s a free, open source tool, we’ll never know who else is quietly beetling away benchmarking their strategies in relation to a regenerative economy. There is nothing stopping any of us from doing so, right now.
On the culture front, this shift can feel like judging versus recognizing – this will be our biggest challenge, I think. Consider fireworks and birthday cake – do they contribute to all life on earth thriving? How about nail polish? Most of us have been raised by (and praised for) behaviours that are rather destructive. Even pointing it out, much less changing it, can leave one feeling a little isolated and curmudgeonly, but we are going to have to move through that awkwardness. Not out of guilt – which is worse than useless – but out of new understanding. (See “Cope” below).
“Create.” What does this mean?
Design for – and deliver on – lifestyles that belong in a future that is regenerative. Rely on wholly integrated value cycles that create self-reinforcing, restorative feedback loops.
More hints, please!
Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics offers guidance for many aspects of the needed shift within business. Raworth provides very clear, concise information about the characteristics of companies within an economy that serves society within a healthy biosphere along with numerous examples.
Michelle Holliday’s blog explores living systems thinking, an essential approach to creating conditions that enable life to thrive. Her work supports people who are stewarding life (consider this phrase for a moment: stewarding life) through business and other organizations. It’s this creative spark, this awareness of the role of life itself in all of our systems, that is needed to succeed in the emergent regenerative phase.
Another inspiration is Dr. Christine McDougall’s daily Beginnings which take us into provocations and insights on a syntropic world, one where organizations – guided by individuals like me and you if we so choose – leave everything they touch better.
A very simple step in Create Mode is to recognize that this is happening already. Here’s an example that I wrote about a while back, profiling Legado das Águas, where a large industrial conglomerate created a new, regenerative business by repurposing resources originally set aside for hydro-electricity production. Increasingly diverse birdsong and orchids are now vital to their success.
“Cope.” What does this mean?
Provide the support – products, services, physical/emotional/spiritual nurturing, and other things that don’t have clear labels – required for a just and safe transition to regeneration.
More hints, please!
Look inward. Cultivate behaviours in each of ourselves that enable cooperation, courage and persistence in the face of challenge. Remember that we already have everything we need.
[Insert link to self.] Breathe.
And so my response to the question, “Where can I make the most positive difference in my work?” is that I can remove, create and cope. If you are reading this blog post, chances are you are engaged in some combination of the above. Yet many of us spend time on things that are in the “less bad” camp and/or blaming others for building the bad, neither of which are on this short list.
I still have more questions than answers, but drawing that …um… diagram reminded me that what we need is here, ready when we are, made up of things we already have.
* In the spirit of transparency, I am on the Expert Council of the Future-Fit Business Benchmark. This is a pro bono role, the benchmark is free to use, and the Future-Fit team had no idea I was going to write this.
A bit of voiceover for the video
On the left are clear categories, a simple pie chart, tidy boxes into which we have done our best to organize everything – in three primary colours. This mechanistic way is not working – it’s harming us – and so it is ending, disintegrating and giving way to a new way. The new reality towards which we are moving has a spiral at its beginnings – a nod to the golden ratio – and then evolves onwards, being a dynamic living system. It is followed by an exponential explosion of interconnected life forms, entities, disciplines and ideas, a sort of everythingness made up of the primary ingredients from the left (though many of the old ways simply don’t cross the divide as the new emerges on the right).
The video first goes through the full journey, where something appears from nothing – all those rings of consciousness and interconnected mixings of primary colours into secondary and tertiary – all cooked from the same essential substance but evolving into new and different things, or perhaps more accurately demonstrating that they already were new (not-really-new) different (not-really-different) things. [Sorry but it was a strange few days.]
And then, since I didn't know that it was emerging on the first round when I drew it, I edited a second round into the video to allow the emergence to be more obvious. Everything was already there just waiting to be revealed.