“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
A growing number of scholars and activists propose replacing the widely promoted policy of sustainable development with ecological regeneration to deal with ecological destabilization, degradation, and climate change. The Brundtland Commission, set up by the UN in 1983 to come up with a global strategy that addresses the various environmental concerns without radically compromising economic prosperity, introduced and promoted sustainable development as an overarching solution for a range of ecological, social and economic problems. In no time, sustainable development became a buzzword, embraced wholeheartedly and uncritically by multilateral agencies, governments, civil societies and academic institutions all over the world. Considered to be the ‘journey’ towards sustainability, the capacity to maintain ecological balance without compromising on human survival and flourishing, the concept of sustainable development received a fair share of criticisms since its inception in the 1980s. For example, in a more recent critical assessment, Medard Gabel (2015) had contended:
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.
Indicative of its failure as an ecological solution, several researchers have observed that after more than three decades of sustainable development, we now have more pollution, greater biodiversity loss, and climate change. Seemingly oblivious to the range of negative assessments of this concept, the United Nations in 2015 adopted 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 the acronym 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 public talk 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). As for 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 questioned 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 indicated 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 how it has become a dominant and hegemonic discourse which works as an ideological smokescreen to maintain the status quo (‘business as usual’) and to continue the global domination and control by western institutions and experts. As a dominant discourse in the public arena, 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. Concomitantly, alternative solutions are purposefully ignored, sidelined, neglected, and devalued.
Recognizing that the ‘doing less harm’ approach of sustainability is an inadequate ecological panacea, several scholar-activists (See, for example, Hill 2011, Hill 2012, Hill 2013, Giradet 2013, Habib 2015, Gabel 2015, Wahl 2018) have advocated ecological regeneration as a comprehensive, effective, ecologically wise, and biocentric (rather than anthropocentric) practical solution 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, 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 rewilding or building dams to trap run-off water to revive wetlands or improving the condition of soils by mulching with compost and minimizing damage to the microorganisms and worms to revive or resuscitate degraded ecosystems, among others. 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’.
It must be pointed out that ecological regeneration is by no means a novel strategy. As anthropologists and indigenous scholars have documented, ecological regeneration is a significant aspect in the time-honoured foraging and farming systems of Indigenous peoples. In these systems their regenerative practices mimic natural processes. Such biomimicry is an ecologically wise strategy that their ancestors would have learnt from their keen 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 the crops have been harvested, the farms are left to fallow and regenerate into forests, making it an ecologically efficient farming system well suited for 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 enticed to engage in ‘modern’ cash cropping or the forests around their settlements have been completely destroyed by extractive industries and plantation companies. Another time-honored practice 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 that attract wildlife. This in turn provides the communities with rich hunting grounds and well-nourished land for small scale cultivation of a range of bush foods. All such practices underscore the philosophy and worldview held by almost all Indigenous peoples that humans are part of nature as well as the pivotal importance of biomimicry in maintaining a healthy 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 of communities, commons, and cooperative relations.