Synergizing Lyla June Johnston’s Indigenous Regenerative Ecosystem Design (IRED) and Avit Bhowmik’s Powers of 10 (P10)
By Bill Baue
Dr. Lyla June Johnston (www.lylajune.com) is a scholar, and community organizer of Diné (Navajo), Tsétsêhéstâhese (Cheyenne) and European lineages. She introduces into her 2023 doctoral dissertation in Indigenous Studies, Architects of Abundance: Indigenous Regenerative Food and Land Management Systems and the Excavation of Hidden History (https://www.proquest.com/openview/17597a179528716e1a9e8515ca76ec77/1?pq-origsite=gscholar&cbl=18750&diss=y) , several key assertions that distinguish it from other research:
“The work is meant to provide a launch pad for future Indigenous and non-Indigenous scientists who seek to learn from the past to protect the future.”
“My research is my prayer — as is everything we do — for the healing of the world.”
“An important facet of Indigenous story-telling is making use of examples to elucidate larger lessons.”
“It is concluded that, contrary to popular belief, Indigenous People managed Turtle Island [North America] and Abya Yala [Central and South America] extensively. It is also concluded that many Indigenous groups throughout these continents developed refined sciences of sustainability.”
“It was found that these [Indigenous] stewardship practices are millennial-scale, landscape-scale, and eco-centric (intended to benefit the whole system rather than human beings alone).” [emphasis added to all quotes]
While each of these assertions carry profound implications warranting deeper consideration, we will focus this research review in particular on the final assertion, as an opportunity to explore synergies with parallel research by Avit Bhowmik et al from 2020: Powers of 10: seeking ‘sweet spots’ for rapid climate and sustainability actions between individual and global scales.
We pursue this intersectionality in part to seed the soil for inter-Session cross-fertilization at the upcoming r3.0 Conference, in which Dr Johnston will present and engage in the Essentials For Survival — Indigenous and Majority World voices, Technologies, and Struggles Session, and Dr Bhowmik will present and engage in the Tipping Into Prosocial Norms — Triggering beneficial social norm tipping points to avert adverse tipping points Session.
To pursue this cross-pollination, we must first establish foundational understanding of the research, respectively (and respectfully).
Dr Johnston utilizes multiple strategies for asserting an alternative approach to research, continually underlining the value of Indigenous values that enhance the research process (and also underpin the ecosystem stewardship dynamics being researched).
Dr Johnston structures her dissertation in four sections aligned to the four natural elements, each analyzing elements of historical and contemporary Indigenous land management approaches:
- Earth: Indigenous soil management (“a review of four Indigenous societies and their soil management techniques revealed that none of these systems require outside fertilizer or irrigation to sustain ecocentric food systems on millennial scales”) [emphasis added];
- Water: Indigenous aquaculture (“a comparative analysis of six Indigenous fisheries showed how these communities operate on regional-scales, manually augment habitat for key species, are thousands of years old, and are driven by value systems rooted in reciprocity, reverence, respect, restraint, and responsibility to homeland”) [emphasis added];
- Fire: Indigenous pyrogenic land management (“an in-depth analysis of fire regime data from a variety of sources indicates that Diné and Pueblo Ancestors did indeed manage the Ch’ooshgai (Chuska) Mountain Range with routine burning during the Holocene epoch and negates theories that these fire regimes were due to lightning ignition”); and
- Air: Indigenous oral histories (“a synthesis of interviews with four contemporary Indigenous land managers confirms that these cultural groups were and are active managers of local ecosystems”).
Indigenous research methodologies:
Utilizing methods such as yarning, Critical Indigenous Research Methodology, and auto-ethnography, Dr Johnston approached the dissertation as a way “to transform research from a tool of extraction that benefits scholars and their institutions to a tool of true collaboration that contributes to human communities. While there are many principles and sub-principles, the underlying sentiment is very simple: Be kind, reciprocal, and grateful throughout the research process.” [emphasis added]
Dr Johnston advances what could be characterized as a decolonial (1) historiography that evidences the insidious nature of colonizing histories and supremacist cultural narratives that misrepresent and erase Indigenous cultural developments, including its millennial-scale innovations in regenerative landscape management and sustainability sciences, “to maintain an intellectual ‘greenlight’ for land seizure” as well as colonialist / supremacist dehumanization, ethnocide, and genocide.
The core of Dr Johnston’s dissertation is her articulation of a theory of Indigenous Regenerative Ecosystem Design (IRED), which she defines at her most succinct as “design with and for life” (after which she devotes an entire chapter to further defining the theory.) The success of IRED systems “is reflected in the fact that Indigenous People oversee 80% of the world’s biodiversity while constituting only 5% of the world’s population according to a recent UN report.”
For our purposes, we will focus on two key characteristics (2) of IRED:
- “millennial scale — often several thousands of years old”; and
- “regional scale”
On the former issue of “millennial scale,” Dr Johnston crystallizes this aspect of IRED as “design for perpetuity.”
Most of the case studies of Indigenous land management systems that Dr Johnston analyzes persisted for millennia, and many persist to this day, representing arguably the most robust case of sustainability management in human history!
Indeed, Western civilizations, which collapse in an average of 336 years, could accurately be characterized as systemically and systematically unsusatinable, particularly in comparison to Indigenous civilizations. “The Indigenous ability to landscape whole bioregions was a marker of civilization, humanity, sophistication, and belonging,” Dr Johnston asserts.
Dr Johnston even points out the irony that colonialist supremacist dehumanization of Indigenous Peoples and Cultures as “savage” in order to prop up their self-definition as “civilized” is both grossly inaccurate and ultimately amounts to gaslighting (though she doesn’t use this term). In contrast, Indigenous cultures view their own collapsed civilizations (eg Chaco Canyon) as “an important steppingstone towards societal sustainability” — they “metabolized catastrophe into practical wisdom.”
The key point Dr Johnston makes is that IRED represents an opportunity for Indigenous wisdom, born of millenia of “trial, error, and evolution,” to benefit all of humanity (not only Indigenous Peoples), as well as all living beings, through its core values of relationality, reciprocity, respect, reverence, restraint, regenerative practice, responsibility to homeland, kinship with life, service to life, generosity, humility, efficiency, and a notion that all life is equal.
On the latter issue of “regional scale,” the case studies Dr Johnston presents demonstrate that a key characteristic of the success of Indigenous land management practices was the place-based, bioregional scale, applied to whole landscapes.
Dr Johnston’s research finds that “most traditional Indigenous communities are not passive observers of nature but are instead influential facilitators of landscape scale abundance, rooted in an ethic of kinship and reverence.” [emphasis added] Johnston identifies this as both “bioregional design techniques,” as well as “holistic management strategy.” (3) — the latter representing a practice that clearly pre-dates Allan Savory’s coining of the term.
This place-based, (bio)regional scale bridges Dr Johnston’s notion of Indigenous Regenerative Ecosystem Design (IRED) with Dr Avit Bhowmik’s Power of 10s (P10) notion. To elucidate this connection, we first establish the foundations of the research conducted by Bhowmik and colleagues in their 2020 paper.
The study proceeds from an insightful observation of the elegance of the mathematics of human numbers: by the year 2050, human population is expected to swell to ten billion, which is 1010 (or P10 in the paper’s nomenclature) greater than a single individual (100 — or P0). This observation extrapolates into 10 orders of magnitude separating a single soul from all of humanity. In the words of the research team:
“Here we propose the logarithmic ‘Powers of 10 (P10)’ framework to overcome the relative and subjective bias in the existing approach to climate and sustainability actions and help identify individual, proxy and collective agencies, and corresponding systemic and institutional dynamics and policies across scales (details in figure 1)… We formalized population cohorts with a preliminary taxonomy (table 1), which is in alignment with and complementary to published research on cross-scale dynamics and hierarchical structures in decision-making.” [emphasis added]
The researchers layer atop this the recognition that sustainable action does not emerge out of thin air, but rather arises from human agency, from individual to collective scales. The researchers contextual this layering of scale and agency thus:
“…plans for deploying multi-scale climate actions frequently rely on relative and subjective terms such as ‘national’, ‘state’, ‘regional’, ‘community’, and ‘local’ to frame the populations involved (Ostrom 2010). Usage of such terminology lacks the precision necessary for identifying the scale (state, sub-, nonstate or individual) for forming ‘agency’, which we define as the capacity of change agents to make decisions, influence actors and take actions, and also implement and benefit from the actions first hand.
Such agency, involving individual, collective and often proxy efficacy (Bandura 2006), is fundamental to deploy actions leading to greenhouse gas reduction, adaptive technologies and strategies, and enhanced quality of family and community life. (Wilson 2012, Hsu et al 2019). Additionally, some scales may be more important for effective climate and sustainability actions than others (Wilson 2012, Roelfsema et al 2018) and to overcome ‘fractal carbon traps’ and other obstacles that impede rapid progress.” [emphasis added]
With the problem clearly articulated, Bhowmik et al set out to apply their elegance mathematics to the quest for the “sweet spot” of the scale / agency axis.
“Using the ten orders of magnitude between a single individual and the projected ∼ 10 billion global population by 2050 as a framework for scaling, we propose a method to quantify the ‘sweet spot’ for forming agency at and between scales…”
“We defined the sweet spot as the range in the number of people (P10 cohorts and cohort ranges), which is suitable to form agency for climate and sustainability actions. Our concept of agency for climate and sustainability actions includes individual, proxy and collective agencies (Archer and Archer 1996, Bandura 2006). Individual agency refers to situations, in which people bring their influence to bear their own functioning. Proxy, or socially mediated agency, refers to situations in which individuals have no direct control over conditions that affect their lives but they influence others who have the resources, knowledge, and means to act on their behalf to secure the outcome they desire. Collective agency refers to situations, in which individuals pool their knowledge, skills, and resources, and act in concert to shape their future.” [emphasis added]
The researchers took advantage of the Project Drawdown (PD) “Plausible Scenario” database of existing climate solutions, cross-referencing them to the relevant population cohorts in their P10 framework.
“We hypothesized that overall there would be a ‘sweet spot’ for optimizing agency and maximizing impact of climate actions around the median between P0 and P10 cohorts. We also examined whether and how P10 relates to geographic scaling (Wilson 2012, Long 2016) and, as an example of overlap with other cross-scale frameworks, demonstrate P10’s synergy with the ‘transformation spheres’ theory (O’Brien and Sygna 2013) where social transformations are depicted as a process taking place across embedded and interacting personal, political, and practical realms.”
What did they discover when they tested their hypothesis against the Project Drawdown data? Their guess of the sweet spot was spot on!
“Assessing 72 market-ready, scalable climate adaptation and mitigation solutions from PD, we found that the systemwide optimum population cohort for the climate action interventions is a community (P4) of 10 000 persons (figure 2).”
The research identified the P4 scale as optimal for greatest greenhouse gas (GHG) reductions and the most implementable climate solutions (56 of 72). And the range from P4 (community of 10k) to P6 (urban area / region of 100k) cohorts clustered the most GHG reductions and climate action benefits.
“Hence, prioritizing climate actions at community to urban (P4 to P6) scale may likely complement and amplify global top-down and local bottom-up efforts to support rapid sustainability transformations. Indeed, individual agency and leadership coupled with effective policies and incentives at state, national and international scales are imperative, but our findings indicate that for most climate actions, focus for leverage and transformations may be most effectively placed at the community to urban scale.”
This finding independently validates Johnston’s theory of (bio)regional scale as the nexus for regenerative ecosystem management. While Bhowmik et al primarily apply technocratic solutions from the PD dataset, some of the solutions do overlap with IRED — for example, Regenerative Agriculture ranked 11th (applicable across P1 — P8, with a median in the sweet spot of P4.5), and Managed Grazing ranked 19th (with the same applicability and median).
The question that remains is whether articulating solutions at the (bio)regional scale alone is sufficient for millennial scale sustainability — or whether deeper Indigenous value systems are required. The answer may be explored in the cross-Session dialogue in the r3.0 Conference, and almost certainly will spill over into ongoing deliberation and exploration…
- To be clear, while Dr Johnston uses the term “decolonial” in various grammatical constructions throughout the dissertation, she doesn’t apply that label to this Chapter.
- In the Water chapter, Dr Johnston introduces a PVGSC analysis (principles, values, goals, strategies, and characteristics), and later applies it more broadly to IRED theory.
- The Indigenous employment of “holistic management strategy” represents a practice that clearly pre-dates Allan Savory’s coining of the term “holistic management”.