I’ve just returned from a four-day strategic gathering focused on the global movement to regenerate the planet’s soils. By drawing down carbon and water, science – and practice – have shown that large-scale soil regeneration is the best way to reverse climate change, reduce droughts and flooding, support biodiversity, and improve the nutritional quality of our food. But such dramatic outcomes call for major changes in how we all interact with the land, particularly for farmers.

I came away from the strategic gathering with the sense that three things need to come together to support this massive transition. Read more

I decided to take a chance and ask the group of farmers a bold opening question. These times call for boldness, I find. And overalls notwithstanding, I had reason to believe there was more to these particular men and women than popular stereotypes would suggest. Read more

I was a little surprised to see this text that a conference organizer “helpfully” added to the description of the workshop I would be offering at his event:

“This is a practical course and not a discussion of theory. You exit this 90-minute Workshop with new knowledge, a step-by-step plan and tools you can use when you return to your leadership and coaching work.”

This conference organizer is also a friend and colleague, so I sent him a candid reply.

“I’m uncomfortable with the final couple of sentences you proposed,” I responded. “I find that theory and philosophy are underrated. That isn’t to say people won’t leave with concrete stuff to do, but I don’t like workshop and conference claims that boast – in male, chest-thumping ways – about being practical tools, in six easy steps, for real-world, concrete blah blah and not useless theory, discussion, philosophy. This whole orientation is part of what’s wrong in the world.” Read more

Historically, labor unions have existed to champion the rights and needs of individual workers. These days, there is widespread debate over whether they continue to play a useful role. But the question that may be even more timely and relevant is: what form of collective organizing is needed if we are to protect the rights and needs of all life? Can we expand the concept of “union” beyond those individuals directly involved in the work? Can we organize collectively in union – in communion, even – with everything that is alive, fully conscious of our deep interdependence? Read more

[Traduction par la merveilleuse Aimée LeBreton de Traditions Global Expressions, avec des conseils et des encouragements généreux de Gene Bergeron]

Je suis revenue depuis peu du Symposium Sols vivants organisé par Régénération Canada, auquel j’ai eu le privilège d’assister à titre de co-animatrice. En dépit de la grande fatigue que j’éprouve à la fin de ces quatre jours de rassemblement, je n’aurais voulu me trouver à nulle part ailleurs. Les méthodes de régénération de l’agriculture et d’aménagement des terres proposent la solution la plus prometteuse aux changements climatiques, quoiqu’elle soit possiblement la plus méconnue. Elle propose d’activer la capacité innée des sols sains à séquestrer des milliards de tonnes de carbone chaque année. Cette pratique offre également la possibilité de contrer de nombreux enjeux, dont l’insécurité alimentaire, la pollution et la pénurie de l’eau, la perte de biodiversité, la désertification et les risques à la santé publique. Contrairement aux méthodes conventionnelles d’agriculture qui détériorent activement les sols, les méthodes régénératrices sont axées sur la création de conditions qui favorisent le développement sain des microorganismes vivants dans le sol. Il s’agit de travailler avec plutôt que contre la vie. Pour toutes ces raisons, le Symposium a attiré 500 participants, dont des agriculteurs, des éleveurs de bétail, des transformateurs alimentaires, des détaillants, des scientifiques, des journalistes, des bailleurs de fonds et des décideurs politiques, tous empreints d’un sentiment d’urgence et d’un espoir prudent. Read more

I’ve just come from co-hosting Regeneration Canada’s Living Soils Symposium. As tired as I feel right now at the end of the four-day gathering, there’s nowhere else I would have chosen to be. Regenerative approaches to agriculture and land management offer the most promising – and perhaps least known – solution to climate change, activating healthy soil’s ability to sequester billions of tons of carbon each year. These practices also have the potential to address food security, water pollution and scarcity, biodiversity loss, desertification, public health, and more. Unlike conventional methods of agriculture that actively degenerate soil, regenerative approaches focus on creating the conditions for the living microorganisms in the soil to thrive. It’s about working with life instead of against it. For all these reasons, the Symposium attracted 500 farmers, ranchers, food processors, retailers, scientists, journalists, funders, policymakers and others, each with a sense of urgency and cautious hope.

Over the four days, there were many separate sessions covering a range of topics and practices. But in conversations between sessions, I heard one frequent refrain: we understand the importance and value of regenerative approaches to soil; but how do we convince the others? How do we get them – consumers, politicians, retailers, but most of all farmers – to change their thinking and behaviors? Read more

The most important thing we can do right now, individually and collectively, is to change the game we’re playing.

“The game we play” is another way of thinking about the story or worldview we’re living out. Adopting a new game (or worldview) changes the conversations we have and the questions we consider worthy of exploring. It alters what seems reasonable to do, or not do. It changes who gets to play the game and who controls the bank.

For decades (if not centuries), much of human civilization has been structured as if it were one big game of Monopoly, where hoarding is the aim and beating down all the other players is the winning strategy.

And that has brought us to where we are now: the edge of extinction.

Clearly, what we need is a game whose very rules and structures don’t lead inexorably to ecological collapse, social turmoil and personal trauma. A game that instead puts us in natural alignment with life’s universal design principles.

You’d think that would be The Game of Life (pictured above). But alas: that one is just another hoarding, dog-eat-dog competition.

Apparently, we need to get more specific: we need a game whose objective is enabling life – all life– to thrive.

Let’s imagine that we might call this game “Thrivability.” Instead of hoarding, the goal of this game is healing, a word whose root is “to make whole.” “Healing as ever-greater wholeness, through care and generosity,” as I wrote elsewhere. “Healing our hearts and bodies. Healing our relationships with each other and with the Earth’s countless other species. Healing the soils and the waters. Healing our communities.”

Within this game, the playing field is understood to be our every organization, institution and community as living systems within the larger living biosphere.

Instead of beating down all the other players – and all other forms of life – the winning strategy in the game of Thrivability is to cultivate the fertile conditions for all life to thrive, as an ever-expanding, ever-evolving practice.

Where the inevitable dynamic of Monopoly has proven to be reductionist, channeling wealth to the very few, Thrivability is expansive, creating ever more possibilities and more wealth, in all its forms, for all. That is the true nature of nature, after all: to be generative and even re-generative, creating ever more diversity, connection and possibility.

No matter what your context, no matter what the scale, this is the game you need to be playing from now on.This is the game we need to structure our civilization around.

If we don’t fully understand the nature and rules of this new game, then we risk making only incremental change within the same old game of Monopoly – adding more energy-efficient houses and hotels or swapping out the Community Chest cards for a digital version. These piecemeal adaptations won’t get us where we so urgently need to go.

To avoid that shortfall, I offer these five simple rules for playing the game of Thrivability, as I understand it. They can be summarized as: (1) the informed (2) intention (3) and practice of (4) stewarding (5) life.

Here’s how that breaks down.

Rule #1: Get informed:What does it mean for life to thrive – and what does it take? If we’re going to create the conditions for thrivability, we’re going to need some information about what that involves. Some kind of theory of change will be useful.

To get there, we can find guidance in models and frameworks, in our own experiences and intuitions, in conversations, in art and poetry, in indigenous languages and perspectives, in nature, in spirituality, in many things. Each of us will have our own ways of exploring and integrating the emerging, expanded story of life. Here’s a link to my version of life’s universal design principles, as they appear in our organizations, communities and economies. Find what seems like useful guidance for you.

Rule #2: Set a Clear Intention:If we don’t aim for thriving, we’ll never get there. As a civilization and as organizations and individuals, we are generally setting our sights on something far less than thriving and, as a result, we’re falling catastrophically short of that goal. Instead, we need to hold the explicit intention to enable thriving for ourselves and for the whole community of life. This objective has to be front-and-center in everything we do – in every conversation, every meeting, every project, every strategic plan. Life is the new bottom line.

Rule #3: Embrace the Ongoing Practice:We don’t play the game of Thrivability to get to some end-point or to “win.” Instead, thrivability is an ongoing design practice, a continuously unfolding inquiry, in which we ask: “What would bring the most life to this situation? What conditions are needed in this moment, within these circumstances, to support life’s ability to thrive as fully as possible at every level?”

Inspired by these questions, we can design and prototype new structures and systems to hold, nurture and propel us – and all life. We can imagine new ways of being together in community, in organization, in family, in learning. And we can celebrate, let go of and mourn the structures and systems that no longer serve us fully, creating space for new life to emerge in their place.

At the foundation of our design practice is a personal practice, like a martial arts or spiritual practice. In this way, thrivability is a craft developed over time. It is the lifelong journey of growing into wisdom, compassion and the ability to sense what is needed and to respond with effective action.

Rule #4: Step into a Stance of Stewardship: In our civilization-wide game of Monopoly, we’ve seen ourselves as managers, controlling the pieces on the board, moving along a simple, linear trajectory. In the game of Thrivability, we recognize that life is complex, emergent and self-organizing. It can’t be controlled, but it can be invited and nurtured. And so our role is to be gardeners and stewards, listening for what we are called to care for and tending to life’s fertile conditions with reverence and responsibility.

Rule #5: Honor Life:In stark contrast to Monopoly’s single-minded worship of money, the game of Thrivability is most of all an acknowledgement of the precious gift of aliveness, source of our kinship with all existence. To play this game is to savor the experience of life – the joy, the pain and everything in between.

These are the rules of the game of Thrivability, as I understand them. Embracing these rules changes both the nature and the quality of our conversations, as we ask in every setting and every sphere of our lives: “How can we enable as much thriving as possible?”

As I write in my book, The Age of Thrivability:

“We need to see ourselves more fully as active stewards of life’s unfolding process and as part of a larger living world. With this broader view, we can see that our organizations [and communities] have the potential to be places where we are nourished by our relationships and by the opportunity to contribute and develop our gifts…. Where we can experience beauty, wholeness and healing within our communities and our workplaces. Where we can grow into wisdom alongside each other, with trust that this is the most direct path to effective action. And where these are the express purposes of coming together.”

Who’s ready to play?

Our economic belief system is designed around hoarding – accumulating ever more stuff, in constant fear of not having enough and especially of not having as much as our peers. And look where that’s gotten us: to the edge of extinction, among other ills.

In place of hoarding, what if we designed for healing?

The root of the word is “to make whole.” Healing as ever-greater wholeness, through care and generosity.

Healing our hearts and bodies. Healing our relationships with each other and with the Earth’s countless other species. Healing the soils and the waters. Healing our communities.

If we tune in, we all know intuitively where healing is needed and where we can contribute. We are wired to care, unless our belief system tells us we should not.

What would feel healing and nourishing to you today?

What if the next conversation you have with someone contributes to just a little healing? What would that look like? It might be as simple as a smile or a thoughtful question. Or it might be more profound.

What if our every purchase were guided by the opportunity to contribute to healing? What would you buy? How would you buy it? Maybe you would recognize that, as I wrote, it takes a village to raise an entrepreneur,” and so you would buy something locally.

What if each meeting were designed as an experience of healing? It’s not as far-fetched as it sounds. I wrote about it here.

What if each company dedicated itself to offering healing to people and planet, in its own special way? Patagonia, Interface and others are leading the way. Regenerative farmers, too.

What if elected officials saw themselves most of all as healers, creating more wholeness for citizens and communities through connection, participation and maybe even play? The UK offers a pioneering example – not at a national level but in its local community efforts.

From hoarding an ever-expanding quantity of stuff to cultivating an ever-deepening quality of healing. From fear of never having enough to delight and curiosity in discovering what more is possible.

Let’s design for that.

“Don’t grow if it will make you sick.”

This is what the “mother” had told them.

My client was a small, dynamic company that produced kombucha, a natural fermented drink believed to have significant health benefits. The group had asked me to help them figure out how to respond to a huge upsurge in demand without losing the soul of their beautiful little company.

What I loved about these people was their embodied connection with life and living systems principles. After all, kombucha is a living product, made from a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast that forms a gelatinous substance known as a “mother.” Great personal and ongoing care goes into tending to the mother, since it (she?) is what actually does the work of producing the kombucha.

As the group explored various ways forward, one of the questions I invited them to reflect on was, “What would the mother advise?” And the answer that emerged from their reflection, as if in a clear and gentle voice, was: “Don’t grow if it will make you sick.”

Was that even an option?

It was a shocking, unsettling message. And yet its wisdom was undeniable.

As the group wrestled with this advice, their exploration led them to the compelling option of propagatingrather than growing. They excitedly imagined cultivating a network of local partners: small brewpubs housed in hubs of entrepreneurship, creativity and conversation, in which kombucha infuses the space — and the community — with health and inspiration. What if, instead of gathering around alcohol, people could gather around a healthful drink? What if kombucha’s unusual collaboration between bacteria and yeast – hostile to each other in other circumstances and conditions – could be offered as an inspiring metaphor for our own potential to collaborate across difference? Instead of the soulless, over-prescribed franchise model, what if their network of partners could be locally responsive and self-organizing, like kombucha itself? Instead of simply growing their own production capacity and wealth, what if the group could grow the generative capacity of their company – its ability to generate new possibilities, new offshoots, new life? And rather than making them sick, what if such a move actually had a regenerative effect, making them and the community more healthy and whole?

None of this vision could have come into view without first expanding the group’s understanding of what it means to be a company. Rather than something fundamentally separate from the people within it – simply a production and output machine that must be grown at all costs – they came to see their company as something personal, alive and embedded in a living world.

Their experience begs the question: what other possibilities lie beyond the limits of our existing assumptions about growth?

And in fact, the region of Flanders in Belgium is engaged in just such an inquiry. My friend Anna Pollockhas been working with VisitFlanderson what she calls “regenerative tourism.” As part of the project, CEO Peter De Wilde recently narrated this breathtaking video about their project, Travel to Tomorrow. Growth in tourism, he says, “means lots of money, true, and… is that always a good thing? Perhaps the cost is higher than we might expect.”

“Could tourism possibly create more value with fewer tourists. Giving them the space to discover the things we want to share. The things that make us unique.”

“Who are we, the people who live and work here? Generous givers, who really want to enrich one another? Or do we just want to make ourselves rich?”

Just a few years ago, those questions would have been unthinkable.

Unlike the kombucha company, the team at VisitFlanders doesn’t have answers yet. Their destination remains undefined. But importantly, they’ve launched an ambitious campaign to engage people across Flanders in meaningful conversation to imagine together what more is possible, beyond assumptions of growth at all costs.

Here in Quebec, we can see growth for its own sake in the plague of blue-green algae we’ve experienced in our lakes in recent summers. Over-fertilized by human activity, the algae takes up all the oxygen, preventing other species from thriving. The water becomes toxic to all forms of life, including humans. This is where we find ourselves with today’s monopolies, mega-banks and ubiquitous franchise chains. At some point, scale and efficiency become degenerative rather than regenerative, actively working against life’s ability to thrive.

If we don’t pause to shake loose the assumptions that guide our actions, then we won’t see the many unimagined options available to us. We’ll continue to operate within the same ruts that are leading us steadily toward destruction, despair and ecosystem collapse. In place of growth as our goal, why not aim for more learning, more creativity, more love? Why not set our sights on thrivability, actively cultivating life’s ability to thrive wherever we find it?

It doesn’t seem to come naturally for people to take the time to connect deeply with WHY. Despite Simon Sinek‘s best efforts, there’s still a strong urge to jump to WHAT. But there’s so much reward (clarity, engagement, energy, moral authority, creativity…) to be found in the WHY.

“How can you know the ‘why’ if you don’t know the ‘what’?” asked one client recently. Sometimes it helps to think of “why” as “context,” I responded. What’s going on in the world (your world) that calls to you? What is your unique place within this situation? What is the unique place of your place? Rooting your work in context shifts it from being a program or a project to a mission or a quest. There is infinitely more moral authority and inspiration in such grounding. When we skip straight to the “what,” we get objectives like, “Be #1 in our industry.” What else could there be? And that’s a fine goal, but not in itself. Without rootedness in service to some underlying context, it remains a self-centered, empty ego-driven goal. When we start with “why,” however, we get objectives like, “Change the relationship people have with nature.” We get other-centered, service-oriented, deeply meaningful goals that serve as useful guides to subsequent action.

I’m also noticing that the aversion to spending time on “why” is often related to the need to shift from “hero” to “host.” The leader so often believes that he (yes, it’s usually a he in these cases) has to be the hero with all the answers – the “what.” And it becomes self-fulfilling; when the leader always comes with all the answers, everyone else gets disengaged, and so the leader is then truly the only one who’s fully committed, who can ever get to the “what.” But when there’s a shift from hero to host, the leader can create the conditions for people to swim in the “why” for a time and for the “what” to emerge naturally from their collective sensing and wisdom.

In my experience, most people don’t naturally fathom the “why.” It’s not their habit. It doesn’t come naturally to them. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re not interested in it. They need a guide – a host – to help them discover it. My sense is that it’s a cultural thing rather than a question of human wiring. Our culture hasn’t valued the “why” for centuries – only the “what.” And that’s led to us to the brink of extinction. So our goal (yours and mine!) is to shift the culture, including working one organization at a time.

Thank you again to Neil Davidson for invaluable additions to the model above.

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