As communities and cultures vary across the globe, one would expect the choices of satisfiers to be as diverse as the different regions of the earth: each culture would differ in the particulars of how they create shelters for protection, customs for celebrating births and deaths and important life transitions, ways of food production and preparation, etc. These are the expressions of culture and identity in ‘organic articulation’ with local surroundings. (Max-Neef, 1991)
Unfortunately, due to the homogenising effects of capitalism this is no longer the case. Focusing on unbridled and indiscriminate growth has not only damaged the diversity of the natural world. Over the last four decades its ‘accumulation by dispossession’ practices (Harvey, 2004) have continued to deepen and widen their impact on our lives, systematically shrinking viable human habitats and the opportunities for diverse expressions of our humanity.
Regenerative Space – the space required for humans to adequately meet their needs in harmony with other life forms, while restoring the earth’s life supporting capacity.
Regenerative Space is a key component of any attempts to build Regenerative Culture. In order for us to adequately meet our fundamental needs we need access to the earth and her gifts, either directly by accessing the land or indirectly by accessing the means through which we can exchange our time for the products of the earth.
For the sake of this argument Regenerative Space consists of two elements: Place and Time.
Place is activated by access to land. Without land we cannot create places for ourselves – to live, work, play, gather. Land is the material aspect of Place, but Place is more than the land and its location, as it incorporates multiple layers of meaning: our relationships with the land, the function it serves, its history, its current more-than-human inhabitants. Place is land made particular. This understanding of place and place making is crucial to the reclaiming of regenerative space and culture. Language matters. Our economic system presents the acquisition of land as natural and necessary to a market economy. We might be less willing to accept this as a given if we saw it for what it really is – the buying and selling of places.
“Land is the basis of all independence. Land is the basis of freedom, justice, and equality.”
Malcolm X, A Message to the Grassroots (Malcolm X, 1963)
Time encompasses the length of one’s life and the hours one has available in the day. Whereas the former is variable, the latter is constant for all. Time is activated by good health, education and support structures that enable us to develop skills and use our bodies, hearts and minds to their full potential. The less access we have to land the more of our time has to be handed over to meet our needs.
We cannot be truly free without Regenerative Space (RS). Our access to RS stands in direct relation to our capacity to meet our needs and influence the direction of our lives. Regenerative Space gives us power.
The scarcity cycle
Rising inequality means that many of us have to work more hours to meet our needs, reducing the time component we have available. If we do not own land we cannot benefit from the advantages of land ownership (both the access to place making and the growth in land value) to free up our time and are liable to paying exorbitant prices for housing to existing land and property owners . The Joseph Rowntree Foundation reports that “the proportion of people in the poorest fifth of the working-age population of the UK who spend more than a third of their income (including Housing Benefit) on housing costs has risen from 39% in 1994/95 to 47% in 2017/18”. (JRF -Households Below Average Income, 1994/95-2018/19) More and more of our time must be sacrificed to paid work to simply keep up. We are literally paying with our lives to stay alive.
Consumerism shrinks Regenerative Space further. Corporations spend billions each year (Gutmann, 2020) to foster the kinds of social comparison processes that ‘are central to the development of market-driven identities.’ (Butler, 2018:217) In order to feel good about ourselves we are driven to consume, even when this consumption fails to adequately meet many, or any, of our needs, keeping us on the hedonic treadmill.
Technology enhances corporate power through the online ‘attention economy’(Williams, 2018), which is designed to keep us glued to our screens, further reducing our time and capacity to find alternative satisfiers, challenge existing structures or even make well informed choices about the direction of our personal lives.
It seems reasonable to conclude that capitalism, rather than seeking merely to optimize the allocation of scarce resources, actually creates artificial scarcities which have detrimental effects on our capacity to adequately meet our needs, trapping us in a cycle of fear, anxiety, division and learned helplessness. It allows a powerful few to hoard the necessities for a reasonable quality of life and release them to the majority only as and when the price is right.
It has exacerbated already existing inequalities and created an underclass, known as the precariat, whose lives are plagued by economic uncertainty and unsustainable debt. Even those of us not on the wrong side of economic inequality are suffering with what are now almost seen as everyday ills: stress, aggressive competition, overwork, isolation, alienation, uncertainty and a loss of control over the direction of our lives.
The stresses inflicted by late stage capitalism cause our worlds to shrink, both physically and psychologically. Through a process known as embodied cognition, our brains respond to the lack of adequate satisfiers by creating a sense of psychological narrowing. As the brain ‘narrows’ our ability to see beyond, and find ways out of, our circumstances decreases. We experience a limitation of our options and the brain narrows further, in a self-reinforcing cycle. Former addict and author Marc Lewis has observed this process in his own brain and those of other addicts. (Lewis, 2018)
“(W)hat blows me away conceptually is how this narrowing of the available, reachable, usable social environment precisely parallels the narrowing going on in one’s brain. My synapses fell in line, in pathways and networks that had a single purpose, so to speak, rather than multiple pathways supporting multiple purposes. This “narrowing” in the brain corresponded with a shrinking or narrowing in my available environment. Neither is pathological. Both, especially both together, create a kind of prison. Perhaps of interest to those into philosophy or psychology, this tendency has been studied as a universal feature of living organisms. The sensory and behavioural specialties of a species get synchronized with aspects of that species’ environment. Both change together.”
Other experts working in the field of trauma and addiction recognise this interaction between adverse external circumstances and psychological processes as a key factor in trapping people in addictive cycles. Psychological stressors have physiological correlates. Our bodies natural responses to threat in the form of cortisol and adrenaline (our fight or flight hormones) end up playing havoc with our health when we remain trapped in the same conditions that generated them and can lead to heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and a range of other health conditions. Prolonged stress that is not managed can lead to complex post traumatic stress disorder and even smaller amounts of stress are known to effect our cognitive functioning leading us to make poor decisions that further exacerbate this cycle. (Maté 2013, Van der Kolk 2014, Whiteford, 2013)
Max-Neef spoke of ‘a crisis of the imagination’. Like Lewis, Trauma-focused therapist Laura K Kerr uses the prison metaphor. “For the most financially precarious (an ever-widening sector of the population), capitalism creates a state similar to the psychological domination that can occur when people are held in captivity.” (Kerr, 2014)