In the last few years, sustainability as a concept, practice and way of life has gained widespread popularity and acceptance. In that time, huge strides have been made in the quest for climate action and general wellbeing of the planet. Climate strikes have been held and multi-billion dollar companies have been publicly called out for their toxic environmental policies. From what to buy, what to wear and even what to build, many decisions, private and public, are now taken with the sustainability component in mind.
However, in that time, an objective assessment will show that while there has been progress in awareness, the needle hasn’t moved much in actual concrete adoption of sustainability as a new way of life. Global warming has continued as carbon emissions remain on the rise. Mining the earth for minerals is still a thing and this extractive activity is far from over. A UN report outlined that ‘urgent, transformational’ change is needed to hold global warming to 1.5°C and required nations to pursue proactive forms of environmental sustainability. One of the processes and systems that has been proffered to achieve this is through the principle of regenerative sustainability.
Now like most other novel concepts, regenerative sustainability does not strictly have a definition that is concise or generally agreed upon. Not yet at least. At this point in time, the concept is generally understood as a process that enables our social and ecological systems not only to maintain a healthy state but also to evolve so as to meet future demands. Regenerative sustainability is a design philosophy. It preaches a better lifestyle through the making of improvements on as many physical systems around us as humanly possible so that we leave these systems better than we found them.
I will explain this with a metaphor. Assume briefly that the earth is a ship. The doctrine of sustainability dictates that we make sure to leave this ship no worse than we found it. Now this could mean putting up barriers so that more water does not enter our holds; a noble goal to be sure. But what happens if the water damage to our ship is already forcing us all to the bottom of the ocean? Clearly, merely putting up barriers in this instance would neither save our ship nor our future. Regenerative sustainability compels us to go a tad further than merely forestalling further water damage to our vessel. It preaches that we should take positive actions to mend our ship because it is even more important to leave the ship better than we met it.
According to sustainability expert Bill Reed, the underlying principle of regenerative sustainability came about as a natural progression in the journey to a more sustainable lifestyle. According to him, the first order in this journey was ‘business as usual’, a time when most of us were either unaware of the harm we were causing our environment or didn’t care enough to retrace our steps. He termed the second order “Green” which in practical terms was the period when various policies required us to tweak our harmful environmental practices a little, just enough to be seen as not breaking the law. Then comes the time of ‘sustainability’ where genuine efforts are made and channeled at not doing further harm to our planet. This order, he states, is insufficient though, because a lot of harm has already been done. Hence the progression to regenerative sustainability; an order that seeks the restoration to that which has already been harmed.
Now an important aspect of our existing systems where the idea of regeneration or restoration in this manner has made things considerably better is our global agricultural sector. Regenerative Agriculture is simply a system of farming principles or practices that increases biodiversity, enriches soils, improves watersheds, and enhances ecosystem services. This could be traced back to 1978 to its origins in permaculture, a concept developed by David Holmgren and Bill Mollison who believed that agriculture should models its methods on the natural ecosystem, where the community of plants and animal life work together and the tilling of soil is minimised.
Originally, the concept was named permanent agriculture and was later changed to permaculture when they realized that sustainability has social and development dimensions. Farmers that practice regenerative agriculture design their farming systems in such a way that after farming, their soils are left better off, with more nutrients and increased fertility, than before it was farmed.
A simple example here is the practice of including a pigsty on farmland. Before the end of the farming season, the waste from the pigs is used to introduce more nutrients to the land after farming. Sometimes, it is something as simple as adding coffee grounds to your lawn soil. Clearly sustainable agricultural practices might be content with answering the question “how do we farm so we don’t leave the land worse than we found it?” Regenerative agriculture however takes things a step further by compelling farmers to answer the question, “How do we farm so we leave the land better than we found it?”.
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This regenerative design culture has also extended to architecture because designers have begun to build houses that have a net-positive impact on the environment, economy and society. These instances show that regenerative sustainability is a whole system of restoration. It is a better approach to already harmed systems, a new way of looking at things and therefore can be applied to other sectors including social justice and development.
Apart from these obvious benefits, there are also other arguments for a transition to regenerative sustainability. One of these is the issue of nomenclature and perception. Over the past few years, the concept of sustainability has been highly abused and the term stretched to accommodate even the minimal forms of greenwashing by organizations. By its mere existence, regenerative sustainability sets the bar higher because in this case, the test changes from “are we doing any harm?” to “are we doing better?” The bar is raised here because no one can get away with the age-long excuse of ‘merely trying’.
All in all, regenerative sustainability is quite pivotal to the future of sustainability and the continued wellbeing of the planet. Ideally, it is the solution to all our woes but realistically, it is crucial to remember that no such concept is perfect. My slight concern is that as far as regenerative sustainability goes, we might focus more on its ideal and less on how to make it real. The ideal is that regenerative sustainability, as a lasting solution, requires a massive shift in the ideologies of individuals, corporations and world governments.
The ideal is that the system wide change needed to make regeneration a success can only be achieved with the active and committed participation of governments and corporations. The reality as most of us know is that this might be a tall order, especially as the necessary mind shift hinges on the ideology most members of the classes already mentioned have shown no interest in developing.
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This is where realism should be allowed to kick in because at the end of the day, regenerative sustainability should begin with one man’s practice or one woman’s adoption. It should begin with one company’s restorative step and yet another sector’s adoption of the implementation of better practices. The reality is imperfect but it’s where all the work is done and we all can do something no matter how little.
Focusing on the ideal is great, as long as we remember that the fight for better systems through regenerative sustainably is done by the boots actually on the ground.
Your boots as well as mine.
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