“We can’t be well until the planet is well”

By Ann Armbrecht, PhD
Director, Sustainable Herbs Project

Read the first post on the SHP Learning Lab here.

“We can’t be well until the planet is well,” Bioneers co-founder Kenny Ausubel told me when I interviewed him in 2006 for our documentary, Numen: The Healing Power of Plants. In other words, herbal supplements can promote wellness and health only if the systems that produce supplements promote health and wellness for all of the stakeholders involved. This includes all systems involved: environmental, biological, social, and commercial.

To me the ultimate irony, and not a good one, is that we have systems of medicine (herbal and other) based on the premise that you can poison parts of the system — the water, the soil, the air, humans and non-humans — in some places, in order to produce products used to create wellness for other people in other places.

What systemic changes are needed so that the herb industry is based on a foundation of wellness for all, not just the end users of natural healing products?

The Sustainable Herbs Program Learning Lab

This past fall I hosted the second Sustainable Herbs Program Learning Lab to explore that question. This session was  built on the first Learning Lab held in the fall of 2021 (outlined here). Using the tools of the Presencing Institute and awareness based systems change, this series was organized around the question: How can sourcing medicinal plants enhance the wellbeing and prosperity for people and plants around the world?

Is it possible to create an industry that is truly rooted in respect for the plants, people, and the planet? And if so, what changes are needed? What can we, as a group of committed stakeholders from around the world, do to begin making those changes?

Between 30 and 40 individuals from different sectors of the botanical industry and different regions of the world participated in each SHP Learning Lab session, which followed a structured framework co-facilitated by myself as the SHP Director and Presencing Institute Senior Faculty, Julie Arts.

What Do We Want to Grow?

In the first session, Julie outlined what she called a matrix or series of four operating systems. Without going into the details of each level, each one, from 1.0, 2.0, 3.0 to 4.0, is about moving toward economies that are organized around a shared awareness of the whole ecosystem, from ego- to eco-system awareness. Of any industry, it seems that the herb industry is the best suited to lead towards developing a shared awareness of the whole ecosystem because the health of the entire industry depends on the health of that ecosystem.

I asked the participants to consider: As a group what do we want to grow? There are less-than-positive aspects of the botanical industry. But instead of focusing on that, what would emerge if we focused on the places where people are caring for people, plants, and planet? How might we nurture those relationships so that they become the norm? And then finally, what do we each need to bring the best parts of ourselves to these relationships? What conditions make it possible for us to each do what is best for the plants, for other people, and for the planet in the work that we do?

Acupuncture Points for Change

In the second session we mapped the botanical industry from our perspective as a stakeholder in that industry to identify key acupuncture or leverage points for change (I outline this mapping exercise here).

Leverage points are places in systems where, as systems theorist Donella Meadows has said, “a small shift in one thing can produce big changes in everything.” Like an acupuncture point, a leverage point is a place where a strategic intervention can have lasting impacts.

Some of the acupuncture points identified weren’t surprising: shorter supply chains, decentralized processing, better traceability, more investment and knowledge-sharing closer to the origin. Though many in the industry don’t yet implement these practices, most participants in the Learning Lab already recognized these as points to change. Many were already working on implementing these practices in their sourcing procedures.

To me the more important acupuncture points identify the deeper, underlying values and beliefs that we need to address. These included the following:

  • Better relationships among different stakeholders.
  • Greater equity for farmers, wildcrafters, communities, and traders.
  • Weaving threads of connection among people, plants, and ecosystem.
  • Respect for indigenous cultures built into sourcing approaches.
  • Shifting from linear to ecosystem thinking with plants and people at the center.
  • Moving from transactional relationships to partnerships.

What is Mine to Do?

Julie explained that the issue is both deeply systemic and deeply personal. And so, after mapping the overall industry and seeing the changes needed from a broader perspective, we moved to the self and our role in the industry and our responsibility to make the changes that we identified.

We began the third session by inviting each participant to share stories of their own relationship with a particular plant, a particular moment when their love of plants began or when that relationship revealed something important about their lives or the world. We did this to ground the subsequent conversation in the non-transactional relationship we hope to build into sourcing relationships.

Julie then led a journaling process where we reflected on the questions: What is mine to do? What do I need to let go of? What do I need to step into? What do I want to do individually? Collectively, how might we be able to make a difference?

How We Respond to Change

Early in the series, Julie had explained three ways to respond to change: we can freeze; we can turn away; or we can lean toward. In a journaling exercise, Julie invited us to lean toward that future by asking us to consider these questions: How can I clearly connect with the future that is emerging? What allows me to be completely present with open eyes and open heart? How is the future announcing itself to me?

I showed up to this final session discouraged. I had just returned from Nepal where I had been struck by the enormity of the problems and by how little difference on the ground that any initiatives to better support human and plant communities were making in the face of these challenges.

Final Session

I felt so discouraged, I doubted that anyone would even show up to the final session. And yet, people did join in. And their feedback was amazing. One participant shared that we are talking about generational change. This isn’t short term or in the short run. We are trying to set up systems that honor what many wild harvesters already know, helping them have more control and have more at stake in the process. And this takes time.

Another participant shared a vision of shifting from having a company simply selling products to one that creates a market for the vitality of the relationship between people and plants. That vitality is the core of what herb companies can offer; that is what is healing, he said. The important question then becomes: How can we create markets with the intention of sustaining the vital energy at the heart of the system, with the relationship with plants at the center? The herb products that companies sell are what make that deeper work possible but the products are not the end in themselves.

Opening Our Eyes

Later, a participant shared that the Learning Lab experience opened her eyes to her deeper relationship with the plants, with seeing them not as an object or commodity — as they usually are talked about in the industry — but as a living entity with which she has a relationship. Other people with whom she spoke had experienced this as well, she said. That’s the first step of the process, she explained: to open our eyes. The work is now to help people see with those eyes — and then to act from that new way of seeing.

Across the board, everyone spoke about the power of seeing such a diverse group of people wanting to do the right things. The challenge, one participant said, is to now get the companies where these people work to do the right things as well.

What is the Most Important Action To Take?

As a final journaling exercise, Julie invited us to write our answers to these questions: What is the most important strategic action I need to perform now? Where will I find the strength and support? And what do I want from and with this community that has been created through the SHP Learning Labs?

As I listened to participants share their reflections, I realized that I was experiencing the support and collaboration that others had spoken of as a reason for participating in the Learning Lab. The problems seemed less overwhelming — not because they actually were but because, I realized, I wasn’t alone. This shared connection, remarkably strong though we have only ever met collectively via Zoom, allows me to turn toward and open to the future that is emerging.

Participants brought an openness and curiosity to each session –- a willingness to share more, perhaps, than they might otherwise in other industry or community settings. If we bring these qualities to our work sourcing herbs, how can we help shift the industry toward one that is truly rooted in wellness for all, not just those using the products?

SHP Learning Lab and Learning Journey

The SHP Learning Lab group will continue to meet every three weeks where we will dive more deeply into particular examples that help clarify what Learning Lab 4.0 might look like. We are also planning a Learning Journey where we will invite participants to step out of established patterns and experience circumstances and issues in the Appalachian herb trade from different perspectives and in different ways. Our vision is to provide participants with an opportunity to experience the system as a whole and to develop and deepen our relationships with each other in a pre-competitive space.


Note: The image at the top is Oshala Farm Co-founder Elise Higley’s map of the botanical industry from our systems mapping exercise.