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Embodying a Regenerative Economy: EFN 2022 Retreat Keynote Talk

By Stephanie Brobbey, Good Ancestor Movement and Aliyah Green, EFN, 29th July 2022

Stephanie Brobbey’s informative keynote talk during our annual retreat for funders this year was titled ‘Embodying a Regenerative Economy’.

As with Farhana Yamin’s talk at our 2021 retreat, we were keen to learn what had prompted Stephanie to change career (from private wealth lawyer to founder and Chief Executive of the Good Ancestor Movement), and hear her reflections on how environmental philanthropy can be most effective.

Stephanie laid out some of the problems we face — climate change, biodiversity loss, extreme inequality — and argued that to understand them we need to interrogate systems, starting with the economy.

Once I started to think about wealth distribution in the UK more critically it wouldn’t leave me alone. I spent months in deep reflection and analysis, questioning the state of our economy. In doing so, I questioned my own role, my entire career as a private wealth lawyer. I sat with the inconvenient truth that by performing my job so diligently I had been helping to maintain an economy that makes a small proportion of the population ‘win’ but was having a devastating impact on people and the planet.

The dominant economy we have all inherited is one that is rooted in extraction and exploitation. It is reinforced by a worldview of consumption and acquisition and is supported by a culture of infinite growth that ignores or denies the real ecological and social consequences of economic activity. If resources and labour are acquired largely through extraction, then governance takes the form of systematic violence or force. The primary purpose of this kind of economy is the accumulation and concentration of wealth and power. This is known as the ‘extractive economy’. Past and present examples include:

  • The looting of African and Indigenous bodies, the exploitation of their labour, the appropriation of their land and resources by Western Imperialists seeking domination over resources.
  • Cobalt extraction from the Democratic Republic of Congo and lithium extraction from Bolivia to create products which cater for the Western palate.

Stephanie went on to say that our relationships with resources, one another and the planet need to be examined also. The extractive economy is a system reliant on perpetual growth and our behaviours, mindsets and practices are also extractive, aligned perfectly with the economy we have in valuing growth and profit over anything else.

The way we have agreed to organise ourselves and our resources in the global economic system, around extraction and accumulation, is inequitable and degenerative. We know from climate change, land conversion and diversity loss that our current economic system places pressure on the planet. Let me remind you of some of the environmental costs of our current system:  

  • Today we use the equivalent of 1.5 planets to provide the resources we use and absorb our waste; and this means it now takes the Earth a year and a half to regenerate what we use in a year. 
  • According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the number of overfished stocks globally has tripled in half a century and today one-third of the world’s assessed fisheries are currently pushed beyond their biological limits. 
  • At the current consumption rate, by 2025, two-thirds of the world’s population may face water shortages. 

Stephanie acknowledged her role in supporting this extractive economy in her previous career before beginning her work towards a regenerative economy.

Towards repair and the regenerative economy

Much of the work undertaken at the organisation Stephanie founded, the Good Ancestor Movement, is underpinned by the Strategy Framework for a Just Transition developed by the Climate Justice Alliance, outlining how to get from where we are now to where we need to be as a global community by transforming our economy. Stephanie stated that for that to happen, we need to shift the purpose of the economy from being the accumulation of wealth and power to ecological and social wellbeing.

A regenerative economy is one where resources are used over and over again, economy centres around nature, ecological and social wellbeing, participatory democracy where communities are able to have a say over how their resources are managed and build shared prosperity which enables individuals to thrive. A critical component of a regenerative economy purpose is giving the communities most impacted by the current economic system self-determination and sovereignty so that they are able to govern their resources effectively and directly benefit from them, unlike the current system where a lot of control and power sits with institutions.

Philanthropic and private capital in the just transition

Stephanie went on to explain the role she thinks philanthropy needs to play in a just transition:

  1. Broadly speaking, the role of capital in the just transition is to build collective capacity of communities harmed by the extractive economy, and transfer power from institutions and individuals (including philanthropic funders) to communities who are developing their own solutions in response to multiple ecological and social crises. 
  2. The role of philanthropy is to actively build new economic systems that transfer the management and control of financial resources away from institutions and towards communities who have been impacted by wealth accumulation and the extractive economy.
  3. This requires funders to ensure endowments are invested in local and regional efforts that replenish community wealth and build community assets — like worker cooperatives and community land trusts — in ways that emphasise transformative impact while rejecting the need to maximise financial returns for the foundation. Grant making pay-out is set to a rate at which the foundation actively reduces its accumulated wealth (i.e., spends down).

Where do we go from here?

Stephanie shared what she calls ‘regenerative wealth practices’, which can apply to anyone in the funding space, whether you’re an individual or have wealth entrusted to you as a trustee or CEO of a foundation.

  1. Interrogate your participation in the extractive economy.

Many of the people we’re working with are seeking to minimise or, in some cases, eliminate their participation in the largely speculative mainstream investment universe which is fuelling a carbon intensive economy, and tends to concentrate capital in the hands of a small section of the population at the expense of communities. Whether you’re an institutional or private funder, looking at what your underlying capital is fuelling in the world is key. Prioritising financial returns over mobilising capital for the benefit of our environment and the communities most affected by the climate crisis is problematic in this decisive decade. 

  1. Invest in shaping a post-growth economy.  

Perpetual growth is fundamentally incompatible with planetary boundaries. Our current economy is structurally dependent on growth. As enticing as it may sound, the idea that we can keep growing our economy and decrease emissions is a fallacy. We do not need to produce and consume more; we need to ensure our resources are more equitably distributed. To quote economic anthropologist Jason Hickel: “Equality can be a substitute for growth”. There are a multitude of organisations working on new economic models and policies, like Doughnut Economics Action Lab and the New Economics Foundation, which will serve us in a post-growth future. 

  1. Tax reform.

Taxation is an investment in the commons. As a nation, we will not be able to reduce emissions unless we invest in interventions that will help decarbonise the economy and protect our environment at scale, in a manner only government is able to achieve. The tax justice movement is woefully underfunded in the UK and beyond, yet tax reform has an important role to play in supporting the transition. Ensuring the UK tax system supports a green and sustainable transition in a progressive and effective way is critical. Making the link between wealth inequality and the climate crisis is also important to acknowledge.

  1. Climate Justice.

I’ve noticed that people are becoming more fluent with the idea of climate justice but one thing I haven’t heard much about is the role of debt. Most of the climate finance that the world’s richest countries have provided to the global south is in the form of loans that pile on more debt. Half of external debt payments by lower income countries are to financial institutions such as banks, hedge funds and asset managers that have also profited from funding fossil fuels on a massive scale. They have profited while also contributing to the climate crisis. They are now preventing the most climate-vulnerable countries from limiting the damage they suffer. Funding debt justice organisations, standing in solidarity with nations regarding the cancellation of debt and refusing to prop up a financial system that profits from the climate crisis are all going to be key in ensuring a just transition for all. 

  1. Empower communities and movements.

Although this work feels heavy a lot of the time, one of the things I have found so heartening is the power that is found in movements and grassroots organising. Movements are key in catalysing social change. Resistance against apartheid, women’s rights movement, civil rights movements, LGBTQIA movements have all been critical in advancing social change in the past and are relevant to our present struggle. This is no different in the case of our environment. Uplift led by formidable international climate justice lawyer Tessa Khan is an amazing example of the kind of strategic campaigning groups we need to support and resource if we are to transition to a just and fossil fuel-free future in the UK. As someone who has recently completed the New Economy Organisers Network’s Spokesperson Network Training, I can vouch for how critical that movement infrastructure is for spreading regenerative ideas and advocating for our economic future.

At the end of her talk, Stephanie left us with one important question to ponder:

My invitation to you is to unite as a network and place yourselves in the shoes of future generations who will inhabit the world we leave and ask yourselves: are you being good ancestors?


Stephanie is founder and Chief Executive of the Good Ancestor Movement. The Good Ancestor Movement supports individuals and organisations with responsible wealth stewardship and radical redistribution.

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