For someone who built his reputation off the back of a book subtitled ‘the 55-minute guide to building sustainable brands,’ and who’ll wax lyrical about the Sustainable Development Goals to anyone who’ll listen, that may seem like an odd question to ask. Nonetheless, it’s one I’ve been pondering this week.
Why? Well, it’s largely the result of reading a report recirculated by McKinsey, as part of its Climate Week campaign, which analyses the kind of things that need to happen in order to achieve a 1.5oC pathway. As the report is quick to emphasize, while technically feasible, the math looks daunting:
- Reforming food, e.g.
- Halving our consumption of ruminant meat to just 4% of the global dietary mix
- Adopting new cultivation methods to achieve a 53% reduction in the intensity of methane emissions from rice farming
- Curbing waste to no more than 20% of global food output
- Electrifying our lives, e.g.
- Halving sales of internal combustion vehicles by 2030 and fully phasing them out by 2050
- Increasing the share of households with electric space heating almost three-fold from 10% to 26% (a tough ask when more than 1.1b people still lack any electricity supply)
- Reshaping industrial operations, e.g.
- Reducing methane emissions by 60% by 2030, and 90% by 2050, across sectors such oil and gas, coal mining, agriculture and waste management
- Abating one-third of emissions across heavy industry vs. 2016 levels by embracing the circular economy and boosting efficiency
- Decarbonizing power and fuel, e.g.
- Decreasing coal-powered electricity generation by 80% by 2030
- Ramping up solar and wind generation, to the tune of building out 8x more solar panels and 5x more wind turbines every year, vs. current levels
- Ramping up carbon capture and sequestration, e.g.
- Multiplying the amount of CO2 captured by carbon capture, use and storage (CCUS) technologies by more than 125 times by 2050, vs. 2016 levels
- Potentially needing to reforest an area half the size of Italy every year, on top of halting current deforestation and replacing forests lost to fires
When you look at the magnitude of these shifts, and their interdependence, it feels increasingly like sustainability – however you choose to define it – just isn’t up to the job.
- Sustainability understood strictly in terms of environmental issues? Inadequate. This framing is simply too narrow to encompass the systemic level of change required – a collective root and branch transformation of entire sectors.
- Sustainability understood as the ability to maintain something at a certain rate or level (as in ‘sustainable growth’)? Inadequate. Against a backdrop of massive biodiversity loss, and global resource use still vastly outstripping what the planet can naturally absorb and replenish, any notion of ‘maintenance’ seems woefully insufficient.
- Sustainability understood in its broadest sense, as the capacity to survive and thrive over the long term? That’s certainly been my preferred framing over the years, but even this is starting to feel inadequate, raising more questions than it answers. The capacity of what to survive and thrive (communities, whole nations, the global economy?)? For whose benefit (a select few, all humans, all life on Earth?)? For how long (decades, centuries, in perpetuity?)?
The urgency of the challenges we face arguably requires a better conceptual framework – one that looks beyond merely sustaining the social, economic and environmental systems upon which all life depends and embraces the need to regenerate them.
It’s an important distinction – one that can be seen, for example, in the term ‘regenerative agriculture’ increasingly supplanting ‘sustainable agriculture.’ Whereas the latter tends to be understood in terms of the mantra of doing no harm – a system of production that doesn’t deplete or destroy the resource base it utilizes – the former emphasizes actively improving that resource base, such as by helping to restore soil health and biodiversity.
Writ large, a conceptual shift from sustainability to renewal and regeneration charges us with taking bolder and more immediate action to repair the damage we’ve done. To restore the health of our soil, our forests and our watercourses, rather than just allowing them to limp on in a degraded condition. To power human settlements and commerce efficiently with renewable energy. To reconnect cities to the regional hinterland, regenerating local communities and economies left behind by the forces of globalization. To create a circular rather than linear industrial metabolism, which recognizes symbiotic relationship between the health of human and planetary systems, minimizing waste, pollution and demand on virgin natural resources.
For me, the disconcerting feeling is crystalizing that the language of sustainability I’ve used for more than a decade is really the language of maintaining a steady state – of preserving and prolonging the way things are, rather than unleashing a thunderbolt of transformation. If we’re to truly build back better from this time of social, economic and environmental crisis, I can’t help feeling that we need something more – something that truly reflects the realization that continuous human development and prosperity for all cannot happen at the expense of the health of the planet; something that more explicitly expresses the criticality of establishing a restorative relationship between humanity and ecological systems.
So maybe it’s time to call time on sustainability and embrace regenerationinstead. What do you think?