Building Regenerative Cultures
I was born in Burma. For the first eight years of my life, my family and I lived in a dilapidated, wooden house in a rural neighborhood far from the bustling downtown of Yangon, Burma’s largest city and former capital. My family was poor. We didn’t have basic amenities like a TV or refrigerator. We took showers outside in a makeshift area, splashing ourselves with water stored in a large, metal barrel using a large plastic cup. We ate meat once a week because it was too expensive. Despite our financial poverty, we had ecological wealth. Our house sat on a huge lot that was co-resided by diverse flora and fauna. We had a large mango tree, an even larger jackfruit tree, papaya tree, three guava trees, five jasmine bushes, and countless other plant life. We had a dog living under our house who gave birth to a litter of puppies that grew up alongside me and my sisters. We also had frogs, ants, owls, lizards, and even snakes. My sisters and I dubbed our home a zoo and garden. The fruit trees were a source of food for us. The animals were my friends, save for the lizards and snakes whom my parents taught me to avoid. I was a young child with a vivid imagination. The boundary between human and more-than-human was easily blurred. This was my early childhood.
Fast forward many years later, I was a teenager in Brooklyn, New York, which sits on the unceded and stolen land of the indigenous Canarsie-Lenape people. My love of the natural world, first seeded by those early childhood experiences with the plants and animals in my Yangon home and cultivated further by camping and hiking trips in the U.S., sparked my passion for environmentalism. At the same time, my intrinsic orientation towards fairness and acute awareness of injustice made me passionate about social justice. I went on to study ecology and ecological design in college and urban planning in graduate school with a focus on environmental justice. I got involved in social justice activism on campus.
I quickly became aware of some troubled waters in the environmental field. The field had a troubling lack of racial diversity. Most environmentalists were White and organizations like the Sierra Club and Greenpeace were historically and are still White-dominant organizations. White environmentalists tended to focus on issues such as the preservation of “wild” places and protection of endangered (and usually cute) animals, which while important were simply not resonating with people of color who were struggling with more urgent matters of putting food on the table and escaping poverty. I was spiritually torn. I did care about protecting the Amazon rainforest and saving dolphins and polar bears, but I also looked and felt out of place in the environmental field as a queer, Asian person from an immigrant, working-class family.
The second problem that the White-dominant environmental field had was its glaring lack of discourse around environmental racism and environmental injustice. White environmentalists called on society to protect pristine places like Yosemite and the Arctic but they seemed to show no care about protecting Black and Brown communities against polluting industries. White environmentalists advocated for the cleanliness of our air, water and food but stayed silent on the fact that Black and Brown communities had no access to clean water, clean air, or fresh food. Studying and eventually organizing in the environmental justice movement was how I began to merge my interests in environmental protection and social justice.
As I got more involved in environmental justice, I became aware of yet a third and perhaps most profound problem with the environmental field. White environmentalism operates on a host of Eurocentric, colonial attitudes about nature and humanity. The most fundamental of such attitudes is the idea that humans and nature are separate. Nature is the aspect of the world that is pristine, wild, and untouched by humans. In contrast, anything made by humans is considered man-made, artificial, and unnatural. This basic belief has shaped how White environmentalists approach the complex problem of ecological destruction for centuries. They see humans as a scourge on the planet and focus on protecting nature from the taint of human touch. This focus has inspired the conception of national parks and preserves, which seek to protect landscapes of ecological importance and aesthetic beauty from the ever growing encroachment of human development.
I felt deeply troubled by this approach to environmental protection. The approach put the dueling goals of human development and environmental protection on a collision course. It has created, for example, the false binary of economy and jobs versus the environment that plagues our politics today. Driven by my intuition that this approach was philosophically misguided and untenable in the long run, I went in search of a new worldview, one that saw humanity as an integral member of the web of life, and one that saw environmental and social justice problems as one and the same, rather than as competing interests. I found this worldview in the concept of regeneration.
Regeneration, or its more common adjective form, regenerative, is a buzzword in the sustainability sector right now, its popularity fueled by the field of regenerative agriculture, which bears the word in its name. The strict definition of regeneration in biology refers to an organism’s ability to regrow lost or damaged body parts. A sea star can regenerate a missing limb, for example. But regeneration also has a broader ecological meaning. Regeneration broadly speaks to the ability of all living systems, which includes not just organisms but whole ecosystems and social systems as well, to sustain life. A living system is regenerative if it keeps creating more life (itself) or creates the conditions conducive to more life.
Defining regeneration lands us quickly in the messiness of culture, because how we define life shapes how we define regeneration. Colonial science, i.e., Western science, views life as being purely a biological phenomenon and asserts a life-death binary in which things are definitely alive or dead. (Viruses regularly flout this binary as they do not fall into the definition of either.) Because of the adherence to this biological binary, colonial cultures define and approach regeneration as the act of restoring life to something that they deem is dead. Many regenerative agriculture farmers, for example, attempt to restore life to soil, which they view as being rendered dead by the destructive practices of industrial agriculture.
Many indigenous cultures in contrast recognize all of creation to be imbued with life because all things in the world possess the abilities to be animate (move) and expressive (not necessarily through animalistic language). This view on life goes beyond the biological life-death binary of colonial science. Mountains are alive because their shapes, sounds, and colors change throughout the seasons. Rivers are alive because their waters are perpetually in motion and speak to us through their language of splish-splash, gurgles, and hisses. The sea is alive, not just because of the biological organisms that live in it, but because it captivates our senses through its waves, cyclical tides, and ever changing colors. Trees are alive, not just because they are biological organisms, but because their leaves speak to us every time they rustle in the wind. Our whole planet is a living Mother Earth whose multifaceted landscapes and seascapes speak directly to our senses and who in turn perceive our presence. Operating under this worldview, which European anthropologists would come to label as animism and pantheism, indigenous cultures define and approach regeneration as the act of perpetuating life, rather than restoring life. Perpetuation presumes that things are always alive while restoration presumes that life can disappear.
I spent two and a half months in the late summer of 2020 in New Mexico, a state encompassing the homelands of many indigenous peoples, most notably the Pueblo, Navajo, Hopi, and Zuni, and where the influence of indigenous people is very palpable in the state’s economy, culture, and landscape. I found myself one sunny Saturday hiking a set of three ancient volcanoes right outside of Albuquerque, called the Three Sisters. When I reached the tallest one, I felt the volcano speak to me. Far from being a biological organism, it was scientifically speaking an extinct volcano, last active 150,000 years ago. Nonetheless I felt its powerful spirit drawing my spirit like a magnet. The volcano communicated via a low hum that reverberated across the ground. I crouched down and laid my hands on one of the volcanic rocks and felt the immense life that this volcanic being has had and continues to have even in its current dormant state. The Three Sisters is the creation of the Rio Grande Rift, one of only four rifts in the planet. I paid my respects, felt full from the inter-being exchange, and traversed back down to the trailhead.
Relationship is key to an indigenous understanding of regeneration. Colonial science, being rooted in the teachings of Isaac Newton and Rene Descartes, sees the universe as being made up of discrete things. I call this a thing-worldview. Cultures with a thing-worldview tend to approach problem-solving in terms of adding, removing, or modifying things. It is a very technical practice. The current obsession with viewing climate change as a technical crisis of too much carbon (a thing) and the race to capture carbon emissions is fundamentally rooted in a thing-worldview. Many indigenous cultures in contrast do not see the universe as being made up of discrete things, but rather a complex web of relations. I call this a relationship-worldview. In a relationship-worldview, we would see climate change as a spiritual crisis of humans being in a wrong relationship with the planet — a relationship of extraction — and excessive carbon is simply the waste product (literally) of that wrong relationship.
Western science is finally catching up to a relationship-worldview. Systems science is making groundbreaking discoveries of the truth that there really is no such thing as a discrete thing and that all “things” are themselves systems nested within larger systems. We might see a human person, for example, as a discrete individual, but they are really made up of smaller organ and microbial systems and a person also belongs to larger biocultural systems. All of us are who we are because of our relationships to other people and the biocultural systems we live in. Our identities and realities are mutually created through a complex interplay between our own minds and the minds of other living things with whom we interact. The quality of our relationships is a good indicator of whether we are living regeneratively or destructively.
I want to offer a formal definition of regenerative cultures at this point, one that is rooted in indigenous knowledge and the latest insights from living systems science:
Regenerative cultures are those in which we are in right relationship with all our relations — human and more-than-human — such that our actions contribute to ever more life on earth.
The concept of regeneration is powerful. It activates cellular memory deep within my body of a time when humans were not separate from nature but belonged to it. Unlike the White-dominant environmental narrative that tells me that humans are a cancer to the planet and that the only way to protect nature is to estrange humans from it even further, the concept of regeneration speaks of the possibility of being a positive presence in this earth. Regeneration counters the notion that the best that humans can ever hope to achieve is to be “less bad” on the earth, and invites us to imagine that we can regain our rightful place as a humble and equal participant in what indigenous botanist and author Robin Wall Kimmerer calls the “democracy of species”. If we learn to be in right relationship with ourselves and our biocultural communities, we can exist in this planet in ways that sustain life rather than diminish it.
Right relationship again is critical here because we need to keep in mind that creating more life does not mean only more human life, but rather the proliferation of all life forms that work together to keep whole biocultural systems healthy. This includes all of our kin in the plant, animal, fungi, and microbial world. The proliferation of human life at the expense of other life forms, which is what we are witnessing today with unprecedented human development leading to habitat loss, automatically places us in wrong relationship with the living world and contributes to ecological collapse. Regenerative cultures do not simply create more life in a quantitative sense, they also support a high quality of life by ensuring that all living things have access to their fair share of food, shelter, medicine, joy, and pleasure. This gets us to social justice.
Regenerative Lens on Supremacy and Oppression
Because regeneration is inherently pro-life, I find it to be a powerful analytical lens for understanding supremacy ideologies and the systems of oppression they birth. We fight racism, sexism, classism, and ableism because we recognize them as being immoral. They are immoral because they deny people’s sovereignty and result in their exploitation, abuse, marginalization, and many times, death. A regenerative lens, in contrast to a purely humanistic lens, helps us further recognize that systems of oppression are immoral because they are ultimately anti-life.
Supremacy systems literally destroy life. White supremacy in the form of police violence takes the lives of Black and other people of color every day. War and militarized conflict, fueled by imperialism and colonialism, kills thousands of people around the world and creates a crisis of traumatized refugees. Patriarchy in the forms of gender-based violence, human and sex trafficking result in the murder of women, transgender, and nonbinary people every day. Unfettered economic growth and capitalism destroy ecosystems and the elimination of many species and genocide of indigenous peoples every day.
Supremacy systems also destroy life structurally by creating material conditions that diminish the possibility of living things to live a sovereign and actualized life. Abject poverty is structurally violent — it causes trauma, chronic health issues, and many other ills that diminish a person’s ability to live life to the fullest. Capitalist extraction of natural resources results in damaged habitats, polluted environments, and ultimately polluted bodies. Racial oppression denies indigenous people their sovereignty by criminalizing their languages and ways of life. Another way that supremacy systems diminish life that is often not talked about is that they breed addiction, depression, loneliness, and other spiritual ills that estrange people from themselves, their communities, and the larger living world. Spiritual estrangement is interestingly not only a product of supremacy systems but also their origin.
One of the reasons why the Eurocentric, White narrative of human separation from nature is dangerous is that it arrogantly characterizes what is essentially a colonial condition as a universal condition of the entire human species. Having grown up in colonial cultures my whole life, I internalized the idea that the human species was inherently destructive. It was only when I was exposed to Native American and other indigenous cultures, their cosmologies, and their traditional ecological knowledge that I learned that destruction is not an inevitable trait of the human species. Indigenous peoples all around the globe have been effectively taking care of the planet for the overwhelming majority of human history. (Fun fact: Even though genocide has collapsed indigenous populations such that they now represent less than 5% of the total human population and only occupy 25% of total land area, they still take care of 80% of the world’s biodiversity. Think about that for a moment.) It is colonial societies in the short timespan of the past ten thousand years that forgot their membership to the democracy of species, broke their sacred covenant with the living world, and walked a path of destruction.
I spent many years trying to understand how colonial societies’ spiritual estrangement came to be. I have a working theory. Indigenous humans lived in — and continue to live in — regenerative relationship with the land for hundreds of thousands of years. But ten thousand years ago, spiritual estrangement from the natural world occurred in a segment of the human population. This estrangement has been recorded in many cultures’ mythologies. The Judaic story of Adam and Eve’s banishment from the Garden of Eden is one such famous story. Hinduism’s concept of maya, the power of illusion that causes humans to see difference instead of unity, is another story that speaks to the spiritual estrangement. Many scholars have tried to figure out what caused this spiritual estrangement, which begot the myth of human separation from nature. The two prevailing theories point to the rise of agriculture and written language, specifically alphabetic languages, both of which subsequently gave rise to walled-off cities. Once estranged, people’s values changed from reciprocity, egalitarianism, and communalism to greed, elitism, and selfishness. Greed for ever more power, land, and resources gave rise to imperialism and colonialism. Elitism gave rise to hierarchism, which is the practice of vertically stratifying a society such that a small group of people in power at the top recognize their own sovereignty but systematically deny the sovereignty of others below them.
Motivations by themselves are purely desires. Social technologies are needed to translate motivation to reality. Imperialist, colonialist, and hierarchist motivations thus gave rise to supremacy systems, i.e. systems of oppression. Supremacy systems serve two functions. First, they function as a logic to justify and legitimize imperialism, colonialism, and hierarchism. Second, they function as the social technologies by which imperialism, colonialism, and hierarchism are actually carried out. Classism/casteism, patriarchy, and speciesism were in my opinion the first three supremacy systems to be invented. These three supremacy systems helped colonial societies construct an internal social order that stratified people based on prestige/wealth, gender and sexuality, and that of course allowed such societies to subjugate the land, plants, and nonhuman animals for human benefit. As these societies grew, their imperialist and colonialist motivations gave rise to more xenophobic supremacy systems — ethnic and religious supremacy systems, for example. Different imperialist and colonial societies throughout history have invented particular supremacy systems to justify their ambitions. The most recent supremacy systems to be invented are, of course, White supremacy and capitalism, which continue to justify and carry out European, White imperialism and colonialism across the globe.
This is ultimately a working theory. My synthesis of all that I have read and learned from history, anthropology, mythology, sociology and many other fields.
A Regenerative Path
Regeneration provides a path towards understanding and solving the inextricably linked problems of ecological collapse and social injustice. If the root cause of imperialism, colonialism, hierarchism and the supremacy systems they create is colonial societies’ spiritual estrangement from nature, then healing that estrangement is the key to our liberation. Because the master’s tools cannot dismantle the master’s house, I believe colonial societies have a limited ability to go on this healing journey on their own. I believe we need to turn to the wisdom and leadership of indigenous people to facilitate this healing.
We tend to exploit things that we do not see as sacred. We protect things that we see as sacred. Walking the regenerative path will help us remember that all things are alive and therefore sacred. When I come upon a majestic White oak in the forest and recognize that both the tree and I share divinity, I am less inclined to treat it as merely a natural resource that I can cut down and turn into a commodity. I would instead see the tree as my kin, a living thing whom I need to show respect and live in reciprocity with. Reciprocity is important. We cannot merely have a spiritual relationship with nature in which nature is simply serving as metaphorical inspiration for human development. We must also have an embodied, material relationship with nature rooted in physical reciprocity. We take care of the land, and the land takes care of us. If the land is healthy, then the people are healthy.
The lens of biocultural regeneration helps environmentalists merge their work with the work of social justice. Cultures that hoard resources, exploit sovereign beings, sow division, and breed strife are inherently unsustainable. A regenerative culture is necessarily one that is rooted in equity, upholds the sovereignty of all living things, practices interdependence, and supports generative conflict and healing. In my work as a racial equity and social justice consultant, I characterize these as the qualities of a regenerative and liberatory culture.
The lens of biocultural regeneration similarly helps social justice workers merge their work with the work of environmental conservation. A regenerative culture is one that recognizes that human supremacy is inextricably linked to all other supremacy systems. Social justice is not narrowly a human endeavor but must strive for interspecies, collective liberation. No human is free until all living things are free. Walking the regenerative path has helped me understand that the purpose of social justice is to create more joy and love, support the conditions that are conducive to more life and the enjoyment of life, and get us back in right relationship with all our relations.
I think back to the Yangon home of my early childhood. I think back to how easy it was for me and my sisters to interact with the plants and nonhuman animals around us without any sense of species separation. We are all born with an innate capacity and instinctual desire to be connected to the living world, but that capacity and desire are systematically beaten out of us as we grow up. Colonial civilizations may have committed the original estrangement from nature ten thousand years ago, but we re-enact that estrangement every day in the way we raise our children. Who knew that restoring our sensuous relationship with the more-than-human world is not merely children’s play, but a practice that is vital to our survival? As we witness runaway ecological collapse and social disintegration in the age of climate change, the earth beckons us to return to the old ways of living in reciprocity with the living world. It is time for us to tap into our inner children and heed Mother Earth’s call.