Degen - Regen

Nature, being inconstant and taking pleasure in creating and continually producing new forms, because she knows that her terrestrial materials are thereby augmented, is more ready and more swift in her creating than is time in his destruction. - Leonardo Da Vinci

Imagine a graph, where on the left we position regeneration, and on the right, degeneration. In between lies an infinite ocean of points linking the two. Above Leonardo Da Vinci lays out his thoughts on this subject, divining in his brilliant fifteenth century mind the very nature of natural selection, something Charles Darwin wouldn’t begin to chronicle for hundreds of years.

The force of regeneration and it’s value is superficially apparent to everyone: on the average, as a culture, we prefer things to heal. Putting aside Jonathan Coulton’s interpretation, most of us want things to get “better.”

The force of degeneration and it’s value is harder to appraise, but it can be summed up as “creation is a destructive force.” We discussed entropy a few essays back - how everything winds down to a state of lower energy. To change things from their base nature, we apply physical force to them. Since all actions have an equal and opposite reaction, this transfer of energy used in creation needs an offset marked down in the giant ledger of the universe, and that offset left unchecked comes in the form of entropy.

At the mathematic center of that line, the exact zero point between the two, lies the apogee of this complex curve; a point where neither of these tidal forces of degeneration and regeneration hold sway. There, at that infinitely minute point, so small that nothing can be contained in it’s entirety, lies a magical point: There lies sustainability.

Many efforts - ecological, economic, organizational and personal, even corporate greenwashing initiatives and well publicized government programs - strive to achieve this point. All of these efforts, genuine or not, are simply aiming too low.

My favorite response when asked about sustainability is to make it personal. Ask someone if they would like to be in a “sustainable” relationship. No! We want to be in nurturing, self-affirming, loving relationships, and we instinctively know why: everybody has a personal sense of the gambler’s ruin.

It is mathematically provable that anyone who doesn’t cheat or walk away from the gambling table, no matter how skilled or historically successful, is guaranteed to lose everything. The laws of random behavior dictate that sometimes you have winning streaks and sometimes you have losing streaks. In a fair game, the winning streaks and the losing streaks even themselves out, and over your lifetime, the net sum is zero. When mathematically you sit at zero, you are always a single winning streak of sufficient magnitude away from losing your bankroll. When you lose your bankroll, you’re done. Winning millions the day before can’t save you when you’re below zero, because you have no capital to use for the next bet.

Persistent gamblers always lose: many people were once professional poker players. Very few still are. No successful and professional lottery players exist, to my knowledge.

Life is also a gamble. Our businesses, our societies, all of our human endeavors are a gamble that today’s total effort will somehow create enough yield that tomorrow, we can continue to strive to achieve what we intend. We proceed assuming there is no bankruptcy in our future, but we all know it exists as a possibility. The only plan against that bad streak wiping us out is investment - in our own savings, in laid aside food, in saving enough energy and resource so we can make the swim back to shore.

When we intentionally aim for zero, we defeat our future selves in a very real way. One market shift, one important employee leaving for the competition, one bad quarter, one series of solar flares, one oil field going dry, one serious medical issue … these go from events that deplete our reserves to events that finish us, that stop our endeavors.

Sustainability isn’t enough. Zero on the line is too small a point to live in, and the fundamental nature of the universe will always drag us back towards degeneration. Our goals as intentional designers must be to build systems that do better than maintain. They must restore and replenish. We need to recognize the destructive forces both within and outside of our plans and build buffers - pockets to store reinvestment to safeguard against both the daily erosive nature of creation and those times when the inevitable degenerative force strikes. This is fundamental to the Permaculture ethics: Earth Care, People Care, and Fair Share.

But, if creation is a degenerative force, then how can our designs regenerate?

Determining if an action is regenerative is relatively simple, using what I call Barnes’ Rule, after the awesome designer who taught it to me years ago: Compare the overall yield of a system against the energy required to create it and to maintain it over it’s lifetime. Always keep this formula in mind while you design.

Aikido is a martial art form designed to use the harmony of kinetic energy to keep two parties safe simultaneously: Both the defender and the attacker. By predicting the flow of energy (the physical movements of an attacker), minute amounts of control can be applied to achieve both goals. When a person lunges at you, move slightly and apply the right amount of downward force, redirecting their own momentum to the ground and allowing you time to make distance. An attacker driven off balance immediately becomes a defender, and when one’s own energy works against that attacker, he (or she) will exhaust or surrender before you do.

By properly aligning yourself in anticipation of a destructive force, preparation allows us to apply subtle corrective energy, redirecting it into useful action.

Placing large depressions at low points in a landscape allow water to pool, and if we have planted willows or other moisture-loving plants there, we have turned occasional destructive flooding conditions into areas that produce value, without any additional energy indefinitely.

By reinvesting in our communities we help create both the goodwill and the resiliency necessary when we need to rely upon them. They become constant sources of encouragement and support.

When someone asks you to consider sustainability in a design, remember that sustainability is only achievable through constant regeneration, and plan accordingly. This process requires observation and an understanding of the flow of events in their natural state.

Principles involved


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