Transcript of Episode 91 – Joe Brewer on Applied Cultural Evolution

The following is a rough transcript which has not been revised by The Jim Rutt Show or by Joe Brewer. Please check with us before using any quotations from this transcript. Thank you.

Jim: Today’s guest is Joe Brewer. Joe is a change strategist on behalf of humanity. He’s a complexity researcher, a cognitive science, and evangelist for cultured design. He’s also the author of the book we’re going to talk about today, The Design Pathway for Regenerating the Earth, and he’s executive director at the Center for Applied Cultural Evolution. Before we jump into the book and topics related to the book, maybe you could talk a minute or two about what is cultural evolution, and then what is applied cultural evolution.

Joe: Very happy to do that, and I would start by saying what is evolution? Just to have a foundation to build upon? And if we take the Darwinian understanding of evolution, then evolution really is the change in the statistical composition of a population as measured by how adapted that composition is to its changing environment. So if you think of a changing population of say wasps with passive behaviors and some other ones with more aggressive behaviors, then there’ll be different contexts where one of them will have better strategies than the other, as it fits to its environment. And then you see a statistical change in the population between one generation and the next. And normally, that’s through genetic evolution.

Joe: When we talk about cultural evolution, what we’re doing is applying exactly the same way of thinking to the study of cultural change. And when we do this, then the traits of the population that we’re doing statistical measurements are things like maybe it’s the social organization of marriage, or the models of legal models of ownership, or normative behaviors in a society. Like whether they’re more individualistic or communalistic, or things like this. But it’s basically the same way of thinking again, that you can watch cultural change as an evolutionary process by looking at how well adapted those traits of the culture are to their changing environments.

Jim: Yeah, that’s a very good description, Joe. And I just finished reading extremely interesting book called Weird by a researcher named Joe Henrich. A very, very detailed explanation on how cultural evolution works and why it’s so much faster than biological evolution. In fact, I was so impressed by the book I reached out to Joe and he’s agreed to be on the podcast in January. So there’ll be a little bit more on cultural evolution then.

Joe: Yeah. And it’s really important for the discussion we’re going to have today about the planetary predicament that we’re in and the role of cultural revolution, which we normally generically call human impacts or human activities for impacting the environment. That actually cultural evolution is the driving force and has now become the dominant driving force of planetary change in what is now called the Anthropocene. So this is a topic of discussion that touches on many important environmental and social issues that we care about.

Jim: Yeah. And it’s also, if there is one, the way out, right? We have to culturally evolve so that we can learn to live within the limits of our planet.

Joe: This relates to your question a moment ago about the applied part of applied cultural evolution. And one way to think of applied cultural evolution is when you try to direct where a society goes. And this might sound Machiavellian and manipulative. And honestly, sometimes it is. There are people who do Machiavellian things. But the more benign version would be something like setting up a public education program, or helping parents with early childhood development by giving them tools and techniques to be better parents. Which will then have better functioning adults and will change the composition of social aptitudes for their community. So this idea of applied cultural evolution is really taking our understandings from the different sciences that study social change and applying them almost in a design orientation to bring about changes that are desirable.

Joe: So an example might be that if we want to create a sustainable society, then we want to have more sustainable types of housing construction that are maybe climatically appropriate in their building materials would be an example. That would be within the technology realm and the social organization realm of a culture. So when we talk about applied cultural evolution, what we’re really saying is how do we make these cultural changes adaptive to their environments so that they’re more likely to be replicated and spread?

Jim: That’s a good intro. Let’s now get down to the meat of the matter, the book, The Design Pathway for Regenerating the Earth. Early in the book, you talk about the work of William Catton and what you describe as his classic text overshoot. And I think that’s a pretty strong framing for your view of where we’re at with respect to human culture and the environment. Talk some about where are we with respect to the carrying capacity of the Earth versus the burden that humans are putting on the Earth.

Joe: Well, it’s a really interesting question the way that William Catton asked it, because he’s an ecologist who also taught in a sociology department. So he brought a lot of ecological tools, ecological concepts to the field of sociology. And one of the things that he was specifically interested in we might think of as the thermodynamics of an organism and its environment. Where is it getting its material and energetic inputs? And where are they coming back out of the organism as it’s going into cycles and flows in the environment. So thinking of waste streams, and energy sources, and food supplies, and things like this.

Joe: And what’s really interesting is that for most organisms, there’s this fairly easy to measure concept called carrying capacity. Which is basically for a given environment with a given composition of resources, there’d be some optimal balancing size for that population. And that this would then be if not a fixed measure, at least a measure that’s fixed relative to the state of the environment at that time.

Joe: But what’s interesting is what happens when you look at humans, where humans can vary our carrying capacity with things like social organization and technology. And when we vary social organization and technology, our carrying capacity can do interesting things. Like for example, we can temporarily enable a type of resource use. I say colonizing a new resource we discover, and I’ll use the example of fossil fuels. Though when fossil fuels were discovered, we were able to consume them. And then for a temporary period of time increase the carrying capacity of the planet. Meaning a whole bunch of humans came into being, as we saw with the population explosion in the last 100 years.

Joe: But what’s interesting is corresponding with this is a degradation of our environments. So we could take deforestation and the spread of deserts as an example. Whereas this human impact on the planet through its growing population, and we can actually temporarily exceed our carrying capacity. And that’s when we’re in the state of overshoot. So this idea that there is a fixed carrying capacity is really sort of a misunderstanding because it’s possible to degrade the environment to such an extent that the carrying capacity becomes lower. So carrying capacity changes through these types of very complex interactions.

Joe: So when we’re thinking in this ecological way about the planet and the human impacts on the planet, we have measures like the ecological footprint, which say that humans have exceeded the carrying capacity of the planet since roughly the late 1970s. And there are other measures that are similar to this that suggest that we’ve been in overshoot for at least several decades. And there’s the annual overshoot day, which is now measured in August. Where beyond that day, every bit of consumption that is done is beyond the planet’s capacity to regenerate. So we’re in a place of overshoot at the moment by quite a number of measures. And this is why we’re so urgently needing to not only conserve existing nature, but to regenerate it.

Jim: So it’s interesting. You wrote a little bit about thermodynamics. And I couldn’t quite decide whether you were being literal or by analogy. I went and did a little bit of research, and then I wanted to find out how much thermodynamics humans had actually disrupted in the system. And it turned out not much.

Jim: The human biomass is only one 10000th of all biomass on earth. And if you throw in our domestic animals, it might be three 100000ths. And you throw in our plants, it’s maybe 1000. So in terms of actual physics, the movement of energy from other forms of biomass to humans is not then, it’s almost unmeasurable actually, right? So I think a literal talk about the thermodynamics of energy exchange within the biosphere probably isn’t correct. I suspect you meant something more analogous.

Joe: Well, I did mean something more direct, but it’s at the scale of ecosystems that we’re interacting with or managing. Which is at the scale of say a hunter gatherer society living in an intact and complex forest ecosystem as contrasted with an agricultural society that is living in a grassland semi-desert after cutting down all of that forest. Where there has been a conversion of complexity inherent in the landscape into complexity inherent in the human system. And at that more localized scale, which can still be at the scale of landscapes or watersheds. So it can be fairly large, that there’s a thermodynamic exchange.

Joe: And a historical version of this is when humans learned how to manage fire, which started shifting the energetic flows of nutrients within the system. So there are thermodynamic patterns that are different in that exchange. And then the question becomes which part of it are we measuring and how do we look at topics like the measurement of complexity? So I do mean it literally, but I don’t mean it literally as in compositional for the planet as a whole. But I mean it compositionally in relationship between humans and the complexity of their environments.

Jim: And and also I think if you look at the scale, let’s say you look at larger stuff. I mean I quote the number, a hundredth of 1% for human biomass. But it gets much scarier. And we look at things like mammals of include humans in our stock or domestic animals. It’s somewhere between 80 and 90% of the mass of all mammals on Earth. So when we think about how we relate it to the mammals that we co-evolved with, we’ve completely changed the game there. And with respect to birds, it’s about the same. The mass of our poultry is certainly a majority of all birds on Earth. And maybe quite a bit more than that.

Joe: Yeah. And this is where we go back into thinking as ecologists. Well, would ecologists care about our interdependent relationships? So if you look at humans in relation to other mammals, then we’re in this realm of what are the ecological contexts that human and non-human mammals are in, and what are their relations to each other. And in that space, that thermodynamics do become quite important. But still, there’s a subtlety and nuance that needs to be held in the interpretation.

Jim: That makes sense. Let’s talk a little bit about the domains that overshoot. In fact, you specify a specific set of overshoot measures that you thought were most useful. Was it Stockholm something or other?

Joe: Yeah, the Stockholm Resilience Centre created a framework called planetary boundaries, which is nine earth system processes that have thresholds or tipping points beyond which the self-regulation of the planet for creating a Holocene-like warmth and stability, which as far as we can tell is necessary for large scale agriculture and civilizations. Now we’re asking the question of these planetary scale processes, what are the thresholds that if we go beyond them, then large scale social organization, things like civilizations become untenable? So these are things like the ozone layer or climate change, what’s called land system change, which is changing complex ecosystems into degraded landscapes. The geochemical cycling of phosphorous and nitrogen. Biodiversity and biodiversity loss, and things like this. They have nine of these planetary scale processes that they have aggregated into a framework called planetary boundaries.

Jim: And which ones are we infringing on most dangerously at this point in time?

Joe: Well at this point in time, like I mentioned, there are nine of them. And one of them that is sort of a catch all is called novel entities. So you might include something like rogue AI and novel biochemical weapons that we couldn’t have forecasted that could lead to a human extinction event. Those are in a catchall category of their own. But the ones that we have pretty good measure that we have already gone beyond the extent of, these are climate change, biodiversity loss, land system change, and the cycling of nitrogen and phosphorous. And of course, these are all interconnected with each other. So they’re not reductionistically separated, but each of them is its own tipping point that can create cascade effects.

Jim: Let’s drill into one. I happen to know something about being a farmer myself, and that’s the nitrogen phosphorus flows. We’re using a lot more nitrogen now. I think you referenced in the book that humanity is now pulling more nitrogen out of the air than the plants are in terms of adding nitrogen into the biosphere. However, the Stockholm folks talk about the runoff. And I can tell you that the Environmental Service Department here in Virginia and the USDA, they’re constantly on the farmers’ asked to minimize the amount of nitrogen runoff. It’s not entirely clear to me that that can’t be managed by doing a better job of how we do our farming.

Joe: Yeah. I think that one of the areas where regenerative practices are quite powerful is shifting from industrial agriculture to regenerative agriculture, combined with agroforests. Which is basically if we wanted to think in a shorthand, it’s doing something between organic gardening up to permaculture for the way that we do food production at different scales. So one of the key changes, and I know we talked about this the last time I was on your show is how important it is to do regenerative agriculture where we cultivate soil, which has tremendous capacity to fix nitrogen and to pull carbon out of the atmosphere. So the nitrogen cycling is very much related to land system change as management frameworks for how we handle food production. So that’s an area where quite a lot of improvements can be made by making shifts in how we do agriculture.

Jim: Yeah. And even within the constraints of normal industrial agriculture, you can do a much, much better job than has historically been done. Of course as trade offs here. I’ll bring up another interesting one, which is soil, which we did talk a lot about. And I’m a fanatic on soil. One of the things I pride myself most on our farm over the last 30 years is we’ve actually added measurable amounts of new topsoil. And the soil we have is vastly more alive. Dig in with a shovel and you got earthworms. We love it. However, when we talk about industrial agriculture, we were in the United States losing a surprisingly large amount of our total soil endowment every year in the Midwest, particularly in the big grain tracks, etc., through tilling, and plowing, etc. And then about 25 years, 30 years ago, there was the introduction of the no-till system. Where instead of plowing and tilling every spring, they leave the old crop on. And then you spray the rubble from the plant stubble from corn, wheat, etc. Then you spray with herbicides like Roundup or things very similar to Roundup. And then you drill the seed into the ground. And the result has been a massive reduction of soil erosion in the United States. However, it also has some negative impacts on the soil biomes.

Joe: Yeah. This relates to the main thread of what the book is about. Which is that we are in a condition of planetary overshoot. And I use the planetary boundaries framework as a way of conceptualizing this. But what’s interesting is when we ask ourselves how do we create economies that are able to bring the earth back toward systemic health? So the systemic health of the carbon cycle, or of the nitrogen cycle. And one of the things that comes out of this is a way of managing landscapes in an integrated fashion at fairly large scales. So I think of something like managing a coastal estuary for a fishery, or managing a forest ecosystem and a watershed coming off of a mountain range. So it’s at fairly large scales that this management has historically been done in things like conservation management.

Joe: But unlike conservation management, in regenerative management, the goal is to increase or restore the life giving properties of the landscape itself. And when we start to do this, we end up with applications across every part of human life. For example, how do we parent our children? And what is the nature of education? What kinds of things should children be learning? Becomes a really important question when we’re moving away from training people for corporate jobs in the city and moving into something more like economies that have a distributed pattern of relationships between cities, towns, and villages, and the surrounding rural landscapes. Which need to be a much more integrated than they are now.

Joe: It’s like going down the rabbit hole with Alice in Wonderland that when we start taking this regenerative approach seriously, we start seeing that we need to reorganize at a fairly deep level, a lot of the things that have been used to organize our societies at present.

Jim: That all sounds good, but let’s get to potentially the dark side of this forecast and prescription. And you say, here’s a from the book, “Other things one might say should never have been allowed to happen in the first place. Like the invention of the Haber-Bosch process for manufacturing synthetic fertilizers that enable the human population to grow billions beyond our carrying capacity.” There are several other mentions throughout the book about the billions that we have, and can we actually support them? So let’s get to the bottom line. Do you see a gigadeath die off as part of the road to essentially regenerative ecology?

Joe: I do see it as part of it. And I see it as an interesting way. It’s that sort of the bigger things get, the harder they fall. And the longer we delay preparing for or managing the transition, the more difficult that fall is going to be. So one of the interesting things is the rate of species loss with extinctions. The more that we hollow out the food webs of our ecosystems, the more rapidly the untethering collapse, which could trigger a proper mass extinction of it. And if that were to happen, humans would be very likely to go down with it. So we end up with these existential risks that come on the extreme end of what happens with the population crash. And what’s interesting about taking the population crash seriously is that it allows us to stop trying to solve problems that don’t have solutions, and really focus on solutions that are tried and true, and really demonstrated to work.

Joe: And I’ll give an example that’s a really contentious topic. Or at least a topic I’m about to make contentious. Which is that we have zero evidence anywhere in the history of humanity of a sustainable city. There’s never been one. All cities that have existed have been part of empires or civilizations. And empires and civilizations generally speaking, rise and fall and collapse. Sometimes they go through reorganization and come back again, but always with this pattern.

Joe: So what’s interesting is that we don’t know if complex cities will actually be able to exist outside of the Holocene. And now the Holocene seems to be over by a number of measures. So it’s an open question. Now that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t do our best to create sustainable cities. But I remember when working in cities, one of the big problems that frustrated me in it, frustrated my wife who worked in local government was how many constraints are placed on local action by higher level entities. So there might be a city government that’s trying to do the right thing, but the state government has a different set of policies that might be connected to interstate commerce and then to national law. So we end up with a lot less local empowerment to take action as we’d need. Which means even if we have really good ideas for designing sustainable cities in very practical ways, they’re effectively impossible to implement.

Joe: So the question becomes as we hold seriously how far we are into overshoot and how likely it is that the patterns of collapse that have already occurred somewhere else, like the mass starvations that happened in Sub-Saharan Africa in the 1970s and 80s, and what happened in Syria a few years back with the droughts and conflicts. That as those continue to spread to other places around the world, and I guess we could talk about the wildfires because that’s a nice example that’s really prevalent these days. We can see this cascade of tipping points.

Joe: And what becomes really important is to not continue trying to do the things that we have no evidence will work and really go back to basics, start aggregating together the things that do really work. Which is where that example of regenerative agriculture is a nice one to look at. Because when we start shifting our frame from trying to save this very unusual and I think very unrealistic period of time of having a very huge human population, massive degradation to landscapes around the planet. And thinking if this is normal, let’s keep it this way forever, is actually a fool’s errand.

Jim: So you’re basically saying let 3 billion people die is what we’re going to have to do.

Joe: Well, I’d say that’s what the people who invented the Green Revolution decided to do. And we’re now living with the consequences. Because it wasn’t our decision to do it. This happened before we were all born into it, as it was decisions made in the mid-20th century.

Jim: Yeah. It was 1970s, the Green Revolution really took off. And that was right about the time we transitioned past the 3 billion person, which is probably a reasonable carrying capacity for the earth. But it’s interesting when you talk about Haber-Bosch, it made me stop and think. So I went back and did the numbers. I looked up how energy intensive is the fertilizer industry. And I was surprised actually at how small it was. To produce all the fertilizer for the United States, which is the biggest consumer fertilizer by far. Well actually China might be now, but probably an equivalent level of density. It’s only six gigawatts of power to do that. So six middle and nuclear power plants, or maybe 6,000 three megawatt wind turbines would produce enough power to build all the nitrogen that we use. So that does not seem to me a major barrier to not having the gigadeath die off. Say all right, we’re just going to commit for an extended period. We’ll eventually build the population down. I agree with you longterm. We want to build the population down to below 3 billion, for sure. But isn’t it the more humane and perhaps more moral thing to do to build into the plan, transition? And that may include six nuclear power plants for a country the size of the United States making fertilizer, to be able to support those people during the transition.

Joe: I remember listening to an interview with Dennis Meadows, one of the authors of Limits to Growth. And the interview is conducted around 1978. I forgot which year, ’77 or ’78. But at that time, he and the team at the Balaton Group had come up with a descent plan. A way of managing the overshoot that they saw coming and their 1972 limits to growth study. And what was interesting was to come back and look at that, when he was interviewed again earlier this year. When that opportunity, which would have been much better taken then before three additional decades of intensifying overshoot. That that would have been the time for the humane reduction of the human population. And humanity didn’t go that route.

Joe: So what’s interesting is that we no longer have the choice. The choice was made for us by the leaders of that time. Similar to that famous New York Times article a couple years back that revealed how close the United States was to a climate policy in the early 1980s. And then how quickly the oil industry gathered their propagandists to try to battle it and succeeded. And had we taken a different course then, shorthand if we had taken the Carter route instead of the Reagan route to climate change, that we’d be in a very different world today.

Joe: I think one of the problems is that people keep shifting their baseline of normal to these increasingly abnormal times. So we’re in a time where the overshoot has been going for such a long time, that most of us were born into the late stages of it. And that’s one of the challenges for us in dealing with this situation.

Jim: It certainly makes it more difficult, but I personally would not want to consign 3 billion people to horrible deaths if I didn’t have to. So I would suggest that it’s worth people working in this space to think seriously about scenarios where we can save the people. At least most of them. Some of them will go down, particularly around changes around climate. But again, as the Haber-Bosch calculation shows, what it actually costs to produce enough fertilizer to feed the 3 billion extra people or 4 billion extra people isn’t that large. We could do it. If it worked across a more comprehensive plan that included eventually, eventually, might be a couple of hundred years. Building the population down to a point where we can sustain it. It’s not obvious to me that any of these current overshoots are that dire yet that we have to slam on the brakes and kill 3 billion people.

Joe: Well, I think there are two problems with your analysis. One is the amount of energy to produce the nitrogen is not the amount of energy used in the industrial agricultural system. So I think about the large machinery that’s used, the amount of oil that’s built into transporting. That’s a whole meshwork system that’s building that massive infrastructure. And what’s interesting, so this is one point, is that the need for nitrogen fertilizer actually increases with the degradation of soil. So if we have better soil management practices, we can phase out nitrogen fertilizers, and actually have better productive yields over the long-term anyway. So I don’t think it’s the amount of energy per day for producing nitrogen that’s the problem. It’s the petroleum basis, the fossil fuel basis of the entire industrial system. So that’s one point.

Joe: The other point is that one of our key problems is the chauvinism of being anthropocentric, which is trying to keep the human population artificially large, which guarantees that a large number of non-human species go extinct. So when we say that we don’t want to have a human die off of 3 billion people, what that commits us to is the die off of maybe a million non-human species. So what gets interesting is how the focus on the human population as separate from the rest of the biosphere is actually a large scale version of the same problem that creates our environmental problems in general. Which is the illusion that humans are separate from the rest of nature, and the preferential selection that humans are somehow better than the rest of nature. And I think this is a deeply problematic position.

Joe: Now that said, there’s a very big difference between promoting the death of large numbers of people, and acknowledging that those deaths are very likely to be built into the pattern that we’re living in. And I think that that is more of a place of sympathy and compassion, and of honest grieving about the state of the world.

Jim: [inaudible 00:28:42] maybe push back a little bit on the philosophical question, and this is something we’ve talked about at the Santa Fe Institute a fair amount, and I’m a bit of an outlier there. But I will say people respect my argument and say that it does have some merit. Which is my argument is that humans are indeed different. They are a phase change in the evolution of the processing of information in the history of the universe. In particular, when we develop something like full language maybe around 65,000 years ago, and then quickly evolve cognitive capabilities to leverage that, we began in principle to be able to solve any problem. If not directly because of the limitations of our cognition. But when we started to externalize problem-solving such as through writing, which helped a lot. And then through technology, which helped some more. And then through more advanced technologies more recently, we are operating in a completely different sphere of the ability to process information and adapt ourselves to the universe at scale than anything that we know of in our evolutionary tree [inaudible 00:29:46] and our evolutionary tree without a doubt. Perhaps elsewhere in the galaxy, we don’t know. One of the biggest questions.

Jim: So I might argue that the destiny of humanity is indeed to identify itself as separate from previous evolution. And to say now, what is our destiny as the universal problem-solver? What can we do with this capability which took 4 billion years to evolve? My personal mission, and when I hear about the meaning crisis, I always scratch my head and go what the hell is the meaning crisis? I got a meaning, I always have had. Is that humanity continues to learn science, continues to learn how to live better with each other to make our collaborative superpowers better and less driven by game theory hacks, etc. And learns how to live within the limits of the Earth and tries to do so without killing 3 billion people, and transitions to a point where we can put our energies towards finding out are we alone in the universe? Which we might be. This philosophical question, the Fermi Paradox. So far, there’s no sign that there’s any other intelligent life out there. And of course there’s a lot of arguments that says they may be hiding, or they may be faking us out in various ways, or they may use technologies we don’t understand.

Jim: On the other hand, there’s a pretty good argument that we should be seeing artifacts, Dyson shells, etc. So perhaps there really is the great silence as Robin Hanson calls it. And we are alone in the universe. That would be an amazing responsibility and opportunity for humanity to bring the universe to life. And it takes millions of years. Surprisingly, not so many. Once you get up to a tenth the speed of light, you can colonize the galaxy in a couple of million years, surprisingly enough, and bring life to this dead matter across the universe.

Jim: The other fork on the Fermi paradox, and maybe even more exciting, is that we find out we’re not alone. And that actually, we are the very young children who are maturing into a much older galactic civilization. And we won’t know the answer to that fork on the Fermi paradox probably for, we could get the answer any day if we happen to receive the message from deep space. But otherwise by brute force, a few hundred to a few thousand years we would, by being able to prove other planets. And very soon, we’ll be able to look for atmospheric gases on extra terrestrial planets that are indicative of life that won’t be necessarily indicative of advanced life. But at least biological life somewhat similar to our own. So it strikes me that with a meaning like that, it makes more sense to trade off human capability for let’s say species of amphibians, so long as we don’t destabilize the carrying capacity of the earth for the humans.

Joe: I think that two things that are interesting about this for me are one part, I think if you and I were both at the Santa Fe Institute together, we would tend to be more on a team than on opposite teams around this. And then I feel like humans have some very special qualities, which is why I need to do everything we can to avoid killing ourselves with extinction. And I know we’ve talked about that before. So I’m very much in agreement around the sentiment.

Joe: One place where I think the problems really arise is in the presumption that human intelligence is actually different from non-human intelligence in some very fundamental ways. For example, how our bodies as multicellular organisms are the inherent intelligence of cooperation between what are basically bacteria. And when we understand how the collaboration and integration of those what are called evolutionary transitions, how higher integration of natural selection occurs from individual cells to multi-celled organisms being one of them, that what we start to see is how the intelligence is distributed across those integrated collaborations.

Joe: And when we take that way of thinking and look at the human cultures that have been sustainable, it’s the human cultures that behave within their ecosystems. The way that our individual cells operate within the tissues of our bodies. Which is they engage in participation and empowered cooperation, and service to the whole organism. And when that fails to happen, when a cell goes rogue and starts taking care of itself at the expense of the larger collaboration, that’s what we call cancer. And those cells go rogue and eventually kill the host.

Joe: So what’s interesting about this is when we see the amazing human intelligence that enables humans to do things like empathize with and conceptually understand communication between different species and their ecosystems, then they can do things like be a really good gardener. They can actually help plants to grow and thrive by understanding the thriving conditions of those plants.

Joe: So I see this less as humans having superior intelligence, and more as humans having the intelligence capacities of a different kind of collaboration, because it can be done intentionally and with wisdom. So for me, this is more about understanding how intelligence is spread throughout all of nature, and that humans are just a continuation of this. But there are a few things specifically to make humans different. One thing that makes humans different is our cognitive, linguistic, or semantic capacities. And another is the ability to accumulate culture, to have culture build on what came before. Which is a really powerful thing that helped create the mess that we’re in and is exactly the same thing we need to employ to get our way out of it. Which is to learn how to direct accumulations and culture toward one configuration or another of societies. And in this case, it’s toward more sustainable societies and away from more extractive kinds of societies.

Joe: So I see this as very much agreeing with you that humans have a special role in a special place, and we need to do all that we can to avoid extinction. But I don’t equate that to the number of humans that is so high in the world right now. So we need to keep 8 billion humans because humans are special. And therefore, guarantee the extinction of a million non-human species, because they’re just not as good as us anyway. Is a very flawed ethical framework for me. And I think also a very flawed practical framework because we depend to such a great extent on the health of those ecosystems.

Jim: We agree that it might be a flawed practical analysis, but I’m not yet convinced. I’m not yet convinced that we can’t do a clever dance and make it through with our 8 billion people, or at least most of them. Some of them are going to die. Sorry, that’s just the way it is. But if we can keep the deaths to modest from a moral … it depends where your moral calculus is. Right? How do you value a human versus an amphibian, for instance. And I think that’s a question we’re going to have to look ourselves in the eye. We may have to accept the extinction of half the amphibian species to get our 8 billion people across the bridge to the other side. And you don’t have to think long and hard about that. On the other hand, if it turns out that due to complex food web issues, etc. that are truly unmanageable, that if we go down the route of a million species die off and it’s going to take us down too for sure, high probability, then yet we don’t do it. So I think you have to separate the two from the practical to the moral, and people could come to different decisions about the moral. But presumably, they’ll come to the same decisions about the practical.

Joe: Yeah, this is the interesting part of regenerative design. Is how it actually spans quite a broad ideological spectrum. So you can have a very politically progressive social justice oriented nature-loving person, and you could also have a very libertarian, individualistic, I care about me and I just want to take care of myself and be left alone. And that these can actually align around something like effective management of soils. So there’s a very interesting place where understanding how living systems work as a foundation for how to do management well is something that goes at a deeper level than ideology. And I think this is really important.

Joe: At the same time, I think the ethics are actually super important. Because one of the things that’s happened with the current neoliberal capitalist system, a subset of the different kinds of capitalism that are out there. Is built around this idea that markets that are free to pursue profits in an unfettered and unregulated way, which is disingenuous of course because they actively create regulations to enable them to do it while pretending to be against regulations. So there’s an inherent dishonesty in the story. That then are encouraging people to basically behave like psychopaths. And then we end up with social norms of people being materialistic and greedy, and also being forced to make individualistic decisions out of necessity when they’re in places of more economic impoverishment.

Joe: So there’s this really interesting dynamic around the ethics that are connected to wellbeing. And this is where interesting things start to happen when we look at things like how important it is to have a very strong social ethic, which is an ethic of wellbeing for the entire system. Whether it’s the community or the ecosystem or the landscape. And how there’s an alignment of individualism and collectivism that come together when we do really good regenerative design. Because both of them have their necessary place. If we stay only in the ethical realm, then I think that clarity and ability to be pragmatic can get muddled. And it often does. But discovering the ethical frameworks that are essential is also part of this work.

Jim: Yeah. I would agree with both of those things. And in particular as you know, I’m also a strong opponent of hyper-financialized neoliberal economics, and understand with considerable depth I would argue, the bad dynamics that come from very predictable game theoretical behaviors by all the players. Nobody has to act ‘badly’ within the rules of neo-liberalism to produce disastrous results for everybody collectively. In fact, we’re seeing it today.

Joe: Yeah, absolutely. And those sorts of analysis are really helpful for us. One of the things that, I have a chapter on this where I forget the title of the chapter at the moment. But the question comes up. If we’re going to create regional scale economies that are really integrating their material flows. So that say for example, the building materials are as much as possible sourced locally and are sustained through regenerative practices locally. And then there’s trade between territories, but it’s less emphasized than globalization. Then one of the things that comes up is what happens if there is a militant, xenophobic, fundamentalist group that attacks and invades, and how do you protect one of these regional economies from that kind of outside invasion. And this gets back at those game theoretic questions. Because one of the answers to this is economic and cultural interdependence, which is actively creating cultural interchanges and economic interchanges. Which feels like we’re talking about globalism again, except that it’s based in bio regionalism. It’s basically that each regional economy has sovereignty. So it’s not like multinational corporations are the only ones with sovereignty and the economies have no sovereignty, which is what free trade agreements do through globalization. It’s more that through sovereign regional economic policies, it becomes possible to create healthy forms of interdependent trade.

Joe: And through this, we start to deal with some of those game theoretic patterns of winner take all between groups at the scale of something like a nation state. And I actually would make the prediction that nation states will not be part of the sustainable world in the future. That they will go away and be replaced with something much more like ancestral bioregional economies, with a planetary scale framework of collaboration that’s similar to the way that science is planetary in scale and its collaboration, and transcends national borders. And actually many aspects of markets do as well. And those aspects that work well, I think will continue during this transition and can very well be part of the future.

Joe: So it’s a really interesting way of thinking because it allows us to behave like geologists for a moment and let things that seem really persistent and dominant now to see that they may be ephemeral on the timescale of something like 200 or 300 years.

Jim: Let me hit on two points. I did underline the section on interdependency as one possible solution to the problem of game theory, predator prey at the cultural level. And unfortunately, it’s not clear that history bears that out. Economic interdependency increased rapidly in the second half of the 19th century, and reached a historical peak guess when? 1914. And that’s when the show really started where the west at least went into an auto-immune craze state and fought to unbelievably large scale Wars of great horror and destruction, World War I and World War II. And our economic interdependency did not return to the level of 1914 until guess when? 1988. Took a long time. And since then we’ve exceeded that and are at a much higher level of economic interdependency, but not necessarily one that does the planet any good. I mean the idea of catching fish in Alaska, flash freezing them, sending them to China to be cleaned and filleted, and then sent back to the United States to be unfrozen and sold in your local grocery store certainly doesn’t seem to be a wise way to use the carbon sink of our atmosphere to produce that kind of global trade. But it is certainly what interdependency can lead to if one is not careful.

Joe: Yeah. This is a nice example of economic interdependency, where the economics fails basic ecology tests. Because if we’re thinking about ecological interdependency and then building ecological economic systems, then we wouldn’t be overfishing the salmon of the Pacific Northwest, for example, or of Alaska. Because they would have regional sovereignty. Their own fisheries could manage those fish stocks for their economy to help avoid those over fishing dynamics.

Joe: And this goes back to something that’s really important, which is part of the history of economics. And when we think about how economic interdependence would work if it was ecological, rather than economic based on false assumptions of how our economies should work. Which is that whatever the price can bear is what the market can do, can ignore ecological limits of one example of economics not being ecological. That if we build our economic systems around ecological foundations, then the interdependence becomes quite different.

Joe: So as an example, where I’m living in Colombia in the Northern Andes, there’s a type of high elevation forest ecosystem called the paramo. And there are about 30 of them in the northern half of the Andes. And these paramos are places that get their biodiversity through migration, where animals like birds will migrate seasonally from one mountain range to another. And what’s very interesting is that you can have an ecological exchange of how to manage a paramo from one paramo to another, because they have a lot of ecological aspects or qualities to them that are quite similar. So we might have regional economies that have types of ecosystems, what are sometimes called eco zones or eco regions. And those can become places of economic interdependence. Either through mutual support in learning by doing cultural exchanges for education and research, or by complementarity, by picking those that don’t overlap. So we have found a way to resiliently manage this type of ecosystem, but there are things this ecosystem can’t provide. But there’s a nearby place or not too far away regionally that has a different combination of ecosystems. And we can engage in trade with each other while maintaining the efficacy and the health of those ecosystems.

Joe: So starting from an ecological basis for economic interdependence at least opens up the possibility of addressing this problem that you’re describing. And this is a very big problem. So I completely agree with your assessment, that economic interdependence has been fragile and politically very problematic, the lead up to the world wars, and ecologically devastating in the globalized system. So it needs to be done differently than those two expressions.

Jim: Well I would certainly agree. I would add one other thing. And I had a very good conversation on one of my podcasts last fall with guy named Joe Norman, where we talked about localism. We both came to the agreement that you have to manage for one other thing. And that is fluctuation risks. We both know that almost all climatic zones are subject to periodic droughts, floods, late blizzards, short growing season some years. Then there’s going to be a natural fluctuation in the amount of food available for humans and other materials available for humans in any one or two, or even three year period. So one of the benefits of trade and why sometimes it has to be a little longer range than one might think is to provide a big enough circle of climatic conditions to be able to diversify away the risks of short term weather fluctuations.

Joe: Yeah, this relates to something that I think is really important about regenerative design. Which is when we look at living systems, living systems are structured as fractals. So they have these nested structures, modularity at one level that becomes an integrated system at another level. And a really great example of this is the relationship between a watershed, and the watershed’s relationship to a tectonic plate, which may be connected to part of a mountain range. And how that can be connected to a weather system, which might then be connected to a circulation system of water in the world ocean, which could become ultimately planetary in scale. So you end up with nested levels. And what’s really important is to create resilience across those scales.

Joe: So an example of this that we’re working with here in Barichara, where we are in Colombia, is to look at ecological connection for biological corridors for the migration of animals. And also looking at cloud formation where there may be moisture that comes in that’s over a river forming as fog. But then when it goes over a deforested area, that it actually dries out and the fog evaporates. But if there was continuous forest, it would move it further, which would bring moisture to other areas and create rain. So we’re now looking at the relationship between something like a river valley and a mountain range, which are shaping the weather patterns. And then down at the more local scale, the composition of the landscape, where is the forest canopy and how has it connected. And we can go up and down in scales between little drainage tributaries within a nook and cranny of a valley connecting into a larger river system, which itself is a fractal branching structure. And then connect that to something like the weather patterns, which here are also connected with El Nino and La Nina temperature anomalies on the ocean surface. Which are then connected to planetary climate and planetary ocean mixing processes.

Joe: So to do regeneration of the landscape in this region here in the Northern Andes has nested scales of connection. So it’s really interesting to think about how a local economy that functions as a living system, how it incorporates these nested scales. Which I think is a realm of partial knowledge. There are some things that we do know in this space, and there’s also a beautiful horizon of new learning where we’re going to have research that opens new capacities to do this kind of work as a kind of management. which creates a beautiful idea that we can actually change climate for the better by doing something like reversing the process of forming deserts, which can be done with reforestation. So it’s really interesting to think about these nested levels in terms of economic trade. And then also in terms of ecological restoration.

Jim: Yeah. I’m glad you hit on the fractal bioregions because that’s certainly how I think about where I live. We live near the very top of the mid-Atlantic watersheds, quite literally the springs that are the top of the James River. Some them are on our property. Some of them are just a little bit off our property. But they go into a river called the Bullpasture, which drains about an 80 square mile, 130 square kilometer drainage and it merges with the Cowpasture and becomes the Cowpasture. Even though the Bullpasture is bigger. I don’t know what the hell that was all about. I guess maybe a little early feminism somewhere back in the 18th century. And that drainage is maybe three times the size of ours. Then the Cowpasture merges with the Jackson to become the James, which drains about 10,000 square miles or 17,000 square kilometers.

Jim: And while there are similarities across this fractal hierarchy of bioregions, there are also quite significant differences. If only elevation. At the high end, we’re talking 3,000 feet above sea level where the James enters the Chesapeake Bay, it’s right at sea level. And as we know, 3,000 feet of elevation is about 13 degrees of adiabatic cooling. So it makes a gigantic difference in things like growing seasons, and first and last frosts, and lots of other things as well. Swells are quite different as you go from the mountains to the sea, etc. So while at one level, you could call the whole James Basin an ecosystem or a bioregion, there’s a whole lot of particularity to each one of the sub levels within the fractal.

Joe: And this is the beautiful thing about trying to regenerate landscapes at the bioregional scale. So where we are in Columbia, there’s an interesting pattern that you have this north to south mountain range that’s on the west. So it’s like a line going up and down north to south on the map, it’s on the west side of us. And then we’re in the corner of the Andes where it’s going to the northeast, and then it turns sharply towards the northwest. So it was a triangle between these three lines of mountains. We’re right in the middle of it. They’re a pretty complex network of canyons.

Joe: And what’s interesting is the scale of that triangle is roughly 300,000 hectares to 400,000 hectares of land. So our design framework is the climate system. As the air comes around the southern end of that western mountain range that’s going north to south, the mountain range is too tall for the clouds to pour over. So they have to go around it, which is to the south. Because up north, it connects with the other mountain. So most of our interests from the south into this giant triangular bowl, which creates a fairly characteristic scale for the system.

Joe: Now obviously there are larger scale phenomena that are in play like the El Nino or the La Nina. But what’s interesting is that it’s a relatively self-contained system at the same time. Which means we can work on doing reforestation within this 400,000 hectares of land in a way that could gradually change the climate system on that scale. So it’s very interesting to both have the fractal sensibility and also look at characteristic scales for key processes. So bringing the water through the patterns is a big part of regeneration for this region. So we’re operating at that scale when we look at that triangle.

Joe: So this ecological way of thinking about a bioregional economy would almost be like within this triangle, what kinds of material flows can we achieve for housing, for food, for clothing materials, for energy production? And are we able to characterize what would be a reasonable ecological constraints? Even if they’re not really strict limits, there could be some flexibility in them to define a healthy economy within this scale. So it’s very important to go back and forth between characteristic scales and the fractal nature of the whole thing. Holding both of them fairly lightly, because both of them is true and not true depending on which way we’re looking at it.

Jim: Yeah. One of the ways I like to think about this, it comes from some work in evolutionary computing of all odd things, is the idea of membranes and flows. So if we think about each one of these fractal bioregions as a membrane incorporated into other membranes at larger and larger scales, things happen inside a membrane very much like say a cell. But also things pass through the membrane. And intelligently thinking through that design strikes me as something close to the art of good regenerative ecological design. For instance, it probably doesn’t make a hell of a lot of sense for us here in the Bullpasture River Valley with our 80 square miles and a population of a few hundred people, to make our own computer chips. Probably doesn’t make a lot of sense to make our own jet aircraft, even if they’re biodiesel fuel. And certainly they’re going to be made far away, and may not even make sense for us to make our own clothing. It may well be that we want to look at one level or two levels out. So I kind of think of the idea of this design as semi-permeable membranes that are defined by characteristics of fractal bioregions, with some thoughtful definitions of what passes in each direction through the membranes.

Joe: I think that is a very helpful way of thinking. And then just to add another conceptual tool, to think of diffusion limited aggregation. Which is of course going to create related patterns. So diffusion limited aggregation, I know Jim you understand what this is. But just for the listeners, this is when there’s a diffusion process, but there’s something limiting it in its local interactions. So that creates an interaction pattern, creating some kind of complex structure, which is usually fractal.

Joe: So an example would be water infiltrating into a soil and rock substrate as it’s entering an aquifer system. That the complexity of those different sizes and chemical compositions of the materials on the ground cause the diffusion to be limited, which causes it to aggregate into clumps and clusters, creating a fractal pattern. And if we think of that network of rivers you’re talking about as having geographic limits in its orography and its formative structure of the mountains, and also cultural aggregation. Areas of more specialized things. Like two valleys over, those people are really good with textiles and they make a lot of the clothes that we wear, but we don’t need them in this valley. Well, that would be similar to this aggregation that you can have a limit and diffusion. You don’t need everyone to be making their textiles. You can limit the diffusion of that as a cultural practice, which would then cause it to be aggregated as a specialized economic activity of one valley relative to another. So I see both of these as helpful ways of thinking about the self-organization. The way that these bioregional economies can actually adaptively evolve as self organizing systems, which is part of how they get their autonomy. So that’s a really important element of the design process.

Jim: Yep. And whether it’s designed or emergent, or some combination of the two. It’s interesting. I think of two forces that are kind of in play here. One, I forget who said it, but one of the famous economists said there’s really only one thing in economics that’s both non-intuitive and true. And that is the idea of comparative advantage, which is the economic argument for trade. That even if you’re worse at your neighbor at both growing grapes and growing wheat. If you’re comparatively better at one or the other, you’re actually both better off trading the one that you’re comparatively better for, for the other one at your neighbor. Easy mathematical proof that comparative advantage is real. So that’s a strong driver for trade, and it even works at the global scale.

Jim: On the other hand, there needs to be constraints. And one of the constraints that we have under constraint very substantially is one, energy costs, right? The fact that energy does not pay for its, at least today. And least certainly not fully, it’s using the atmosphere as a CO2 and other gases dump. But secondly, and this is quite interesting as a conversation I had this morning was somebody on a video chat. The social costs. If we learned how to capitalize social capital, put prices on social capital. The example I came up with in this conversation was think about the town in South Carolina that used to make tee shirts due to the trade offs between comparative advantage and transportation costs. One day, it became possible to make those tee shirts for five cents less in China, counting all the round trips of transportation, but not counting both CO2 and the social costs in the town in South Carolina. If there had been a way to account for the destruction essentially of that town, which then descended into drug addiction, alcoholism, domestic violence. When it had been a nice, healthy place that allowed a middle-class way of life for a lot of people. The decision might not well have been taken to do that trade at long range. So I think those are some other things, the force fields that ought to be considered in these designs.

Joe: Yeah. One of the that I think about that is informational social complexity. And I’m forgetting the guy’s name who was at MIT, although I’ve actually met him before, who helped create a social complexity lab in a way of measuring the, it’s sort of the equivalent of embodied carbon. You think of the embodied carbon in manufacturing and automobile, and then the embodied carbon in a forest that is regrown with the carbon from the atmosphere for all the plant bodies as a way of having embodied carbon. That he had a way of thinking about embodied information complexity. And one measure was the number of UPC codes that a particular zip code might produce. So there’s this geographically bounded area. How much capacity to produce diversity exists in the economy? And this is a way of thinking about informational complexity.

Joe: What’s interesting is that the price signals like you were just saying with the tee shirts, fail to recognize the sunk cost of building that social complexity. And also the irreversibility of reproducing it. That there may have been a developmental pathway that’ll let that little town really specialize in tee shirts. But once they lost their ability to have that social capital for various economic reasons, they may never produce it again. They may never recultivate those capacities. So there’s this really interesting aspect of thinking about the whole social system as having embodied intelligence.

Joe: Like where I’m living here in Colombia, there are a lot of people who know how to make baskets, who work with stones, who make earth and construction houses and a 16th century Spanish colonial villa. So it’s a beautiful kind of earth and construction. A lot of woodworkers, a lot of textile makers. People that make clothing and bags. And all kinds of things that are here. And one of the beautiful things about this economy is for example when tourism shut down in March, when COVID caused a lockdown of the society in Colombia. While the economics, the monetary flow collapsed by about 80% pretty much overnight, the capacity to be self-reliant remained fairly strong because people knew how to do things. Like the Campesino farmers knew how to grow food, and people knew how to make the things that they needed to repair them when they couldn’t get them from outside. So this embodied social capital is a form of social insurance when there are disruptions from the outside as well. So it’s a very important aspect of the design process or the emergent process.

Jim: We have not done well at incorporating that into our social decision-making at all. As we know, in hyper-financialized neoliberal capitalism, if it’s arguably legal and profitable, you should do it. And that’s a broken metric for designing a society. Frankly since about 1960, we have been depleting our social capital at an astounding rate in the West. And I would argue it’s because of the fact that we’ve allowed hyper financialized capitalism to Trump every social value.

Joe: Yeah, I agree. And just as a nice example, to go back to someone we mentioned right at the beginning. Because I learned this from Joe Henrich’s earlier book The Secret of Our Success that came out in 2015 or maybe 2016. And that is a story of what happened in Tasmania when sea levels rose at the end of the last ice age, separating the mainland of Australia from Tasmania. There was a water channel before, but it was close enough that people would go across it with boats. And there was a lot of trade. And what they lost was the social connection to a larger trade network.

Joe: And he connected this to a specific finding in the study of technology and teachers. Which is that very complex technologies require there to be very good teachers who can teach the complex skills. So what you really need is you need enough people who are masters of a technique and also master teachers to maintain highly complex technological artifacts.

Joe: And if your social network becomes too small due to fragmentation, like this water channel cutting the social network of trade apart, and Tasmania had a collapse of this. Then what they had was a corrosion of technology to the point where on Tasmania, they had very crude bows and arrows. They stopped using kayaks and canoes, and they lost the boomerang. So if you looked on mainland Australia, they had these very advanced tools that continued to be used. But on Tasmania, they lost them. And as they did simulations of the social learning process and compared it to psychology studies of learning techniques, what they found was that it was the loss of good teachers. If you don’t have a really expert boomerang maker who can teach the next generation to make boomerangs and have enough next generation boomerang makers, then one of them becomes a master teacher. That master teacher becomes a form of exceptional social capital. That they become a key stone element of the social infrastructure for innovation.

Joe: And that was a surprising and very insightful discovery for me. Because what it says is that there are delicate developmental processes that are fragile because of the rarity of particular social capacities. So if you have a specific expert teacher, and that expert teacher gets hit by a bus, or marries someone in another town and leaves, it can actually collapse an innovation economy. So that’s a very interesting way of recognizing this can be highly non-linear, and how social capital actually works. But it’s extremely important. So we need to get much better at measuring, cultivating, and preserving it

Jim: Interesting. Some work at the Santa Fe Institute [inaudible 01:05:56] at all on the Anasazi came to a very similar conclusion through agent-based modeling know through talking with the ancestors. The Anasazi did not disappear contrary to common superstition. They actually became the Pueblo peoples of mostly New Mexico. And to some degree, the Hopi people in Arizona. So they’re still around, there’s still a cultural continuity. and they can understand more or less how the Anasazi lived. And as it turned out that when under extreme climatic conditions, the carrying capacity for the land got such that village sizes shrunk. And as you’re saying, there was a portfolio of skills a Anasazi settlement needed to have to truly be culturally Anasazi. And once the climatic conditions got harsh, and this had nothing to do with humans. This was one of the periodic dry periods in the southwest around 1200 AD that lasted for 80 or 90 years. The population density got so low that you couldn’t have the ensemble of skills you needed to actually carry on the culture. So people just threw up their hands and dispersed into the world, and then reassembled as the Pueblo people a couple hundred years later. So very similar idea at a much smaller scale.

Jim: But actually, we have some great opportunities to avoid those traps. One of the guys I work with, I think someone you know Jordan Greenhall, Jordan Hall, got both names. He’s currently got an idea called Civium. This comes from some interesting work on both the high and the low simultaneously. He got exposed to the scaling laws work of Geoffrey West and Luis Bettencourt that shows that cities in both positive and negative domains are super linear. Which is if you double the size of a city, the average salary more than doubles. And the number of patents issued more than doubles. The number of college degrees more than doubles, but also the amount of crime and the amount of disease also more than doubles. So it’s not a one dimensional, always positive thing.

Jim: However, the quality of life also goes down. Frankly, I don’t know how anybody can live in a big city. I personally don’t like it. And it just strikes me as not what we were designed for. I mean every time I go to New York, I enjoy going to New York. I spent sometimes a month there at a time. But riding the subway and everybody’s silently looking at their shoes just strikes me as an extraordinarily non-human way to live. I mean, that is not what we were designed to be.

Jim: So Jordan’s insight was maybe we can have the best of both, which is that we can live in small human scale settlements, a couple of hundred to a couple of thousand closely intact with the land, quite substantial self-sufficiency but not total self-sufficiency. But we weave ourself into a Civium, which he coined that from the, what’s the word for the fungal networks that-

Joe: Mycelium.

Jim: Mycelium. Yeah. So I think he formed Civium from mycelium. So his point was in today’s network world, we can have levels of interconnectivity, but we’re not going to forget how to make a bow and arrow. Because even if someone forgets in our village, maybe over 500 miles away on the internet or we look it up on YouTube, how to make a bow and arrow, right? So it’s not going to happen. And further, maybe we can learn to cooperate at very large scale as they do in a city. While at the same time, living in a bio regionally regenerative scale of hundreds to thousands.

Joe: Yeah. One way to think about this that’s very practical is with workshops inviting teachers. So if I’m in a place where we want to learn water retention systems, and we’re getting pretty good at it, and we have some people here who are pretty expert. But it’s still worthwhile to have someone like [inaudible 01:09:29] who is Austrian and has done some amazing water retention work, to have someone of his caliber and experience come and visit us and teach us a few tricks. So this idea of creating network relationships between smaller places also allows us to think about things like the retention and the appreciation of leadership, and what it means to have lead experts of different kinds who can be not entirely traveling teachers. They don’t need to be on the road all the time, although some of them might like to be, but then it’s really powerful. Or another example would be Geoff Lawton, who is a pretty famous permaculture instructor. Because after he’s worked in 40 plus countries on permaculture projects, you’d love for someone like him to come and look at your landscape.

Joe: So I think this idea of having people who actually go out across the network as a specialized form of being a generalist. Specialized form of a generalist. I generally am knowledgeable of the patterns across the different landscapes, which is my specialty. And therefore I can come and tell you what I saw them doing well in a similar or different context. And I think there’s real power in thinking about these things as cultural assets, and then really intentionally preserving them or cultivating them as management practices. So I think that Jordan’s really onto something.

Jim: Yeah. And I also really liked in your book, you emphasized the fact that each of these fractal bioregional areas ought to have an educational center as part and parcel of their strategy of building themselves out. One, to truly learn and preserve what’s to be learned about your bioregion. But then the natural thing is to have the horizontal learning with people like and different from you, some of which will be applicable and some of which won’t. And our network world makes that very feasible and very low cost. We no longer have to travel. One of my predictions about COVID is that it will knock the world out of this travel mode and that travel will never return. At least not at the level it was before. It maybe fall by 50%. Because an awful lot of what we do for travel was just social signaling. I’m showing you respect by flying out to California and spending two hours, spending $3,000 and 10 tons of carbon for a one hour meeting when we could do it just as well over Zoom. So I think the point, you combine your view of your ideas of these bioregional educational centers that are organic and local with this network idea of low cost propagation, and maybe we’re really onto something.

Joe: Yeah. And as an example of this, I gave a webinar on this later, so it’s not in the book specifically, but it grew from the content of the book. Is how to create a continental scale network. And I use South America as an example because the landforms are easy to see on a map. There are two major organizing structures. The Andes Mountain Range going all the way north to south across the continent, and the Amazon Basin, which is a massive network of rivers. And if you think about bioregions within the Amazon basin, and there might be 50 of them, there might be 70 of them. I don’t know what the exact number would be. And then in the Andes, there might be 50 to 100 of them as well. So maybe there’s a network of about 100 to 100 to 200 learning centers spread across the continent of South America. Each of them focused on its own buyer region, but coordinating at the continental scale.

Joe: And this is how we start to scale up and intentionally build fractal intelligence into these bioregional economies. So these are not hiding away in your bioregion. This is about building capacity in your bioregion to sustain itself through coordinated interactions across networks. Which I think is really key to do both for all that we need to navigate in the future.

Jim: A very good and very positive thought. Unfortunately, we’re out of time. Unfortunately, both Joe and I had appointments before and after, and we don’t have as much time as we normally do for a full length episode. So I left about half of my topics on the cutting room floor. Sorry, we’ll have to get you back and dig into this again. This has been a very interesting conversation.

Joe: It’s lovely as always. And I really like how we pulse back and forth between disagreeing and agreeing. And I feel like I learn something every time. So I really enjoy it.

Jim: Me too. Reading the book really opened my mind up in some very useful and positive ways. So strongly recommend folks read the book. And as always, the link to the book will be available on the episode page at Thanks Joe.

Production services and audio editing by Jared Janes Consulting, Music by Tom Muller at