From sustainability to regenerativity: when sustainable is no longer enough

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Something like that is happening with "sustainability", the trendy concept among companies and organizations, whose meaning is being diluted by marketing strategies. Sustainability, on the one hand, is becoming a catch-all word, and on the other, is being presented as a solution for our future when, in reality, it is no more than just a first step towards solving our climate, environmental and social problems.

To illustrate why, let's think of a person. Let's give him a name: Peter. Peter is a middle-aged man, a heavy smoker and a fan of sausages and red meat. He has a position of responsibility and carries a high level of stress. Peter has hypertension, he has known it for years, but he continues with his habits because he doesn't know any better. Until, one day he got a scare; in the form of a cardiac arrest. That's when he decides to listen to his doctor and reduce his harmful habits. The problem is that, at that point, the doctor warns him that it is not enough: his heart is damaged and it is no longer enough to reduce these practices, he must eliminate them completely and, in addition, incorporate new ones, such as meditation or sport, to undo the damage. To regenerate his organism.

Our planet, like Peter, is a living organism (that it also includes all life forms, such as humans). And like him, it has reached a critical point that compromises its future. A point at which the reduction of harmful habits to harmless or sustainable levels is no longer enough but requires a radical change in the way it does everything, a rethinking of its most basic and deep-rooted dynamics. Our planet needs to regenerate, to undo the damage it has received in order to begin to heal itself. The good news is that the Earth has the resources and mechanisms to achieve this. The not so good news is that these changes require a great effort -basically from humans- and, above all, sacrifices in the short and medium term; what means redefine our ways of living.

Regenerativity is the movement that proposes this paradigm shift, a sort of evolution of the idea of sustainability that proposes not only to eliminate toxic habits, but also to unlearn them, reset ourselves and rethink our relationship with the planet, with its "resources", with others and with ourselves. Ambitious? Of course. Necessary? Even more so.

Regenerative approaches are holistic and range from culture to the economy, but if there is one area that has demonstrated its effectiveness in a paradigmatic way, it is agriculture.

Regenerative agriculture seeks, precisely, the regeneration of the soil, damaged after centuries and centuries of aggressive exploitation. And it does so through mechanisms that, far from sophisticated or elaborate techniques, propose a return to the origins: to provide nature with its own tools, the same ones we once stole from it, to recover the logic and natural cycles that made the Earth an Eden before our intervention. Thus, through the promotion of biodiversity, the improvement of the water cycle and the recycling of organic and agricultural waste as compost, among other measures, regenerative agriculture seeks to return to the earth, to the soil, the lost importance and health. In short, it means taking a position of humility towards the soil's own natural self-regulating mechanisms, instead of forcing it to adapt to our times, interests and, sometimes, whims.

The interesting thing about regenerative agriculture is that, apart from contributing to a healthier diet and to the fight against climate change (the soil absorbs and stores a huge amount of carbon), it has been shown that, in the long run, it is also more profitable for the farmers themselves, since the soil is constantly being enriched, is more fertile and produces better and more resistant crops. And this is where we come back to Peter: at first, changing his eating habits, starting to meditate and doing moderate sports seems like a sacrifice of epic proportions, but as he gets used to them he discovers not only that he feels much better, but also that he has found new ways to enjoy life and to connect with himself and the world.

So is it possible to rethink and improve the way we relate to the planet as a species? It is. It is possible and it is necessary. And there are already people and institutions that have taken action. Capital Institute, for example, is an organization that works on research and implementation of regenerative theories in the economy.They are not the only ones: frameworks such as Degrowth or the so-called Economy of the Common Good, which reverse the traditional capitalist logic of exponential growth and set limits to this from both scientific and ethical precepts, have already been proposed. In the case of Regenerative Economics, Capital Institute proposes eight basic principles, starting with a key and foundational one: humanity is an integral part of an interconnected life system, there is no real separation between "us" and "the rest"; damage inflicted against any part of that network affects the entire network, including ourselves.

It is easy to see the difference between such an approach and what we know today as "sustainability". According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) we need "urgent, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all facets of our society". What is it an "urgent, far-reaching and unprecedented change": replacing plastic straws with cardboard ones? Is it enough to launch campaigns to promote recycling among society or would more ambitious actions be necessary to ensure maximum reuse of resources? Is it possible to maintain this utopia of "green growth" or should we assume once and for all that such a concept has always been an oxymoron?

There is no point in continuing to act on the consequences without questioning the causes: continuous growth and its externalities, the contradictions of hypercapitalism. It seems that the only thing we are trying to make sustainable is a system that we know is obsolete.

Regenerative thinking considers that any attempt to incorporate effective environmental measures into the traditional logic of capitalism is doomed to failure.

That is why, when personalities such as Al Gore promise "higher world GDP growth" thanks to the green economy, all the alarms go off, because to become obsessed with an indicator that rewards wild growth without including ecological or social criteria, is certainly a bad starting point. It is time to propose new indicators of well-being (global and holistic) that abandon the hegemony of economic growth.

The writer and great advocate of the Regenerative paradigm, Jeremy Lens, speaks directly in terms of civilization: "We need to change the foundations of our global civilization. We need to move from a civilization based on producing wealth to one based on maintaining the health of living systems: an ecological civilization". The historical moment demands a radical change, will we be able to embrace it or will we continue to flee forward to continue growing at all costs? Will we choose a regenerative future that allows us to improve symbiotically with the planet or one that is doomed to collapse? It seems obvious what the right decision is. Whether we make it or not will directly depend on the very survival of this living and interconnected organism of which, however separate we may feel, we are only a part.

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May 30, 2021 — W3ST

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