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Thomas Steininger

Thomas Steininger

Re-Generation: The Beginnings of a New Culture

“Regenerative" is an idea that is spreading. In projects, networks, and communities, it is becoming the expression of a new culture. What is regeneration? Is it an impulse of revitalization, the pulse of our creative connectedness? What transformation is needed for regenerative cultures to realize their promise of becoming a new approach to living?

Thomas Steininger

Thomas Steininger

Part One

Our shared perception of reality has become fragile. This underlies the crises we face. Just learning to see differently is a beginning. The vision and practice of regenerative cultures holds the chance to see with new eyes. In this changed perspective, a powerful potential is revealed.

Our time is one of radical transition, but we do not know where we are going. Alongside the many crises that are piling up, another threatening prospect looms: transhumanism, which  may bring us the triumph of technology over humanity and nature. The digital world has profoundly taken hold of us. Almost every day, artificial intelligence celebrates new successes. ChatGPT is proving how artificial intelligence can provide smart and informed answers to the most difficult questions in every field, in a matter of seconds. Platforms like Instagram seem to know our “innermost” thoughts and desires. The attention industry is succeeding in extending its influence in more and more areas of culture. When someone like Elon Musk buys Twitter, he also becomes the owner of a real global brain that, with its 250 million users, understands intimately the thoughts and conflicts of the world.

An encounter with the neuroscientist Thomas Metzinger was a particular wake-up call for me. Thomas Metzinger sits on several international commissions for ethical questions concerning artificial intelligence. He surprised me with the vehemence of his conviction that the transhumanist challenge of general artificial intelligence, together with the climate crisis, represents an existential challenge to humanity.

Do We Have an Answer?

How do we answer this? Last year, a new movement for “regenerative cultures” made my ears prick up. Not only did I see a completely different vision for how we could relate to the earth, people, and technology. I also noticed that in many countries people are not only thinking about this but are already doing an astonishing amount. Hölderlin’s sentence: “But where the danger is, also grows the saving power,” might be too naïvely put, but I found it amazing how the existence of a living, different perspective of the future, opened my mind and made visible new spaces for action.

The present moment lies under the spell of dystopian images of the future. What happened to the days when the word “future” was still associated with hope? Without the image of a future worth striving for, our creative power is lost. To become aware of something being possible together is in itself a creative force. Of course, external conditions are also needed to make such a future possible. Our imagination needs to connect with the external reality. But we often underestimate the power of vision. A space of possibilities that we can create together reignites our energy. Life paths, which often exist in separate fragments, can find each other and a common creative power emerges. In the field of tension between a mature individuality and a common understanding of what we want to create together, the future emerges.

The Power of a New Vision

The great transitions in cultural history have always resulted from a new vision of reality. The transition from the late Hellenistic culture of the Roman Empire to the Middle Ages, was made possible by a new image of the sacred. This was not only through the many grassroots communities of the new Christian movement, but also through other mystery cults such as the cult of Mithras, where the idea emerged of the “one saint,” who stands in a personal relationship to each individual human being. This was a completely different concept from a  multitude of gods, who were often in conflict with each other. Especially in Christianity, a loving God now appeared, who met each individual in a very personal way. This was a cultural revolution that first arose within a small group of hearts and minds, but which had the power to leave 500 years of Hellenistic culture behind.

The transition from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance and modern times, also arose from a new vision of life and humanity. The human, whose individuality had matured, so to speak, over the centuries of the Middle Ages in relationship to his God, decided to find his or her way back into the material world. In the transition to the Renaissance, this newly found individuality also became the basis for using one’s own intellect in a mature way.

New perceptions of the world have usually emerged in the midst of great crises. Our time of crisis is also pushing us toward a new view of the world, to new social imaginaries, as the philosopher Charles Taylor calls them.

Something is Emerging

There is an interest in regenerative cultures in many places right now. Co-living and co-working are on everyone’s lips. There is a trend of moving to the country together. New kinds of work, but also new financing and banking models are booming. In our conversation, Daniel Christian Wahl, one of the pioneers of regenerative cultures, explained to me that a central idea of these new ways of living is to live consciously in a bioregion, as part of a living landscape. Bioregions are small enough so that there can be living feedback loops between all the participants, including the Earth and the particular landscape. In this network of relationships, everything is supported and sustained in its own development and unfolding.

There was one particular thought in Daniel Wahl’s remarks that really struck me: “We humans do not see ourselves as separate actors in this way of life in the bioregion. As guardians of the landscape and the region, we can become its conscious expression. The region lives through us.” This perception has some similarities with the way indigenous peoples understand reality. Especially for us Moderns, it carries a revolutionary potential for our own understanding of what it means to be human. This spiritual dimension of consciousness in regenerative cultures really caught my attention.

One of the roots of regenerative cultures is permaculture. Permaculture emerged in Australia in the 1970’s as a system of sustainable agriculture and land use, based on natural ecosystems. How can we work with the forces of nature to create a self-sustaining living environment? Plants, places, soils, but also insects and other creatures, form intensive networks of relationships. Some plants form close communities and support each other in their growth; others need distance from each other. Animals, ponds, and the rhythms of the seasons live in a dynamic balance. If a gardener learns to see and understand this interconnectedness ever more deeply, she can become a guardian and caretaker of this interconnectedness. The English permaculture teacher Rob Hopkins founded the Transition Town movement with others in 2005, which began to experiment with this view of ecological habitats, in urban and village renewal as well. The economic and relational dynamics of regional habitats also reveal these self-regulating ecological cycles that we can nurture and cultivate. The work of the Transition Town movement, with its deep ecological view of human habitats, has become a successful model that has spread to many countries around the world.

The Mycelium and Cyberspace

A few months ago, I visited Regens Unite in Berlin, a festival that has already taken place in several cities around the world and whose aim is to promote globally-connected regenerative cultures. It seems that many people are responding to our crises, but also to the transhuman challenge, with a new longing for authentic aliveness, for a connection to the Earth and for real communality. In this emerging culture, there is also a magic word: the mycelium. As if this living fungal tissue in the humus layer of forests might also become a symbol for a new culture of connectedness. I was particularly surprised that this earth-connected idea of the mycelium is being combined with a new culture of the internet in so many of these people, as if it were a matter of course. It is as if the technical possibilities of Web3 are creating a new habitat for the mycelium in cyberspace.

Another word that is currently making the rounds is: cosmo-localism. This refers to the connection of a spiritual dimension of consciousness with a global view of the ecological catastrophes of our time, and a new appreciation of locality and regionality. This is very different to the identitarian, right-wing populist vision, whose answer to the crises is  isolation and return to old supposed securities. These cosmo-local approaches understand themselves as an answer to the transhumanist challenge, to a world in which everything is dominated by algorithms and the cybernetics machines of the big tech corporations. Supported by technologies such as blockchain, the possibility is emerging in cyberspace to create a new dimension of protected relational spaces, and to connect them globally.

Some are convinced of yet another possibility altogether. That these new technologies can provide cyberspace with something like an ethical architecture, an architecture that supports and sustains ethical and life-enhancing behaviour in cyberspace. This architecture enables trust-building mechanisms through which autonomous networks can cooperate with each other across great distances. Might this be the way to make internet technology a servant of human relational fields, rather than a dominator of them? History will tell. But many young people are attempting to prove this to be true. The seeds of these ideas have been planted. They give us hope for a different human future, connecting regenerative bioregions, new neighbourhood structures, new cooperative working worlds, and an architecture in cyberspace that promotes this connectedness – instead of the digital isolation and appropriation that we experience today. It is this vision that is motivating many people to work for a network of globally connected regenerative cultures.

Attracted by a New Vision

The awakening of new regenerative cultures, however, is surely only one building block for the visions we need to create a regenerative future, both during and after this time of crisis. Metamorphic forms of democracy, a sense of the sacred in an open society, and a new culture of wisdom also need to be part of this. But the mere fact that this movement, and the perspective of regenerative cultures as they are emerging worldwide, is becoming visible, opens the door. We are seeing people in Berlin, in Colombia, in the Philippines, or in San Francisco, beginning to live in this new paradigm and to explore its possibilities theoretically and practically.

In chaos theory, there is the idea of the “strange attractor,” that impulse, barely noticeable at first, that takes systems trapped in a certain pattern, out of that pattern. New social imaginaries, such as the emerging regenerative cultures, can be such strange attractors. They overcome our system’s rigidity and open up uncharted spaces for action.

The crises have not disappeared. The climate catastrophe is rolling on, and yet in the midst of it, a different world and a new relationship to reality are emerging. Perhaps the Christians at the end of antiquity felt the same way. That, too, was a world of civil war that lasted for decades. And the plague of the Middle Ages shook the faith in the old ecclesiastical authorities at that time. It was then and there that civic spirit was born. If the awakening of regenerative cultures that we are currently witnessing proves to be successful, it can become the starting point of a new dynamic, which can draw its energy from the crises themselves. For as soon as new worlds become visible, they also develop their own power.

Part Two

Interview with Daniel Christian Wahl

Daniel Christian Wahl studied Biology, and Holistic Science and Design for Planetary Health. He lives in Mallorca, where he has been developing projects that contribute to the bioregional regeneration of the island. He also works locally and internationally as a consultant, educator, and activist. His book, Designing Regenerative Cultures, has played a major role in our beginning to understand the interaction between humans and the Earth in a new way. We spoke with Wahl about why regenerative cultures are the future of the planet.

evolve: What does regeneration mean from your point of view?

Daniel Christian Wahl: Life itself creates the conditions for more life to live better. The question is how we participate in it. All people are actually indigenous in life, i.e., they are born into life and are part of life. At the same time, life is always a creative process, also a destructive one. Death, decay, even collapse, is part of the regenerative process. For 10,000 years we have been living in patterns of behaviour within which more and more people have begun to expose life to degeneration, and to the destruction of biodiversity. For most of our past, however, we have lived in regenerative cultures that saw themselves as expressions of the ecosystems in which they lived. If we fail today to reintegrate ourselves into the whole, evolution will show us that such behaviour cannot be tolerated. Can we once again value the uniqueness of a place, the people who surround us, and the community in which we live? The power of regeneration, the vitality of life, arises precisely from this uniqueness.

Daniel Christian Wahl

A Participatory Process

evolve: To what extent is regeneration more than a redefinition of old concepts? We have had the idea of an ecological, holistic, or sustainable society, and now we have the idea of a regenerative society.

DCW: The classic approach to finding sustainable solutions is different. It works along the lines of “here’s a problem, and here’s a solution.” But salutogenesis, the dynamic understanding of health, describes a regenerative, evolutionary, transformative approach. Of course, we need solutions, but they have to be open to place and culture. We find solutions only if we create them from within a particular place and culture, and they are not imposed from the outside. Regenerative means a change of worldview and being, in the course of which one lives more deeply in process participation. Through what we think, say, and do, we co-create reality. This process can never be adequately described by science, but at the same time we need science to make wise decisions. Only when we take not-knowing and not-being-able-to-control seriously, do we put the process in the foreground, and not just solutions that someone has thought up.

evolve: You use an interesting term: process participation. So, it’s about a participatory process, about our participation in a real place, where we really are. A regenerative culture always needs the place, the frame of reference in which it lives.

DCW: It’s a paradox. On the one hand, we are individuals who feel separate from the life in which we participate. At the same time, we are an expression of that life which we participate in with our actions. We can only fully develop individually if we do it in the service of a larger whole, in the service of the community of life, and not only of the human community, but of the ecological community. Our thinking and our analysis give us only one way to access an understanding of the world. We also need sensing, feeling, and intuition, to perceive how a specific place and community is created through relationship. The perspectives of the various sciences provide insight into how we can participate more meaningfully in the whole. But we also need a lived and embodied awareness of our own creative power.

The Power of the Concrete

evolve: In modern cultural history, we have often lost our ability to relate. Science and systems theory think as a whole. Obviously, the complexity of our reality needs this abstraction. But I can think abstractly about the conversation we are having, and also engage intuitively. Then I perceive something that I will never find in an abstract train of thought.

DCW: The mental frameworks that organize our perception of reality often trap us cognitively, even when we talk about holistic approaches. In this thinking, the whole is mechanistically composed of parts. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe saw that even as a scientist he could not recognize the world only by abstraction. He paid attention to the organizing ideas that show us the world in specific ways through scientific observation.

The regenerative approach begins with the development of our abilities before we even try to intervene in processes. In design terms, it is the meta design, the narratives, the stories we tell about ourselves and our relationship to life. For a long time, we have only been telling ourselves a story in which people and culture are the focal point. But this is only a cognitive construct. Even in systems theory and other holistic approaches, the role of consciousness is underestimated. We live in a false dualism, through which we still try to describe the whole abstractedly and from the outside.

evolve: A living togetherness cannot be developed theoretically alone. We can experience this togetherness only in a lived world, only in our environments, in our relationships, in the regions in which we really live. Is this the core of a regenerative culture, to perceive how we are interwoven in a district, a landscape? It seems that if I only analyse these connections in technical-instrumental terms, I will miss perhaps 90 percent of everything that actually happens here in the interaction.

DCW: The science of abstraction has created the technologies of abstraction. This allows us to participate in world-spanning communities that are separate from place. But take for example, the floods in the Ahr Valley in Germany, the fires in Australia or California, or the floods in Bangladesh – whenever disasters happen, we are thrown back to being in relationship to a community, to a place. That brings us back to life, to place. And there we are called to meet together in our differences, and to develop the capacity to listen to each other, even when we disagree.

It is only through such a new local animation of bioregions that we can rebuild the systemic resilience that life itself has always provided. Globalization has created structures that are fragile, such as global supply chains, or fossil fuel exploitation. The bioregion helps us find a context in which we can meet these global problems, but in the specificity of a place, a community, and an ecosystem. Here, problems become potential. The problems are all still there, but because they are made specific and relational, we can see the potential in people and in nature to work together to make the system conducive to life.

Cosmopolitanism, Bioregionalism

evolve: You mean, these potentials become concrete when I look at them in concrete life contexts?

DCW: Yes, actions in the neighbourhood and at the regional level that contribute to the reintegration of humans into nature, and their role as a key species in the ecosystem. We know today that indigenous peoples have increased biodiversity in the places where they have lived and continue to live; whether that is in the Colombian rainforest or many places in North America, where indigenous peoples have transformed entire landscapes into unusually rich ecosystems over centuries.

Bioregionalism today means cosmopolitan bioregionalism. We have to remain in global exchange in order to help each other. At the same time, we often experience the tendency to export best practices from one place to another. I am here in Mallorca in a Mediterranean climate situation. It may well be that local approaches to certain problems here also work in Australia, California, or South Africa. But I have to live these ideas concretely by trying them out in the specific places, rather than designing a global approach and imposing it on everyone. To get feedback from conscious process participation, we need to act on a scale that allows us to perceive the effects of our actions relatively quickly. In this way, we can determine whether it is truly beneficial to life.

evolve: So, one key is the tension between the cosmic-universal and the local-local. This tension can break in both directions, for example, if we think only globally or conversely, if we think only in terms of small identities.

DCW: Yes, how can we revive the regional without losing the positive aspects of globalization? In the German-speaking world, bioregional thinking is sometimes occupied by identitarians. People who promote a cosmopolitan bioregionalism are easily misunderstood. We are not the owners of a place. The identitarian movements want to “get back” their region. In regenerative thinking, on the other hand, we see ourselves as expressing the life of a region.

Learning to Listen

evolve: Understanding ourselves as an expression of a region is also a radical break with our modern self-image as separate, distinct individuals. We are often unaware of how much we need to re-experience ourselves as human beings.

DCW: Yes, the English cultural historian Owen Barfield talked about the primary participation of indigenous peoples. Our future will only happen if we rethink these two poles in a synthesis. What is needed is a return to the specificity of lived relationship. For example, when you listen attentively with your heart in a conversation, you experience, through the resonance that arises in the room, how you express a wisdom that you did not know before the conversation. This wisdom does not come from oneself, but from the relationship, from the conversation. This is a concrete participatory experience of what we are talking about here. I can experience the same thing as a gardener. I have been the custodian of half an acre of land for two years, and I try to make this land more vital, regenerative, and productive. In addition to the 150 trees that were already here, I have planted 250.

When you enter into this deep, intimate relationship as a gardener and part of nature, you also experience that when you have set out to do something, you suddenly find yourself somewhere else and doing something completely surprising. At some point you ask yourself: where did this impulse come from? You feel that the place, the landscape, the life around you, begins to communicate with you. Because you enter into such a close relationship with it, you really see the place and get to know every single tree intimately every morning and perceive it holistically: Today you are not well, you have too little water. Through entering into this relationship, we experience moments in which we learn that the whole can speak quite well, that we have the ability to be beneficial to nature as nature. Every gardener, every farmer, every forester will immediately understand what I mean. It is a concrete experience when you suddenly realize that you have the inherent ability to be beneficial to life. We just have to learn to listen again. Whether that is a tree, or a fellow human being, is really only a nuance.

The article was written, and the interview was conducted by Dr. Thomas Steininger. The article and interview have been translated and republished with thanks from the Spring 2023 edition of the German magazine, evolve.

Painting by Arkeria Rose Armstrong b. 1998. Australian First Nations Artist.

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