What makes an Eco-System?

You’re probably reading this because you’re interested in finding a way to support yourself and those under your care (or that might be in the future) in a way that actually makes the ecosystem in which we all live healthier and more abundant.

And you don’t just want to scrape by either – you’d like to have a good quality of life. You also want to align your values with your work, so that you can say to a future grandchild, “I did what I did for you, and it’s made all the difference”.

Simple concept, hard to do.

Creating a way to support yourself, your loved ones and dependents while doing work that fulfills you and leaves a healthier, more abundant ecology in its wake is difficult. To create such a right livelihood takes some serious, dedicated thinking. That’s what we’re endeavoring to lay the groundwork for in this article (and ultimately, it’s the purpose of this whole site).

We’ll begin by introducing the concept of the eco-system.

An eco-system is an ecologically generative set of mutually supportive principles, thought frameworks, processes and physical or living elements that function together to increase or improve ecological function AND provide an income to the system steward(s).

When we refer to eco-systems, it is implicit that both of these criteria – increasing or improving ecological function AND providing an income – must be met in order for any system to earn the title of eco-system.

The income to the system steward(s) can be in any or multiple forms of the 8 Forms of Capital:

  • Financial/Monetary Capital – Money, currencies, securities.
  • Living/Natural Capital – Water, Soil, Air, Animals, Plants, Fungi, Microbes.
  • Experiential/Human Capital – Skills won by doing.
  • Intellectual/Knowledge Capital – A knowledge ‘asset’, often gained through study, research.
  • Material Capital – Non-living resources, raw or processed.
  • Social Capital – Influence, connections, favors (IOU’s), social debt.
  • Cultural Capital – Shared internal and external processes of a community, emergent property of complex systems, supra-individual.
  • Spiritual Capital – Karma, spiritual debt, degree of spiritual clarity and fulfillment.

Essentially, eco-systems are systems of thinking, relating and producing that improve ecological function and provide for our needs today without short-changing our grandchildren.

Eco-systems stewarded by principled individuals and groups strengthen and improve the larger ecosystem (see definition below) of which they are an inseparable part.

Eco-systems align incentives (profit motive) with First Principles – Care for the Earth, Care for People, and Reinvestment towards the first two.

OK, so why the hyphen?

Because ecosystem is already taken.

An ecosystem is defined as: A system, or a group of interconnected elements, formed by the interaction of a community of organisms with their environment.

An ecosystem is a really big, complicated, intricate mesh of complex things – things that are alive, unpredictable and constantly changing. Something that no one of us will ever be able to understand in totality.

So how can we know if the work we are doing is actually having a positive impact on ecological function and creating more abundance in this world if the knock on effects of our actions aren’t yet (if ever) knowable?

By identifying and acting from principles.

Principles are basic truths, laws or standards that are applicable across time and  often in multiple contexts.

Eco-systems are principle driven systems – all the way from conceptualization to design, from implementation to operation and stewardship. Principles are the shortcuts we can use to guide our actions into right alignment with our values.

What follows are the principles we employ when creating and stewarding eco-systems at 7th Gen.

  1. Change is constant. Have methods for monitoring feedback, always choose to improve.
  2. Move towards regenerative process and abundant mindset. This creates more freedom (or the potential for it) in time, health, wealth and spirit.
  3. Time is the most valuable resource. The surplus created by the system’s operation must be of such a value so as to incentivize the steward to voluntarily exchange his time to operate the system.
  4. Incentives matter. Always incentivize responsibility. The steward voluntarily assumes greater responsibility for desired outcomes because it is in his best interest to do so.

Let’s explore each principle more deeply to examine how they guide us in creating eco-systems that can yield right livelihood.

  1. Change is Constant.  Have methods for monitoring feedback, always choose to improve.

The ONE Thing that we can absolutely count on is change. We live in a dynamic world, where things are always in flux, no matter how imperceptible that flux might be. Our businesses, work habits, life purpose and everything else must always be adaptable. Not only this, we must actively tune in to feedback and seek to understand the context we are in so that we may make better decisions. Employing thought frameworks like the Cynefin Framework can help us determine context when making management decisions regarding our livelihoods.

The Cynefin Framework

Achieving a desired outcome requires developing clarity on exactly what that outcome is and subsequently identifying exactly what to measure that will provide accurate feedback. We know change is constant, therefore we must have observable, measurable and repeatable metrics if we wish to achieve a specific outcome. Anything less is to cross our fingers and be hoping for the best.

2. Move towards regenerative process and abundant mindset. This creates more freedom (or at least the potential for it) in time, health, wealth and spirit.

First, let’s examine the abundance-scarcity spectrum. Here we bridge the inner and outer worlds of the self. The condition of our inner perceptions of the world will manifest themselves in our physical reality. This isn’t woo-woo mumbo jumbo – your state of mind influences the words you speak, how you carry yourself (physical posture) and the way you engage with people.

Internally, we have to examine our own mindflow to determine if we are acting to create abundance or to avoid scarcity. These may seem like two sides of the same coin, but the subtle difference has powerful ramifications. To create abundance is to design and act for overflowing surplus, affluence, wealth and plentiful supply. This is something worth moving towards. To act to avoid scarcity is itself a scarcity-driven motivation. The underlying belief here is that there isn’t enough to go around, so I’d better get mine and then hang onto it lest someone else try to take it.

If we set the parameters from the start as 1) must create freedom in time, health, wealth and spirit, 2) must help others do the same and 3) must increase ecological capacity for life expression, we know our ship is pointed towards abundance.

Second, let’s explore the Regenerative-Degenerative Process continuum. We begin by looking at the 5 Categories of Resources (as outlined in Mollison’s Permaculture Designer’s Manual, quoted from Hemenway’s The Permaculture City).

In descending order from most to least desirable they are resources that:

  1. Increase with use;
    • Typically living things: seeds, plants that resprout when browsed or cut (vetiver, willow, fuel trees in coppice rotation), plants and animals (in some cases, when used wisely) and recycled biomass.
    • Languages, cultural knowledge and many forms of information.

2. Are lost when not used;

    • Perishable foods, manures, muscles, most skills, languages and cultural knowledge.

3. Are unaffected by use;

    • Under most circumstances: sunlight, wind, water used for generating small-scale hydro / solar steam generation, some kinds of information (natural laws for example).

4. Are destroyed when used;

    • Includes most fuels, foods and industrial feedstocks.
    • How we choose to use resources can put them in this category, i.e. soil can be increased through wise use and care, but most modern farming methods destroy soil.

5. Pollute or degrade other systems when used.

    • Fossil fuels, toxic reagents, others that cause damage to biological systems when used.


A wise culture uses resources from Categories 1, 2, and 3 and uses them in ways that preserve or increase them. Resources from the first 3 categories are the hallmark of regenerative systems – ones that don’t destroy principle but increase it, thereby increasing the wealth and opportunity for future generations.

We use the diagram below to illustrate the interaction between the Abundance-Scarcity Mindset Continuum and the Regenerative-Degenerative Process Continuum.

With any given eco-system we are always seeking to move in the direction of Regeneration and Abundance (upper right quadrant). If we already find ourselves in the quadrant, we continue to optimize our systems to continue moving up and to the right. This DOES NOT mean that the path is always a straight line – sometimes we have to zig before we can zag, and that all comes down to knowing your context.

3. Time is the most valuable resource. The surplus created by the system’s operation must be of such a value so as to incentivize the steward to voluntarily exchange his time to operate the system.

The system must provide for its own functional needs – i.e. it must yield a substantial surplus above and beyond covering its own operating costs. However, to stop at merely covering its own costs without creating substantial valuable surplus will bankrupt the system, for the steward will not choose to continue investing time in its operation (been here, done this!). Ultimately this is a lose-lose-lose situation; the steward is not well compensated for their efforts and thus ceases operating the system, the capital investment in the system is lost or diminished, and the ecological benefits from the system’s operation are no longer provided.

Put more simply, if you could choose to perform a task that paid you $10 an hour or one that paid you $100 an hour, which would you choose assuming all other externalities and outcomes were equal?

The steward is an integral part of the system. Healthy ecology requires interaction. Healthy interaction comes from incentives aligned with the values of regeneration, one of which is knowing Time as the most valuable resource. (NOTE: Time is almost always an excellent variable to track when evaluating an eco-system’s performance).

4. Incentives matter. Always incentivize responsibility. The steward voluntarily assumes greater responsibility for desired outcomes because it is in their best interest to do so.

Aligning increased personal responsibility with desired outcomes incentivizes regenerative-abundant decision-making and behavior. This is really another way of restating Principle #3. If the steward can create a better life for herself and her family by doing work aligned with her values of regeneration and abundance she will assume greater responsibility with regards to ensuring her eco-system has everything it needs to fulfill its purpose. By default this means she will be creating a surplus that will fill the sails of other eco-system stewards as well. Ultimately everything is connected, and every action she does and does not take will ripple out to those around her.


Change is constant.

Move towards regenerative process and abundant mindset.

Time is the most valuable resource.

Incentives matter.

These four principles act as our guideposts when developing eco-systems (a.k.a. right livelihood by our definition). By employing these principles of eco-system creation we can help guide our efforts in the direction of regeneration and abundance. These principles are under constant evaluation (change is constant!) and we invite you to join us in conversation as we continue to improve them. Let us know…

How have you applied them?

What about them, if anything, have you changed based on your context and experience? 

Added something we missed? Subtracted something superfluous?

Yours in regeneration and abundance,

– Casey


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