The Seven First Principles of Regeneration with Carol Sanford (E55)

In this episode pioneering regenerative thinker Carol Sanford rejoins me to share a living systems framework she calls The Seven First Principles of Regeneration.

Sketch by Dan based on Carol’s description

Resources to Deepen Learning

Carol Sanford.

A few transcribed lines from the episode

Thanks to MPS patron Jon Buttery for pulling some comments that stood out for him from the chat (with approx times):

13:36 – “I don’t want you to be disappointed that after a year you haven’t got them [the seven first principles], that’s a good sign”

18:57 – “You can’t go do – in the sense that you’ll change something – you have to go think a different way and you have to start in a different place”

22:43 – “The word ‘systems thinking’ is thrown around for a lot of things that are machine based” 

23:23 – “There are no feedback loops …. we impose those kinds of ideas”

24:05 – “A fragmented view …  we assume … if we get good enough … somehow we’ll see how they all relate” 

26:53 – “What is the work this place does in this planet?  … what is its story?”

30:23 – “Watch yourself making lists”

32:26 – “Fragmentation is the basis of every problem on the earth”

38:40 – “It took me literally a couple of decades to learn to see essence. … it’s a different way of seeing the world”


  1. Thanks for offering the diagram interpretation Dan. It has stirred up some exciting thoughts.. and I still keep seeing it as the torus pattern like the “field process model” is depicted (and your drawing is basically this too if visualized in volumetric shape and motion). The path (generally) following a swirl down through the inner hole; through and around the outer field and back through the inner vortex again, ad infinitum.

    I tried to illustrate this too a few months back (as you’ve seen) and realized after comparing these diagrams now that the ‘seeming’ overlap in mine was simply in a non-deliberate place (so as to not show favor).. though ultimately just a difference of perspective (the explicate order (?). But I do really love the idea of regenerative ‘development’ as the ecotone of inner and outer.

    One thing I feel wanting to do is drop the numbers from the concept and title as they are not meant strongly as “steps”, but more as nested levels and so the number sequence feels a bit distracting.. perhaps some kind of realm of entry might be indicated by an arrow.. if even necessary. Though I understand why the order is also important (haha, it’s always both-and).. However with the torus concept described above (and of course originally by Jascha Rohr & Sonja Hörster) we can visualize how we are always there –in process, in an evolving field.

    In any case.. good to have several models kicking around to get multi-faceted view of the various ‘inclusions’. A technique I find useful.

    Something that also came up in this first listen is the idea of ‘nestedness’ where I couldn’t help but recall Christopher Alexander’s excoriating conclusion to his “A city is not a tree” essay where he warns of defining (or worse designing) relationships as strict hierarchies with razor edges. So the lesson that I take from that is: instead of feeling confounded by looking for clarity about the boundaries of wholes and nestedness (like trying to find where the fog begins or ends with a magnifying glass!).. I am just going to let that go because it is always meant to be fuzzy (and is always a matter of mindset, perspective/aspect); then be able to redirect more attention to the essence of the whole (though there is also good value in trying just a little to look for the edges! So you can know when to drive slowly and put the fog lights on). All that said.. I do find it tricky to visualize this nestedness as a 3D semi-lattice (as per C. Alexander’s essay).. and not as an overly chaotic mesh structure.. perhaps a growing, dividing cell in an eggshell in a birds nest in the mesh of tree branches in the life-field of a tree, etc.. (ie: many patterns nested and overlapping).

    One last thing.. I’d love to hear more about the roots of these principles from a direct indigenous personal telling and interpretation of them as Carol has mentioned of (a take on Carol’s evolving explorations of these ideas as sincere contribution to the renaissant consciousness; as well as relating these ideas to traditional cultural understanding and knowledge).

  2. Thanks so much for this one, Dan. How I love the 15 second rewind button and what great use I made of it during this interview.

    I do like your caution at the beginning; Carol is not someone that you have on in the background. Deep attention is required.

    Some favourite quotes (and there were many):

    Wholes: See a value adding process in which wholes are working
    Essence: A different way of seeing the world. It’s not seeing its parts and putting them together. It’s seeing it working and evaluating process and what’s being brought at the level of core.
    Potential: Once we can see a whole we can come to be able to see its essence. Now we can touch its potential.
    Development: Development is the whole of my being becoming more able, less arrogant, less reactive, more able to see impossible things.
    Nestedness: You only get to the quantum view when you see wholes nested
    Nodal intervention: Most people think of growth and scaleability…some people started to figure out that they can leverage something….but what I want people to get to in essence thinking is nodal….you put a pin in something and poof, the whole system changes.

    I don’t have one for fields. I appreciate that you were short on time at this point and I have listened to it a few times and still feel like I’m missing the essence of it.

    The quotes must, of course, be considered within the context of the whole of the interview. To do otherwise would be reductionist. The interview must be considered within its nested context. Mostly I am left once again grateful for Carol’s challenging and enlightened thinking.

    With regard to ‘wholes’ I feel it may be worth revisiting the concept of ‘holons’, as they are both wholes and parts simultaneously. I have found this word useful in teaching because it reminds students that any division of anything from its context is artificial as nothing can exist outside its context and we only divide the world into separate ‘things’ for our own purposes. Truly no separate ‘thing’ exists. So, for example, we may talk about a leaf, but this is a holon, an artificial boundary we have created in order to consider the leaf, and to do so without recognising the relationship to the tree, and the tree’s relationship with the planet would be to fail to truly understand the leaf.

    While I appreciate Carol’s thoughts on not reducing the examination of a site to a list I do feel that for many people this may be the path that leads to a final appreciation of the whole, and Carol herself describes her own development as somewhat following this path. Perhaps for many of us, we build our understanding of wholeness over time having first observed that understanding parts was useful but inadequate.

    My own essence included an experience as a teenager when I realised that “I” was a holon, and that in fact I do not have any clear edges. Where do “I” begin and end? The air I am breathing contains elements that have cycled around and around for all of time and the thing I think of as my body is composed of the same elements. When I no longer live those elements get returned to the system, like a cup of water returning to the ocean. While I live those same elements pass through me and from me. There is no cell left that was part of the “I” that had these thoughts as a teenager and yet the illusion of some kind of continuity persists. When Carol talks about seeing wholes my response is that there is only one whole. Everything else is a holon; a thought exercise that allows us to have a conversation about a “thing” but which is ultimately as constraining to our thinking as it is useful.

    When I talk about all design progressing from the macro to the micro I start from a planetary perspective; what does the earth need? Carol’s “nesting” language has given me a useful way to describe this approach.

    Best wishes to you and your family for a wonderous 2021 and thank you for all the leveraging podcasts.

    1. Clearly I’ve been thinking about this podcast all day. 😀
      I wonder if Carol is familiar with Lynne Kelly’s work on memory and the techniques used by non-literate cultures to remember vast amounts of knowledge. One of her observations, having taught herself these techniques, is that learning this way provides her with a different kind of knowledge, where the wholeness is apparent (my words but I’m avoiding ‘interconnectedness of things’). In the same way that language limits our thinking, could the written word be causative in the compartmentalisation of knowledge? Do traditional methods of learning naturally support an appreciation of all things as being one thing?

      Lynne also makes the observation that children’s stories in indigenous cultures are the scaffold that provides the pattern for all subsequent levels of learning. For me this is analogous to the way I teach permaculture (and I mean no disrespect to students here) where the introductory level is what seems to be a simple pattern but the appreciation of the whole grows with various levels of learning.
      All interesting ponderings.

    2. Thanks Meg and so glad you got value from the chat (i.e., that the podcast as a whole was a value-adding process for you in this instance – woo!). I resonate with your description of holons though I remember asking Carol about them in our first chat and she wasn’t into them in favour of stick with nested wholes. Be great to have a transcription of what she said, exactly, if anyone is keen. One observation I have made is that it is very possible to grasp the concept of holons then to use it in a purely mechanical way, such as Toby Hemenway did in the Permaculture City. In my work on Living Design Process, I’m developing ways of avoiding that trap, where things get pretty damned interesting. One aspect of holonic or holarchic thinking worth reflecting on is to what extent is the whole in part-whole being thought of as a physical container, Russian-doll style, or as a super-part, in the sense of a collection of parts. I’d love more thinking partners in nutting this stuff out if anyone is keen, though we’re making solid progress in the MPS Community of Practice too.

      Always a pleasure having you in the mix Meg!

  3. Dan – eternal gratitude for this conversation with Carol. I listened deeply; it is the perfect nodal intervention to shake up/shake loose fragmented ways of seeing. I find fresher ways of being in the world emerging. Best Holiday gift ever.

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