At first the ground squirrels felt like the enemy—a problem to be solved. They were causing major issues for the 25 acres of vineyard at Paicines Ranch in San Benito County, California, with their burrows and mounds, and their taste for fine grapes.
“We were like, these squirrels are terrible, we must get rid of them—or at least keep them out of the vineyard,” recalls Esther Park, CEO of Cienega Capital. While Park doesn’t work directly on the vineyard, she collaborates with the team that does via the No Regrets Initiative, which is the financial and investment arm of Paicines Ranch that Cienega Capital funds.
The vineyard crew came up with a number of schemes to solve the problem of those pesky ground squirrels. That is, until they met with ecologists and learned about the many essential roles the squirrels, and the underground burrows they create, play in the ecosystem.
“While they might be annoying to us as humans, they’re actually pretty key to providing habitat to many different species,” said Avery Sponholtz, who is on the No Regrets Initiative team and director of philanthropy for the Globetrotter Foundation. (Both are interconnected with the ranch as both were created by Sallie Calhoun and work in tandem with one another.)
It’s not every vineyard that would deem the ecological role of ground squirrels as equal in value to high crop yields. But instead of looking at challenges like that of the ground squirrels as problems to be solved—which is the predominant mode of operating just about everywhere you look in today’s largely extractivist, capitalist world—Paicines Ranch is intentionally working to operate under a different mentality: They’ve taken on an intentional mindset of managing complexities rather than solving problems.
In the example of the ground squirrels, the complexity lies in the fact that support for regenerative ecosystems is a core value of Paicines Ranch’s mission. The project was founded with the aim of working with the dynamic natural world to explore ways of building healthy ecosystems while growing crops and supporting community through food. Its 7,600 acres double as wildlife habitat for “animals, birds, insects, trees, plants, grasses, springs, rivers, and much more,” notes its website.
“We realized if we’re going to hold diversity of species up as an outcome that we want to achieve, those ground squirrels are actually pretty important,” says Park.
Now, instead of trying to solve the problem of the ground squirrels, the team has shifted toward “managing the complexity of [the] ecosystem,” adds Park.
“The squirrels are not necessarily helping us achieve some of the outcomes that we want, and yet they are helping us to achieve some of the other outcomes we want. And we’re getting comfortable with not having the answers, and just doing what we can to manage the complexity of that.”
Park shared another example of how to shift into managing complexities rather than solving problems, from the investment world.
“We deal a lot with grass-fed and pastured livestock operations, and one of the things that most producers point to as being a problem for them is access to [meat] processing [facilities],” she says.
Park says the problem the livestock operations often bring up is that they need more meat processing facilities, and while there have been many efforts to try to address the problem, “most of them have failed.” Parks says this boils down to the fact that the challenge is significantly more complex than just a need for more processing.
“It’s not just that you need a processor… There are all these other factors in the ecosystem that are affecting your whole supply chain,” she says. “It’s better to think about ways to manage all of the moving parts in a way that will serve each individual business, but also to get to know the processor and their business, and also the consumers and all of the other folks who are involved.”
She shares that she helped organize an online workshop for the purpose of connecting all of the different stakeholders along the meat production and processing supply chain. Among the speakers was an experienced and successful meat processor who spoke about the real constraints they face as a business, and the conversation began “helping people get their heads around the complexity of the nature of what they’re facing, versus thinking, ‘This is the answer to solve my problem,’ because oftentimes it’s actually not.”
Managing complexities—rather than solving problems—has become a theme of the work Calhoun, who owns and manages Paicines Ranch and works with Park and Sponholtz, puts into the world. In addition to her work with the ranch, Calhoun is an activist, impact investor, and philanthropic funder in regenerative agriculture who founded the No Regrets Initiative, which seeks to use a wide variety of forms of capital—human, natural, investment, and philanthropic—to effect change in the agricultural system. She says all that she does aims to improve the health of ecosystems and the communities living in them. Calhoun’s efforts are often aimed in particular at agricultural soil health and sequestering carbon in soil to mitigate climate change.
Calhoun says she was introduced to the idea of running a business centered on managing complexities via Allan Savory, a livestock farmer and president and co-founder of the Savory Institute, who came up with something called holistic management. Managing complexities is one of the key premises of holistic management.
“It was created to help land stewards—because if you are a land steward, you are inherently managing complexity, right?” says Calhoun. “[Allan Savory] makes the distinction that the systems that we create, like computers and the internet, are complicated, but we understand them. Whereas there’s a whole set of natural living systems, which are complex—and complexity means that we can’t actually understand them. If we poke them, we don’t know what’s going to happen, and so we need to respond accordingly.”
Another main point of holistic management Calhoun points to is that so many systems we operate under are focused on preventing unwanted problems, rather than managing for the wanted outcomes.
“We literally declare war on drugs, and war on terror, and war on poverty—thereby guaranteeing the continuation of all of those things, because it’s this mentality of fighting against a problem rather than thinking about what you want to create,” she says. “My ideas really started over 20 years ago from the work of [Savory], and now we’ve been able to carry that and figure out what it means in other parts of our work.”
Managing the Complexities of Our Changing World
The realities of our changing planet call for different ways of doing business, relating to success, and, generally, being in the world. We were warned that climate disasters and their strange weather would come, and now they’re upon us, causing immense collateral damage to humans and other feeling beings on this special planet of water and life. The compound horrors we’ve collectively contributed to as a species are spiraling to a scale that can feel almost as hard to wrap our minds around as the vastness of the stars, time, and the universe. Tensions and talk of war are on the rise globally, and people in the wealthiest nations on the planet are contending with cost-of-living crises, worsened in the wake of the economic fallout of an ongoing global pandemic. And things do not promise to improve anytime soon—especially not by way of business as usual. Creative, collaborative, care-based ways of relating will be necessary to weather the coming storms—literally and figuratively.
There is an opportunity in the midst of the polycrisis (as the World Economic Forum has dubbed it) to reframe the challenges ahead as “complexities to manage” rather than “problems to solve.” This reframing can save us from becoming overwhelmed and has the potential to guide people toward more realistic ways of being and expectations. Because that’s what life is, ultimately: a series of complexities, as notes Jodie Evans, co-founder of CODEPINK.
Evans hosted a conversation with Calhoun, Park, and Sponholtz in March 2023 as part of an upcoming webinar series, and their conversation focused on just that: managing complexities in business and life.
During the conversation, Calhoun shared that the work their team does operates under two sets of guiding principles: one for soil, another for relationships.
Soil health principles, Calhoun says, include keeping the soil covered; keeping green, growing roots in the ground as much of the year as you can; having a diversity of plants; minimizing disturbance—which includes both tillage and also synthetic chemicals, fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides; and, where possible, integrating animals.
Calhoun says the first five soil health principles, listed above, are derived from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and are noncontroversial. She and her team also added a sixth, which is to integrate creative humans who are passionate about the regeneration of the landscape.
The relationship principles, she says, tend to be a little murkier.
“We spend a lot of time talking about the soil health principles and the ways that we keep soil healthy, and we’re thinking now amongst our team about relationship health principles and how to bring those into our work in a more explicit way and be able to share for those funders and investors… [to provide more] articulation of the way that we try to operate in relationship,” says Calhoun.
Sponholtz shared the first draft of relational principles from her notebook:
- We believe that we must have bidirectional trust in our relationships.
- We believe that we are interdependent and that our fates are tied to each other.
- We believe that there is magic, and not everything is knowable with the senses that we have available to us in this moment.
- We believe that love is necessary, and the response to beauty is love.
- We believe belonging is necessary.
- We believe that complexity is critical.
On Magic and Remembering We Are Nature
Park elaborated on the third principle about magic, which draws from a rich and long historical foundation of human intuition and spirituality that crosses cultures.
“We’ve been fixated on this kind of one-dimensional way of knowing something is true, which is data, and yet, historically, we had wisdom that comes from places other than data, or even our brains,” she says. “We relied on our senses, and our senses expand to the relationships that we have and the vibrations that we feel from… nature, and from each other. Those are real ways of knowing things, but we’ve put them to the side as being woo-woo or being something irrational or unreliable. And yet these are things that are super important to informing how we work.”
Park notes that Indigenous cultures around the world have always valued ways of knowing beyond data, and that it’s vital to center those Indigenous, more natural technologies, systems, and ways of being as paths to the future.
“As a team, we really embrace these, what we call, ‘original ways of knowing,’” she says. “We’ll have discussions like: ‘There’s something in my gut that doesn’t feel right about this.’ And we’ll all be like, ‘Okay, we’re not doing it.’ That weighs equally, and in fact sometimes more, to us than what we might see or read on paper. That’s an important part of the way that we work that is different.”
Park says one of the root causes of the situation we find ourselves in today as humans is disconnection from ourselves, from each other, and from the natural world.
“It’s those disconnects that allow us to do the really harmful things that we do to each other and to the land,” she says. “If we’re so disconnected, then we have to reconnect… And particularly when it comes to the natural world, part of that reconnection is acknowledging that we are part of it.”
She says often some of the efforts to solve the problems we are facing neglect to see humans as a part of nature and Earth. For example, land conservation often frames the ideal as being for humans to remove themselves from nature.
“The idea is to just get the people off the land and let nature do its thing,” she says. “But we’re part of nature too. Here in North America, the Indigenous folks actively managed the land. It didn’t just sort of become that way on its own. They actively managed it. We’re a part of this story too.”
And, she notes that humans have a lot to learn from the rest of the planet.
“We need to approach things with humility, knowing that as a species we are the babies; trees and plants were here way before we were. They’re our ancestors and they’re our elders, and we have to respect our position in the ecological sphere.”
Part of doing that is to return to taking an approach closer to that of nature, rather than top-down approaches that seek to control and compartmentalize—in other words, making the shift into managing complexities.
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