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

As a panacea for the looming ecological cataclysm and climate crisis, a growing number of scholars and change makers advocate ecological regeneration, instead of the much-lauded concept and policy of sustainable development that the UN-sponsored  Brundtland Commission enunciated in 1983. Sustainable development became a buzzword, embraced wholeheartedly and uncritically by multilateral agencies, governments, civil societies, and academic institutions all over the world. What made it a popular policy is that it was seen as a developmental solution to environmental problems that does not compromise economic prosperity.

However, as many critics have illuminated, this concept is profoundly problematic and deeply flawed. Several have noted 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 an ecological solution.  In his critical assessment, Medard Gabel (2015) asserted that:

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.

Notwithstanding the multiple criticisms of this concept and practice,  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 labelled 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 a public talk entitled ‘Sustainable Development Goals: From Frying Pan into the Fire’, Alberto Gomes (DEEP Network Director) discussed the various problems with the SDGs. He repeated a common criticism of sustainable development that because of its vague definition, it 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 also indicated that sustainable development is an oxymoron since the goals of sustainability and development, which commonly means economic growth, are inherently contradictory. Gomes raised the question that since 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), would it be ecologically sensible to maintain or uphold the current economic system, which after all is the primary cause of ecological degradation? He also drew attention to the fact that sustainable development (and sustainability) has become a dominant and hegemonic discourse, serving as an ideological smokescreen to preserve the status quo (‘business as usual’) and the legitimisation of corporate greenwashing. And he intimated that through the SDGs, 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.  Gomes elaborated that 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. And like neoliberal philosophy, SDGs are promoted and advocated as TINA: “There is no alternative”. He contended that this is of course categorically untrue and that alternatives abound, but they are largely ignored; if they do get acknowledged, they are regularly devalued or side-lined.

The DEEP Network maintains that the ‘doing less harm’ approach of sustainable development (and sustainability) is an inadequate ecological remedy primarily because it does not put a stop to human violence against nature. Several scholars and change makers (See, for example, Giradet 2013, Habib 2015, Gabel 2015, Wahl 2018 and the global organization, Regeneration International: https://regenerationinternational.org/ )  have advised that we go beyond sustainability and adopt ecological regeneration as a comprehensive, effective, ecologically wise, and biocentric or eco-centric 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, 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 of communities, commons, and pro-social cooperation.

Wriiten by Alberto Gomes, DEEP’s Director.