Terranascient Futures Studies and Foresight: Sustainability & Re-generativity

Alexandra Whittington
10 min readApr 3, 2022

By Alexandra Whittington and Teresa Inés Cruz

Image by Teresa Inés Cruz

In 2012, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were born at the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro. The objective was to provide a framework of comprehensive goals and targets addressing the most urgent environmental, political, and economic challenges. Ten years later the SDGs are more important than ever, however there is a dire awareness that we are far from achieving the targets we had hoped for as a global collective, and we must develop new worlds and worldviews that go beyond the scope of the three dimensions of sustainable development which include social, environmental, and economic parameters.

In a recent article published by Raz Godelnik, Assistant Professor of Strategic Design and Management at Parsons The New School of Design and author of Rethinking Corporate Sustainability in the Era of Climate Crisis — A Strategic Design Approach, Godelnik cites Eisenmenger et al. in their “analysis to suggest that the SDGs not only include contradictions and tradeoffs between economic growth and sustainable resource use but also prioritize ‘economic growth over ecological integrity’ and ‘focus on efficiency improvements rather than absolute reductionism resource use.’ Menton et al. point out “environmental justice (EJ), and social justice more broadly, are not currently embedded within the language and spirit of the SDGs.”

The latest 2022 IPCC Climate Change Report published in February sets a new precedent for just how critical our current situation is. The consequences of climate change and humanity’s impact on Earth’s systems have brought us to a climate incitement of ecosystem devastation far beyond what we had anticipated. “Preparing for future threats, like dwindling freshwater supplies or irreversible ecosystem damage, will require ‘transformational’ changes that involve rethinking how people build homes, grow food, produce energy and protect nature” as recently shared in the NY Times article Climate Change is Harming the Planet Faster Than We Can Adapt, U.N. Warns.

In order to achieve the SDGs and to transition to a mindset that isn’t focused solely on the consumption of sustainable goods and services, we must keep in mind that “the choice is not between if we transform or not anymore. The choice is, do we choose transformations we like? Or do we get transformed by the world in which we live because of what we’ve done to it?” as stated by Edward R. Carr, a professor of international development at Clark University and an author of the IPCC Climate Change Report.

Our efforts are not only insufficient, but they are naïve. As mentioned in our previous article, the dominant model of conducting foresight will not suffice in building new worlds that “embody deeper and more dynamic interactions, relationships, friendships, families, organizations, communities, alliances, and collectives of all kinds.” Patten, Terry. A New Republic of the Heart: An Ethos for Revolutionaries — A Guide to Inner Work for Holistic Change. Berkeley, California, North Atlantic Books, 2018. But with grief of environmental and human collapse there is also a new opportunity to re-build. This gives us an opportunity to consider:

What are we doing to incorporate parameters that enable us as practitioners and humans to also include non-human beings in these universal goals?

And are we taking into consideration parameters and goals like human flourishing on a spiritual and cultural level that goes beyond quantitative results and measures?

GOING BEYOND SUSTAINABILITY

Since the arrival of COVID-19, our views of geo-political, race relations, and disparity of socio-economic privilege have greatly altered our worldviews and ways of relating with one another on a local and global level. A global pandemic brought high expectations that perhaps such a catastrophic, world and life altering pandemic would help bridge gaps among humanity. To some extent it has, but in other ways we are even more aware of the damaging ways of being, seeing and knowing have had on planetary health. We are active participants in overconsumption, driven to compete with everyone for everything, acting as self-centered individualistic citizens that push aside our innate desire to reconnect with what is whole and to our communities.

Our deep drive to continue propagating selfish ethics and our need to continue feeding our emptiness with overconsumption rooted in materialistic salvation has driven us to the brink of Mother Earth’s health and flourishing. In All We Can Save: Truth, Courage, and Solutions for the Climate Crisis by Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Katharine K. Wilkinson “Dominance, supremacy, violence, extraction, egotism, greed, ruthless competition — these hallmarks of patriarchy fuel the climate crisis. Patriarchy silences, breeds contempt, fuels destructive capitalism, and plays a zero-sum game. Its harms are chronic, cumulative, and fundamentally planetary.”

Because as it stands, our predominant role is as consumers and not as citizens of this vast geography we inhabit or as caretakers of this beautiful land we are part of. In Jon Alexander’s new book Citizens: Why the Key to Fixing Everything is All of Us, “The Consumer Story goes something like this: each of us is out for ourselves, and that is the way it should be. We are individuals, narrowly defined and independent of one another; the ‘self’ might extend as far as our immediate family, but no further. Human nature is lazy, greedy, and selfish, but can be overcome if we set our minds to it and work hard. Our task is to earn money, spend it, and compete with one another to climb society’s ladder. Along the way, we express our personality and our vitality by making choices: these choices represent our power and make us who we are.”

Sustainability is often thought of as an add-on policy, as something we need to check off when assessing our daily lives and the products and services we are so accustomed to turning to. But at the core of sustainability lies actions, relationships, and self. Looking outwards to achieve sustainability will not be sufficient. We must turn inwards to truly understand who we are as individuals in order to collectively come together and fundamentally shift how we see ourselves and what this means in fully participating and leading new forms of citizenship and governance.

We can no longer rely on pushing sustainability as a corporate and policy agenda. It must go far beyond producing eco-certified goods, electric cars, recyclable items, and identifying our carbon footprint. Not that these things don’t matter but in order to achieve the level of impact we require, to avoid the collapse of humanity and our natural world, we must now become caretakers of the land and of one another.

We need to be asking ourselves regardless of geography, race, privilege: “How grown up do you think humanity is? When you look at human behavior around the world and then imagine our species as one individual, how old would that person be? A toddler? A teenager? A young adult? An elder? If people around the world are accurate in their assessment that the human family has entered its adolescence, that could explain much about humanity’s current behavior, and could give us hope for the future. And to achieve an evolutionary bounce, we will all need to pull together for a common purpose. But what purpose is so compelling? Sustainability alone does not present a very compelling purpose — it offers little more than “only not dying.” Is there a higher purpose that could energize and draw the human family together in a common project?” Promise Ahead: A Vision of Hope and Action for Humanity’s Future written by Duane Elgin.

To step into a new chapter of our evolutionary journey we need to craft a new narrative of sustainability by first identifying what our current story is. What is our current reality? What is our personal story? We have been so conditioned to believe in one reality, that is often driven by a colonized narrative that separates us from Nature. Environmental activist, author, and scholar of Buddhism, systems theory, and deep ecology Joanna Macy talks about how in the modern, western world we carry certain narratives that can be categorized into three themes.

As futurists, we are inclined toward narratives to depict a range of possible outcomes instead of making specific predictions. Storytelling is a very powerful tool in foresight, which we observe can serve as a sign of alignment with indigenous traditions. For example, the ecological narratives defined by Macy and Brown are similar to well-known future archetypes foresight scholar Jim Dator has developed: Continuation, Limits and Discipline, Decline and Collapse, and Transformation. These archetypes have a strong foothold in the foresight canon. They form a strong parallel to the concepts Macy and Brown set forth in Coming Back To Life: The Updated Guide to The Work That Reconnects which are:

Business as Usual:

The story of the Industrial Growth Society that we hear from politicians, business schools, corporations, and corporate-controlled media.

The defining assumption is that there is little need to change the way we live, and the central plot is about getting ahead.

The Great Unraveling:

The story we tend to hear from environmental scientists, independent journalists, and activists that draws attention to the disasters that Business as Usual has caused and continues to create.

It is an account backed by evidence of the ongoing derangement and collapse of biological, ecological, economic, and social systems.

The Great Turning:

The story we hear from those who see the Great Unraveling and don’t want it to have the last word.

It involves the emergence of new and creative human responses that enable the transition from the Industrial Growth Society to a Life-Sustaining Society.

The central plot is about joining together to act for the sake of life on Earth.

Source: Coming Back to Life: Macy, Joanna and Brown, Molly. The Updated Guide to The Work That Reconnects. Gabriola Island, B.C., New Society Publishers, 2014.

Recognizing the strong affinity between re-generativity theories and futures studies is a basic argument for integrating a Terranascient perspective into the foresight practice.

A SHIFT TO REGENERATIVE THINKING

As futurists we must become part of the solution in moving away from guiding clients, organizations, policies towards futures and scenarios that continue to feed the story that profit is more valuable than purpose at the cost of humanity and planet Earth. “As value in the world is converted to increasing the shareholder profit, everything else becomes impoverished and all forms of heritage are lost.” Albrecht 2018b. Regenerative principles should not only reshape our thinking around products and services we consume and develop, but also in regenerating the cultural, social, economic and ecosystem upon which we depend.

Authors Laura Storm and Giles Hutchins of the book Regenerative Leadership: The DNA of Life-Affirming 21st Century Organizations define regenerative as ‘a means of creating the conditions conducive for life to continuously renew itself, to transcend into new forms, and to flourish amid ever-changing life conditions. It is a move into an entirely new mind-set, a ‘new way’ of being-and-doing in business and beyond.”

Just as we go to school to learn about different subjects like Mathematics and Literature, so do we need to develop new ways of relating to ourselves, our surroundings, and each other with visions that point towards re-generativity. We need to learn a new way of communicating with non-human systems and beings in order to develop new worldviews as we embark on this new journey in human maturity.

WHAT IF RE-GENERATIVITY ALSO MEANT ENTERING INTO A NEW RELATIONSHIP WITH LAND, ANCIENT ECOLOGY AND GEOGRAPHY?

We want to take you for a moment on a journey of exploring regenerative leadership through the lens of what author Bill Plotkin calls the Nurturing Generative Adult.

“To nurture is to care for the well-being of other humans, our fellow creatures, Earthly habitats, and ourselves. To be generative is to design and implement innovative cultural practices that imaginatively and effectively restore, solve, or shelter, that truly serve the whole person and the web of life (endeavors in education, for example, or governance or healing). To be an adult, in this sense, is to enthusiastically and competently embrace opportunities to enhance the vitality of beings, places, and communities, present and future — and, where you don’t find such opportunities, to creatively generate them.”

Creating New Terranascient Worlds

There is already a strong thread of Terranascient foresight in the established futurist school of thought, but it needs to become an overtly fundamental element of thinking, studying, and acting upon the future. Its marginality forms a gaping hole in the credibility of those who claim to champion the longevity of the Earth and the wellbeing of future generations.

We can learn “how” to embrace Terranascience from Indigenous traditions, and “why” from the scholars who have documented and analyzed long-standing ecological, regenerative worldviews in writing. For futurists, the task is to develop the

“what” — what do we do about it, what will it take, and what are the consequences and rewards of doing so?

Futurists tend to fear making predictions that will turn out to be false. Instead, we should fear the faulty premise that holds human agency over nature and competition over cooperation. It is a dead-end for the people and the planet.

Connect with us next month as we dive deeper into Theme 2:

Diversity & Inclusion

Until next time, take care of one another.

About Us

Alexandra Whittington is an educator, writer, and researcher who has earned recognition as one of the world’s top women futurists (Forbes). She is a lecturer at the University of Houston, where her students describe her as “passionate” about the future. Her courses explore the impact of technology on society and the future of human ecosystems. She has published dozens of articles exploring diverse aspects of the future, often from a feminist perspective.

Teresa Inés Cruz is a Colombian American researcher, designer, futurist, and social entrepreneur who works at the intersection of Social Innovation, Indigenous Knowledge Systems (Andean-Amazonian), and Deep Ecology. She is the founder of Mama Pacha, a Latin American think tank based in Cartagena, Colombia with global reach. Through her work Teresa champions ecological and societal systemic change through the lens of collective/participatory futures thinking, ancestral belief systems and re-imagining our role with nature-based worldviews.

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Alexandra Whittington

Futurist. Foresight research, education, writing and consulting.