Regenerative Culture Change for Complex Systems

“A superior person cares for the well being of all things. She does this by accepting responsibility for the energy she manifests, both actively and in the subtle realm.

Looking at a tree, she does not see an isolated event but root, leaves, trunk, water, soil, sun; each event related to the others, and “tree” arising out of their relatedness.

Looking at herself or another, she sees the same thing.

Trees, animals, humans and insects, flowers and birds:

These are active images of the subtle energies that flow from the stars throughout the universe. Meeting and combining with each other and the elements of the earth, they give rise to all living things.

The superior person understands this, and understands how her own energies play a part in it. Understanding these things, she respects the earth as her mother, the heavens as her father, and all living things as her brothers and sisters.

Caring for them , she knows that she cares for herself. Giving to them, she gives to herself. At peace with them, she is always at peace with herself.”

Lao T’zu, Hua Hu Ching v.37 (translated by Brian Walker)

I wanted to share this ancient Taoist verse that aptly reflects the interconnectedness of complex systems. There is such immense truth to these lines, yet most people are so apt to point to a single element as being the answer for all, or illuminate how a certain problem should take precedence over all others. Systems thinker and writer, Nora Bateson points out the deep insight that having any goal in relation to complex systems serves to flatten them into a linear view in an approach that is as simple as a paint by numbers step by step.

If we take a historical step back and consider how many of the problems of today were originally conceived of as solutions in the past. Nearly all of our technological advancements were striving to address a problem that at some point in our past with a techno fix. In many ways we are still stuck in this tape loop, interacting with complex systems from a linear viewpoint. There exists a cascade of consequences from this type of thinking and action. Consider that petroleum fueled the later stages of the industrial revolution with cars, trucks and tractors replacing oxen, horses, slaves and manual labor. Now we are grappling with the fallout of carbon dioxide build up in the atmosphere, rising global temperatures and sea level rise from the implementation of this solution to the problem of the production, processing and transport of goods. As we strive to address this problem of petro-propulsion, many people and governments are advocating for and incentivizing a switch to electric vehicles as a solution to climate change. Now this “solution” is revealing that we have created another problem of needing to mine Lithium and other heavy metals for the batteries of all these now governmentally mandated EVs. The recent military coup and unrest in Bolivia which was largely centered around contracts over their Lithium resources is a sobering indicator that we are very much still engaged in late stage resource colonialism and capitalism. I also recently read that the oil industry is ramping up their proportion of petroleum that is directed to the production of plastics (currently 15%) as they see the global demand for their product tapering off with the transition to electric motors for cars and trucks. 

So often the solutions we are presented with or engaged in are modeled around a goal to a problem and thereby streamlined into a linear, rational form, rather than approaching them as the complex and dynamic interconnected systems that they are embedded within. For instance, if the problem is water pollution, then clearly the solution lies within addressing the industry or factory which is doing the polluting. Never mind that this factory is run by a corporation that has possibly global reach, shareholders, employees, money invested within banks and communities. Any change implemented within a complex system will inevitably trigger a cascade of effects throughout the system.

Influential thought leader Seth Godin suggests that the true metric that we should be striving for with business (or possibly anything) is not profit, rather, culture change. Consider that if we change the culture, then perhaps the problem we seek to address will be solved as a consequence of the culture changing. With climate change specifically we hear, see and are possibly engaged in numerous efforts to “fix the climate” through some of these examples (not intended as an exhaustive list):

  • sequestering carbon
  • reducing greenhouse gasses
  • adopting a plant based diet
  • eating grass fed meat
  • practicing No-till agriculture
  • driving an electric vehicle
  • swapping out your light bulbs for LEDs
  • fly on airplanes less or not at all

However, when we ponder each of these actions more deeply we come to realize that they entail a shift in consciousness and numerous changes in behavior. And if we strive for many people to adopt these actions, we can see that we’re faced with a widespread cultural revolution with far reaching implications that have yet to be accurately mapped. Our ultimate goal should indeed be culture change. Then addressing climate change will naturally arise from a culture that values watersheds, natural resources staying in nature, diverse communities, biodiversity, reparations to communities besieged by centuries of colonial exploitation, compassion for current and future generations of all species and lastly kindness.

If only it were so easy?

 I suppose that the concept of culture change, while appealing, may seem far too large of a goal for most people. So most of us do what any rational, educated, linear thinking, Western minded person would do — we chunk the problem down into more manageable portions. This is textbook thinking. However, when we do this we lose sight of the lager complex system, the super organism of culture. Far too often we behave in ways that trigger actions and movements counter to our stated objectives. I was deeply challenged the first time that I heard author and filmmaker Helena Norberg-Hodge state that Capitalism is predicated upon colonialism, slavery, destruction of biodiversity and Patriarchy, however, the more I thought about it I could not escape the truth of this accurate assessment of the complex system of capitalism. I believe that this is the structure that ultimately we must all strive to change.

Ken Wilber’s 4 Quadrants Map


Ken Wilber’s 4 quadrant model of Integral Theory is useful for understanding how to relate to complex systems and how many of us (and institutions especially) are only including the exterior aspects. Perhaps this is why we have witnessed so many attempts to addressing systemic problems fail? Further, we would be well served to consider that simply aiming to “raise awareness” or “raise consciousnesses” overlooks the interior collective biases and orientations. Ultimately any effort towards Cultural Change needs to work for everyone. I find it encouraging that the data indicates that once 10% of a population adopts a new belief, then it is more readily adopted by the whole. 

So where is our leverage? Or as Seth Godin asks, “what is our ratchet?” Nora Bateson brings it home by imploring us to consider that simply asking, “who will feed the babies?” may be the most compassionate and effective place to begin. If people feel threatened about how a cultural change will affect their most primary sense of security (food and shelter), then they are unlikely to embrace a “solution” if it is perceived to create direct personal problems. Who will feed the babies is a quite useful metric from and Integral, whole systems perspective as it builds upon the nucleus of shared human values that transcend race, class, religion, nationality, as everyone cares for their children deeply. When we only appeal to the scientific, rational mind aspect then we only engender buy-in from that quadrant of humanity that is inclined to operate from this place. 

I have been a full time organic farmer for over 25 years and I was compelled to address the myriad of solutions that I see being bandied about by non-farmers, with statements on social media such as, “regenerative agriculture can save the planet”, or “fungi will save the bees”, or “a plant based diet will fix the climate change problem”. I would like to remind us all something that farmers (or any land steward with boots on the ground for that manner) know intimately — that is that nature is a marvelously complex organism that continually defies complete understanding. Yet, it is remarkable how many people are quick to jump to expert opinions about how farming should or should not take place, as if it were a simple task. Folks, please respect the craft of farming as you would that of a doctor or a dentist, whom you would not be so cavalier as to begin making suggestions as to how they should do their job, or underestimate the incredible breadth of knowledge and experience embedded within their craft. John Muir was spot on in saying, “When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.” Or similarly from the Eastern perspective the complexity and integralness of nature is reflected in the opening verse I quoted from Lao T’zu, “Understanding these things, she respects the earth as her mother, the heavens as her father, and all living things as her brothers and sisters.” 

The task before humanity to reduce the immense suffering wrought by industrial colonial capitalism and its associated greed is staggering. May we each be motivated by the inexhaustible capacity of our love for our children and the babies (human and otherwise) of the world. May we may all find a vast reservoir of love and compassion to entertain how we may strive to change the culture to one that is life affirming.