Mark Aink: “We’re not in a climate crisis, we’re in a connection crisis”

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“We’re not in a climate crisis, we’re in a connection crisis”

Author Paul Q. de Vries Photographer Diane van der Marel Published 21 June 2023 Read time 11 minutes

Creating a world in which we live in balance with our planet within ten years time: that is the goal of Decade of Action, starting with our food and agricultural system. Mark Aink, who founded the act-tank together with Li Hoekstra in 2020, says: “We are an undercurrent now, a swell, but soon we will become a wave.”

What is at the heart of the transition that Decade of Action is championing?

“Essentially, it’s about the values and culture that underlie our economy. Right now, these values are damaging nature, our planet and therefore ourselves. We have known this for years, decades even, but right now we find ourselves in the midst of the consequences: climate crisis, natural destruction, pollution, toxification, biodiversity loss, a nitrogen crisis, a water crisis and a health crisis. The transition towards a new paradigm has started, but it’s going far too slow. We are here to help accelerate that transition. A transition towards an ecology economy: an economy that does not destroy nature, but collaborates with it, and a culture that enables us to move from degeneration to regeneration.”  

Why is it taking so long for this change to materialise? 

“For a long time, there have been environmental movements, pioneers and sustainable initiatives and companies, but they all continue to work separately on a relatively small scale. And thus aren’t a serious match for the conservative forces that are doing everything they can to keep the old system intact. Only by collaborating and joining forces, we can create a movement that is so big, that change becomes irreversible. That’s our focus.” 

Which forces should come together? 

“Because of my background in advertising and business, for years I thought that the transition would happen through companies, because they can implement change quickly and have the means to be innovative. But gradually, I discovered that this isn’t enough. We need everyone to join forces: businesses, governments, citizens, activists, scientists, environmental organisations. It’s in the connection of all these stakeholders where the potential for serious change can be found.”

Mark Aink and Li Hoekstra, founders of Decade of Action. Photographer: Diane van der Marel
"We are an undercurrent now, a swell, but soon we will become a wave.” Photographer: Diane van der Marel

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A system that destroys the planet will never be able to feed the world

You talk about system change. How do you change a system?

“The American philosopher and writer Charles Eisenstein puts it like this: ‘How do we change the world? Change the story. Problems rest on top of systems, systems rest on top of stories.” So it’s about telling different stories regarding our place in the world, our relationship with nature and the new economy we can create. But this all starts with realising that we’re not separate from nature, but that we are part of all living systems and depend on them. Instead of fighting the existing system, therefore, I’m convinced that it’s far more effective to put a whole new attractive system next to it. We need a new story, a new perspective, because a system that destroys the planet will never be able to feed the world.”  

How do you go about this?  

“New perspectives inspire change. It’s our goal to connect all kinds of perspectives, lenses and points of view: the knowledge of scientists and the wisdom of indigenous people, but also the open-mindedness of young people and the innovative power of creatives, entrepreneurs and investors. This movement, called We Are The ReGeneration, brings together pioneers who are working in all these areas to contribute to the necessary shift. They’re smart and refreshing changemakers who don’t smother us with their morality, but instead inspire us by being the change themselves. Doers inspire new doers: they are the examples that you want to follow. On our content platform we tell the stories of these pioneers, so that their activities can inspire a growing group of people. Our focus is to weave, imagine, narrate and accelerate change.” 

To achieve this, We Are The ReGeneration focuses on three tipping points in the transition?

“Correct. Re-Connection is about our connection, our relationship with nature and the place nature takes in our worldview. Re-Growth focuses on redefining growth and creating new economic models that support rather than deplete the restorative capacity of ecological life-support systems. And Re-Generation is the restoration of ecological, economic and social systems. Starting with our food and agricultural system.

We decided to begin there, because we wanted to stare the monster in the eye. Food is something everyone can relate to and the agricultural crises are urgent, especially in the Netherlands. Long before nitrogen became an issue, there were problems with biodiversity, health, animal welfare, water quality, and farmers not earning a living wage. Furthermore, our country has pretty much invented industrial agriculture and, through Wageningen University and our multinationals, we impact food systems around the globe.”

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This movement grows from heart to heart, from person to person

Decade of Action is an “act-tank,” not a “think-tank. What does that mean?

“We already know everything we need to know: the science is here, the technologies are in place and the solutions are readily available. But we cling onto the old system like junkies. So it’s time for action, for a major cultural shift. However, you can’t expect people to change if they don’t know where to go: the contagious energy of the pioneers who are already embodying the change is needed. So what we do is we find these pioneers, connect them to each other, amplify their story, accelerate the movement and, in doing so, bring about the change we want to see in the world.” 

Why does Decade of Action ‘only’ give itself ten years to instigate such a fundamental change? 

“If we aren’t able to initiate the transition towards an ecology economy in ten years time, humanity is screwed anyway. In addition, we want to avoid the foundation becoming an end in itself, so in 2030, Decade of Action will cease to exist, we have even stipulated this in our statutes.

On the one hand, I feel dissatisfied and uneasy about how slow the change is going, but on the other hand, it is moving incredibly fast and we meet like-minded people everywhere. This movement grows from heart to heart, from person to person. When all raindrops unite to form a wave, change becomes inevitable.”

"Make no mistake, even though we are talking about an unprecedented cultural shift here, the genie is already out of the bottle." Photographer: Diane van der Marel

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What your people call your natural resources, our people call our relatives

You strongly believe that indigenous wisdom plays a crucial role in the transition. How did you get into contact with indigenous people?  

“I have a background in advertising and one day I found myself at a conference in Cambridge. At the hotel, I helped an elderly guy with a ponytail, who seemed lost, to find his room. It turned out that a day later, he was the keynote speaker: Oren Lyons, a faith keeper of the Turtle Clan of the Onondaga Nation, and also the UN advisor on indigenous rights. As he started to speak, I could literally feel the energy in the room shift. He initially spoke in his own native language, so I couldn’t understand him. But I completely got what he told us.”

So what exactly did he do?

“He began by thanking all the living beings around us. He mentioned the grass, the wind, the sun, the river, the birds, and so on. Later he talked about our view on nature, saying things like: ‘What your people call your natural resources, our people call our relatives.’ Since that encounter, every time I travelled, I’ve sought contact with tribal leaders and elders. With the Masai in Kenya, the Sami in Lapland, the Aboriginals in Australia, the Native Americans in North America. Their message, time and time again, is: everything is interconnected and interdependent. We are nature. The root of the problem is that we behave as if we don’t belong, as if we are not part of this planet. 

Last year, Chief Dádá was in the Netherlands: he is an important leader of indigenous actions against deforestation in the Amazon rainforest. When I asked him about the word for ‘nature’ in his native language, he replied: ‘Casa… home.’ That says it all, doesn’t it? As far as I am concerned, we’re not in a climate crisis, we’re in a connection crisis. That is why indigenous leaders are such a great source of inspiration: they can be our guides to relearn how to live in connection with nature. Because only then we will start to see its beauty, fall in love with life all over again and begin to feel responsible, cherish and guard the miracle we call our home planet.”

Co-founder of Decade of Action Li Hoekstra. Photographer: Diane van der Marel
"What your people call your natural resources our people call our relatives." Photographer: Diane van der Marel

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The root of the problem is that we behave as if we don't belong, as if we are not part of this planet

You’ve spent years working as a strategist for large international companies, taking a peek behind the scenes of capitalism. Is this where you learned how things should not be done?

“No, it’s where I learned how things should be done. Companies like Apple and Nike don’t build strong brands, they build strong cultures. Just like Patagonia: they started from a niche position and, due to their strong culture-driven mission and their very distinctive, outspoken communication’s strategy, managed to develop into one of the biggest and most beautiful brands in the world. To the point where now they actually belong to and are able to influence popular culture, because they managed to attract an ever growing group of frontrunners over the years. That very same thing is what we are trying to achieve with We Are The ReGeneration. Our target group consists of what we call Cultural Creatives: people who value equality, health, consciousness, biodiversity, justice, balance and nature. These people are not characterised by certain demographics, but by their values and how they view and value life.”

So you’re still a marketing man, but now for a different purpose?

“There are definitely similarities between my work then and now. Most of all, I’m still fascinated by what moves people and how that can lead to change. And we still want to connect people with a story and portray that in a contagious and attractive way. Only now it’s not about buying a product, but about accelerating the transition towards a healthy life on a healthy planet. Our client is planet Earth. And our story is that we have ten years to work on three tipping points, change our culture and create a life that is in balance with our home planet.”

Do you see a willingness to embrace that story given the current political and bureaucratic climate?

“Politically and bureaucratically, it will remain chaotic for quite some time, both nationally and globally. In fact, it may well get worse before it gets better: it often takes a phase of chaos for a new system to be born. Big developments do not start in the mainstream: they start in the niche, in the frayed edges, where the geeks and pioneers work towards a better future. Right now, our movement is an undercurrent, a swell, but soon we will become a wave, which will turn the tide and change our culture. Make no mistake, even though we are talking about an unprecedented cultural shift here, the genie is already out of the bottle.”

Who is Mark Aink?

In 1990, Mark Aink started his career as an account director at the renowned advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi, for which he worked in Amsterdam and London. Afterwards, he worked in Stockholm and Los Angeles. Back in the Netherlands, he worked at TBWA, before founding INDIE with two partners, winning numerous international creative and effectiveness awards and becoming Agency of the Year. In 2012 he left INDIE to start NATIVE circles, helping companies and organisations that take care of the planet and all the creatures on it, to clarify and sharpen their strategy, culture, communication and branding. In his words, Mark “helps businesses become native to this place, reconnecting them with nature and their own nature. Because great brands don’t build brands, they build great cultures.” In 2020, together with Li Hoekstra, he started Decade of Action, to transition towards a world in which we live in balance with our planet within ten years time.

Photographer: Diane van der Marel