In September 2017 I was in Mexico for a four-day meeting of the Regeneration International network at the Vía Orgánica ranch, a research and training center near San Miguel de Allende linked with the Organic Consumers Association.
It is a beautiful setting: We convened under high, airy tents from where we could gaze out at fields full of cosmos—a flower native to Mexico—in all shades of pink, and follow the dips and turns of bees and butterflies. There were more than a hundred of us from around the globe; I was among colleagues and friends. Yet I was restless, my attention drifting as I sat in the sessions.
Running in the back of my mind, like the hum of those hovering bees, was the dawning realization that all the knowledge and technology needed to shift to a regenerative future—one marked by agriculture that builds soil carbon, retains water, produces nutrient-dense food, and revives land and communities—is already available. It’s only people that get in the way.
In the middle of listening to a panel discussion on promoting regenerative agriculture worldwide, I decided to take a break.
I wandered toward the exit and noticed Jeff Goebel and his wife, Myrna, sitting in the back of the room. I had heard about Jeff from Peter Donovan of the Soil Carbon Coalition. He knew Jeff well and was keen on his consensus work. Peter told me about the consensus model, calling it the only approach he knew that produced lasting personal change. Also, that it involves many hours or days of talking in a circle, conscious listening, and building trust. “That sounds interesting,” I’d said to Peter in a noncommittal way, thoroughly dismissing the idea. I was too impatient for that sort of thing. Besides, at that point, I believed that achieving meaningful change was simply a matter of getting information out. By late 2017 I was no longer so sure.
Kneeling down and careful to speak quietly, I inquired about the Community Consensus Institute. By way of explanation Jeff told a story about work he did in the late 1990s in Mali, in the same general region along the Inner Niger Delta that John Liu visited in 2010.
The community was in crisis. Eighty-five percent of the residents faced food insecurity, and the seven ethnic groups that lived or passed through seasonally were at war with one another. Particularly violent were land conflicts between farmers and pastoralists. For this USAID-funded Sustainable Agriculture and Natural Resource Management (SANREM) project, Jeff was hired to hold a series of workshops that included members of various tribes.
“During the second workshop, I asked what people wanted and they said they wanted to increase food production,” he said. “I asked if they thought they could increase it 10 percent without Western technology. They said sure. I asked if they could manage a 20 percent increase. They looked at each other and, tentatively, said, ‘If we work real smart and real hard, we could probably do that.’ Then I asked if they could do 50 percent and they all said, ‘No way!’ I asked, Why not? They gave me all kinds of reasons: People are lazy, the soil is no good, not enough money, not enough rain.”
With that settled, he said to them: “Given that increasing 50 percent is impossible, if it were possible what would you do?” People came up with several ideas: They would diversify crops, plant leguminous trees, implement grazing strategies that build fertility, and so on. They saw that there was actually a lot they could do. Fifteen months later Jeff returned to Mali. “I was in the vehicle driving up to the meeting site,” he said, “and people were lined up along the road waiting for me. They could hardly wait to show me—they had increased food production 78 percent!”
This was quite a story. “How was this possible?” I asked.
“It was their set of beliefs that convinced them it was impossible. Once we acknowledged it couldn’t happen, it took the pressure off. This freed up their minds so they could consider what they would do. Hey—do you have time right after lunch? We can do a brief version of the workshop.”
I set out to find more partakers and brought in Renald Flores, a former investment banker from France who specializes in soil restoration and holistic decision making. He wears dreadlocks, perhaps to put distance between his current life and the years he spent in a suit.
I’d met Renald at Caux, where he gave presentations on culture and decision making, including in the corporate world. “I am going to be very honest about the banking culture,” he’d said, and then proceeded to paint a sordid picture of the nihilism, greed, and competitiveness that festers beneath the bright, confident handshakes and silken neckties. I was ready to plead with him: No more honesty, please!
The four of us reconvened in a quiet corner near the main building and went around the group responding to a series of questions, switching the speaking order each time. The first query was, “How do you perceive humanity’s relationship to the natural world, and how do you feel about it?” Surprise: None of us was especially happy about the current state.
The next was, “What is your greatest fear connected with this situation?”
Fear? I had been doing everything possible to fend off any scary thought related to the environment, warding away threats to the inner barrier protecting me from a grief I imagined would be unbearable. Fear was a hard, lacquered knot buried deep in my psyche. I trusted that as long as I didn’t trouble it, this nub of fear would remain inert.
This is one reason I held tight to my focus on solutions. I wanted to reassure myself of the potential for environmental regeneration: opportunities to ally with nature that will be available to us when we as a society are ready to adopt them. How could I possibly articulate my fear, given the lengths I’d gone to convince myself it didn’t exist?
Still, consensus is about trust. And so, cautiously, each of us went to this dark place: acknowledging fear that the world would become uninhabitable, that humanity could go extinct, that our children’s children would subsist in a lifeless world of concrete. This was painful to say and to hear, even as we knew our words could only hint at the depth of the dread we harbored: apprehension of an existential nature, usually unspoken and therefore untouched. At least in this moment, however, none of us was bearing it alone.
Fortunately, we didn’t leave it there. The following question was, “What would be the best possible outcome?” This is something we rarely consider, perhaps because managing fear absorbs so much of our energy.
We shared what we wished for: For climate change to provide an opportunity for people to come together. For nations to stop spending money on war and instead devote money to healing the planet. For people to appreciate that we are part of nature. For 50 percent of global agriculture to become regenerative within three years.
Then the same two follow-up questions that Jeff posed in Mali: “What are all the reasons this is impossible?” As in Mali, our responses were resigned shoulder shrugs: a variety of reasons, mainly related to politics and money. And finally, “Given that our wish is impossible, if it were possible what potential actions and strategies could help bring this about?”
That simple phrase “if it were possible” proved a potent invitation, and we launched into high-gear brainstorming. At one point, Renald said, “I would knock on the door of conventional farming companies, and I would say: ‘Let’s work together. We’ve seen how your way works, now try ours. Give us three years. If you don’t like the results, you can go back to what you were doing.’ I would go straight to Monsanto’s offices and say this.” (Gasp! Monsanto?)
“We all need each other,” Renald continued. “Let’s give others the chance to be part of it.”
I don’t recall the other ideas, but I remember how it felt: breaking through the trepidation barrier—putting words to what had been locked away, isolating us—generated a sense of release. And a sense of energy, previously sapped by the dread that lurked beneath our actions and assumptions.
Jeff talks a lot about how the mind works. In sessions he is deliberate about engaging both right and left sides of the brain—considered the realms, respectively, of emotion and cognition. His typical opening question, some variant of “What is the situation and how do you feel about it?,” is designed to tap both sides. He says the human brain is a powerful problem-solving tool: It is primed to solve problems, and so perceives situations from a problem-solution standpoint. This creates a tendency to define goals according to problems to be solved, an orientation that limits our ability to visualize what we want. What we regard as “the problem” is frequently a symptom of an underlying or systemic problem, a reality that a problem-solving approach may blind us to.
The crucible of this model is the shift between “worst possible outcomes” and “best possible outcomes,” that deliverance from despair to possibility.
Getting there involves challenging the built-in tendencies of our own minds. Worst possible outcomes command our attention because our brains are signaling danger. This awakens the mechanisms that process fear, a response many times faster than conscious thought. Worst possible outcomes are based on our own past experiences and therefore feel real, even inescapable. This can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. When people believe the worst will transpire, it becomes more likely because their behavior aligns with that outcome.
“People often say they’re ‘pragmatic,’” says Jeff. “That’s code for accepting worst outcomes as the best we can do.” There’s that mischievous brain again: It thinks it’s doing us a favor by steeling us for a bad situation, when in doing so it actually steers us headlong toward it.
I often think about these dynamics as I read and listen to the news. Articles and broadcast segments are increasingly framed as: “Why Climate Change Will Make [fill-in-the-blank] Worse,” or “How [some proposed policy] May Make Bad Things Happen.” Headlines are written to rivet our attention—you get the most clicks when you “adrenalize”—and they seize our attention because that’s how our brains work. Worst-case-scenario perseverating keeps everyone pumping stress hormones. This leaves us at once frozen and overwhelmed, unable to act or seek alternatives.
In short, we stuff our heads with worst possible outcomes and wonder why we get them. It is tough to think clearly amid a surge of adrenaline. One priority in consensus is getting participants to slow down and listen—which allows you to focus on what you desire rather than what you fear.
That is what I remember so vividly from our mini workshop in Mexico: that sense of inner release; an unshackling that let me shrug off fear, or at least get some distance from it; a sense that deep hopes and aspirations, hardly articulated even to myself, were within grasp.
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This excerpt is from Judith Schwartz’s book The Reindeer Chronicles: And Other Inspiring Stories of Working with Nature to Heal the Earth (Chelsea Green Publishing, August 2020) and is reprinted with permission from the publisher.