“Sustainability is no longer our focus,” reads a LinkedIn post from Eco-Age CEO, Simon Whitehouse. “We’ve gone past that point. Our aim is restoration. Our urgency is regeneration.”
Reading the IPCC’s latest assessment report, published this time last week, it’s hard to argue with that view. Indeed, as I’ve argued myself in these pages, we’ve kicked the can down the road for so long that most definitions of ‘sustainability’ just ain’t up to snuff anymore when it comes to conceptualising and addressing the escalating climate emergency and its concomitant impacts on society:
- Sustainability understood strictly in terms of environmental issues? Far too narrow. This cannot and will not drive the major transformations required across multiple sectors to get the world on a 1.5oC pathway – halving global consumption of ruminant meat, fully phasing out internal combustion vehicles, cutting coal-powered electricity generation by 80%, and increasing the amount of CO2 captured by CCUS technologies 125-fold, to name but a few.
- Sustainability understood as the ability to maintain something at a certain rate or level (as in the oxymoron of ‘sustainable growth’)? Not nearly enough. 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’ is woefully insufficient.
- Sustainability understood in the literal sense of the ‘ability to sustain’ – the capacity to survive and thrive over the long term? Better but, while that’s been my preferred framing over the years, the disconcerting feeling has dawned that the language of sustainability I’ve used for more than a decade is really that of preserving and prolonging the way things are. It just doesn’t capture the urgent need to unleash a thunderbolt of transformation, rooted in a future-back approach to strategy.
So what’s to be done? I’d humbly suggest the following for starters:
Understand sustainability as a state of being
Stop framing sustainability as a discrete function, suite of services or program of activity. It’s about everything. The only meaningful way to frame it now is as the end state humanity needs to achieve – a state in which we can equitably meet the needs of current and future generations, within the means of a flourishing planet. Only by working back from this future state, and asking ourselves what would have to be true from this point forward to make that a realistic possibility, can we make sure change happens at the pace and scale required.
The best representation of this sustainable end state? Kate Raworth’s doughnut – still the only model I’ve seen that so clearly and simply encapsulates the interconnections between climate change and social inequality, and the need to solve for both if we’re to succeed in creating a socially just, economically inclusive and environmentally sustainable space for all of humanity.
Recognise regeneration is our only route to getting there
For all the promises, policies and programs of thousands of companies, these didn’t stop emissions reaching an all-time high in 2019. The pandemic-induced drop in emissions in 2020 (only by around 7%, mind you) belies an otherwise steady upwards trajectory, with business- and sustainability-as-usual leading us in entirely the wrong direction.
Doubt that? Draw a straight line from global emissions in 1972 to net-zero in 2050, as if we’d all paid attention to The Limits to Growth. Then plot the direction of actual emissions, up to the present day, and the level of emissions cuts the IPCC say is necessary from this point forward to be on a 1.5oC pathway:
Anyone still think a few tweaks to BAU will do the trick? No? OK then. Time to stop thinking about how to make today’s business models a little bit less bad and, instead, embrace the need for radical business model innovation in pursuit of regeneration.
Understand this requires redesigning businesses and economies in line with universal principles of living systems
Originator – and subsequent recaller – of the triple bottom line concept, John Elkington, has argued persuasively that there’s no such thing as a sustainable company in an unsustainable economy. Improvements in performance at the level of individual companies does little or nothing to address systemic risks and failures; unless we update contemporary capitalism’s operating system, we’ll remain headed for the rocks, on a ship steered by the ghost of Milton Friedman.
What might a different set of design values/operating principles look like? What might we learn from nature’s laws and patterns of systemic health, self-organization, self-renewal and regenerative vitality to design of socioeconomic systems? Well, as good a place as any to start are the eight principles of a regenerative economy, outlined by John Fullerton and the Capital Institute (lots more on these here).
Beware positive progress masquerading as meaningful progress
There’s a world of difference between positive progress (i.e., anything that makes things better, however incrementally) and meaningful progress (i.e., hastening change at the pace and scale required to tackle the looming reality of the climate emergency). Learning to distinguish between the two is essential and, as an illustrative example, consider the current impetus behind all things ‘ESG’…
It’s worth reflecting on the comments of Blackrock-executive-turned-ESG-whistleblower, Tariq Fancy, who’s branded everyone jumping on the ESG bandwagon as a “dangerous placebo.” If you’re familiar with Bill Sharpe’s ‘three horizons’ model (nicely explained by UK COP26 supremo, Nigel Topping, here), you’ll understand why. In essence, Fancy’s account of ESG is a classic example of an ‘H2 minus’ trajectory – not a disruptive innovation, intended to accelerate meaningful progress toward the future we need, but rather catnip for incrementalists, co-opted by the forces of the status quo to prolong today’s dominant pattern.