Ecological Regeneration

“Mother Earth is not a resource, she is an heirloom.” David Ipina, Yurok

“Wake up to a new view. One in which we act in accordance with nature. Where our interactions with the earth, our communities and ourselves are regenerative.” Ryland Engelhart, Co-Founder, Kiss the Ground

The DEEP Network advocates and promotes a paradigm (and practical) shift from sustainable development to ecological (and social) regeneration. While ‘sustainable development’ is much lauded and has become a key policy initiative globally, it is riddled with numerous conceptual, logical, and practical flaws.

In 1983, UN-sponsored Brundtland Commission  advocated sustainable development as a global policy and in no time it became a buzzword embraced wholeheartedly and uncritically by multilateral agencies, governments, donor institutions, civil societies, and academics all over the world.

Drawing from the large corpus of critical scholarship, we highlight eight key issues with the concept and policy of sustainable development (from its initial configuration in the late 1980s and 1990s to its reincarnation in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) enunciated by the UN in 2015):

  • Sustainable development is an oxymoron as the goals of sustainability and development, which commonly means economic growth, are inherently contradictory.
  • It is a chameleon-like concept. Because of its vague definition, it has come to mean different things to different people so much so that it has become meaningless, an empty signifier. Words do matter, especially when they are combined with other words that are part of a discourse or discursive practice. And as Judith Butler (1993: 2) argues, ‘discourse produces the effects that it names’.  If the word ‘sustainable’ is defined as being ‘able to be maintained at a certain rate or level’ or ‘able to be upheld or defended’ (Oxford Dictionary), the pertinent question we must ask is would it be ecologically sensible to maintain or uphold the current economic system, which after all is the primary cause of ecological despoilation and calamity? It should also be pointed out that what is seriously problematic is not the adjective in the term sustainable development per se, but the noun, ‘development’ which many critics have indicated is rooted in Euro-centric capitalist paradigms of change. It is viewed as ‘colonialism in disguise’ (Escobar et al 2019) resulting in underdevelopment, dependency, destruction, and increased impoverishment, inequality, and marginalisation. Paradoxically, instead of improving as claimed, ‘development’ has worsened the lives and livelihoods of its ‘beneficiaries’.
  • It is anthropocentric, focused on human wants, needs, and interests above ecology. Implicit in it is the problematic ontological dualism between humans and nature which has been identified as the root cause of the ecological crisis. Also evident is the tendency to pursue profits over planet, economic interests above planetary health.
  • Its pro economic growth, business and free market approach in addressing ecological and societal problems. The policy of sustainable development was created as a means to ensure that economic prosperity was not compromised by any measures taken to stop or drastically reduce ecological harm. This goes against the insurmountable evidence that point to the fact that the key driver of the ecological and social crisis confronting humanity today is the neoliberal/oligarchic capitalist imperative of economic growth, market fundamentalism, privatisation, extractivism, and heightened consumerism. Hence, what the policy of sustainable development is effectively and paradoxically doing is offering the cause of the problem as its solution.
  • Its environmental hypocrisy. Many critics have dubbed sustainable development as fake greenery; a tool for green washing. Furthermore, involving the leaders of corporations, many of which have been accused of ecological despoilation, in sustainable development policy directives is tantamount to ‘putting the foxes in charge of the chicken coop’.
  • It is a hegemonic discourse, a form of Western-sponsored ideological domination, serving as an smokescreen to preserve the status quo (‘business as usual’) and the legitimisation of corporate greenwashing. Through sustainable development, western institutions and experts have been able to continue and even advance their dominant and assertive role in policy formulation and interventions globally and particularly in the Global South.  It is also a diversionary strategy from real causes of ecological degradation and effective ways for addressing the ecological crisis or for that matter the 17 goals outlined in SDGs such as poverty, social and gender inequality, peace and social justice. Sustainable development is deemed to be the only effective universal panacea to ecological and social woes, such as climate change, environmental degradation, poverty, inequality, and social injustice. And like neoliberal philosophy, SDGs are promoted and advocated as TINA: “There is no alternative”.  This is, of course, categorically untrue as alternatives abound, but they are ignored or effaced ; if they do get acknowledged, they are regularly devalued or side-lined.
  • Related to it being a Western hegemonic discourse, several critics have deemed sustainable development (and the SDGs) as a form of eco-colonialism. They rightly argue that sustainable development is colonialist by logic and practice and a manifestation of the colonial mentality (see, for example, Aram Ziai’s (2016) book Development Discourse and Global History: From Colonialism to the Sustainable Development Goals. Available here. Also see the section ‘Coloniality of Sustainability‘ in the Guide to Challenging Coloniality and these media articles (among many others): https://www.aljazeera.com/opinions/2019/10/10/does-sustainable-development-have-an-elephant-in-the-room; https://www.eco-business.com/opinion/in-the-world-of-sustainability-colonialism-is-not-dead/; https://news.climate.columbia.edu/2022/09/21/how-colonialism-spawned-and-continues-to-exacerbate-the-climate-crisis/; https://www.fairplanet.org/story/how-climate-colonialism-affects-the-global-south/ ). It is contended that the colonial project continues in the form of current ecological interventions, be it sustainable development or conservation as poignantly stated by Maria Mies and Vandana Shiva several decades ago:  “In the early phases of colonization, the white man’s burden consisted of the need to ‘civilize’ the non-white peoples of the world — this meant above all depriving them of their resources and rights. In the latter phase of colonization, the white man’s burden consisted of the need to ‘develop’ the Third World, and this again involved depriving local communities of their resources and rights. We are now on the threshold of the third phase of colonization, in which the white man’s burden is to protect the environment — and this too, involves taking control of rights and resources. . . . The salvation of the environment cannot be achieved through the old colonial order based on the white man’s burden. The two are ethically, economically and epistemologically incongruent” (Mies and Shiva, 1993: 264–265). Focusing her critical eye on the ‘peace-qua-development’ aspect of Agenda 2030, Omer (2020) notes, ‘The pretence of a global “roadmap” for human flourishing conceals the SDGs complicity with histories of marginalization, deprivation, dispossession, and other legacies of coloniality that continue to this day and are engrained into the experiences of those targeted for “development”‘. Following the critical work by anti-colonial/decolonial writers, we contend that colonialism is not an event but a persistent and enduring structure and system; it is a spectre that continues to haunt us. To decolonise, we must emancipate ourselves from such instruments and practices of coloniality (the pervasive and continuing structures and systems of colonialism) as the policy and global goals centred on the concept of sustainable development.
  • Its evident ineffectiveness as an ecological solution. As several critics have observed that after more than three decades of sustainable development, we now have more pollution, greater biodiversity loss, and climate change which indicates that it has failed as far as addressing ecological degradation and maintaining ecological integrity are concerned.

Sustainable development and the SDGs are riddled with so many problems and flaws, but these are by no means common knowledge. They are obviously ignored, dismissed or neglected by governments and corporations driven by capitalist growth-mania. And they are challenged and rebutted by those serving the political and economic interests of the culprits of environmental despoilation, especially the fossil fuel industries.

It is clear that sustainable development (and sustainability) is not going to put an end to human violence against nature and to repair the ever increasing ecological rift between humanity and nature, we must go beyond sustainability. Inspired by several scholars and change makers (see, for example, Giradet 2013, Habib 2015, Gabel 2015, Wahl 2018, Monbiot 2022), the global organization, Regeneration International (https://regenerationinternational.org) and Indigenous peoples, we settled for ecological regeneration as a comprehensive biocentric or eco-centric practical panacea to ecological and social problems. The word ‘regenerate’ means to ‘grow after loss or damage (as in the case of body tissue)’ or ‘to bring new and more vigorous life to an area, revive, revitalize, renew, rejuvenate, resuscitate’. Implicitly, ecological regeneration transcends environmental restoration. The contention is that humans have disrupted ecosystems and degraded environments to such an extent that these can no longer regenerate naturally. Rather than simply minimising or stopping such environmental degradation as prescribed in sustainable development strategies, proponents of ecological regeneration maintain that efforts to repair, resuscitate or improve degraded environments are necessary for nature to take its course. Hence, ecological regenerative practices are carried out to reinvigorate natural regeneration. This entails human intervention to modify the environment like planting native species or rewilding or building dams to trap run-off water to revive wetlands or improving the condition of soils by mulching with compost and minimising damage to the microorganisms and worms to revive or resuscitate degraded ecosystems, among others.

It must be pointed out that ecological regeneration is by no means a novel strategy. As Indigenous scholars have documented, ecological regenerative practices, which mimic natural processes, are time-honoured aspects of Indigenous foraging and farming systems. One can safely assume that such biomimicry is an outcome of longstanding astute observation and deep understanding of nature and its processes.  In many parts of Africa, Asia and South America, Indigenous communities engage in a farming system referred to as swidden cultivation (also known as shifting cultivation or pejoratively as ‘slash and burn’ agriculture). Typically, swidden farmers plant a range of cultigens in forest clearings and once crops have been harvested, farm plots are left to fallow and revert to forests, making it an ecologically efficient farming system well suited for tropical forest environments. Today, there are very few communities that depend on the swidden farming for their livelihood as most have been resettled away from their forest homelands and encouraged to engage in ‘modern’ cash cropping or the forests around their settlements have been destroyed by extractive industries and plantation companies.

Another practice worthy of mention is the use of controlled burning by Australian Aborigines to stimulate ecological regeneration and succession of bushlands, leading to the replenishing of the soils and the regrowth of plants attracting wildlife. This in turn provides the communities with prolific hunting grounds and well-nourished land for small scale cultivation of a variety of bush foods. All such practices reflect the philosophy and worldview held by almost all Indigenous peoples that humans are part of nature as well as underscore the pivotal importance of biomimicry in maintaining a healthy and caring relationship with the natural environment.

The DEEP Network is one of the global partners of Regeneration International , a growing network focused on the promotion, facilitation, and acceleration of ‘the global transition to regenerative food, farming and land management for the purpose of restoring climate stability, ending world hunger and rebuilding deteriorated social, ecological and economic systems’. The RI website offers much more insights, resources, and information about the growing number of regenerative projects around the globe.

As David Graeber in his book, The Utopia of Rules, states, ‘The ultimate, hidden truth of the world is that it is something that we make, and could just as easily make differently.’ DEEP strives to make this world differently, one where empathy, compassion, generosity, mutual understanding, love and respect for nature shape and pervade our lives. And this making of a another world must entail not only ecological regeneration, but also social regeneration through the rebuilding and fostering of communities, commons, and pro-social cooperation.

Authored by Alberto Gomes, DEEP’s Director.