August 22nd was a day of importance that very few have come to recognize. This late summer day was determined to be 2012’s Earth Overshoot Day, the point in which humanity exhausted nature’s budget for the year. This means that during the 140 days between August 23rd and December 31st, the planet will have to operate in overdraft, running an ecological deficit by drawing down resource stocks and accumulating greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The first Earth Overshoot Day occurred in 1970, signifying the initial year human demand for natural services outstripped nature’s ability to resupply them. In 1992, Earth Overshoot Day fell on October 21st. In 2002, it was on October 3rd. Again, this year on August 22nd. Given current and projected future development trends, one thing is clear, Earth Overshoot Day will continue to arrive earlier and earlier each year.
In an effort to capture this trajectory, the Global Footprint Network created the following ‘speedometer’ which examines the percentage of biocapacity (or number of earths) humans have required over the years. It’s interactive, so have a play with it to see how the numbers add up for yourself.
To address the increasing demand for environmental services and its incurring ecological degradation, a growing number of progressive citizens, industry leaders and governing bodies have been calling for sustainable development. This has come to represent a model of development that works to create a steady and stable state in the future where human needs can be met generation upon generation without adversely effecting the environment. The primary strategies used to approach this future state have been those of identifying and alleviating the unfavorable effects of conventional development and using technology and innovation to improve resource efficiencies. These efforts have proven to be incredibly valuable, bringing much needed attention to environmental issues and slowing down the rate of ecological degradation throughout many parts of the world. But despite this noble work, many are coming to recognize that the strategies driving the sustainability movement are inherently incapable of addressing the complexity or scale of challenges that we face now and into the future. This insufficiency is centered around three significant blind spots that are generally left out of the sustainability discourse.
The first blindspot involves a lack of connectivity and interdependence of the issues that are encompassed within the sustainability challenge. Progressives frequently site a growing number of global crises that require unique and urgent attention, from energy, food, water, and waste crises, to economic, infrastructure, and carbon crises. All of these crises have received a significant amount of attention over the years, each with their own institutions, NGOs, conferences, journals, websites, funding mechanisms, etc. Again, the work happening here is incredibly well-intended, but the concern is that by approaching these issues in isolation of each other, we fail to acknowledge a deeper systemic understanding of how they all relate to each other, or what may have caused them to develop in the first place. This approach to ‘problem solving’ relies upon a method of development that is pathogenic instead of salutogenic, treating symptoms instead of root causes. The result is redundancies and ineffective strategies that often exacerbate problems elsewhere.
The second blindspot addresses the notion of there being a ‘steady and stable’ state in the future that can be set as a target to strive towards. This quite frankly is a myth. Congruent to all living systems, the planet is constantly evolving, changing, growing and producing new forms of life. It can never rest in a steady or stable equilibrium, thus implying that setting this as a target is misleading and ineffective. This blindspot may seem trivial, but the myth of a steady and stable state is deeply embedded within the thinking of many who work within sustainable development. It directly influences the vision of a project being developed, the values it is founded upon, what priorities are established, and what is deemed successful development. The concept of backcasting used by the Natural Step framework is a prime example of this myth being used within the field. This approach to sustainability is built around the strategy of ‘beginning with the end in mind’ and taking a step by step approach towards this predetermined goal. This of course is very effective in a static or mechanical environment, but in an ever changing, living and evolving world, there can never be an end to backcast from. Our goal should be less ‘working back’ from things and more ‘working towards’ enhancing our capacity to ‘stay in the game of evolution’.
The third blindspot builds upon the first two, while also addressing the earth overshoot identified earlier. The majority of leading projects within sustainable development have established their definition of success as ‘impact neutral’, meaning that the specific entity being developed will have successfully purged all of its negative, unsustainable effects. It is incredibly important to get to this point, but if and when we are to become a fully sustainable society in the future where all of our pollution and wastes have been eliminated, the ecological overshoot that has been occurring for 40+ years now (and will continue for presumably decades ahead) would not be accounted for. To date, there’s been minimal talk of how this deficit will be addressed (outside of geoengineering), and these years of degradation will need to be considered if we want to maintain a stable biosphere to live within. Long story short, our work must fundamentally shift from sustainability’s emphasis on ‘being less bad’ to a model of development that actively aims to ‘be more good’. We can no longer afford to set our sights on merely sustaining, we need to regenerate.
The term ‘regenerate’ has several denotations, but it generally represents one of three things. First, a radical change for the better. Second, the creation of a new spirit. And third, returning energy to the source. These characteristics helped inspire a group of permaculture experts and corporate consultants to get together in the mid 90′s around a call to apply the principles of living systems within the business and development fields. The connections made from this gathering helped to form the Regenesis Group, a firm that has been deeply rooted in pioneering what they’ve come to call regenerative development.
What it comes down to is that the principles of regenerative development can blow everything we’ve come to know about sustainable development right out of the water. The philosophy goes to the root cause of human imbalance with the planet, and offers a surprisingly fresh approach on how to reconcile this relationship. In its essence, regenerative development is centered around the idea that the earth can be healed and regenerated through human development. This recognition comes from the understanding that humans have always developed the places they’ve inhabited, and that many cultures throughout history have had symbiotic and sophisticated partnerships with the land that can come to be seen as mutually enhancing. The goal of regenerative development is to rekindle this wisdom, partner it within the evolutionary insights of modern science, and apply it to the development and regeneration of physical places.
It is from the context of this seemingly lost ecological awareness that regenerative development truly comes alive. Take this for example: it is generally assumed that native people have lived in the ‘wilderness’ – off of the land so to speak – doing basic agriculture but primarily foraging, gathering, hunting, fishing and trapping. This assumption implies that respect was paid to the land by having a very light footprint with limited ecosystem intervention. Well, would you believe it if you were told that when the Western pioneers first stepped foot into what would later be known as California, 95% of the land was already being actively managed? It’s a startling statistic, but true. You see, our modern presumption of nature being best off when left in a state of wilderness is actually the opposite of what native peoples have come to believe. They feel that when humans are gone from an area long enough, they lose the practical knowledge about correct interaction, and the plants and the animals retreat spiritually from the earth or hide from humans.
Building upon this, M. Kat Anderson wrote in her book Tending the Wild:
. . . contemporary Indians often use the word ‘wilderness’ as a negative label for land that has not been taken care of by humans for a long time, for example, where dense understory shrubbery or thickets of young trees block visibility and movement.
And correspondingly, James Rust, a Southern Miwok elder said:
The white man sure ruined this country. It‘s turned back to wilderness.
It’s also worth noting that the indigenous footprint was hardly light. It went far beyond growing corn and picking off a few buffalo here and there. As Thomas Morton, an early American colonist who was famed for his work studying Native Americans, wrote in his diary, “The salvages are accustomed to set fire of the country in all places where they come, and to burn it twice a year, at the Spring, and the fall of the leaf.”
Recognizing this degree of indigenous peoples’ interaction with the land is of utmost importance. It fundamentally shifts our perception of what it means to be a human being on the planet, and at its core, it forces us to re-envision our definition of progress. You see, this notion of wilderness as the ideal state for ecosystem health is a dominant myth in our contemporary culture. It sits above and influences nearly everything, particularly those who have come to identify themselves as champions of the progressive and environmental movements. These groups have spent generations fighting tooth and nail to save open spaces, agricultural land, and waterways from human development (understandably so given our track record!). Just look at our beloved National Park systems, the environmentalists’ crown jewel. These are essentially blocks of land that have been roped off from surrounding areas with the underlying message, ‘here nature, do you what you do in here, and we’ll keep doing what we do out there’. This is basically an admission that we have lost our ability to relate to the land, and that to appreciate and honor it we should merely pass through it and observe it without leaving a trace. This belief turns out to be incredibly detrimental as the idea of ‘passing through and observing’ reinforces a message of duality or separation of humans from the rest of the living world. It is this duality, this withdrawal from nature, that has come to represent the root cause of our modern ecological predicament, and this root cause is rarely brought into the sustainable development discourse.
Regenerating a Shift of Mind
This notion of duality is fundamentally important because when we separate ourselves from nature, a likely response is to see the world as indifferent or even hostile to our own self-interests. The environment is not seen as a living ecosystem of which we are inextricably linked within, but is viewed as a collection of material things that serve more value to us when exploited and commoditized. Correspondingly, this divergent mentality extends into the social sphere as other people are viewed primarily as competitors in a ‘dog eat dog’ world that rewards those who can accumulate the most social status in the form of material possessions and power. It’s not difficult to see how this mentality of separation and individualism has driven our current model of development and generated the ecological predicament that we now find ourselves in.
In stark contrast to this, regenerative development requires us to embody a state of non-duality, or union, with the rest of life. It compels us to work as nature, opposed to merely doing things to nature. This entails going even deeper than the leading edge of systems thinking (the uncovering of the interconnected and complex nature of the world) and into the realm of systems being. It recognizes that we are the system, that there is and can never be any separation of humans from the web of life that we wholly depend upon. When we release toxins into the environment, we quickly discover them infiltrating our own bodies through the food we eat, the water we drink, and the air we breathe. In essence, what we do to nature, we do to ourselves. This perspective can help us come to see the planet and its life supporting systems as part of our ‘extended body’. A natural response to this understanding is of care and compassion as it becomes our own self-interest to actively manage the health and integrity of the living systems that we rely upon. And again, ample inspiration can be drawn from indigenous worldviews as nonduality has been a pillar to their way of being. Of the 260 predominant Native American tribes, not a single one of them had a word in their vocabulary for ‘nature’. They were quite literally incapable of conceptualizing any separation between man and his greater environment. From this perspective, causing harm to an ecological system would be perceived as a form of self-mutilation.
Fortunately, the principles of nonduality and living systems are being supported by a wave of modern science. According to evolutionary bioligist Elisabet Sahtouris, Western science is ‘very rapidly changing toward an understanding of nature as alive, self-organizing, intelligent, conscious or sentient and participatory at all levels. In this newer framework biological evolution is holistic, intelligent and purposeful’. This tells us that we’ve found ourselves in an incredibly fascinating time that has science shifting from a fragmented way of viewing the world to a whole systems way of experiencing it. Understanding and embodying this message is the significant leap our culture must make in the years ahead, and it is from this state of awareness, this shift of mind, that humans can feel empowered to consciously contribute to the broader development of living systems.
A New Definition of Progress
With an understanding of living systems as a philosophical and scientific foundation to build upon, it becomes clear that the modern targets for success within conventional sustainable development are quite absurd. Because life is constantly evolving, we can never restore something to its original condition, nor develop anything to rest in a sustainable state. Life functions as an ongoing process of reciprocal relationships, a process by which living things support and are supported by a larger whole. There is quite literally no such as a sustainable product, a sustainable building, or a sustainable anything if it is built within an unsustainable system. Imagining a sustainable product is like imagining a sustainable organ in your body. This isolation serves little value to the health of the whole.
Let’s explore this through a couple of examples. A standard definition of a sustainable car would be one that is powered entirely by renewable energy and comprised of materials that are infinitely recyclable or biodegradable. This would be a marvel of engineering by conventional standards, but this car would have little to no responsibility for the detrimental impacts of the roads, bridges, urban congestion or other societal costs of which it would rely upon to function. Furthermore, as we busily develop these sustainable cars, we could at the same time be just as busy constructing more roads, more parking lots and more petrol-based cars to meet more pressing demands. This would be one step forward, two steps back, and by today’s standards we would call this process ‘sustainable development’.
Similarly, we could innovate a new Cradle to Cradle certified bioplastic bag and release it to the market under great praise of being forward-thinking sustainability champions. But this product, as well-intended it may be, would be loaded with unintended consequences. If one of these bio-bags happened to find its way into the recycling process with conventional petro-plastics, it would destroy the chemical integrity of the entire stream of recyclables it was mixed within and the whole batch would have to be discarded. Furthermore, many of the new bioplastics are incapable of being composted through conventional processes, so they must be discarded as waste. In a nutshell, bioplastics are a great idea and will play an important role into the future, but without the appropriate infrastructure they can cause more harm than benefit.
Looking at this from another angle… a regenerative developer would not ask ‘how do we manage fish populations more sustainably?’ but would rather ask, ‘how do we live with the fish in a way that enables both ourselves and marine ecosystems to evolve and thrive?’ This is a radically different approach towards development and can help guide us in redefining progress as improving the health of whole systems, not merely the optimization of parts, which as discussed earlier currently drives the sustainability agenda.
Applying Regenerative Development to Place
So we’ve now determined a fundamental need to regenerate, as well as the ideological shift that must take place to embody the principles of living systems, but what does all of this look like as a process or application? Fortunately, there have been plenty of valuable insights written on this very question. In the article Green to the Power of Three, Regenesis Group’s Ben Haggard outlined a set of six distinctive stages of a regenerative development process, which uses Place as a fulcrum for transformation. They are as follows:
As I’m sure you picked up on, at the heart of the regenerative development process is a much stronger emphasis on connecting to Place. It acknowledges that every place on the planet is unique, each with its own distinctive bioregional and cultural characteristics that act as organizing cores for all of the life processes that occur there. The regenerative way of developing steps away from conventional development’s (and even significant portions of sustainable development’s) emphasis on the standardization of places. Conventional design generates places like retail malls and chain stores where one can experience virtually identical environments on opposite sides of the world. A Subway restaurant in Los Angeles has the exact same decor (and smell!) as a Subway restaurant in Stockholm. This model of development pays no attention to the unique heritage nor inherent potential of a place. It is life-degrading, both biologically and spiritually, and contributes to what author James Howard Kunstler calls ‘geographies of nowhere’, or places that are not worth caring about.
Sustainable development is moderately better through their usage of concepts like New Urbanism, but it still fundamentally relies upon standardized visions of human habitation outside of nature. Although sustainable development’s intentions are generally good, its focus on point chasing through programs like LEED and on the optimization of efficiencies generally leaves out the spirit of a place and what is best for the broader cultural and ecological ecosystems of which a project is a part of. Is a green certified skyscraper in the middle of a city that is 30% more energy and water efficient helping its bioregion move towards higher orders of expression? Most likely not.
It is through the regenerative approach to development where places can truly come alive. As outlined in the six stages of a regenerative design process above, much more enquiry, integration and relationship building is required to see places as living systems. It takes patience and persistence to understand the emergent nature of this type of approach, but this is essential when allowing the authentic cultural and biological expressions of a place to arise. It is also worth acknowledging that through this deeper level of integration, collaboration and focus on place, representation for all of the sustainability crises mentioned earlier (energy, water, waste, food, carbon, buildings, transit, economy, etc) can be brought together and addressed in a cohesive manner. These issues are no longer worked on in isolation of each other, but are synthesized within a shared vision. This approach is much more conducive to improving the health of whole systems, in turn healing both physical ecosystems and human communities.
Where Do We Stand Today?
With all of this being said, I was curious to see where we currently stand in relation to regenerative design and the principles that have been presented thus far. Since this approach primarily addresses the built environment, it made sense to keep a consistent subject of analysis, so I researched statistics on new construction activity in the United States. What I discovered was both encouraging and discouraging. I was excited to find out that approximately a quarter of all new construction projects are qualified green buildings through the use of various certification programs like LEED (more commercial presence than residential at the moment). This is much more activity than I had expected to find, so it’s great to see the amount of headway the green building industry has made in a matter of years. Further along the spectrum I looked in on the Living Building Challenge, the most stringent and comprehensive building standard on the planet today. This standard can come to represent a fully sustainable building on the spectrum of development, as it eliminates 100% of its ecological and social violations. And having been an ambassador for the LBC for several years now, I am fully aware that as of now there have only been three fully certified projects. Beyond the LBC is restorative and regenerative design, which are primarily guiding philosophies with very few modern case studies to document. So the discouraging part of my analysis was the identification of the magnitude of work ahead of us, as well as how little attention is currently being paid to restorative and regenerative development. Below is a visual which captures a summary of my findings. (click on the image to view it larger)
It’s worth noting that the construction activity calculations that I used are not all technically accurate as they are built off of the green building statistic (25% of construction starts) that was mentioned above. Furthermore, the metric of these calculations are not entirely fair as it is increasingly difficult (and counterproductive) to measure or certify specific projects as they move towards the regenerative level, which are more qualitative and systems-based than quantitative and parts-based.
What Does this Mean?
This visual tells a pretty convincing story. It effectively frames the evolutionary nature of where our attention currently resides in relation to where it needs to be to account for the scale of degradation that is currently taking place. This specific study focuses on the built environment, but it is more than likely that every other creative or developmental industry is in a similar standing to this. Product design, fashion, transit, agriculture, you name it… all would be heavily weighted in the conventional, ‘one step better than breaking the law’ category, each guilty of contributing to and accelerating the earth overshoot touched on earlier.
So in short, we have our work cut out for us! Of course Rome wasn’t built in a day, so leapfrogging from conventional or green design to restorative or regenerative is undeniably a stretch. This is all an ongoing process, an evolving story in and of itself. However, an important conclusion that should be drawn from this is that we need to better understand and define where it is we’re needing to go, as well as determining how we can get there in the most strategic manner. Wayne Gretzky had a great quote saying that he would ‘skate to where the puck is going to be, not to where it has been.’ If industry leaders and progressive governing bodies are skating towards some state in the future where we can be ‘100% less bad’, then we have very little chance of changing the course of the direction in which we’re heading. Regenerative champion Bill Reed captured this best through the following metaphor:
If you’re in a car in the US driving towards Canada, but you’d like to get to Mexico, driving slower ain’t going to get you there!
Sustainable development is the proverbial brakes of this car. We have to slow down to turn around, so this is deeply valuable work, but we can’t kid ourselves and think that by slowing down to a stop we will somehow end up at our intended destination. Being stalled in the middle of Iowa is not anyone’s idea of a good time!
Pulling it all Together
Regenerative development presents an aspirational, applied and incredibly important philosophy from which we can draw ample inspiration from. We can look to the past to learn about the heritage of a place and how biological and cultural systems have functioned there before. We can look to the present for contemporary understanding of ecological and social sciences, as regenerative development effectively sits at the intersection of the two. And we can look to the future and presence the spirit of our places that yearn to be brought back to life. But at the heart of this message is a call to get our proverbial hands dirty. Regenerative development is deeply rooted in permaculture, which is first and foremost about working with the land. It asks us to become indigenous once again, to deepen our roots to the places where we live, and to provide more meaning and value to them.
In summary, this introduction to regenerative development has attempted to clarify a need to transition our way of interacting with the world from a ‘do less harm’ model to an actively ‘healing’ one. This requires us to undergo a deep ideological shift of both mind and attention and to reexamine our outlook on progress from one that optimizes parts to one that better supports the health of the whole. It recognizes the magnitude of the challenge in front of us, but believes that the heart of transformational change happens through the regeneration of places. It was proposed that through this regeneration of place a regeneration of people, spirit and community can occur. This approach, in its essence, asks us to become indigenous once again.
If you are interested in learning more about regenerative development, there are a lot of fantastic resources available at the Alliance for Regeneration’s site HERE, as well as Regenesis Group’s resource page HERE.
Special thanks to Bill Reed for his personal correspondence, and for sharing several articles that helped shape this piece.
Header image by La Citta Vita on Flickr.
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