Why sustainability is not enough

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:

  • Conventional
  • Green
  • Sustainable
  • Restorative
  • Regenerative

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.


  1. Extremely helpful continuum that I can now apply to the Spaceship Earth metaphor that emphasises the finite nature of planet Earth. We are now passengers on a damaged spaceship that is being further damaged by geometrically increasing impact of the ‘passengers’ who are trapped by the conventional ‘economic growth brings well-being’ narrative that drives all national systems both public and private. 150 passengers per minute are being added to the planet (births minus deaths) and the conventional global economy is growing at over 3% per year (doubling in just over 20 years). Restoration or regeneration clearly needs de-growth, a missing element on the continuum.

    1. Good point, and I suppose degrowth would fit in as part of a restorative strategy, as it’s about getting things back towards the right size. It can’t be regenerative, because you can’t de-grow forever any more than you can grow forever.

  2. I understand that credit for developing the image and concept should go to Bill Reed from The concept of regenerative development is gaining traction as is regenerative agriculture due to Charles Massy’s ‘Call of the Reed Warbler’
    Both concepts align with the principles of the circular economy which is the basis for our proposed new paradigm for land development.

    1. Thanks, I’ll add a credit to ReGenesis in the post, and see if I can feature some of their work in future. Giving people clear examples of what regenerative development looks like is the best way to bring those terms into everyday use.

  3. Thanks for drawing our attention to Fullerton’s work! Those are important questions at the end, as well. I don’t like the concept of sustainability, either (or the over-use of the term), but I find myself using it because it’s recognizable to many people. We need to work on making restorative and regenerative economics more familiar, so that people have positive goals to work towards.

  4. Very interesting points brought up, to me terms like “sustainability”, “climate change” and “conservation” are such important concepts but so overused that they have become meaningless to the general public. Its sad really. I agree it isn’t enough.

  5. Thanks for sharing. I appreciate your thoughts and helping me frame my own since I was invited to be part of a Sustainable Communities Working Group and I see I was thinking of sustainable more in terms of restorative and regenerative.

  6. You know, I find the idea of leaving the word sustainability behind really interesting. I have thought about it myself and what words we might use to replace it. Sometimes I feel environmental justice does the job but at the end of the day, I do not know f that is an accessible, easy term. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

    1. Environmental justice is a really important concept that’s often missing from the debate in developed countries, though it’s much better understood in places that on the receiving end of the injustice! It’s definitely a term that should be used more, whether it’s justice for our global neighbours or for future generations. I don’t know if it’s descriptive enough to inspire the alternative though. It tells us why we should act, but not what that future looks like. There we might still need to talk about restorative or regenerative systems alongside the concept of justice, to try and shape our imagination of what that just future might be.

  7. What a great post! However when the vast majority of businesses still operate within the degenerative space, and we haven’t arrived at a sustainable space (yet) I think that it might be premature to abandon the concept of sustainability just yet! I certainly hope it’s not meaningless just yet. I hope that in years to come, sustainability is the baseline… the minimum expected standard!

    1. Yes, it’s got to be one step at a time. Companies moving to a sustainable footing is, as you say, quite a leap already and should be celebrated when it’s acheived. Just don’t stop there!

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