Why sustainability is no longer enough, yet still very important on the road to regeneration
Redesigning the human impact on Earth, bioregion by bioregion
For many people achieving sustainability might seem already like a visionary goal that is difficult to reach. Yet, we need to do even better to respond adequately to the converging crises ahead.
Just looking at the situation with regard to climate change alone, we have to now face the reality that we are in the midst of dangerous run-away (self-reinforcing) climate change. The window of opportunity to avoid catastrophic irreversible climate change is closing.
In reality there are already many climate catastrophes affecting people and biodiversity around the world. Maybe we should speak of ‘irreversible cataclysmic climate change’ as that is what we are rushing towards if we do not fundamentally redesign the human presence and impact on Earth.
Let me talk you through a framework developed by my friend and colleague Bill Reed, together with the team at Regenesis Group and in collaboration with Carol Sanford. It explains why we need to do more than just be sustainable and also why sustainability is still very important as a milestone along the road to regeneration.
As we move from business as usual — complying with minimum regulations enough to stay out of jail — to “green” we start to celebrate ourselves or our company for voluntarily doing a little less damage than we are legally allowed to get way with. It is true that this could be called ‘green washing’ and yet it is also a step in the right direction, even if only in response to growing public demand for companies to become part of the solution rather than the problem.
When we reach being “sustainable” we have arrived at the neutral point. Bill McDonough likes to say: “sustainable means 100% less bad”. It means not adding any more damage, but after 250 years of industrialization and 5000 years of deforestation and agriculture that is no longer enough.
We need to do more than simple be sustainable. We have to begin to reverse the damage we have already done! It is also important to point out that there are many people working on sustainability projects who hold a deeper vision for sustainability that is very much akin to what this article describes as ‘regenerative’.
So the next stage on this spectrum in which one stage transcends and included the other is to practice restorative design. That is to say we reforest and engineer — often large scale interventions in ecosystems. Yet, we do so from a mind-set of humanity as master over nature. The result are, for example large monoculture plantations of Eucalyptus in already water stressed areas.
Only if we take the step towards reconciling nature and culture & embrace uncertainty as being fundamental to the dynamics of the complex socio-ecological-systems we participate in will we be able to chart our path into the future through appropriate participation in the way that life creates conditions conducive to life.
Merely being sustainable is no longer enough, we need to learn to design as nature, engage in regenerative design and development, and create diverse regenerative cultures elegantly adapted to the bio-cultural uniqueness of place. Such cultures would design as nature understanding themselves as healers of local ecosystems and humble caretakers of the community of life — biodiversity — that shares a unique place with us.
In the process of global-local (glocal) collaboration in regionally focussed and locally implemented regenerative development we are matching people to their places again. Meeting the needs of people through elegant solutions that pay attention to the story of place, the uniqueness of local culture and local ecosystems and the opportunity and challenges that arise from those.
There is a groundswell of activity around the planet baring testimony that many of us have not given up yet nor are longer willing to let the shortsightedness and greed of a few put an early end to our promising but still young and somewhat immature species.
To shift in time we need to be greener, more sustainable, engage in wide spread ecosystems restoration, reconcile nature and culture and change the guiding cultural narrative about who we are and what we are here for. Regenerative development works with and builds on all of the stages in the spectrum.
Just because the term ‘regenerative’ is gripping people’s imagination we should not dismiss the need for more sustainable practices, we simply need to see them as steps along the way and integrate them into a regenerative regional development process that involves people in place.
There is a confluence of activities, frameworks, initiatives that seems to agree on the need for bioregional transformation as the appropriate scale of implementation. We can improve planetary health bioregion by bioregion and ecosystem by ecosystem.
Regeneration, planetary health, resilience building, and regional ecosystems restoration are activities that mutually reinforce each other and help us to both begin the process of reversing climate change and prepare for the decades ahead when despite our best efforts climate chaos will lead to localized breakdowns and catastrophes.
The promise ahead — if we unite in glocal solidarity and bioregional collaboration to redesign our impact in Earth — is that towards the latter half of this Century we will begin to see atmospheric concentrations of CO2 and other greenhouse gases decline. Climate patterns will begin to re-stabilize as global forest cover drastically increases, biodiversity loss slows down rapidly, and bioproductivity increases as healthy ecosystems functions are restored.
If we — our species — manage to not just prevail, but thrive and flourish in the 22nd century and beyond, if we pass through and grow wise as we undergo a species-level right of passage that lies ahead of us, if we cocreate a thriving future by redesigning the human impact on Earth, if we become a mature species that creates conditions conducive to life, then we will look back at the 21st Century as the Century of Regeneration.
A lot of ‘if’s? Allied with the community of life and committed to each other we can achieve these transformations. It will be worth it. Let me me frank the alternative will be a hothouse planet that is uninhabitable for higher life forms like us. It is time to come home into the family of life. Regeneration Rising!
“Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination, calls you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting — over and over announcing your place in the family of things.”
— Mary Oliver
Daniel Christian Wahl — Catalyzing transformative innovation in the face of converging crises, advising on regenerative whole systems design, regenerative leadership, and education for regenerative development and bioregional regeneration.
Author of the internationally acclaimed book Designing Regenerative Cultures
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