Sustainable or Regenerative?

Just as we’re getting to grips with the need to be sustainable and what it means in relation to the lifestyle choices we make to ‘save the planet’, here I am introducing another way of being, one that is regenerative.

I’m not alone in this shift. There is a growing body of people becoming aware that being regenerative in how we live and set up our systems for meeting our needs is the direction we need to move in.

The distinction between these two ways of being and why we need to move from being sustainable to being regenerative is a complex topic.

In this article I’ll give you the gist of the difference, and through other articles I will further articulate what being regenerative is about.

I’m going to start with a sensory exploration, a knowing you feel in your body, followed by an example of how nature clearly demonstrates being regenerative.

We’ll have some mind food by looking at the dictionary definitions of the words sustain and regenerate. We’ll also look at the etymology, the root of the words. I love looking at the roots of words as they help me to get a fuller sense of the origin of their meaning.

Then we’ll take a look at the history of the use of the word sustainable in the context of our ability to continue living on Earth.

I will follow this with a proposal of why I believe we need to rapidly move our aim from being sustainable to being regenerative in the way we humans live on Earth.

So let’s first begin by exploring the difference through our body’s wisdom.

Let your awareness drop down into your body, you can do this by connecting with your breath and just noticing it. Do this for a few breaths.

Now, for a moment sense into the essence of ‘being sustainable’, notice the sensations in your body. Closing your eyes will help. Stop reading and try it now. That moment need only be about thirty seconds. After that open your eyes and read on.

Now sense into ‘being regenerative’ and notice what you sense. Close your eyes as you do this for about thirty seconds.

This is what I got.

When I sense into the essence of sustainable I have a feeling in my body of being rooted, grounded and somewhat firm in my stance. When I sense into regenerative there is a feeling of a flowing, energetic movement that moves out in spirals around me.

Of the two, while being sustainable feels like I could go on forever, enduring, being regenerative feels more alive and vibrant. I feel more excited with a sense of possibility by the quality of being regenerative.

Nature is naturally regenerative.

You can see this in many ways. I’ll give you one powerful example.

I have let some of the kale in my garden flower and turn into seed pods. These pods naturally dry on the plant. Then I harvested the seeds. A gentle shake of one small seed pod over my hand produced lots of tiny black seeds. Each of these seeds is capable of producing another kale plant with at least a hundred seed pods and thousands of seeds. Of course the plant produces many more seeds than it needs to ensure its ability to regenerate, as not all the seeds will fall on ground suitable for growing. This abundant supply of seed ensures many more kale plants for the next season. There is enough, and then some.

Now to our minds and the dictionary.

To sustain means to strengthen or support physically or mentally, cause to continue or be prolonged for an extended period or without interruption.

And to the root, in the case of sustain its roots are found in the late thirteenth century from Old French sustenir ‘hold up, endure’, from Latin sustinere ‘hold up, support, endure’ and from sub ‘up from below’ plus tenere ‘to hold’.

To regenerate means to bring into renewed existence, generate again, bring new and more vigorous life to (an area or institution).

The roots of regenerate come from Late Latin, re – ‘again’ plus generare ‘to produce’, to bring forth again, or be born again.

We can keep sustainability; it does have its place. We just need to get busy putting in place life practices that are regenerative, before we run out of what we’re trying to sustain.

Glimpsing into recent history we discover that in the 1960’s a growing number of people began to see that the material benefits enjoyed by humans were coming at the expense of the environment. The demands we were and are making on the natural environment meant that nature couldn’t keep up, it was unable to regenerate itself fast enough.

In response, the United States government passed the National Environmental Policy Act, which gave rise to the U.S Environmental Protection Agency.

A few years later at the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, developed nations voiced concern about the detrimental impact increasing global development was having on the environment. The leaders of developing nations pointed out that they had a continuing need for development. Considering these two concerns the concept of ‘sustainable development’ emerged as a compromise between development needs and conservation demands.

In a way, this compromise is still with us. The term ‘sustainability’ is often used in terms of being economically sustainable.

Since that time the context in which we live has rapidly changed.  The global human population has grown exponentially. We have also consciously or unconsciously based our way of life on the assumption that we need to have economic and industrial growth to meet our basic needs and live well. We need to have jobs and earn money to then spend it to fulfill those basic and lifestyle needs.

This system however has put huge pressure on the natural ecosystems to the extent that we are running out of minerals, deforesting ancient forests at the rate of a football field sized area every three seconds and are having to find places to dump baseball stadium sized volumes of waste from our major cities, daily.

The collapse of the earth’s ecosystems is primarily due to the demands we make on them to fulfil our human needs and wants. These demands have resulted in an inability for the ecosystems to course correct by themselves. And our quick fix technology won’t help either.

If we want our life-support systems to continue functioning we need to make rapid personal and professional changes, so that while meeting our needs, we are simultaneously engaging in the regeneration of the ecosystems.

Our collective challenge is that we need a massive re-design. Right now, if I try to live in a way that meets my needs while allowing the ecosystems to regenerate, I fail every which way I turn. This is why we need to do this in community and in collaboration.

Take a moment to think about things you do on a day to day basis at home or at work. What is one activity you could redesign so you are making a regenerative contribution to our thriving planetary future? Share your answer in the comments below. If you can’t come up with one, share the obstacles that prevent you from making a change?

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