We’re experiencing a revolution in our understandings about how life on planet Earth really works. It’s appearing that collaboration is actually how things are meant to function on Earth, and that’s good news for anyone who cares about healing our planet and human well-being. This is also significant for your sense of hope, your own thriving, and your experience of connection to the people, plants, and animals with whom you co-exist on this lovely planet we call Earth.
What’s exciting right now is that, despite the messiness occurring everywhere on planet Earth, there’s evidence everywhere that we’re outgrowing old mistaken stories of domination and hierarchy. This is a thrilling time to be alive as science and spirituality converge in conversations about how we can renew life on Earth by witnessing and encouraging the collaborations that are fundamental to how Earth’s many systems function. As science has progressed, and as we’ve re-explored our ethical and religious traditions, we’re re-discovering regenerative collaboration as a defining feature of how life on Earth works.
This isn’t the only story, of course…forms of domination and hierarchy continue to exist on Earth. What’s important is that they are rapidly losing support and becoming viewed as inferior ways for human society to function. Note, for example, how warfare still exists but is frowned on, how racism still exists but is constantly challenged, and how our abuse of Earth continues yet is being called-out as problematic across the globe.
We have increasing options now to choose and amplify the story of collaboration, and that’s what I’m offering you today.
I’ll start with how the collaborative story is appearing in current science:
Our 20th century stories told us that life on Earth is one big fierce competition. However, more recent biological research is showing that the story of life on Earth actually may be more a story of collaboration than a story of competition. Apparently we misunderstand Darwin’s theories of evolution when we focus on competition, because Darwin himself was very interested in how organisms collaborate to support one another’s thriving.
We have mounting evidence for understanding life on Earth as a multi-species collaboration that functions in a continual process of regenerative self-renewal. We describe this using scientific terms such as mutualism, symbiosis, and ecosystem services. Mutualistic symbiosis is being discovered among more and more species. For example, we have discovered that bacteria function in communicative communities and also collaborate with other species, such as squid, for the survival of both the bacteria and the squid.
We’re also continuing to theorize that the original evolution of life on Earth may have occurred when bacteria collaborated with one another. We additionally know that plants produce the oxygen breathed by animals (including humans), while animals exhale the carbon dioxide plants need in a moment-by-moment planetary collaboration of respiration. We’re continually discovering how soil microbes’ collaborative relationships with plants enable plant growth, including the production of the food humans eat. Similarly, soil mycorrhizae allow communication and nutrient sharing among trees. Canadian scientist Suzanne Simard is one of the leading researchers in this area, and her and other scientists’ discoveries are astounding as they continue revealing how trees collaborate by sharing information and nutrients, even from one species of tree to a different species of tree. Forests are intricate collaborative systems, it appears, not the competitions we once thought.
Other examples of collaboration are all around us: Pollinating insects and flowering plants co-exist in a mutualistic relationship, and so do seed-producing plants and the animals who ingest and disperse the seeds to allow those plants to reproduce and survive.
We now know that the human digestive system functions only because of the presence of numerous microbes in the gut, and the same is true for herbivorous ruminant mammals and other animals. Without these ‘foreign’ microbes helping your digestion work, you wouldn’t be able to assimilate nutrients from food, so you wouldn’t be able to stay alive. Your very existence depends on the microbes in your digestive system! Collaboration keeps you alive on a second-to-second basis.
Scientists also point out that humans evolved and developed increasingly sophisticated ways of surviving due to mutualistic interactions with animals such as dogs, horses, cattle, chicken, and sheep, and with plants such as wheat, corn, and rice. Without these collaborations with animals and plants, we would still be hunter-gatherers living a much more primitive existence, with far fewer choices available to us. Similarly, the development of civilization involved humans taking on specialized roles, from farmer to wagon maker to public official, healer, or teacher, so that a collective of people could collaboratively accomplish more than only hunting and gathering or farming. The human world as we know it, in all its complexity and its multiplicity of choices, developed out of countless intricate collaborations.
One field where collaboration is being increasingly studied and nurtured is agroecology, which is the science of sustainable, organic, and regenerative agriculture. Research around the world repeatedly shows that agroecological approaches produce robust crop yields, little or no environmental damage, and significant levels of ecological regeneration when farmers collaborate with the natural functions of soil, water, native plants, native in-sects, and other aspects of the natural world, rather than trying to control them with chemical applications. I could give dozens of examples from the rich and exciting field of agroecology, but here are two: first, we’re finding that farmers who plant flowers and welcome pollinators onto their farms see less crop damage from pests because on a farm with a variety of insects, the insect populations control one another. Second, research is documenting how farmers who work WITH soil by keeping it covered with nourishing cover crops instead of plowing it excessively not only end up with larger crop yields, but also draw carbon out of the atmosphere and into the soil in a way that has the potential to reverse climate change. See the Rodale Institute’s white papers on their website for details.
To review, we are discovering mounting scientific evidence of collaboration’s role in the natural world. This is notable for anyone interested in the flourishing of life on Earth. If nature is a process of collaborations, then all we need to do is let them flourish. And if the way nature works is more collaborative than competitive, then maybe human culture—we’re animals after all—should aim to create collaboration more than competition.
Let’s consider aspects of how the story of collaboration presents in human cultures:
As an historian, I can point out that over the past two centuries, collaboration and equality have become highly valued all over the world. This is why many countries’ governments have shifted from monarchy or totalitarian rule to democracy, imperfect as it still is. This is why we’ve seen global efforts to grant rights to all people no matter their gender or level of ability, why we’ve been working to give animals protections from human abuse, and why we’ve endeavored to abolish slavery and discourage many forms of discrimination and harm. Although the human experience on Earth remains complex and challenging, it’s reasonable to point out that over the past 200-300 years, a growing majority of people agree that everyone should have rights, and that equality is better than hierarchical domination.
Human value systems in our whole known history have often promoted collaboration. Examples range from the Golden Rule (“treat others as you wish to be treated”), which appears in almost all world religions, implying that people can collaboratively ensure good treatment of one another, to world religions’ scriptures that emphasize care for Creation, which the Creator offers to humanity as a life-support system. Many profound examples of a collaborative ethos appear in the ways indigenous spirituality around the world, on every continent, always has advocated for harmonious collaboration between people and the natural world. Similarly, in the modern centuries we have defined democracy as a system of collaborative compromises with shared responsibilities and privileges. Documents of global relevance such as The Earth Charter and the Sustainable Development Goals contain a foundational assumption of collaboration: namely, that humans must work together, and cooperate with Earth’s needs and limits, in order to ensure the flourishing continuation of life on Earth. It makes sense to claim that from the perspective of both our scientific knowledge and human values systems over time, collaboration is a prominent feature of thriving on planet Earth.
During the 20th and 21st centuries, humanity has had to face the damage caused by our efforts to dominate the natural world. During these same centuries we also have faced the damage caused by our efforts to dominate one another. Our ongoing endeavors to re-pair the damage caused by gender discrimination, slavery, and unjust systems that create poverty demonstrate our advancing awareness that domination does not yield long-term success or peace.
I believe we are coming toward a global human consensus that domination, whether of the natural world or other people, has been a failed experiment. That’s not to say everyone agrees on this as of now, but I believe the history of the past three centuries suggests that this is where we are headed together. Countless cultural, political, and legal movements of the 20th and 21st centuries have been focused on how people collaboratively can promote and protect equality, rights, and the flourishing of all individuals and their communities. (When Paul Hawken tried to count these movements and organizations for his book Blessed Unrest, he reached the inspiring conclusion that they are literally uncountable, they’re so great in number.)
In the modern centuries since about 1600, we have been engaged in a continual extension of the human rights articulated by 17th-century Enlightenment thinkers such as John Locke. These rights originally were intended primarily for white males but in only about 300 years have rather quickly been extended to include all humans, as well as animals, ecosystems, and plants, among those who possess natural rights. We see this world-wide in rights movements of many kinds, from the spreading of democracy to endeavors to end child labor, abuse of animals and ecosystems, and discrimination based on sex, race, age, or physical status. Currently many are working to designate ecocide as a crime and countries such as Bolivia and New Zealand are modeling how to encode formal legal rights for nature in legal systems. If you pay attention, signs of deep collaboration are everywhere.
If it’s true that the natural world functions more in collaboration than competition, and that the goal of nature’s collaborations is to nurture a continual cycle of regeneration on Earth—regeneration meaning renewal for continuous thriving—then maybe human cultures today also need to make regenerative collaboration their main goal, as it seems to have been in many past cultures.
We already see this occurring, in fact. I already mentioned agroecology. In another example, architects, designers, and builders are exploring how the human built environment—homes, offices, whole towns and cities—can become more a regenerative than a degenerative presence on the planet. This looks like buildings generating their own energy and harmlessly processing their own waste, and sometimes making the soil, water and air around them even cleaner and healthier. Watch for exciting further innovation in the Regenerative Development arena. Nature’s regenerative functions are becoming the model for the human built environment and ways of living.
It is no surprise that our age of industrial progress, which also has been an age of environmental domination and devastation (c. 1850–present), has also been an age of anxiety and depression. Many scholars and sages hypothesize that surely we are naturally attuned to care for our life support system rather than damage it, and we feel great distress when our environment is damaged. Regenerative action, therefore, is as important for renewing human well-being as it is for renewing the natural world.
Let’s remember that the “new stories” offered by environmental advocates as pathways out of our patterns of abuse of the planet include human–nature collaboration as one of their core assumptions. Advocates of adopting a new, collaborative story about humanity’s relationship with Earth include Thomas Berry, Mary Evelyn Tucker and Brian Swimme (using the terms Great Work and Journey of the Universe); Wangari Maathai (who wrote about Replenishing the Earth); Joanna Macy, Chris Johnstone, and David Korten who speak of (The Great Turning); there is also the Transition Movement led by Rob Hopkins and activists around the world). Vandana Shiva writes of Earth Democracy and Marc Bekoff advocates for Rewilding our Hearts, while Gregory Cajete frames all of this as Native Science and Stephan Harding terms it Holistic Science.
It’s valid to claim that humanity is engaged in recognizing and reclaiming the story of collaboration as central to the flourishing of life on Earth, and seeing ourselves, as indigenous people always have, as participants rather than dominators.
In their superb book The Future We Choose, eminent climate negotiators Christiana Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac state regarding how to solve the climate crisis, “We are entering the next phase of human evolution…. [and] we need to prioritize collaboration….We can ignite regenerative human cultures that seek to ensure that humanity becomes a life-sustaining influence on all ecosystems and on the planet as a whole.”
To sum up:
Over the past 200 or 300 years, collaboration has come to be increasingly valued among humans. And in the past few decades we have been finding increasing scientific evidence of collaboration in nature.
Regenerative collaboration is applicable just as much to collaboration, justice, and healing within the human community as to collaboration and healing between humanity and the natural world.
The concept of regenerative collaboration arises from indigenous values combined with the scientific, ethical, and religious perspectives that have developed in post-indigenous cultures. This includes the values of indigenous people of color and also the indigenous values of all peoples, of every ethnic and racial origin, because every human being has an indigenous ancestry, however distant. Indigenous cultures worldwide appear to have viewed, and continue to view, the world as a regenerative collaboration. As the Lakota Luther Standing Bear wrote in 1933, “Kinship with all creatures of the earth, sky, and water was a real and active principle…The concept of life and its relations…gave [the Lakota] reverence for all life; it made a place for all things in the scheme of existence with equal importance for all.” Potawatomi scholar Kyle Whyte speaks of something similar using the term “systems of responsibilities.”
What this means for you: well, a lot of things, and I’ll identify a few of them.
Know that Regenerative Collaboration is a choice…a field you can enter…a way you can live and contribute. Additionally:
- If you’re someone who prefers nurturing life and advocating for collaboration more than competition, you’re not weird, off-base, or a bleeding heart. Science and human history show how vital and often-valued collaboration is. It’s possible it’s going to become our #1 value on planet Earth. More and more people are talking about this and living it, and you can find your like-minded, like-hearted people.
- Test out viewing life on Earth as a multi-species collaboration, and see if this gives you a feeling of comfort, calm, security, and companionship. Know that supporting sustainable and regenerative agriculture helps your health and the planet’s; appreciate that eating a lot of fruits and vegetables helps your gut microbes and your own health; feel awe when you realize that trees and plants are collaborating together to thrive AND producing the oxygen and food you need to survive. Get excited about the fact that when you advocate or act for nature’s thriving, you’re literally supporting your own and future generations’ thriving, too. Let yourself feel how supported you are in this grand collaboration of life on Earth.
- If you need more hope or satisfaction in your life, you may want to engage in a collaborative regenerative endeavor: a home garden with a friend or family member, a community garden or tree-planting initiative, joining other people who are caring for animals or helping children or the elderly spend time in nature, or any partnership or group activity that helps restore Earth’s and/or human well-being. Social justice endeavors definitely count. Working in permaculture, the Transition Towns movement, or any pro-democracy efforts counts. Arguably we are made to not pursue only our own well-being, though that’s an important task for each of us, but to also support the thriving of the natural systems and other people around us. Doing so can make you feel whole, and help you feel encouraged as you see the meaningful restorative, regenerative endeavors happening all over the world.
Collaboration is amply visible on Earth, and that simple fact calls for our focused attention right now. It’s a key to turning life on Earth from foundering to flourishing.
When we accept that life on Earth requires collaboration and currently is in need of regeneration, then we can participate in the collaborative process deliberately and caringly, choosing our human activities within frameworks of regenerative collaboration.
It’s up to us which story we choose, and which story we live inside.