Understanding Ecosystem Restoration—and Regeneration

(Portion of constructed wetland in Taiwan)

The United Nations General Assembly has declared 2021-2030 the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration. The UN Decade is a universal call for the protection and revival of ecosystems worldwide for the benefit of people and nature.

And Learning for Nature‘s free course on Ecosystem Restoration, which is scheduled to start September 3, 2021, looks like an ideal way to learn how to create a step-by-step action plan for a site or a country—and to connect with nearly 34,000 members from over 190 countries who are part of the global movement to restore our natural world.

Participants are also invited to create groups (so far there are 22, with such topics as Eco-Agriculture and Food Systems), to publish impact studies, and connect directly with other members. The Ecosystem Restoration course already has nearly 2000 participants signed up.

While we’re sure that the UN Development Programme uses a pretty broad definition of “restoration,” we were intrigued about whether there was a difference in how regenerative practitioners define the term. An illuminating essay by Shannon of the Regenesis Group offers an answer to this question.[1]

“To begin to make this distinction,” she writes, “it’s important to note that the concept of ‘restoring’ an ecosystem is a bit of a misnomer. This is because ecosystems are not static—you can’t return an ecosystem to its original condition like you can with a painting or a vintage radio. An ecosystem, like any living thing, can never stand still and can only be in process—either a process of evolution or a process of de-evolution.”

So when you “restore” an ecosystem back to a particular state, the question is this: Will it continue to evolve from that point forward? Or will it begin to decline again?

The answer to that question has more to do with how human systems work than it does with how ecosystems work. If the place’s human systems have not themselves transformed, then they will likely just repeat the same cycle that caused the ecosystem to require “restoration” in the first place.

Traditional approaches manage this by simply keeping humans as far away from the ecosystem as possible through conservation easements and other instruments for protecting land.

But regenerative development takes a different approach, by asking the question: How can we re-align human activity with the evolution of this ecosystem? How can humans be partners in that evolution?

The answer to that question is different in each unique place. But it’s important to recognize that the question has multiple levels. The first level is a design question—the question of how activities like agriculture, land development, and transportation can be designed to harmonize with and support local natural systems. You might even ask how the activity of restoring the ecosystem itself can be designed so that it can help to transform and build capacity in local people.

But another level, which is critical and all-too-often missing from the conversation, has to do with a community’s narrative about itself. What does this community value about itself? What is it valued for by the larger world? How is that identity connected to the underlying natural systems that made the community what it is? And how can the members of the community be awakened to that connection in a way that unlocks the will to engage, in an organic and sustained way, with the design work that needs to be done at the first level?

It’s when you begin to ask that level of question that you are working on regenerative development.

 

One of the more remarkable people leading this effort is Joe Brewer, a polymath with a long list of academic pedigrees who is also a hands-on Earth Regenerator, currently restoring a watershed in Barichara, Columbia.

Joe is also a mentor to many of us and the author of the forthcoming The Design Pathway for Regenerating Earth. The book is available online for free for members of the Earth Regenerators community, a network of over 2900 members worldwide.

We joined several months ago and participated in a “learning journey” on Regenerative Finance, which is of course a major focus of our organization. We’re now part of a cohort going through another learning journey, this one on Living Into the Design Pathway that Joe lays out in the book. A Regenerative Projects Incubator organizes “advisory circles” for members’ initiatives, which sometimes act as “mastermind” groups for these projects.

On and off we’ve discussed creating a “Possible Planet Network” for people who share our commitment to a world that works, and who see themselves as responsible stewards of the earth systems that sustain us all. Part of the idea is to build a system of bottom-up self-governance within and across bioregions. This may still happen, but actually maintaining such a network online is a full-time job—which is one of the reasons that Joe is such an outstanding inspirational leader, producing illuminating material each week while engaging in the practical work of restoring truly devastated land.

I would urge everyone who’s a follower or supporter of Possible Planet to consider joining Earth Regenerators as well; Joe and his team of organizers are, in our view, at the leading edge of regenerative and restorative work, and starting to discuss the need for a network of bioregional learning centers to carry this kind of work forward. [2]

 

The contrast between restorative and regenerative work has some parallels to the distinction between regenerative and sustainable, which some of us have been discussing recently. Matt Polsky and Ira Feldman recently published an article[3] in which they argue that newer terms like resilience, regenerative, and the circular economy really don’t add much to the perspective of sustainability.

Some critics make very answerable charges about sustainability being passé or dead, or replaceable by other terms such as resilience, regenerative, or the circular economy. This reflects less than complete understanding of the term; a bad rap from some business’ misuse of it; the suggestion of an easily accommodated useful new property, such as clarifying the environmental goal is restoration, not maintenance of the status quo; as well as lack of knowledge about cutting edge efforts like the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). These hinder efforts to restore a vibrant sustainability discussion in the U.S.

Without discounting for a moment the importance of the SDGs, I beg to differ. I suggest that sustainability remains a useful term alongside these newer concepts, which focus attention on different aspects of the crisis. Resilience refers to the ability to withstand shocks—to bend without breaking and bounce back from the disasters that are the predictable consequences of climate disruption. Regenerative refers to the capacity of a system to regrow, to self-renew, and evolve to a new level of self-organization. The circular economy is the idea that the human economy should work more like the natural world, with the “wastes” or “by-products” of one organism or process being the food or input of another, with nothing toxic left behind.

Sustainability is not passé, but it is tarnished by corporate greenwashing and by its longstanding common use as “durable.” It’s not enough, today, for something to be touted as sustainable. It must also replicate the capacities for healthy growth and development over time. Since we’re often involved with making buildings more energy-efficient, it’s worth quoting Bill Reed’s original use of the distinction:

Sustainability, as currently practised in the built environment, is primarily an exercise in efficiency. In other words, the use of environmental rating systems and other mechanisms allows a reduction in the damage caused by excessive resource use. However, instead of doing less damage to the environment, it is necessary to learn how one can participate with the environment by using the health of ecological systems as a basis for design. The shift from a fragmented to a whole systems model is the significant cultural leap that consumer society needs to make – through framing and understanding living system interrelationships in an integrated way. [4]

And the systems we’re talking about—including buildings and their environments—are living systems, with self-perpetuating patterns and processes that can be harmful as well as healthful. Deserts are “sustainable,” as are many invasive species; this does not mean that they are desirable, whether for us or for the planet. Even Sustainable Brands recently published an article by Paul Hutton noting that

The language and terms we use influence our approach to the problems we face. Switching from sustainable to regenerative design enables us to more easily leave behind strategies that are no longer equal to the challenges we face. [5]

Being sustainable is really the absolute minimum required for the biosphere to remain viable for humans and the web of related life that sustains us. But this is hardly enough. We want to do more than just survive. We want to flourish—and to flourish in a thousand different ways. We want a better future, which means different things to different people; but what it emphatically does not mean for most of us is continuing to prop up the dysfunctional set of systems we call “modern civilization.”

In short, we want to continue to evolve—in a more sustainable relationship with nature, and a more fruitful or “generative” one. It’s not sustainability or regeneration but sustainability and regeneration. What bothers the regenerative design community is that the sustainability folks, particularly in business and academia, seem committed to preserving much of the status quo, just making it a little less harmful, a little less polluting. But a deeper understanding of the underlying realities of the situation recognizes that it’s neither possible nor desirable to sustain most of the status quo. “Modern civilization,” as we know it, is not the highest expression of humanity.

It is also already in the midst of collapse. If we look at it in Brewer’s terms, that ongoing process of collapse can be traced back twelve thousand years to the emergence of agriculture and of civilization itself, or even earlier, to the emergence of homo sapiens or of hominids altogether.

More immediately though we can see that the sources of disaster were exponentially multiplied by the industrial revolution, the original “green revolution,” and the evolution of technology in a large number of fields, from genetic engineering to transportation. Many of these systems have been developed for the benefit of financial capital, at the expense of natural and human capital, and thus seem to contain the seeds of their own destruction. Part of what we need to do is to recognize the difference between regenerative systems—systems that continue to re-create the conditions needed to support life—and degenerative ones, which erode capital and often externalize the damage they are doing in order to sustain themselves.

Collapse is not something that is to be avoided, as if it were in the future. If we recognize that what is happening all around us is an ongoing collapse and rebirth of systems, we can perhaps begin to see the rationale for creating small islands of sanity in the midst of the ongoing madness and then working to link those islands into a new neural network for the global mind. Truthfully it is the collective mindset that must shift—and is already beginning to do so with the help of folks like Brewer and others who are consistently engaging with the earth as it is today.

It’s not only inspiring and encouraging to see this kind of thinking emerging on a very wide scale and across generations, it’s also often educational—and sometimes humbling for those of us who’ve been preaching sustainability for a long time. Many younger farmers, entrepreneurs, and community activists are inventing new practices and new ways of looking at things, and reinventing old ones, in order to address the degradation that is occurring all around us.

If you believe that this sort of cultural transformation is possible, I invite you to join us in this ongoing “learning journey” we call life, to walk the path together for a little while, and see if we can leave behind some useful tools and resources for those that follow.

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[1] https://regenesisgroup.com/regeneration-vs-restoration

[2] https://earth-regenerators.mn.co/. If you’re interested and want a personal invitation, just let me know in the comments.

[3] https://innovator3.medium.com/climate-change-a-divided-america-and-the-need-for-sustainability-policy-44c6c21e044c

[4] Bill Reed (2007) Shifting from ‘sustainability to regeneration, Building Research & Information, 35:6, 674-680, DOI: 10.1080/09613210701475753

[5] https://sustainablebrands.com/read/product-service-design-innovation/the-shift-from-sustainable-to-regenerative-design

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