I have been on a journey through my entire twenties and now through my early thirties to cultivate a profound understanding of the organizing principles of living systems in the hopes that I can interpret and apply them to what I’m passionate about — the design of regenerative and socially just organizations and communities.
I am not the first to apply ecological principles to social systems. Peter Senge developed his infamous systems thinking approach to organizational learning. Joanna Macy crafted her Deep Ecology philosophy for personal and societal transformation rooted in ecology, systems theory, and Buddhism. Margaret Wheatley developed her vision for a new form of leadership inspired by living systems theory. More recently, adrienne maree brown birthed a growing consciousness of the emergent behavior of complex systems. And of course, indigenous cultures all around the world have held the sacred intelligence of nature for millennia. I stand on the shoulders of all my elders.
Because of all these great leaders, we have inherited an ecosystem of different terms to describe this social application of ecological principles, each term reflecting the lineage it comes from. Social permaculture is most well-known and grew obviously out of permaculture. Social biomimicry is an offshoot of biomimicry. More recently, emergent strategy has become a highly recognizable term in movement-building and social justice circles due to the meteoric popularity of adrienne maree brown’s book of the same name. I’ve also been introduced just in the past few months to the concept of love-centered organizing by my friend, Yoojin Lee. Some people may bemoan the confusion that may come from all these different terms, but I actually love it because it’s a reflection of abundance — we get to have all these different terms, each one bringing its own flavor and particular take on this work. It’s like religion and God. Different cultures throughout human history have developed different religions and humanity is richer for it. Each religion offers a different lens on God and no one religion can claim monopoly on knowing the ultimate nature of God.
Because of my education in the ecological sciences, I prefer to use the term “regenerative practice”, which is inspired by the concept of regenerative design that comes from agriculture and landscape design. The word “regenerative” for me perfectly captures the essence of what this work is about — learning to live in ways that replenish the life-sustaining powers of this planet. To live regeneratively is to ensure that our actions enable our communities and the earth to be more abundant and healthier for future generations. To be regenerative is the opposite of being depleting and degrading, which is how we currently live and operate under capitalism.
Life’s organizing principles, as I have historically called them, are quite technical in nature as they stem from ecology, biology, chemistry, and system dynamics. They lend themselves more easily to application in the fields of agriculture, architecture, engineering, and industrial design, fields that concern themselves with physical materials. When it comes to our social systems, however, the application of these principles becomes less concrete. It’s trickier to make a direct connection between the “physicalness” of organisms and ecosystems and the “socialness” of our businesses, economies, governments, and communities.
But I genuinely believe that ecological principles can be applied, not merely metaphorically, but quite literally to inform the design of our institutions.
Fritjof Capra, one of the elders of living systems theory and in whose writings I first started this journey, posited that social systems are simply the progression of life from the biological domain to the social domain; it is the next order of complexity for life. If we can appreciate life’s evolution in this direction, then it doesn’t take a steep learning curve to recognize that the same principles that organize biological life also organize social life.
Capra also informs us that although the organizing principles of life remain constant, they will look different as we go from one level of life to the next. Through years of vigilant observation and deep meditation, I have thought about what life’s organizing principles could look like on the level of social life. From this reflection, I have been able to intuit and articulate eight precepts of regenerative practice. These precepts are my interpretations of what we can learn from nature about how we individually can lead more regenerative and liberated lives and how we collectively can build more regenerative and socially just organizations and communities.
Precept #1: Body and land are primary. Regenerative practice starts with our bodies, and it starts with our direct, physical relationship to the land. I learned early in my ecological education that all humans need an ecological sense of place to the land we live on. An abstract appreciation for nature simply will not do. Somatic awareness is something I’ve only begun to learn recently through my introduction to healing justice work and my personal healing work with a somatic therapist. Our bodies are still the primary holder of trauma and keeper of wisdom and so it is through our bodies that we will heal and liberate ourselves. This precept is rooted in the ecological principles that all life is rooted first and foremost in physical biology and that the bodies of all living things are in constant, physical relationship with their environment.
Precept #2: Cooperation and relationships are the true source of safety, strength, resilience, and creativity. A self-explanatory precept, I believe. As a strong introvert growing up in a working-class, immigrant family, I’ve had a fluctuating relationship to this precept. On one hand, my predisposition is to be on my own, not have too many social connections, and secure my own access to resources so that I wouldn’t have to ask others for help. My family also experienced political repression in our homeland so we have inherited a trauma response of not trusting people. On the other hand, we have in many ways achieved the American Dream with the support of a large community and the hands-on guidance of our extended family. As I grow older, I’m learning to heal from the inherited trauma of my family. I’m learning not to prioritize my individual access to resources as the primary mode for ensuring safety and resilience, and to invest in relationships with my community.
This precept is supported by the ecological principle that the diversity of life we see on this planet emerged primarily through mutual cooperation and symbiosis, and not through competition and random mutation. Capitalism has perverted Darwin’s concept of survival of the fittest to push forth the idea that it is through competition that the strongest individuals ensure their own survival. On the contrary, we find that very few living things survive on their own. All living things are more successful at surviving, problem-solving, and innovating when they share resources and help those in their communities who are the most vulnerable. I didn’t intend to write this during the COVID-19 pandemic, but as it so happens, the pandemic is a perfect example of how our society will only survive a systemic disruption if people overcome their individualist, survivalist mentality and work together and take care of their most vulnerable community members.
Precept #3: Reciprocity is what creates true wealth and abundance. It is a prevailing belief among imperialist societies that wealth exists in a finite amount (think of gold) and that to have more wealth for oneself, one must create conditions of poverty for others. Capitalism operates in this scarcity mindset. But in indigenous cultures and any community operating outside of capitalism, we find that wealth is actually generated by the process of giving and receiving. It’s a counter-intuitive fact that the more you give, the more you receive. The act of sharing literally creates more wealth than there previously existed. This dynamic is hard to understand intellectually, but I have seen it time and again in immigrant and working-class communities. Individual families in these communities often have very little, but in giving what they do have to others who need help, the community on the whole creates more resources than each family could ever produce on its own. The whole is more abundant than the sum of its parts. True wealth is abundant and grows when shared. Only artificial wealth created by greed is scarce.
This precept is supported by the ecological principle that ecosystems become ever more diverse and fertile by perpetually cycling nutrients and energy. Vital resources are functionally passed around every organism in an ecosystem, thereby securing their survival, and in turn, every organism does its part to replenish the resource and pass it on to the next organism in the food chain. It is through this systematic churning of nutrients and energy that life on this earth has been able to transform a hostile planet with a toxic atmosphere into the verdant and life-supporting planet that we enjoy today.
Precept #4: Conflict resolution that achieves true peace and healing requires genuine love for those you are in conflict with and an unwavering commitment to harm reduction and justice. This precept is a mouthful because it is communicating two powerful ideas. The first is that when we are in conflict with someone, showing them unconditional love and nonjudgmental acceptance is the most powerful way to resolve the conflict and repair the relationship. At the same time, the precept is also saying that when real harm and injustice have been done, we must be firm about rectifying the harm and seeking justice. Love does not mean letting harmful actions slide. It is only through the pursuit of harm repair and justice that true healing and resolution can take place.
This precept is supported by the emerging understanding in biology that organisms overcome disease primarily by employing the strategy of integrating and assimilating the disease-causing agent. We tell ourselves a prevailing narrative that our immune systems evolved to fight and defend our bodies against foreign attacks. This imagery is oddly reminiscent of nationalism and xenophobia so common to imperialist societies. But new research in immunology is shedding light on what immune systems might have actually evolved to do — to prioritize harmony and stability of the bodily system and its primary strategy is to find ways for disruptive entities to co-exist peacefully with the rest of the bodily system. Only when the foreign entity refuses to co-exist peacefully does the immune system kick in its fight-and-expel mechanism.
Precept #5: Regenerate, don’t deplete or degrade, one’s body, community, and the land. I think this precept speaks to what the other precepts are already saying, but I think the message warrants its own precept. It is the sacred duty of all living things to act in ways that make the planet ever more conducive to life for future generations. For this precept, I’d like to channel a famous proverb that comes from the Haudenosaunee people: we must think about seven generations before us and seven generations after us and honor them in our actions. Regeneration doesn’t just apply to our actions towards the land, it also applies to our actions towards our community and our own bodies. If we are depleting our own bodies through unhealthy habits, we are disrespecting our sacred duty.
This precept is supported by the ecological principle that most, if not all, living things have a regenerative relationship with their ecosystem. All organisms do their part to keep their ecosystem healthy. Evolutionary history has shown us that living things that destroy their ecosystem are ultimately annihilated themselves — the case of nature practicing precept #4!
Precept #6: We must love and trust life. Practicing regeneration requires incredible faith in the goodness of the world and unconditional love for all living things. Without love and trust, all of this means nothing. Life is hard and painful, but we cannot become cynical. We can have periods of depression, anger, sadness and the myriad of other unpleasant but necessary emotions, but we must arrive at hope in the end. We need to see sublime beauty in all life.
This precept is undoubtedly more spiritual and symbolic than the earlier precepts. It is also a deeply personal one for me. Love and trust are not scientific observations of living things, but it is rather my spiritual interpretation of an important observation: That all living things demonstrate an extraordinary resilience and irrepressible determination to persist even in the face of devastation and hostile situations. Witnessing alien-looking life thrive in toxic vents in the ocean, seeing trees bend around obstructions, and watching penguins survive the harsh cold of Antarctica all bring me a kind of joy and hope.
Precept #7: Embrace magic, serendipity, and emergence. Also on the more spiritual side, this precept reminds us that life is ultimately a mysterious force. To live regeneratively, we must become open to magical experiences that defy rationality. This is what mysticism is all about. Embracing serendipitous happenings and accepting things that are emerging but not yet fully formed can be scary for a lot of us, but nature teaches us that as soon as we surrender, we learn that the joy of going with the flow is greater than the comfort of being certain. One of my favorite quotes is from Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “There are more things in heaven and Earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” We can have all of our models and categories to help us feel more certain and in control, but there will always be things in the universe that break all of our rules and surprise us.
This precept is supported by the observation that living systems (and all systems in general) are inherently non-linear and complex. Complex systems exhibit emergent properties that are often novel and surprising. These properties do not appear at the level of individual parts — they are properties arising from the relationships among the parts. While this is a recent scientific “discovery”, shamans, witches, and medicine people from cultures all around the world have understood this quality of life for thousands of years and have leveraged it to support transformation and healing.
Precept #8: Pleasure and joy are the highest expressions of our nature as living things. If pleasure and joy are too radical for you, we can use a more technical term — self-actualization. All living things strive towards self-actualization, which for humans means that we strive to live our personally and culturally authentic selves. Oppression takes many forms, but it is at its core the spiritual denial of a living thing’s opportunity to self-actualize and pursue their pleasure and joy. That is why, throughout human history, we have seen countless examples of oppressed people finding liberation by through stories, music and social gatherings. People who live under structures of oppression, which is most of us, are constantly told not to be ourselves, so to strive to be who we are is the ultimate act of self-liberation. The relevant quote here is from none other than Audre Lorde, who once wrote, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”
This precept is supported by the ecological principle that all living things are inherently sovereign. Nature has no master overseer dictating the movements and destines of living things. Organisms have autonomy and the innate intelligence and creativity to express their highest potential.
These eight precepts are not exhaustive by any measure. They are simply the insights that I have cultivated so far at this point in my life. There are many more ecological principles and observations of life to meditate on. The precepts are also deeply personal interpretations. Other people can observe the same ecological principles and probably draw different insights from them or write about them differently. The way I have written about these precepts and their corresponding ecological principles simply reflect my own values and worldview. As I grow older and accumulate more life experiences, I imagine that my understanding of the ecological principles will shift and I will end up refining my writing on them many more times. I also hope to refine them with the collective wisdom of all who explore with me.