The phrase had been rolling around my head for a while.
I felt that it pretty neatly summed up the direction I wanted to be heading with my work and life. ‘Regenerative’ – I reasoned – is the next stage after sustainability:
Degeneration –> Sustainability –> Regeneration
And ‘futures’ is, well, the future. Or multiple futures, since there is no predetermined future. I was reading and writing quite a bit about regeneration and so, like a good little millennial, I put it in my Instagram bio as a flag in the sand to indicate my allegiance.
After a while, though, what had seemed like a cute phrase started to annoy me. What is this hipster bullshit though, really? The task of creating a regenerative future is a lot more complicated than dropping a few idealistic buzzwords on social media. It needs a bit of unpacking and grounding.
In fact, ‘regeneration’ is a blanket term for lots of emerging practices and discourses, such as permaculture, peer-to-peer economics and rewilding, that are starting to map the routes towards a more ‘regenerative future’, i.e a future more in line with planetary boundaries, where vital ecosystems are restored. It seems like a kind of unnecessary (if you’re reading this) but necessary injunction here to say that the way the collective ‘we’ are living right now is not conducive to life on this planet. This is the Anthropocene, an era when human activity in responsible for the mass extinction of thousands of species per year. 9 out of 10 people are breathing polluted air, soon we may have more plastic in our oceans than fish and the widespread use of agro-chemicals is compromising the long-term fertility of our soil. In pretty much every direction you look, it’s not looking good.
In one of his recent newsletters, Mark Manson spoke about how an uncertain future increases impulsiveness. It means we’re more likely to go “full YOLO”. In the vacuum of ideas or tools to build stronger collective and individual security, we’re more likely to just “spend all the money, eat all the food and go to all the parties”. Closely coupled with avoidance, a “full YOLO” attitude is a psychological response. We can’t deal with the complexity, so we shut down, get wasted and adopt a hyper ironic stance as a coping mechanism.
Many disaffected and burnt out young people are craving more groundedness and security about the future, but there is a void of any real maps or routes of how to get there. Thanks to the technology in our pockets we know exactly what’s going on, but the solution continues to be “buy more stuff!” In the space of a few minutes on the internet I can find myself being urged to purchase the apparatus needed to adopt a ‘zero-waste lifestyle’, buy a new pair of sustainably produced shoes or become a glamorous digital-nomad driving off into the sunset in my eco-friendly camper van conversion. A ‘H&M conscious’ sweater might be a soothing balm for climate and survival anxiety, but if you look closely the ingredients are the same. We can’t buy our way to a regenerative future, although they sure as hell are going to try and convince us that we can.
To paraphrase Richard Bartlett, I think that one way that we can avoid going full-YOLO about life on Earth and find some of this core stability and meaning that we’re all craving is by taking responsibility for improving a small part of this world, and forfeiting responsibility for the rest. Regeneration is a process, and a regenerative future hinges on the ability of all of us to engage in that process.
So, Berlin, my adopted home, I turn my attention to you. And because the systems we construct around our food supply are so central, that’s where I’ll begin.
Last month, an image of the Ever Given container ship blocking the Suez Canal became prime meme material. The image of a tiny bulldozer doing its best to free the enormous ship seemed to touch upon something in the collective imaginary – the feeling of being comically, hopelessly powerless against much bigger, vaster forces.
As its unwieldy size created major disruptions to global trade, the ship was also a physical metaphor for the enormity of globalised supply chains.
Thanks to globalisation we can eat strawberries at Christmas and experience entire food cultures from home. What we eat is emotional and cultural. It’s also political and environmental. So what happens when something as abstract as a ship stuck in a distant waterway in Egypt affects something as personal, as vital, as food? When oil prices soared during the Financial Crash of 2008 it created a global food crisis, in part because we are so dependent on fossil fuels to maintain complex supply chains.
Groups like Der Ernährungsrat Berlin (Food Council Berlin) believe that ecological agriculture in and around Berlin is the best route to improving long-term food security in the city whilst mitigating the effects of climate change.
Now I’m a sucker for anything labelled as organic and aus der Region, but it’s difficult to live a Bio Company lifestyle on an Aldi budget. As the city grows, how can we make it possible for a large number of people to access nutritious, regional food that isn’t harmful to people or the environment?
Anne Kaulfuß and Deacon Dunlop established their regenerative farm in Brandenburg after watching videos on YouTube. “It all started with food really.” Says Deacon. “We began asking more questions about the quality of food; like what is that certification all about, and what the hell am I actually eating?”
The German-American couple were living in Berlin, organising events and working in bars and cafes. Then one day in 2017 whilst working at a festival in Latvia, Anne got a phone call from a Kleingartenverein (garden association) in Prenzlauer Berg to say that there was an open plot that was theirs to rent if they wanted it.
After a year, they discovered the market garden scene on YouTube. “We’d always had this distant dream of being able to move to the countryside, but we were never sure what we would do for work there,” says Anne. “When we found out that it was possible to make money off of a small piece of land through gardening we just thought, why not try it out?” It took them another three years to find the land to rent (through a fortuitous meeting at a regenerative farming event), then a ‘dad joke’ at Anne’s family breakfast table gave it a name – Ackerpulco Farm.
Höfesterben (dying farms) is an established phenomena in the German media and young people today are very unlikely to be interested in farming as a job. In recent years though, a small-scale farming movement that is already quite well established in the US has begun to take root in Europe. Agriculture is one of the major industries with the ability to address the climate crisis and Berlin-based startups like Tiny Farms and Climate Farmers aim to connect and make-visible small and medium scale ecological farms across Europe.
Fertile soil is the foundation of a healthy ecosystem. Regenerative farming is different to organic farming in that it actively works to improve the health of the soil. Whilst the ‘organic’ label does ensure the food was grown without synthetic pesticides or fertilisers, it doesn’t tell you whether or not the health of the land is actually improving. “I like to pick up a handful of soil and see things moving in it,” says Anne.
Ackerpulco Farm is now at the beginning of its second season. With only two pairs of hands and no heavy machinery, at the heart of the 2.5 hectare farm is a biointensive market garden that produces enough food for 60 weekly vegetable boxes. Each box costs 24€ per week, enough to feed 2-3 people with fresh, seasonal fruit and vegetables. “We can be profitable on a very small space of land, while big farms are struggling,” says Anne.
Maybe it’s just my filter bubble, but scrolling through my social media channels I get a sense that the pandemic has made people wistful for a different kind of “new normal”. “I’m locked into the 9-5 slog and dreaming about how and when I can escape to a farmhouse with my own chickens and a vegetable patch!” messaged one of my friends recently, who’s currently working in fashion in Spain. Since the pandemic, applications for Berlin’s approx. 71,000 Kleingärten have gone up 3x, with waiting lists of up to 15 years.
The average age of allotment gardeners in Berlin has dropped five years since 2011, but with demand far outpacing supply many Berliners look to alternative solutions. The famous Prinzessinnengarten in Moritzplatz was inspired by the urban agriculture of Havana, Cuba. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cubans turned over green areas in the city to small-scale agriculture to avoid starvation. Today, Havana is looked to as a model for successful urban agriculture.
In 2015 Berlin signed the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact. The goal of the agreement was to get cities to collaborate towards creating alternative, diverse regional food systems to address food poverty and climate change.
Rapid growth means that the city needs more infrastructure in order to keep up with needs. It takes time to develop and evolve effective frameworks for managing the complex systems that make big cities more liveable. But people like Jean-Martin Fortier – author of a book and YouTube channel on market gardening that has inspired thousands – believe that small-scale farming is the solution.
If small-scale production is one path towards a more ecologically sound urban food system, another is finding solutions to food waste. It’s estimated that ⅓ of all the food produced globally is wasted. “What we see worldwide is that we don’t have a food shortage problem, but an allocation problem.” says Shaminder Dhillon, co-founder of Join Order, a platform that addresses food waste by connecting producers directly with customers. Having cut his business teeth at the successful travel startup Go Euro, Shaminder decided to apply the formula that had already been adopted in the hotel and travel sector to agriculture – cutting out the middleman and sending customers directly to the source. “Selling direct to consumer gives farmers a broader choice in farming practises, especially as consumers are supportive of new initiatives such as regenerative farming,” he says. “In contrast, selling to the 5-6 large supermarkets chains means optimising for price, ‘appearance’ and shelf life which results in both less diverse and less sustainable farming practices.”
In nature, the edges where two ecosystems meet is where the most ecological diversity is found. In 1986 a Turkish Immigrant named Osman Kalin became a local legend when he created his own vegetable garden on a small part of East Berlin which lay on the Western side of the wall. This ‘edge effect’ is often found when looking to the margins, whether it’s at the intersection between East and West Berlin, or the meeting of technological innovation and agriculture.
When I was writing this article, what struck me was that the benefits of connecting to the source of your food goes far beyond the climate. “Just carry on planting seeds, love” my mum said to me recently over the phone as we lamented the state of the world right now. As we sit here in the year 2021 at the tail end of a global pandemic and in the midst of a mental health avalanche it makes sense that connecting to the source of our own, literal, sustenance seems like a good place to start to rebuild. Claiming our own plot of land and planting seeds in the midst of a political and environmental uncertainty might just help us to gain some control over that sense of being a tiny bulldozer in the Suez Canal.
This post originally appeared on the Regenerative Futures Berlin newsletter. New subscribers to the newsletter are welcome.
Suez canal photo: Courtesy Suez Canal Authority