Regenerative Learning

by Jesper Saxgren, Trustee of the RVF and Board Member of EarthWays Nordic Centre for Regenerative Learning

How do we understand ‘regenerative learning’ and define regenerative in its broadest conceptual sense?

In EarthWays we see, regenerative learning as an ongoing process of learning, a reflective effort to engage openly and attentively in nature’s conversation and learn the language of the world we co-inhabit, acknowledging and including diverse forms of knowing and being in the world.
Regenerative learning requires never-ending creative interactions with other lifeforms and a constant co-evolution of place and thinking – a practice that seeks to align human activities with the continuing evolution of living systems. A key premise of regenerative development is that co-evolution among humans and natural systems can only be undertaken in specific places, using approaches that are precisely embedded and fitted to them, since each place is a dynamic entity with its own unique history and ecology.

Regeneration comes from the Latin ‘regenerationem’, meaning ‘to be reborn’, to restore or rebuild oneself. Therefore, regenerative learning fundamentally means learning to recreate, rebuild, and reestablish life-affirming relationships with nature, the earth, and each other.
Nature has a remarkable ability to regenerate itself if given the opportunity. Thus, regenerative learning fundamentally involves regenerating trust in nature and in life in all its diversity.

The regenerative capacity and potential of nature are crucial processes for maintaining the health and balance of the ecosystems that support life on Earth. Nature has the capacity to heal itself and regenerate ecosystems over time. A high level of biodiversity in an ecosystem gives it greater resilience and regenerative capacity, as a rich diversity of plant and animal species means more ways to adapt and compensate for disturbances.

Some may therefore argue that we should simply leave nature to itself. However, this is a false premise because nature is not something outside of us. Nature is our origin, our habitat, a whole of which we are a part, embedded with our senses, our breath, and our metabolism. We are nature.

Moreover, we can even be seen as a ‘keystone species’—a crucial species that plays a decisive role in the dynamic balance of an ecosystem, upon which many other species depend directly for survival. The current ecological crisis underscores this with alarming clarity, emphasizing more than ever the need for us to recognize and understand this role and responsibility. As the only species on Earth, we have the opportunity to choose how we want to live and use this unique and nature-given ability to choose to regenerate rather than destroy the possibilities for all life on Earth to thrive. Understanding this ability and taking on this responsibility allows us to be co-creators, and through our actions support nature’s regenerative capacity and contribute to fostering life and restoring habitats of wonderful beauty and diversity.

Taking on this responsibility requires a changed approach and an understanding that it is not enough to merely try to minimize our negative impact on nature. Instead, we must learn to maximize our positive impact. For us, this means learning to give more than we take in our relationship with the earth, with nature, and with each other.

Such a shift in our approach requires a fundamental change in our way of thinking and acting, as the entire history of Western civilization, especially the last 500 years, has been built on taking, exploitation, and plundering of nature. The industrial revolution fundamentally changed human relations with nature and, with its dependence on fossil energy sources, defined the society we have today. The fossil era has now exceeded most planetary boundaries, and we stand on the threshold of a new era that will require an equally fundamental change in our way of life—a regenerative revolution based on an in-depth understanding of the Earth’s ecological capacity and in balance with nature’s regenerative capacity.

A new regenerative era, where learning to act regeneratively primarily requires a new way of thinking, a new paradigm, a new mindset. It is about a new perspective on human and nature, whether we see nature as a source from which we simply extract raw materials or as a source from which we can also draw wisdom, inspiration, and knowledge. It is about creating a new narrative that can guide and support how we practically transform our patterns of thought and action so that our culture’s impact on Earth goes from being predominantly destructive to being healing and regenerative.

It also involves a shift from a reductionist to a holistic approach. From an anthropocentric to an ecocentric framework of understanding that does not prioritize human goals over those of nature but has co-creation between human and natural ecosystems as its goal and fundamental principle. A regenerative approach to reality must be based on this and require the will and ability to think in wholes – to seeing wholes before parts, asking for context and connections, weighing relationships, interactions, and cycles, and recognizing that living wholes cannot be reduced to the sum of their parts.

So, what does it mean more concretely to think and act regeneratively? The regenerative mindset begins with the soil and the plants and an understanding of how their reciprocal relationships form the basis for all life on Earth.

Plants/trees use the sun’s energy to convert atmospheric CO2 into carbon-based sugars for their own growth, but they purposely produce 40-60% extra carbohydrates to be secreted into the soil around their roots to feed myccorhizal fungi and underground microbial life, which in exchange for this sugar will mine and transport nutrients and water back to its host. The fungi mycelium effectively extends the root area of plants and as it goes deeper into the soil to mine nutrients and water for the plant, they also deposit more and more carbon. Fungi act together with bacteria as decomposers as they break down the dead and decaying organisms into simpler nutrients that increase the nutrient bioavailability in the soil.

Although underground micro life is invisible to the naked eye, it is crucial for life above the ground. Thus, acting regeneratively primarily means creating the best conditions for plant growth by increasing biodiversity both above and below ground wherever possible. In the context of the climate crisis, it means maximizing the photosynthetic capacity to capture and store carbon by increased duration of plant growth, increased density of plants and increased total leaf area.

Metaphorically, thinking regeneratively means thinking and acting like a cherry tree. It does not think about limiting its flowering and fruiting when, year after year, it adorns itself with an extravagant abundance of flowers and berries. It generously shares its abundance, spreads its seeds, and lays the foundation for new life because, in nature’s cradle-to-cradle cycle, nothing is wasted.