Last May, at the Global Earth Repair conference, I got my first glimmer of hope in many years. I’ve got the late-stage capitalism, ruinous-leaders, poisonous-policies blues. Big time. Speaker after speaker at the conference talked of regenerative practices to heal what ails us and a refreshing wellspring of hope burbled up.
Given the right conditions, the earth is a sponge, a reservoir for all the water we need – if we cooperate with her. The soil is alive, and living soil makes the sponge that nourishes life – if we cooperate with her. Living soil heals the climate, creating nourishing relationship literally between heaven on earth. Restoring ecosystems – at scale – can actually pull carbon naturally from the atmosphere and into the soil where it lived forever until industrial scale agriculture sent her storehouse of carbon into the sky. Restoring the carbon cycle, we can pull back from the cliff of climate catastrophe. We can ratchet down the CO2 load in the atmosphere.
We can redeem ourselves at this late date
– the prodigal species, having laid waste to our inheritance, returning home. I was speechless – and that’s rare.
Half a year later I had the good fortune to join he Regeneration International delegation in Santiago, Chile, originally scheduled there to influence the climate conference, COP25. The conference moved to Madrid, but Regeneration International decided to hold their global convergence in Santiago as planned. As I’d bought my tickets as part of a speaking tour in South America, and couldn’t change my flights without a massively expensive jump to first class, I showed up in Santiago to learn and support and better understand the hope “regeneration” holds for our world.
Everything I heard, everyone I met, resonated with me. Except the word “regeneration”, which felt like a dead key on a piano, muted and dull, even as the people and their projects, farms, good will, passion, humility made my heart sing.
Why did I feel so connected with the people but not with their name? It is not accidental that they selected regeneration. It says precisely what they want to say. But it was like meeting an Archibald and wanting to call him Archie. I wanted to call regenerative agriculture restorative agriculture or ecosystem restoration.
Restoration conjures up beautiful old homes, cars or paintings brought back to their original glory. To the degree one thinks that the “user experience” of planet earth is worse than it was a century ago, restoration is comforting.
Or take renewal, as in a library book, a license or old friendship. It sounds like a reward for playing by the rules. No fines, no tickets, no hard feelings.
Reweave sounds like fixing an unraveled fabric – be it a sweater or a family that’s fallen out of touch.
“Re” words are great. Revive (bring back to life). Reduce, reuse, recycle (zero waste). Reconcile (make it all add up). Review (look again). Rewind (go back to the beginning). Reword (make the meaning clearer). Resilience (capacity to bounce back).
Why was regeneration so hard to cozy up to?
I turned to my master teacher: the dictionary. The definition had nothing to do with agriculture. It was about the magic of starfish growing new limbs or using stem cells as a renewable source of replacement cells and tissues to treat diseases. It makes me think of Ray Kurtzweil’s (and others) quest to never die by being able to regrow any organs that threaten to fail. It feels mechanical, professional and entitled, like technology playing god. Mind you, I’d get in line for stem cells to keep my 1945 model body running longer but that desire feels like a guilty pleasure – like air travel to the Galapagos when I know the CO2 consequences may contribute to sinking the species I went to visit.
I watched the videos produced by key organizations – like Kiss the Ground as well as Regeneration International. At first I thought, “Yes, yes, that’s me!” I’ve composted, shoveled hundreds of pounds of manure into my gardens, mulched, cover cropped and planted seeds every year for 5 decades. I love building fertility and eating what grows in my yard, even with my tendency towards neglect. Garden is a warm word for me. But these videos asked more. They asked me to understand biology, ecology, water cycles, soil microbiology, carbon chemistry, biochar, mineral uptake, and more to see, finally, what makes regeneration miraculous.
Regenerative agriculture, sometimes referred to by practices like Agroecology or Agroforestry or Permaculture or ReWilding or Holistic Management or Carbon Farming, etc., is actually working with how nature works to create ecosystems that are self-nourishing, self-generating, self-restoring, self-watering, self-fertilizing… that produce food for every living thing, from single cell flagellates to butterflies and birds and humans and, unfortunately for my garden, bunnies. Regenerative systems don’t just bring things back to the way they were. They foster new life. They generate. Make more of themselves.
Regeneration with stem cells is using the tools of technology to manipulate the inner workings of life, forcing it to do your will.
Regeneration in agriculture is working with nature to create optimal conditions for nature herself, with her mystery of life generating life generating life, to flourish with minimal cooperation over time from human stewards. What seems dead may only be dormant, and we can revivify “sleeping beauty” with a kiss of regenerative practices.
Studying the 4per1000 initiative promoting regenerative practices for climate remediation, it’s abundantly clear that soil, as Kristen Ohlsen contends in her similarly named book, can save us from our excesses. Project Drawdown has identified and ranked the top 100 global strategies for actually reducing the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. Twelve of the top 20 solutions are food and land use related. As compared with five related to electricity.
The beautiful promise inside the word “regeneration” is that we can go home again. What we have wasted, cut down, used up, fouled can come back to life – if we become, again, a cooperating species in our ecosystem niches. We have driven ourselves off the ecological limits cliff. Filled with hubris, we’ve trashed the house. As Joni Mitchell sang in her Woodstock song:
We are stardust
We are golden
And we’ve got to get ourselves
Back to the garden
Regeneration is the way home to the garden, not as hippies anymore but as soil scientists and permaculturists and hard-working farmers.
The root “gen” is to create, to bring forth. Generate. Generosity. Genesis. We can go back to the moment when we mistook our species superpowers (reasoning, speaking) for the power to take, exploit, dominate, Lord it all over the rest of life. If we are staring extinction in the face, we are certainly in the biblical moment in Deuteronomy 30:15-20: “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live”.
The biggest light bulb, though, turned on when I saw Regeneration as the “Re-Generation”,
the one after Boomers and Xers and Millennials and Y. The ones now being born and learning to walk who will inherit the earth we leave them. They will renew, restore, reclaim reuse, recycle and regenerate from the life they have. They will reseed grasslands and retain (water) and refresh lakes and replant riparian zones. Perhaps some of our advanced technologies will cross the divide and they will have access to renewable energy. Maybe they will still be able to research on the internet, so that local learning can skip across the planet electronically, fertilizing communities in similar ecological zones.
In fact, it may be that regeneration is not easy on the tongue in the industrialized and technologically advanced global north, but practiced with great commitment in the global south, degraded by human exploitation. With only 1.5% of our population farming, and most of them at an industrial scale, Americans don’t see the point of regeneration. Perhaps it sounds like giving up control, being at the mercy of natural forces after spending centuries pushing nature back and keeping her there. Regeneration-optional – as in if it doesn’t inconvenience me too much, doesn’t crash the industrial cornucopia, well … okay.
In the Global South, however, regeneration is salvation for small scale farmers feeding their families and communities. They eagerly adopt the practices – cover cropping, rotational grazing, mulching, propagating, tree planting, permaculture principles – to bring their villages and surrounding area back to life. Regeneration might not catch hold in the United States because of our investment in industrial scale food systems. When I wrote Blessing the Hands that Feed Us about rebuilding local food systems, I saw the massive barriers to scaling up regional food systems. Our laws, customs, tastes and expectations of cheap food don’t support it. Local producers are out-competed at every turn. Regeneration here is a two step word. You have to bond with your local organic producers and the well-being of where you live to actually want what regeneration offers, to accept the inconvenience and expense because you believe in the promise of fertility for future generations. Americans like easy and cheap in jumbo packaging – and regeneration is none of that.
The problem with the word regeneration, then, isn’t the word. It’s me.
I can’t cozy up, because I’m a perfect daughter of my lazy, entitled, technologically advanced tribe. We’re humility optional when it comes to parts of life we don’t see as “us”. The soil, like all marginalized populations, has no voice. Rich, deep humus – full of organic matter, teaming with life, a sponge that holds water and feeds the roots of all the flourishing, food-ful plants we see – has no place at the table. The literal fruits of soil’s labors have a place – an apple pie, a roots roast – but as a servant to the people who tuck in to eat. Like so many in non-agrarian cities and towns, I suffer from an excess of “to-me-ness.” As in “What’s it to me?” as if the bottom line for value is whether it makes my personal life better. Ouch.
In this way, regeneration as a devotion, a framework for restoring health to our world, is redemptive.
It shows us a path to fixing what we’ve broken, to healing what we’ve enfeebled, to even reversing CO2 concentration of carbon in the atmosphere where it’s killing us slowly and returning it to the soil to participate again in the cycles of life. There is a choice before us as humanity. Hubris or humility. Shrugging our collective shoulders as if to say, “We can’t help it mom. It’s our human nature,” – or applying every clue that natural sciences have given us about how to restore our mother to health.
Whether or not it serves us personally, the word regeneration frames the work of our times. To turn towards the earth with reverence, to mend what we’ve broken, to get back to the garden.
Regeneration for Boomers and Xers absorbs our sorrow at the messes we’ve made that the RE-Generation will have to fix. It absorbs the anger of millennials and Y’s at their elders’ unwillingness to face up to the mess and do something about it while they still hold the power. It turns us all to the work our wee ones will do. Our legacy can be fertility. Fecundity.
Color me now a full convert. I believe in regeneration and the word says just what I want to be, do and have on this earth.
Right now, what I am doing is:
1. Giving to those who give to the soil. I am giving BIG to Regeneration International, a global network seeking to support regenerative agriculture from the farm on up to public policy. Until December 31, Patagonia will match all donations.
2. Giving to those who feed our intellect and imagination about the pickle we are in and the pathways out. My favorite spunky little organization for that is the Post Carbon Institute, though I think it should be called something like the Restoring Carbon Institute.
3. Regenerating my back yard. I dream of seeing a flourishing mix of plants for the bees, the birds, the butterflies and me, a riot of beauty, a thicket of nourishment, a living system where everything feeds everything. It won’t happen in a season. I won’t have a garden, the garden and I will be in reciprocal relationship, I the student.
4. Speaking and singing and writing regeneration, making regeneration the Webster’s word for 2020, making it requisite for every political candidate’s platform, giving something beautiful for the tired old sustainability mavens to sing about, letting as many people as possible feel how regeneration is a light in their darkness, in our darkness at this time of climate chaos. It will not save us.
But it will leave a ground, literally, in which the RE-Generation can grow their future.