Hundreds of people and almost two dozen communities around the world are embodying Fullerton’s principle of “Regenerative Capitalism: How Universal Principles and Patterns Will Shape the New Economy,” in real places.
“Nature is sustainable because it is regenerative.” This observation by John Fullerton asks us to look beyond conventional sustainability efforts to underlying drivers. Nature has been regenerating itself for billions of years, but the concept only entered human discourse when Buckminster Fuller set out to critique capitalism by describing “the integrity of eternal regeneration,” as the organizing principle of the universe.
Bucky’s grasp of capitalism (and simple syntax) may leave a bit to be desired, but in fairness, economics was simpler back then, before algorithms and artificial intelligence drove trading regimes to imperil global prosperity. It was left to Fullerton, an apostate banker, to blend Bucky’s concepts of regeneration with a sophisticated understanding of economics and finance.
Fullerton left a comfortable position as Managing Director at JP Morgan to enter a decade of deep study and awakening. Like Bucky, he determined that the essence of the evolutionary process and natural systems is regeneration. He framed eight principles drawn from living systems to suggest that we organize society very differently. His articulation of an economy aligned with nature’s principles and the laws of physics rests on the patterns and principles that the living and non-living universe uses to build stable, healthy and sustainable systems.
This concept spread slowly before exploding in 2017. Now, dozens of conferences consider various aspects of regenerative agriculture, regenerative organizations, regenerative society, and even regenerative marketing (whatever that means). Urban developer John Knott uses the principle of regenerative development to craft delightful urban spaces that foster community. Others apply the concept to guide successful businesses.
Fullerton defines Regenerative Economics as “the application of nature’s laws and patterns of systemic health, self-organization, self-renewal and regenerative vitality to socio-economic systems.” It draws from the best thinking in evolutionary biology, ecological economics, positive psychology, economic democracy, and the emerging discipline of Humanistic Management to offer a new story of who we are as human beings, and how we can craft a Finer Future.
The eight principles of Regenerative Capitalism are:
- Right Relationship: This principle holds the continuation of life sacred and recognizes that the human economy is embedded in human culture, which is itself embedded in the biosphere. All systems—from molecular scale all the way to cosmic scale—are nested, interconnected, and defined by overarching relationships of mutualism, within which day-to-day exchanges take place.
- Innovative, Adaptive and Responsive: Drawing on the innate ability of human beings to innovate and “create anew” across all sectors of society. Humans are innately creative and entrepreneurial. Even in failure, we “begin again.”
- Views Wealth Holistically: True wealth is not money in the bank. It is defined in terms of the well-being of the “whole,” achieved through the harmonization of the multiple forms of capital, with systemic health only as strong as the weakest link. Well-being depends on belonging, on community and on an array of community stewarded assets.
- Empowered Participation: All participants in a system must be empowered to participate in and contribute to the health of the whole. As people, we long to be part of something bigger than ourselves. Therefore, beyond whatever moral beliefs one may hold, financial and non-financial wealth must be equitably (although not necessarily equally) distributed in the context of an expanded understanding of systemic health.
- Robust Circulatory Flow: Like the metabolism of any healthy system, resources (material and non-material) must circulate up and down the system efficiently and effectively.
- “Edge Effect” Abundance: In nature the most abundant ecosystems are where two come together: where a river meets the ocean in an estuary, because there is diversity. Similarly, creative collaborations across sectors of the economy increase value-adding wealth creation through a diversity of relationships, exchanges, and resiliency.
- Seeks Balance: This balances resilience, the long-run ability to learn and grow stronger from shocks, with efficiency, which while more dynamic, can create brittle concentrations of power. Living within planetary boundaries, without collapse, requires economic systems that are designed for a balance of efficiency and resilience and are built on patterns and principles that mirror those found in healthy, resilient natural systems.
- Honors Community and Place: There can be a dynamic, global economy so long as it ensures that every place, every ecosystem has integrity. This principle nurtures healthy, stable communities and regions, both real and virtual, in a connected mosaic of place-centered economies.
The principles are not absolutes. They provide a limited description of complex patterns that defy linear explanation. Importantly, they are integral and interconnected. They necessarily work together. But as a start, they guide us in creating conditions conducive to life.
Theory is the lens that allows us to see the world in new and different ways, but that world only becomes real when it is manifested in a community. The economic ideology of neoliberalism has very successfully embedded itself into essentially all of the world’s nations and now dominates global economic policy. But it is not serving us well. The middle class is stagnating and ordinary people struggle to make ends meet. At the same time, we face ecological crises from climate change to species loss and toxic loading. Individuals feel powerless in the face of business-as-usual economic models and global corporate dominance.
We need a new economy that delivers solutions to the crises, answers people’s fears and speaks to our aspirations. The answer, we believe, is to replace the neoliberal narrative of unfettered free markets and austerity with tangible examples of a regenerative economy that delivers shared prosperity on a healthy planet while leveraging the power of entrepreneurs to innovate.
An emerging solution at the grassroots:
Natural Capitalism Solutions (NCS), is a Colorado NGO that helps companies, communities and countries implement more regenerative processes profitably. In October 2018, NCS convened citizens, government officials NGOs and communities of faith to form the Upper South Platte Regenerative Community Hub. One of seven inaugural Hubs created by the Regenerative Communities Network, the Colorado Hub is exploring what it will take to transform the economy of the Front Range from one dependent on extractive industries that pollute and damage natural and human capital to one based on industries that are inherently regenerative of all forms of capital. Similar Hubs are being created in Costa Rica, Australia, the US, and Europe, with more than 40 more groups seeking to become recognized as Regenerative Hubs.
To launch the Colorado Hub, John Fullerton, Hunter Lovins and others directed a two-day event featuring workshops on how to build a new narrative of an economy in service to life, how to transform industrial sectors including agriculture, and more. Participants included representatives from the Alliance Center, B-Corp Colorado, Savory Institute, Rocky Mountain Farmers Union, CityCraft Ventures, the University of Colorado, Regis University, faith communities, local governments and others. These and many other groups have expressed interest in being partners in the effort.
Most economic efforts function within artificial political boundaries drawn on maps. Nature operates differently, bounded by watersheds. The Colorado Hub chose the watershed of the river that rises to the south of Denver and gathers streams from Boulder to Fort Collins before flowing east to join the Missouri River. The Upper South Platte Hub seeks to turn regenerative theory into practical application at the local level across the watershed. Its tangible successes will set examples for others to follow. Based on the principles outlined in Regenerative Capitalism, the Hub is committed to transforming the economy of the Colorado Front Range into one that can better serve everyone, be more ecologically sustainable, and deliver wellbeing to all. It seeks to demonstrate that a regenerative economy is possible and preferable. NCS is conducting the research to demonstrate that the existing extractive economy is a small contributor to Colorado prosperity, already dwarfed by such regenerative sectors as natural foods, outdoor industries, and clean tech. If you add in arts and culture, education, and cannabis, Colorado is already transforming itself. But its thinking is stuck in the 1880s.
For example, most people think that Colorado is prosperous because it is an extractive economy fueled by such industries as oil, gas, mining and conventional agriculture. Few people realize that outdoor recreation alone is a $28 billion industry in Colorado, one which, with 229,000 jobs, employs four times as many people as oil, gas and mining combined. Compared to conventional agriculture, at $1.6 billion, natural foods, with its epicenter in Boulder, is already a $2.5 billion dollar a year industry and growing, while production agriculture is declining year on year. The start-up economy of Colorado’s Front Range generates far more jobs than all of Colorado’s legacy industries. Arts and culture alone ($13.7 billion) contributed more value to Colorado’s economy than mining ($13.4 billion).
One challenge of using nature’s boundaries is finding accurate numbers to track such developments. Few economic numbers are kept at a local level, let alone broken out by watersheds. For example, how big is the organic food industry in the watershed? in 2017, the U.S. food industry grew by only 1.1%, but the organic industry grew by 6.4%, now representing a $45 billion industry. Colorado is the 9th biggest organic market in the U.S. Dr. Edward Jaenicke of Penn State University studied 225 counties that are hotspots for organic production, finding that in organic hotspots, household incomes are higher by $2,000, and poverty levels lower by 1.35 percentage points. But what does this mean for Colorado, let alone the Upper South Platte Watershed? We don’t yet know. The Hub will change that.
With the recent election of Jared Polis, a start-up entrepreneur and advocate of renewable energy and regenerative agriculture, to the Colorado governorship, citizens may be able to answer such questions. Hunter Lovins was appointed to the new Governor’s transition team, which is exploring how to bring these principles into state government. Mark Williams, an Iraqi war veteran, who runs a tech start-up, has agreed to lead the Hub efforts.
Beyond the Hub
The South Platte Hub grew from the “Finer Future Forum,” a group of local influencers in the Denver/Boulder area convened to explore how the transition described above could prune away industries at risk of becoming stranded, like oil and gas, and create an economy in service to life. This culminated in the first Regenerative Future Summit. Almost 300 people from around the U.S., Europe and Asia gathered to set forth a theory of change, a strategy to implement this and frame the organizational structures necessary to achieve a regenerative economy.
At that meeting, several global groups merged to form the Wellbeing Economy Alliance (WEAll) WEAll convened dozens of new economy groups from Europe, the Americas, Australia, Africa and Asia to craft a new narrative of a world that works for all, to consolidate the theory and practice of the New Economics movement, to guide the strategy of how to replace the neo-liberal narrative with regenerative thinking, and to build a global citizen’s movement to provide the power base to ensure the transition. NCS, as a founder of WEAll, is active at this global level. The South Platte Regenerative Community Hub is an on-the-ground manifestation of WEAll’s vision – a model that others around the world can emulate when translating international principles into local actions.
Onward: 2019 and Beyond:
The Hub is enabling people in the Upper South Platte watershed to imagine a finer future. Work is underway to include all of the groups in the region working for similar outcomes, but many are unaware of our shared agenda. Dr. Elizabeth Walsh of CU Denver is guiding a detailed mapping of the region to identify and engage groups already pursuing regenerative activity and enlist them into the transformation process. To make the regenerative economy into a movement, the Hub will host monthly meetings to enable citizens and groups interested in transforming the region’s economy to begin working together. It will develop training materials and webinars on what it will take to create a new economy for the region. Dean Tim Keane is embedding regenerative concepts into the Anderson College of Business at Denver’s Regis University.
For example, the Hub will provide free sustainability training for small businesses (Sustainability for All) on how to cut their carbon footprint profitably. The Hub will make its extensive training materials available to the region. It will provide these and other programs to universities, community colleges, trade unions, Native American communities, military veterans, and other groups with the potential to provide non-extractive, “meaningful jobs” training.
Public events and workshops will maintain momentum. The Hub will promote local leaders and bring in national and global thought leaders to expand the community’s concepts of what is possible. Story-telling efforts will document what is being done in local communities to shift the economy. It will interview local groups that are contributing to a more sustainable economy and spread this knowledge. A bi-weekly, public podcast will engage Hub member and other stakeholders as call-in participants. We will bring on young people to train them in this approach and to support the Hub efforts. We will refine the narrative and spread adoption of regenerative practices using traditional PR and a vigorous social media campaign. We are working with the other Regenerative Hubs around the world via monthly collaborations to share best practices and spread stories of success.
The Hub was born through volunteerism, dedication and seed funding provided by NCS. It now seeks philanthropic assistance to maintain the momentum and power its efforts forward in 2019 and beyond.
Regenerative Capitalism is, we believe, the best answer to neoliberalism. It sets forth the principles of a just economy that serves everyone. It is a place-based way to empower the industries that pump health into our ecosystem, agricultural soils, society, and the well-being of our citizens. In a time of daunting reports of how humanity is damaging our common home, Regenerative Hubs bring a strategy for working together to create a finer future.