Can an eco-system make use of single-use, polluting resource and still be called an eco-system?

This question drives right at the heart of what right livelihood is and what it means to be regenerative and abundant (more on that later in the article). It also addresses a few of the difficulties with paying yourself to do ecologically regenerative work – namely “If it pollutes or destroys I can’t do it because it’s not regenerative!”. We will examine and dissect this assumption, and how it can potentially manifest as an artificially-imposed limitation depending on the situational context.

FAIR WARNING: This article is an examination of a question. We reserve the right to be wrong, and we are not proclaiming to be right. 

To begin this exploration, let’s start by reviewing our working definition of what an eco-system is:

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).

The key descriptor in the eco-system definition is generative.

Generative can be defined as: having the ability to originate, produce or procreate.

The key variable we need to consider simultaneously with this definition is time. We need to examine every eco-system’s situational context by asking the question “What will it take to create a generative result here in the time that is available?”

Time is always limited, and it is our task as designers and eco-system stewards to make the absolute best possible use of it when jump-starting an eco-system.

Situations where time is abundant: No need to turn a profit ASAP to stay in business, Have abundant financial capital available to the project which can purchase more time etc, larger system is already in state of surplus.

Situations where time is scarce: Profitability needs to be reached by X time, Rent is due, Change needs to happen by Y date or we will be forced to leave (due to some other scarcity – food, water, shelter, security, sanitation and hygiene etc.) or terminate project.

Humanity has degraded a lot of land during the past 10,000 or so years since the now-dominant Taker paradigm split from and declared war on the Leaver way of life. Heavily degraded land bases (dysfunctional ecosystems) take much longer to return to function than those less so.

Given the degree of degradation of many of our environments, in many contexts, it will be absolutely necessary to employ Category 4 and 5 resources to install the mainframe of an eco-system quickly enough that it reaches viability before it can be snuffed out – whether by harsh environmental conditions (resulting from past degradation of larger ecosystems), by modern extractive economic systems (that artificially increase the amount of production needed and the speed at which it must be produced) or by a culture that doesn’t yet understand/appreciate/value the products/services/impacts of the said eco-system.

Speed is often a requirement for successful eco-system establishment, especially in what are currently termed “first world” nations. There is such tremendous pressure to produce not only a surplus, but a large one, and quickly, due to the extractive economic model we currently have that the time window for successful establishment can often be quite short – much shorter than Nature’s pace, especially if we are starting with already degraded ecosystem function. While we endeavor to create support systems that encourage a slower lifestyle, we also know that we must interact with the edge of the dominant paradigm – even as we work to actualize a better one. And so the need for speed is sometimes a design constraint that we must harmonize with.

With this contextual understanding, we can say that the expenditure of Category 4 and 5 resources must be done judiciously to potentiate future regenerative processes and states of abundance. Category 4 and 5 resources are the principal of our ecological inheritance. They must be spent wisely, with the target outcome of their use being an increase of the principal (increased natural capital, human capital etc.) and sustenance from Category 1, 2, and 3 resources. We need to appreciate Category 4 and 5 resources for what they are – finite and immensely powerful change-makers with long-lasting ramifications of use – in order to be able to employ them in a regenerative abundant way (which in the majority of cases will be to heal damaged and dysfunctional systems to a point of self-healing and replication).

Since we are using them so frequently, let’s define these terms Abundance, Scarcity, Regenerative and Degenerative. Given that they play such a critical role in the conceptual formation of our guideposts it behooves us to clarify exactly what we mean when we use these oft-mentioned yet frequently misplaced words.

  • Abundance – direct antonym of scarcity
    • An extremely plentiful or overly sufficient supply
    • Overflowing fullness
    • Affluence, wealth
  • Scarcity – direct antonym of abundance
    • Insufficiency or shortness of supply, dearth
      • Dearth: an inadequate supply, scarcity, lack, scarcity and dearness of food, famine.
    • Rarity, infrequency.
  • Degenerative
    • From Degenerate:
      • to fall below a normal or desirable level in physical, mental, or moral qualities; deteriorate.
    • to diminish in quality, especially from a former state of coherence, balance, integrity, etc.
      • Pathology. to lose functional activity, as a tissue or organ (or ecosystem!).
      • Described as progressing from a coherent, integral state to one of decreased function.
  • Regenerative
    • From Regenerate:
      • act of regenerating; state of being regenerated.
      • to re-create, reconstitute, or make over, especially in a better form or condition.
      • to revive or produce anew; bring into existence again.
        • Biology. the restoration or new growth by an organism of organs, tissues, etc., that have been lost, removed, or injured.
    • From Medieval Latin regenerativus, from regeneratus, past participle of Latin regenerare “to bring forth again”, suggesting cyclicality.

In the above definitions is the essence of deeper significance.

For a process to be regenerative is to cycle energy amongst involved elements and the broader life web in a self-reinforcing pattern of increasing integrity, coherence and function, ultimately increasing life expression.

For a process to be degenerative is to move energy in a linear fashion from integrity, coherence and function to disintegration, incoherence and dysfunction., ultimately diminishing life expression.

An abundant mindset is creative, seeing obstacles as opportunities for growth in knowledge, capability, perception, and connection.

A scarce mindset is fear-based and lacks creativity, seeing obstacles as immovable burdens unfairly dealt out by life’s randomness, imposing disability, misperception and isolation.

To finish our exploration of the Regenerative-Degenerative-Abundance-Scarcity continuums, let’s take a hypothetical 1000 acres of barren land abandoned by modern agribusiness after having mined/killed all the topsoil with petro-fertilizers and all manner -cides (pesticides, fungicides, bacteriocides, herbicides) and salted the remaining subsoil to the point of making it impossible to grow more crops via irrigation with groundwater. In its current state the land is not healing, because the healing elements of an intact ecology have been destroyed. Left alone, it will continue to desertify, shed vast amounts of water instead of infiltrate it, and create dust storms to the detriment of neighbors and surrounding life forms (multiplying dysfunction).

We arrive, observe what is happening, intuit what will continue to happen, do some site analysis and survey, and decide to install an earthworks system that will capture rainfall on the land and encourage it to infiltrate. We also create berms to capture additional run-off that would otherwise pass through the site from other mis-managed properties up watershed. By capturing fresh water and allowing it to infiltrate we will begin to decrease soil salinity, and thus increase the site’s suitability to a wider range of species that can grow there. These earthworks are installed using massive machines that burn diesel fuel.

But wait! Diesel fuel is a Category 5 resource! We can’t use that in an eco-system!

If we had to use the diesel in perpetuity, this would be correct. However in this instance we are employing a Category 5 Resource – one that is destroyed by using it and that pollutes/diminishes other resources – because what we create is a lasting foundation for additional eco-systems to use Category 1, 2, and 3 resources in perpetuity. And it accomplishes this task in a period of time that is economically and socially acceptable (How many tens of thousands of man-hours would it take to do this by hand? How much would that cost in a country like the U.S.?).

Continuing with our wasteland regeneration example, upon completing the earthworks (miles of shallow swales, berms and basins capable of slowing, spreading and infiltrating millions of gallons of water per year) we then plant those earthworks with fast-growing, hardy nitrogen-fixing trees and halophilic pioneer shrubs (salt tolerant/loving plants).

The halophiles help to pull excess salts from the soil, create shade, drop some organic material, and protect bare soil from the erosive force of unimpeded rain drops.

The fast-growing nitrogen fixing trees provide shade, decrease evaporation, create fast carbon pathways to aid future tree planting (and ultimately self-sowing), impede rain drops, feed pollinators and drop organic material. These trees are thinned as they grow to allow for climax canopy coverage.

The thinnings are used to make charcoal, which is then inoculated with a fungally rich aerobic compost tea. This biochar (or just the plain charcoal) is sold as a value added product, and some of it is fed back into the system and covered with the mulch dropped by the trees or wood chips from the thinnings.

In this simple example, we have now seen a Category 5 resource (diesel fuel) used to establish the mainframe for a system that is infiltrating water (Category 3), desalinating toxic land (Regenerative Process), growing biomass (Category 1) and providing an income for the land stewards selling biochar (Regenerative Process) through a process that creates potential for additional cycling of Category 3 resources (water, sunlight, biomass) and Category 1 resources (diverse tree plantings following thinning of pioneer species, animals, plants, fungi, microbes that begin to re-inhabit the area).

While deliberately simply for the purposes of explanation and brevity, this example demonstrates that it is the context of use that determines whether or not a Category 4 or 5 resource can be used in an eco-system and have it still be an eco-system. This takes us back to Principle #2 of eco-system creation:

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

Here it is on a bumper sticker: Use of Category 4 or 5 resources MUST potentiate the use of Category 1, 2, and 3 resources for their use to be in alignment with the stated goal of eco-system design and operation.

Designing eco-systems in alignment with the above mandate is not easy. The process takes a lot of thinking, planning, designing, erasing, scrapping, and re-thinking, and ultimately, a giant dose of taking action. This re-designing and re-aligning of work with regenerative values and positive ecological results is one of the few “growth industries” left in this country. It’s our generation’s great opportunity, I’d even say calling, to put in the sweat equity (literal and figurative) and create systems that harmonize human needs and ecological health. It’s ultimately the only legacy of any importance we’ll leave behind for those that come after us.

Let’s get after it.

– Casey

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