I use the word sustainability despite my better judgement. It’s not an attractive word, and it’s easily mis-used. The government talks all the time about ‘sustainable growth’, rendering it more or less meaningless. But it is nonetheless rather useful for summing up the idea of enduring into the future, and I tend to assume that people know what I’m talking about from the context.
Some thinkers, such as Bill Reed of ReGenesis or John Fullerton, economist and founder of the Capital Institute, place the word on a spectrum of approaches. At one end you have conventional economics. At the other you have the regenerative economics that he pioneered. Here’s the sequence he describes:
These can be plotted on a spectrum from increasingly degenerative systems, through sustainability and towards restorative and regenerative systems:
Conventional economics is degenerative. It depletes resources and fills up waste sinks. Each year you have less to work with. Nothing in nature works that way, and it can’t last forever.
The next step is where most of our politicians have set their sights: green growth, green buildings, eco-consumerism. This reduces the damage that we do, but can still mean a natural world in decline.
Sustainability takes things a step further and limits the destruction of the environment to a level that can be managed. That’s a good place to aim for, but it doesn’t fix what’s broken. If we stopped here, we’d pause but not reverse climate change. We wouldn’t get depleted species or eroded soil back. We’d only be halfway across the bridge.
If sustainability is the awkward middle ground between industrial systems that degrade and those that restore, then a restorative economy would be the first step on the more positive side. It would begin to put back what has been broken, through reforestation, biodiversity gains, and renewable energy and resources. Tearfund have used the restorative economy term recently, and the idea is informing their overseas development work.
There is one step further. After all, you can’t restore forever. At some point the damage is repaired and something new emerges. That’s the Regenerative Economy, “an economy in service to life.” Fullerton describes some principles of this economy in his collaboratively authored book A Finer Future. It would treat resources in a circulatory flow, like a body’s metabolism. It would view wealth holistically, and honor community and place. Buildings and businesses would enhance and complement nature and biodiversity.
Taken as a whole, human civilisation is firmly to the left of that spectrum, but there are individual cultures and projects all across it. Very slowly, we are creeping out of the wholly degenerating side, though at the moment not fast enough to avert a crisis.
With this spectrum in mind, is it time to leave the word sustainability behind? Or in a world where many systems are still degenerative, is that a middle ground to keep advocating for? More practically, are restorative and regenerative economy terms still too new and unfamiliar? These are questions I’ve been asking myself for a decade, and I haven’t resolved them yet.