Recognising the Fractal Nature of Our Wondrous World
Our world is not the linear world of euclidian geometry and the Western idea of PROGRESS as a linear pathway through time. Our world is a complex system of fractals. A fractal is a never-ending pattern. Fractals are infinitely complex patterns that are self-similar across different scales. They are created by repeating a simple process over and over in an ongoing feedback loop. Driven by recursion, fractals are images of dynamic systems – the pictures of Chaos. Geometrically, they exist in between our familiar dimensions. Fractal patterns are extremely familiar, since nature is full of fractals. For instance: trees, rivers, coastlines, mountains, clouds, seashells, hurricanes, etc.
In Regenesis: Feeding the World Without Devouring the Planet (Penguin 2022) George Monbiot reveals the wondrous world of soil and what it means for all of us. He draws our attention to its living complexity and fractal nature. I have always been fascinated by the mathematics of non-linear systems revealed in the fractal systems of Mandelbrot diagrams, that exist in marked contrast to the linear mathematics of geometry.
The more we understand about the complex systems which comprise our world, the more we realise the limitations of the linearity of conventional Western cultural thinking—from understanding the nature of time to understanding the management of opportunities and problems.
Complex systems have counterintuitive properties. They are resilient under certain conditions, as their self-organising properties stabilise them. But as stress escalates, these same properties start transmitting shocks through the network. Beyond a certain point, a small disturbance can tip the entire system over its critical threshold, whereupon it collapses, suddenly and unstoppably. We have seen this in ecological collapses in denuded environments, and in species extinctions. The great fear is that climate change might trigger certain systems collapses, such as the Atlantic current that modifies the climate of Western Europe.
Scientists represent complex systems as a mesh of nodes and links. The nodes are like the knots in an old-fashioned net; the links are the strings that connect them.
The following blog is a series of extracts taken from some of the leading thinkers and organisers working in the REGENESIS policy space—from regenerative agriculture and design to regenerative economics and society, to place-based community activation.
George Monbiot – Soil
Soil might not be as beautiful to the eye as a rainforest or a coral reef, but once you begin to understand it, it is as beautiful to the mind. Upon this understanding our survival might hang. Beneath our feet is an ecosystem so astonishing that it tests the limits of our imagination. It’s as diverse as a rainforest or a coral reef. We depend on it for 99% of our food, yet we scarcely know it. Soil, the thin cushion between rock and air on which human life depends, which we treat like dirt.
But more arresting than soil’s diversity and abundance is the question of what it actually is. Most people see it as a dull mass of ground-up rock and dead plants. But it turns out to be a biological structure, built by living creatures to secure their survival, like a wasps’ nest or a beaver dam. Microbes make cements out of carbon, with which they stick mineral particles together, creating pores and passages through which water, oxygen and nutrients pass. The tiny clumps they build become the blocks the animals in the soil use to construct bigger labyrinths.
Soil is fractally scaled, which means its structure is consistent, regardless of magnification. Bacteria, fungi, plants and soil animals, working unconsciously together, build an immeasurably intricate, endlessly ramifying architecture
Monbiot: The Rhizosphere
The rhizosphere lies outside the plant, but it functions as if it were part of the whole. It could be seen as the plant’s external gut.
When a plant root pushes into a lump of soil and starts releasing its messages, it triggers an explosion of activity. The bacteria responding to its call consume the sugars the plant feeds them and proliferate to form some of the densest microbial communities on Earth. There can be a billion bacteria in a single gram of the rhizosphere; they unlock the nutrients on which the plant depends and produce growth hormones and other chemicals that help it grow. The plant’s vocabulary changes from place to place and time to time, depending on what it needs. If it’s starved of certain nutrients, or the soil is too dry or salty, it calls out to the bacteria species that can help.
Just as human breast milk contains sugars called oligosaccharides, whose purpose is to feed not the baby but the bacteria in the baby’s gut, young plants release large quantities of sucrose into the soil, to feed and develop their new microbiomes. Just as the bacteria that live in our guts outcompete and attack invading pathogens, the friendly microbes in the rhizosphere create a defensive ring around the root. Just as bacteria in the colon educate our immune cells and send chemical messages that trigger our body’s defensive systems, the plant’s immune system is trained and primed by bacteria in the rhizosphere.
Monbiot: The Challenge of Soil Degradation
Soil degradation is bad enough in rich nations, where the ground is often left bare and exposed to winter rain, compacted and wrecked by overfertilisation and pesticides that rip through its foodwebs. But it tends to be even worse in poorer nations, partly because extreme rainfall, cyclones and hurricanes can tear bare earth from the land, and partly because hungry people are often driven to cultivate steep slopes. In some countries, mostly in Central America, tropical Africa and south-east Asia, more than 70% of the arable land is now suffering severe erosion, gravely threatening future production.
Climate breakdown, which will cause more intense droughts and storms, exacerbates the threat. The loss of a soil’s resilience can happen incrementally and subtly. We might scarcely detect it until a shock pushes the complex underground system past its tipping point. When severe drought strikes, the erosion rate of degraded soil can rise 6,000-fold. In other words, the soil collapses. Fertile lands turn to dustbowls.
Greenprints is a Brisbane based organisation, established by the people who are behind the Australian Earth Laws Alliance, which provides a practical, step-by-step approach to help people understand both the big picture and the small details, of how to create systems change, transform our societies, and thrive within our ecological limits. It demystifies and connects the many existing concepts, models and methods that can be used to create sustainable and regenerative communities and organisations. Its focus is on ‘Creating regenerative societies that live within ecological limits’.
The GreenPrint steps to achieve this are:
- Think differently
- Define ecological boundaries – local and planetary
- Understand ecological foundations
- Understand human activities – past and present
- Health check – assessing are we in overshoot?
- Develop scenarios for change
- Choose collective decision-making processes
- Develop transition action plans and start to implement – how can we resource and fund the transformation we need to make.
The Greenprints approach provides us with a map to answer the call to heal the wounds of our psychic alienation between mind, spirit and body and between ourselves and the Earth and all its lifeforms. It is a wound that is played out in Australia through our colonial relationship with Australia’s First Nations peoples, whose land we took and culture and language we sought to obliterate in the name of progress and economic development. And which today is played out in climate change and environmental degradation, in rising levels of extinction among native animals and birds, and in the rising incidence of depression and anxiety among a people who pride themselves on having created one of the richest countries in the world.
Thinking Differently—Inner Transformation
For Greenprints the first step in regenesis is an inner transformation, to think differently, to challenge all the assumptions that underpin our worldview. To recognise that our way of experiencing ourselves as profoundly separate from nature, and of privileging economic material wealth over spiritual health is deeply anchored in our Western culture, a set of cultural values and assumptions that we have exported across the world through colonisation and economic globalisation.
The roots of our crisis are epistemic. They are anchored in our deeply held worldview about the nature of reality and the privileging of humans over all other species and lifeforms.
THE LEGACY OF GENESIS 1.26
The Western cultural relationship between humans and the Earth and the natural world is rooted in both the philosophical tradition of the Greeks with their strong mind-matter separation and elevation of philosophy as the spiritual triumph of the mind, and the archetypal story of Genesis 1.26 in the Old Testament which underpins the Abrahamic religious traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
This famous verse, in which God is said to have made man in his image and therefore given man dominion over all of creation in his name, is variously translated as:
—Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”
Some theologians have argued that this dominion carried with it the responsibility for stewardship as God’s agents for His creation. However any sense of such ideas of stewardship were obliterated by the mechanistic view of nature that came with the Scientific Revolution, that fed into the Industrial Revolution and European Imperialism that colonised much of the world in search of wealth—in resources, markets and political power.
Despite the looming catastrophic crisis of climate change, George Monbiot has observed:
Faced with a multifaceted crisis – the capture of governments by billionaires and their lobbyists, extreme inequality, the rise of demagogues, above all the collapse of the living world – those to whom we look for leadership appear stunned, voiceless, clueless. Even if they had the courage to act, they have no idea what to do. The most they tend to offer is more economic growth: the fairy dust supposed to make all the bad stuff disappear.
OBJECTIVITY BECAME OBJECTIFICATION
The Scientific Revolution saw the development of the ‘scientific method’ as a way of establishing ‘objective facts’ free of the subjective distortions of feelings and preconceived ideas. It was a reaction to the idea that ‘truth’ could be found in religious doctrines attributed to the words of an external ‘God’, captured in the Old Testament and the Torah, in the New Testament of the Christian Bible, and in Islam’s Quran as the word of God’s prophet, Mohammad. Instead ‘truth’ would be found through direct empirical investigation subject to contestation via ‘evidence’.
However, the required separation between the subjective ‘observer’ and the object of investigation all too easily led to the objectification of the observed. It underpins the way in which scientists have experimented on live creatures, the ‘lab rats’, which in its extreme form led to experimentation on live human prisoners of war by both German and Japanese scientists during WWII, and with drug experimentation on prisoners and other captive populations.
It underpins the factory farming of animals, as living carcasses on which to grow meat for human consumption, and on a more subtle level, the modern ‘objectification’ of the self within our own subjective experience.
Small pockets of resistance to this worldview have survived, principally among groups of First Nations people who retained their strongly eco-spiritual relationship to nature and one another. These people—the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people of Australia, the Pacific Islanders, the Inuit of the Arctic, the Indians of the Amazon, the Bushman of the Kalahari, the Sami of Scandinavia—are now, along with the Earth itself through climate change, finding a way to speak back to the might of Western cultural and economic power.
The Regenesis Group
This need to think differently is also advocated by the US-based Regenesis Group, another consultancy service helping communities undertake regenerative transformation. For them, regenerative practice is based on the premise that we cannot make the outer transformations required to create a truly sustainable world without making inner transformations in how we think, how we work, and who we are.
They assert that our understanding of what’s required of ourselves as practitioners and as human beings deepens as this inner work unfolds. For this reason, they do not think of the series as a “training” but rather as a deep dive into a new way of seeing and thinking about one’s work that provides a new foundation from which to chart a unique developmental path for oneself.
The Regenesis Group was founded in 1995 to bring together pioneering educators in the fields of permaculture and ecological design with thought leaders in the worlds of business planning and organizational development. The founders’ early mission was to transform the development industry into one that would contribute to, rather than undermine, the health of the planet. The Regenesis approach quickly attracted leaders in the emerging green building movement, who brought it to diverse project settings around the globe.
In 2016 Regenerative Development and Design: A Framework for Evolving Sustainability by Pamela Mang, Ben Haggard, and Regenesis was published by Wiley.
Today’s community planning efforts are taking on work at increased levels of complexity with unprecedented levels of ambition. Without ways to collectively understand and talk about complex systems, even the most ambitious efforts may fall victim to fragmentation, divisiveness, and abstraction. In the creation of a Story of Place, Regenesis works with a project’s myriad diverse stakeholders to develop a common language, shared understanding, and mutual commitment to envisioning who we are in this place are and what we can become together.
Regenesis has worked on the planning, design and execution of over 200 projects across North and South America, the Caribbean, Africa, and the Middle East. They include the development of planned communities, multi-unit housing, eco-resorts, ranches, farms, campuses, parks, learning centers, and land conservancies as well as planning for communities, regions, and watersheds.
When we look back on the early decades of the 21st century, the development of the ecological movement from being a niche concern to a mainstream way of thinking will certainly stand out as being one of humanity’s most significant shifts. Over the last decade an a half, ecological advocacy has moved beyond the altruistic rhetoric of “helping the planet” to demonstrating that the activities of humans are inseparable from and dependent upon healthy ecosystems. The result has been an increasing number of pragmatic victories.
As part of this shift, a core frame of reference that’s become more and more widespread is the understanding that ecological systems are not simply equal to human systems, as the three-legged stool of economy, ecology, and culture would imply. Rather, ecological systems are foundational to human systems. In the grand scheme of life on this planet, economy and culture do not exist without healthy ecological systems. Therefore, ecological systems must be regenerated—and protected—at all costs.
From biomimicry to permaculture, the idea of nature as the master designer, the highest authority, and the ideal source of all inspiration has begun to promulgate. But this mindset implies a sort of hierarchy, in which nature occupies the highest rank, and humanity sits below it. And while the existence of that hierarchy, which is indisputably present and observable in the natural world, is something that inspires wonder and creativity and the will to change things in our places and in the world, the truth is that it’s only half the story.
The Call to Regenerative Action – Regenesis Group
We can’t get where we need to go by making compromises.
The catastrophic destruction of the world’s living systems is the natural result of a humanity that lives from the belief that we must always choose lesser evils. This belief tells us that to feed our population we must degrade our soil; that to heat our homes we must destroy our atmosphere; that to support our urban centers we must deplete our aquifers.
Regenerative development asks us to reject these premises and envision instead a world of human activity in which compromising the health of one system for the convenience of another has become a powerful and pervasive taboo.
Albert Einstein taught us that we cannot solve a problem using the same way of thinking that created it. This is true whether we are thinking about our climate, water supplies, energy needs, or food security. While human innovations can forestall disaster and mitigate damage, the only genius that can truly reconcile these problems is the genius that was discarded in the process of creating them.
We can tap into that genius, truly and only, by committing to the regeneration of the natural systems that support life on our planet.
Collaboration – The New Catch Cry
Nature doesn’t need our protection. She needs our collaboration.
We are all susceptible to clichés. When we hear terms like “ecological resilience,” we think of pristine ecosystems—a rainforest or an estuary. Thus when we try to think about a role for humans, we limit our aspirations to the conservation and protection of those fewer and fewer untouched places that remain.
Regenerative development asks us to imagine cities, towns, and villages that possess greater natural beauty, ecological health, and productive capacity than even the world’s most pristine forests. Realizing this vision is the responsibility—and the destiny—of the human race.
The only appropriate response is a local response.
A living, thriving planet operates not through a system of international pipelines but through a global network of local phenomena. For this reason the work of regenerating the world’s natural systems can only succeed in particular places, using approaches that are created in response to the unique processes of life in those places.
There are no out-of-the-box solutions. There can only be a fierce, determined commitment to envision a potential beyond what currently exists for the places we care about and to work hard to manifest that potential.
But what if nature needs humans—not simply to protect it from ourselves but to play a creative, hands-on role?