The Three Rules of Resilience

Laura Lengnick on the power of story, city-region food systems, and regenerative economics


Laura Lengnick is an award-winning soil scientist with 25 years of experience working as a researcher, policymaker, educator, and farmer to put sustainability values into action in agriculture and food systems. She is the founder and principal at Cultivating Resilience, LLC, in Asheville, NC. 

This is a feature of the Presencing Institute’s Dialogues on Soil and Societya compilation of interviews that frame agriculture as a critical area for curbing climate change and spurring societal transformation. The goal of the series is to identify promising place-based projects and systemic interventions to support sustainable, just, and reciprocal food economies.








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Zoë Ackerman: How did you connect to the topic of regenerative agriculture?

Laura Lengnick: My grandparents on one side were farmers. They were born on farms and they grew up on farms, but as soon as they could, they left and went to the city. They wanted nothing to do with farming. They were in rural South Carolina and it was a very exploitive kind of agriculture there. The whole story in my family was that we have progressed because we’re no longer farmers. We’re city people. We’re business people. We have college degrees.

I was studying landscape architecture and I realized I had a real interest in landscape, environment and plants. I took a soil course as part of a landscape architecture program and just never looked back. The soil is such an incredibly dynamic and diverse environment and all of life depends on soil.

In my 20 years of education, the issue of soil had never really been addressed. How could this be?

And then came the actual moment where I decided what I wanted to do with my professional life. As undergraduates, you are often given the opportunity to go on a field trip and learn about something you don’t know. I went on a field trip to the Rodale Institute, an organic farming research center. It was mind-blowing. Nothing in the land grant university agronomy program where I was studying ever described ways to grow food without chemicals. My experience at Rodale got me very interested in organic farming, ecology, and managing healthy ecosystems.

I was a young person studying agronomy at a time when organic farming was gaining attention, and people were wondering about how we were going to feed the world. I wanted to do something that mattered, I wanted to contribute. What has fed me throughout my professional life is the intellectual challenge of understanding a food system and all its moving parts: the social, ecological, and economic issues. It’s a fascinating and critically important system. It is just never boring.








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Zoë Ackerman: How do personal transformation work and narrative medicine inform your work as a soil scientist?

Laura Lengnick: I have always been a person who likes animals and nature much better than people. I got into what I’ve done in my whole career because of an interest in protecting and supporting the natural systems that we all depend on.

It’s been a long and hard transition, but I now believe that we cannot heal the planet until we heal ourselves.

More than 20 years of experience have led me to this belief. Along the way, I’ve received signals and learned lessons about the fallacy of the idea that more data and more education is what we need to change people’s behavior.

I first saw this disconnect when I was in grad school and I started to do research in organic farming. Back in the 1970’s and 1980’s, we already had a lot of information about how to reduce the damage of industrial practices and about the kinds of agriculture that were actually feeding people. Industrial agriculture has never fed the world.

As I became more sophisticated in my thinking about this, I kept asking questions. If we know it’s not working, why don’t we just change it? By the end of my Ph.D., I began to recognize that the policy environment was limiting decisions made by farmers and consumers and everybody in the food system. And so I went into federal policy-making after I got my Ph.D., to try to understand how the policy environment affects our behavior.

Working in the world of policy, it became very clear to me that data doesn’t change behavior. It often doesn’t even really change the way we think.

After that experience, I did a stint of about 15 years teaching undergraduates in Environmental Studies about agriculture. And there again, I went in with what I now call a “liberal environmentalist perspective”: the belief that education is going to change people, that data is going to change people, that we just have to figure out how to present data and create tools for data-based decision-making and that’s the solution to environmental problems.

And what I found over and over again in that teaching environment was that data actually seemed to be shutting down students, that it disempowered students. I taught Intro to Environmental Studies each year. It was horrible to teach and it was horrible for the students to learn. I nicknamed it 'A Crisis a Week' and I watched how it depressed and disengaged students. I started looking for different ways to approach teaching the tinformation.

That was my first dabble into educational psychology and the first time that I ran into the idea of the need for personal transformation. I got really lucky, because right when I began looking for better ways to teach and to empower the next generation of environmentalista, the Transition Movement started to go viral. Suddenly, there were a lot of easy, applicable activities developed in the Transition Movement that I could immediately use in my classes.

The activities of the Transition Movement are focused on helping us vision our desired future, together in community. Learning to use these Transition activities in my classroom introduced me to the power of story in human culture and helped me understand that story has always been the key to behavior change. After I put the Transition activities into my curriculum, I saw a massive change for the better. I was happier. My students were happier. We did really excellent student-led projects that created positive change on camput, ranging from small change like removing the ban on clothes drying lines to big change like implementing a sustainable dining policy.

One of the students’ favorite Transition activity was “Energy Descent Action Planning.” In this activity, the students first worked together in small groups to articulate a shared vision of a powered-down, resilient, relocalized campus of the future. Next, they conducted local community-based research on different critical services - governance, energy, food, water, health, housing, and transportation - to create an accurate description of the present. Then the students used a practice called "backcasting" to describe a credible path from the present to their desired future as a series of practical steps. Finally, they shared their story with their community. 

These are the two defining factors that got me to where I am today in my work. Number one, I learned that data does not change behavior. Number two, I found the power of the story.

My experience working in climate resilience has been the final piece to push me fully into the belief that we  cannot heal the planet until we heal ourselves. About a decade ago, I began to study climate change effects on agriculture and to look for bodies of knowledge that could help us design and manage more climate resilient agriculture and food systems.

Part of this work involves consulting on community-based projects. As I moved into working with community leaders and activists on climate change solutions, I saw the same kind of feelings of denial, disempowerment, grief, and guilt that had held back my students. I saw that these feelings were creating barriers to exploring positive solutions to climate change. It was then that I knew that I needed better skills to address those feelings, so that I could help people get to a place where they could begin to imagine a better future and how to get there.

And that’s what led me to take the final step in my transformation from a nature lover to a people lover. I spent two years learning a narrative community-based trauma therapy practice called “Story Medicine”. I use Story Medicine practices in subtle ways in my community-based work and I am getting excellent results. I am very excited about using these practices in more and different ways in my work. I see them as a really powerful new set of tools in my toolbox.








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Zoë Ackerman: How has confronting white privilege opened up new possibilities in your work on resilient agriculture? 

Laura Lengnick: The very first step I think is for us to recognize our privilege: to understand that we are all involved in this system, but we are experiencing it for better and worse based on where we stand.

Even recognizing privilege can be exceedingly difficult. I am continually surprised by the reluctance of my white liberal progressive friends to even begin a discussion about privilege. My shorthand for that challenge right now is ‘the new inconvenient truth’.

I'm interested in the public discussions around essential workers that have emerged as a result of COVID-19. This discussion seems to be creating an awareness among white middle-class folks about their privilege and about essential workers, who are mostly women, mostly People of Color, and among the lowest paid in our society. COVID has made it clear that our good life depends on the exploitation others. I'm hopeful that this experience will open us up -- us meaning white, middle-class folks of privilege -- to think about the people in our world that make our good life possible. And how we can begin to relate differently to them and change our behavior to cultivate different kinds of relationships with essential workers that are more respectful and reciprocal.








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Zoë Ackerman: How would you define regenerative or resilient agriculture? And what stops us from making the most of these practices? 

Laura Lengnick: I’ve been in the ‘good food movement’ for a long time and from where I stand, regenerative, authentic, regenerative organic, resilient, climate smart, carbon, smart and all the other labels and termas bubbling up these days reflect our effort as a society to find a way to describe a food system that can do more for us than our current one.

There are lots of definitions right now for regenerative agriculture. There is the most limited, which is just a rebranding of the keys to soil health. And then there’s the most expansive definition of regenerative agriculture, “regenerative organic”, which is actually not a new idea at all. It's a very old idea and it was part of the beginnings of the American organic farming movement.

So, what is regenerative agriculture? Given the fact that there is this huge range right now in definition, what I understand is that the primary impulse of the regenerative agricultural movement is to create agricultural production systems that regenerate natural resources.

The only thing new about regenerative agriculture, from my perspective, is that the proponents are highlighting the climate positive effects of these practices and that's a welcome advance in our thinking about food and agriculture. The current regenerative agriculture movement is adding carbon sequestration and greenhouse gas mitigation to the list of co-benefits of sustainable agriculture systems.

I’m concerned, however, that some people in the regenerative agriculture movement are trying to get people to believe that it’s better than anything that has come before. In fact it's not much different from prior sustainable agriculture movements. I'm concerned about the lack of regard or appreciation for the 70 years of effort that built the foundation that regenerative agriculture rests on today. 

The other thing that concerns me about the regeneraive agriculture movement is the focua specifically on soil sequestration potential and a kind of laser focus on soil health practices. In fact, sustainable practices or conservation practices can avoid emissions or reduce emissions even more. Agriculture can reduce GHG concentrations in the atmosphere three ways: by avoiding emissions in the first place, by reducing unavoidable emissions, and through biological sequestration of carbon dioxide in soils and plants. With the caveat that the definition of regenerative agriculture is a moving target at the moment, some sustainable practices that are not typically promoted by regenerative agriculture advocates are those that avoid or reduce emissions like improved fertilizer management; bio-intensive integrated pest management; agroforestry practices; the production of whole, fresh, nutrient-dense foods for regional food systems. I think it serves society best to promote all of the tools in the climate mitigation and adaptation toolbox for agriculture rather than just focus on soil carbon sequestration.

My greatest concern about regenerative agriculture is that its supporters have mostly dropped the soical benefit ideals of sustainable agriculture. Some of these benefits include social justice for farmers, farmworkers, and food system workers, and food security for consumers. They include economic prosperity for farm families and rural communities, and food sovereignty for everyone.

Food sovereignty is the right of peoples to healthy and culturally-appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems. It puts the aspirations and needs of those who produce, distribute and consume food at the heart of food systems and policies rather than the demands of markets and corporations.

The current regenerative agriculture movement is focused on those environmental benefits, which is great and absolutely important. However, it takes people on the ground using sustainable practices to achieve the goals of regenerative agriculture. With the exception of regenerative organic, most regenerative agriculture brands have very little to say about the people actually doing work on farms and in the food system. And that concerns me a lot.

This comes back to the inconvenient truth that I described earlier: It's hard for us to think about creating mutually beneficial relationships in the food system. The sustainable agriculture and regenerative organic movements have both included social justice goals since their start and both still promote social justice to this day. Current regenerative agriculture supporters seem to be really focused on benefits to the environment with very little discussion about all the other parts of the system.








Zoë Ackerman: What is a metropolitan foodshed? And how does it promote socio-ecological resilience? 

Laura Lengnick: I first ran into the idea of the metropolitan foodsheds only five or six years ago. It was an “aha” moment for me. I thought, "this I've been looking for". I was in a period of doing a lot of learning about resilience and food systems and when I discovered this concept of the metropolitan or “city-region” food system, verything came into clear focus for me.

So, what is it? First of all, the city-region food system is a sustainable development concept that addresses the key resilience weaknesses in our food systems.

Metropolitan food systems provide for our needs and cultivate community well-being by creating a two-way reciprocal flow of benefits.

The idea of creating regional food networks oriented around major metropolitan areas began bubbling up as a solution to solving big food-related challenges (climate change, public health epidemics) early in this century as humanity shifted from a rural to an urban species. Different groups exploring solutions to these challenges converged on this question: “What would it look like to develop reciprocal relationships within a region and between rural areas and urban areas? Part of this question requires recognition that natural and working landscapes deliver a whole lot more to us than food. They deliver beauty, better quality air and water, wildlife habitat and climate protection. Natural and working lands deliver all sorts of co-benefits that improve the well being of urban and suburban communities.

All of these ideas are very consistent with resilient behavior. Once I ran into the city region concept and got comfortable working with those ideas, it helped me to focus down on the key aspects of a resilient food system.

One of the things I love about resilience science is that system indicators are referred to as behaviors. I really like that word because it speaks to the dynamic nature of social-ecological relationships. I have identified three key behaviors of resilient food systems, within the context of a metropolitan foodshed. 

The first behavior of a resilient food system is a network of mutually beneficial and reciprocal relationships.

I don't mean just between farmers and eaters or farmers and distributors and eaters. I mean between all the beings in the network. It is equally important that there are mutually beneficial relationships between the soil organisms, between the plants and the soil, between the people and wildlife living in agricultural areas. 

The second behavior is regional self-reliance.

As mentioned before, the metropolitan food shed idea is a regional idea and the region seems to be the right size for resilience. I think right now in the COVID disturbance, we're seeing an example of that as regional food systems have stepped up to stabilize the global industrial food system. 

The third behavior of a resilient food system is to make it possible for the local accumulation of wealth.

This directly addresses the extractive relationships in the food system which have been so damaging to our communities. And I don't just mean financial wealth. I mean wealth across the whole diverse portfolio of what it takes to support the well being of a community: natural resource wealth, human resources, social and cultural resources, financial resources and technological, infrastructure or built resources.

Once you know these three rules of resilience, you can immediately begin to assess an existing system to see where some of the weaknesses might be in terms of resilience. Applying this framework, you can immediately see that regenerative agriculture with its focus primarily on the accumulation of natural resource wealth is not likely going to get us where we want to be in terms of sustaining food systems over the long term.








© Climate Listening Project | Laura Lengnick and resilient agriculture farmer Ken Dawson inspect muscadine grapes at Maple Spring Gardens, Cedar Grover NC

Zoë Ackerman: What do you think is possible in the next 10 years? 

Laura Lengnick: One thing that helps me to answer this question is to look back at the history of the U.S. food system and to recognize that we achieved a pretty incredible transformation in the 20th century. Futures thinking isn't my area of expertise, but I am comfortable saying that given the resources and the will, we could absolutely achieve the transformation to a resilient U.S. food system within the next 30 years and probably much sooner. 

Once I had the city region food system concept and integrated the three rules of resilience, I immediately began seeing examples of resilient food system behavior, on the ground and growing, all over this country.  And so I do have a lot of optimism that we do not have to start from zero to transform the food system, that the foundation for a resilient food future is already out there seeded and cared for by the sustainable food and organic farming movements in this country. If we can direct resources to this foundation, I think we could get a lot done towards cultivating resilient metropolitan food systems in the next 10 years. And I think, for better or for worse, COVID has disrupted and in many cases energized these regional and local food system projects and programs. We could get moving on this transition right now if we decide to invest in COVID recovery in a way that helps us bounce forward towards metropolitan food systems rather than bounce back. This decision to bounce forward is one that we can all be involved in making.

What can we get done in 10 years? We can all increase our individual and collective support for existing expressions of local and regional food systems, food sovereignty, and food justice.  We can encourage business and government to invest in a mix of new and existing policies and programs that will put our communities and our country on the path to a resilient food future. 

What are some of the existing programs that I think we can build on? They are ones that are focused on promoting mutually beneficial networks of relationships in regional food systems. I see an important role for the business-led development of these mutually beneficial networks, especially from the younger generation of business owners. 

This younger generation has a different perspective on the role of business in society and they are making some very exciting changes to enhance beneficial relationships between businesses, customers, and communities.

I am also very excited about the leading edge work going on to develop practical applications of  regenerative economics. I think regenerative economics invites us to think about economics in a really different way. As I understand it, regenerative economics looks at patterns that promote health in ecosystems and applies those patterns to human economic systems. These patterns are well-aligned with resilience theory. Throughout my career I've paid attention when I notice the same ideas popping up in different disciplines and communities of practice. Right now, I see regenerative economics as yet another expression of the rules of resilience: mutually beneficial networks, regional self-reliance, and the local accumulation of wealth.