“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 agrees with the contention that ecological regeneration is a more comprehensive and effective solution to ecological degradation than sustainable development which has become a buzzword since its endorsement in 1983 by the UN sponsored Brundtland Commission. Along with its related concept of sustainability, sustainable development has been embraced wholeheartedly and uncritically by multilateral agencies, governments, civil societies and academic institutions all over the world but it has also had its fair share of critics. In an acerbic assessment, Medard Gabel (2015) states:
Sustainable Development is a half-vast approach to vast problems. Its purpose, to make life on this planet sustainable, is a noble disguise for the maintenance of the status quo. When the status quo includes hundreds of millions of acres of degraded to destroyed farmland and leveled rainforest, depleted to exhausted fisheries and aquifers, toxic-choked streams, decreasing biodiversity, and a changing climate, sustainability is simply not acceptable. In short, sustainable development is like the bromide ‘do no evil’; it does not set the bar high enough. We can, and need, to do better than just sustain the unacceptable—or accept the present as the best we can do.
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 a solution to ecological degradation and destabilization. Seemingly oblivious to the criticisms, the UN adopted in 2015 the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a set of seventeen goals, as a universal program for change with targets to be met by 2030. Also referred to as the Global Goals, William Easterly suggests that SDGs should stand for ‘Senseless, Dreamy, Garbled’ while The Economist has described the goals as “sprawling and misconceived”, “unfeasibly expensive”, “worse than useless”, and “a betrayal of the world’s poorest people.” The London School of Economics academic, Jason Hickel assessed the SDGs as “nothing in them that’s really new”, “reflects old thinking”, “calls for little more than business as usual”, “a missed opportunity” and “actively dangerous”.
In his lecture entitled ‘Sustainable Development Goals: From Frying Pan into the Fire’, Alberto Gomes (Global DEEP Director) spoke about the various problems with the SDGs. He noted that because of its vague definition, sustainable development has come to mean different things to different people so much so that it has become a meaningless and chameleon-like concept. Echoing several critics, he pointed out that the concept of sustainable development is an oxymoron since the goals of sustainability and development, which commonly means economic growth, are inherently contradictory (See Gomes 2018). In terms of realizing the goals, Gomes contended that it unclear how the seventeen goals with its 169 targets and 232 indicators will be met and whose responsibility is it to meet the goals or to monitor and ensure that they are achieved. Since the root word of sustainable ie sustain means strengthen or support, Gomes queried as to whether it would be ecologically wise to strengthen or support the current economic system, which after all is the key cause of ecological degradation. He also averred that sustaining the current system ignores the fact that ecosystems are naturally dynamic.
But the most serious criticism of sustainable development, according to Gomes, is that it is a hegemonic ploy (a smokescreen) to maintain the status quo and to continue the global ideological domination by western institutions and experts. As dominant discourse in the public arena, sustainable development is deemed as the only effective universal panacea to ecological and social woes, such as climate change, environmental degradation, poverty, inequality, and social injustice. Concomitantly, alternative and more effective solutions are purposefully ignored, sidelined, neglected, and devalued.
Recognizing that the “doing less harm” approach of sustainability is an inadequate ecological solution, there has been a clarion call to go beyond sustainability towards an adoption of ecological regeneration (See, for example, Hill 2011, Hill 2012, Hill 2013, Giradet 2013, Habib 2015, Gabel 2015, Wahl 2018). 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, regenerate is not just to restore an environment but to improve it. Proponents of regeneration contend that humans have degraded ecosystems to such an extent making it impossible for these to regenerate naturally. Hence, rather than simply minimizing or stopping such environmental degradation as prescribed in sustainable development strategies, they maintain that what is needed are efforts to repair, resuscitate or improve degraded environments to enable nature to take its course. In other words, regenerative practice requires human intervention to modify the environment like planting native species or building dams to trap run-off water to revive wetlands or improving the condition of soils by adding worms or mulching with compost to revive or resuscitate degraded ecosystems. As Goerner (2015) delineates: “Regeneration refers to the self-feeding, self-renewing processes that natural systems use to nourish their capacity to thrive for long periods of time and their ability to adapt to unexpected, sometimes threatening circumstances. No system can sustain itself over the long-term, if it is not designed to continuously regenerate.”
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.”