Julianne Lutz Warren, Center for Humans and Nature


Toward Generativity: An Uneasy Word of Hope

By Julianne Lutz Warren

Generativity does not slide off the tongue easily. But this six-syllable word that is gangly knees and elbows has been growing on Julianne Lutz Warren. It is a word by which twentieth century developmental psychologist Erik Erikson meant taking intimate responsibility for others, particularly future generations. More recently, Warren noticed that Journey of the Universe authors Brian Swimme and Mary Evelyn Tucker used “generativity” to describe the nature of the Cosmos wherein, over fourteen billion years, destruction and origination have tended toward increasing diversity of elements—hydrogen, carbon, uranium—evolving complexity of relationships—atoms, molecules, stars—and, at least on Earth, life and conditions for more bodies of life—clubmoss, house wrens, wolverines—with various forms of discernment, including empathy, and the inventive intellect, memory, and moral imagination of meaning-making humanity.

Generativity is a madcap word, Warren says, whose advances became harder for her to resist the more she’s lived amid extremes of human density, ranging from Manhattan to interior Alaska, where she’s been astonished by complex relationships dynamic with tension. In Central Park during spring migration, for example, Warren once heard a Bicknell’s thrush, a rare bird that breeds on a few northeastern U.S. mountain tops, singing alongside starlings, which many consider an exotic pest. In interior Alaska, grizzlies and children fish the same rivers and an industrial miner and an Earth First! supporter turn out to be the same woman. Generativity is a word that became harder for Warren to resist, at the same time, as she has worked for global climate justice. It may take success in city-wide fossil fuel divestment and energy and cultural innovations in New York, for example, to help transform Alaska’s fossil fuel based economy, she believes.

There are no simple answers to the question of how human beings might live in ways that mutually prosper this interdependent world-of-life. And, generativity—eyes sparkling with cosmic mysteries, mouth raving about this gold-veined Earth-of-life made of stardust—offers none. It does, however, beckon to us to try.

Humanity, along the arrow of deep time, has evolved as one of the increasingly diverse and complexly interrelated forms of life on Earth, Warren explains. Given that human beings are born of a world characterized by generativity—which Warren summarily defines as the capacity to be life-enhancing—what unplumbed possibilities, she wonders, are we carrying around within ourselves for expressing it?

For instance, we may tell stories that shape and re-shape the world and thus our future stories in countless ways, including shifting the arts and sciences of human living to more authentically reflect the integrated resilience of flourishing life—of whole communities and their individual self-willed members—inseparably healthy and beautiful.

The open-ended question of how to express human generativity resonant with Earth’s helps Warren—a former trumpeter who also has been occupied with linguistics, farming, wildlife ecology, intellectual biography, American conservation history, and creative writing—connect, append, and focus her own seemingly diverse pursuits. Moreover, she dreams of generativity expanding into an inclusive cultural paradigm generous with prospects. Understanding disciplines and fragmented special interests as windows into the same interdependent world may even energize people to reach beyond paradigms. Such a reaching, as systems scientist Donella Meadows suggested, might radically empower humanity, including us literature and environment types, Warren underscores, to purposely and effectively—without denying their gravity—face the emergencies and grief of the Anthropocene with critical hope.


Indeed, outside of generativity, Warren doesn’t believe that narratives of sustainability—or environmentalism, natural resource conservation, or wilderness preservation, as important as their influences remain—are up to the task of turning today’s dominating trends. These trends include the recent destruction of her hometown Prattsville, NY—swept away during the record flooding of Hurricane Irene. Although, she is quick to point out, the fossil fuel culture she participates in is the cause of such increasingly intense weather events, whereas, the lifestyles of the Filipinos suffering or killed because of Hurricane Haiyan are not.

Regarding her critique of sustainability, Warren further explains that a decade ago, while a graduate student doing scientific field work and studying the writings of 20th century ecological thinker Aldo Leopold, she became frustrated with popular “sustainability talk.” It seemed to her that it too easily billowed away from the real interrelationships she was studying and the Leopoldian practice of carefully ground-truthing human imaginations of the world’s workings. As Warren worked on what became her intellectual biography of Leopold, she voiced her frustration in a now-anthologized article dissenting against sustainability as a cultural ideal.

As a suckling on the 1970s agrarian dreams of plant geneticist Wes Jackson, Warren says, sustainability grew as healthily as a perennial polyculture-inspiring native prairie. Apart from “The Land,” however, it became apparent to Warren that sustainability’s eternal toothlessness prevented gripping who or what is holding up whom or what, and how and why (aside from the popular aim of human survival).

Responses to such questions, of course, and the stories unfolding from them, Warren emphasizes, form the critical context for science—for example, determining to what degrees its evidences are sought or used for sustenance-by-dominance (e.g., Green Revolutionaries sustaining single-minded monoculture agriculture with new generations of fossil fueled technologies); for mutual nourishment of humans and other life (e.g., [Wes] Jacksonians tailoring their food-getting to the intricate integrity of sustaining biodiversity-fecund soils); or are compelled by wonder (e.g., beauty-charmed humans studying the gilding process of monarch chrysalises).

Moreover, although sustainability has a wide open mouth—a potential space for democratic exchanges of ideas—its mealiness tends to prevent deepening consensus and transformation. People seem often to escape in their original opposite directions, kept apart by perspectives that mutually exclude each other’s desires and expanding compassion.


Rangy, high-spirited generativity, on the other hand, as Warren fancies it, bites into the most inclusive of perspectives. Its creative genius is nourished by respect for the demonstrated life-enhancing capacities of the Earth born of a Cosmos of self-patterning possibility. Retaining sustainability’s vital care for future generations, diverse cultures of human generativity, she emphasizes, unambiguously define the who or what of Earth that should cycle on—the full diversity of life in self-renewing relationships—with a mindset reflecting all beings woven into a net of reciprocal relationships upholding themselves.

People adapting to the whole diverse community of life’s “capacity for self-renewal” was the ideal ecologist Aldo Leopold called “land health.” Land health was the visionary direction towards which his famous land ethic drove: “A thing is right if it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community.” Given the still-expanding global sweep of human influence today, a thing is right, Warren stresses, if it tends toward generativity. Generativity encompasses land health—as land health encompassed natural resource conservation (e.g., keeping up flows of timber and game) and wilderness preservation (e.g., protecting integrated remains of long co-evolved, self-willed, and self-renewing relationships among all forms of life across landscapes and using land in stabilizing ways encouraging future ones to emerge). It conceives the beauties of whole Earth health, connecting climate, soil, and biodiversity, including human beings and diverse cultures.

Generativity, that is, acclimates twentieth-century Leopoldian awareness of our species’ intimate interdependency with ancient, self-organizing, evolving, and “slowly augmenting” communities of soils, waters, plants, and other animals to the twenty-first century Anthropocene. For example, Warren explains, a mindset of generativity now more explicitly incorporates into its complex scientific concept of Earth its bedrock—and the fossil hydrocarbons of ancient life stored there—and the gaseous composition of its atmosphere. It more intentionally considers relationships between rocks, oil and water, fire and air, biodiversity, cultural diversity, aesthetics, justice and happiness. Warren is deeply encouraged, for example, by the generativity emerging among university students, particularly those involved in the Fossil Fuel Divestment movement. Understanding divestment as a leverage point for cultural transformation and all sorts of innovation, many of this rising generation are eagerly exploring history, literature, music, theater, sociology, and science, imaginatively interweaving all they’re learning into fresh narratives about caring human relationships. On the ground, they test out their ideas, trying to embody skillful care on farms and in cities, which may be the same places, and revise their ideas as needed based on real-world experience. Many are determinedly forging friendships across generations, classes, religions, ethnicities, genders, and species to vitalize Earth-community democracy. Young adult leaders are organizing civil society, like Belinda Rodriguez’s “Momentum Training” for skilled non-violent direct action, protecting space for play of the wild, diverse self-wills of human nature.

With the purchase of accumulating scientific and other empirical knowledge and a shared, but unconfined sense of purpose, Warren also understands that old and new cultures of generativity echo with mystery, with the many senses we have of not-knowing. They spiral forward allowing margins of error for actions with unintended consequences. They dignify exchanges of life and death. They honor limits and are inspired by what is limitlessness.

Cultures of generativity also incorporate ambiguity, making them wombs of insight. Warren urges. Growing appreciation for how things can be perceived in multiple ways by multiple beings with multiple senses must release Earth’s life from steel-trap ideologies—like the one that, ignoring interdependency, says, “the highest use of e.g., the land, the oil, the knowledge, the corporate shares is to make more money for myself.” In fact, if there is a key rule for any world of generativity, perhaps it is akin to what Czech author Milan Kundera calls the “wisdom of uncertainty”—an antidote to dogma that characterizes good novels. Ambiguity also is a vital principle of democratic justice. Reflecting the weltering cosmos, no one element or perspective may dominate the others if the story—or the shimmering star, the unique living being, the human society (or economy, or city, or nation), or the whole Earth community—interconnected bedrock to atmosphere—is to live on telling “generativity” in new ways.

Julianne Lutz Warren is a Fellow at the Center for Humans and Nature and author of Aldo Leopold’s Odyssey (2006).