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Should we shift from 'Sustainable' to 'Regenerative'?

"Is your marriage sustainable?"

That was a hypothetical question posed in an evening discussion at the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research (SPUR) Association in September. The panel discussion featured prominent figures in Sustainable Design: Robert Thayer, Sandy Mendler, and Sim van der Ryn. In the middle of the forum, the panel posed this question to the audience as a commentary on philosophy in the relatively new field of sustainability.

For a while now, I have found the term "sustainable" irksome. It is the prevailing buzz word for fresh thinking, green ideas, and describes a product's or system's ability to last, over an extended period of time. Much like CSR has driven the need for corporate public displays of greenness, so too have modern thinkers and producers needed to attach "sustainable" or "sustainability" to their overall aspirations so as to find some credibility.

(Please keep in mind, I am not shooting down these terms or ideas completely. I would simply like to view the terms and the corresponding paradigm in a different light.)

However, until this SPUR forum, I had never heard "sustainable" phrased in such a way - and it makes perfect sense.

Sustainable derives from the word sustain - to "support" or to "keep from giving way," according to two online dictionaries. One might conjure up the image of a tired man struggling to hold up a battered planet.

The problem with the term is that sustaining something is accepting that the current state is a sufficient and healthy enough state to continue. 

You don't have to look very far to see the extremes that our planet is enduring from human exposure and exploitation.

Go to the slums of India and see the pollution of marshlands and streams due to unsanitary living conditions. Visit the nonexistent mouth of the Colorado River at the Sea of Cortez due to excessive damming. Observe around the world the rampant desertification of fertile fields due to harmful farming techniques. See entire mountains decapitated throughout North America due to mountaintop removal for coal mining. 

With challenges like climate change, biodiversity loss, water pollution, and others, we humans need to do our best to replenish and rejuvenate our Earth to make up for our past transgressions, if we want a healthy and prosperous environment to inhabit for generations to come. 

Growing up, I always heard the phrase "Leave a place better than you found it." Our goal as responsible caretakers of this planet should be just that - and it should be the central philosophy for every single aspect of our lives. Contentment and acceptance of the status quo must not be anywhere near our vein of thought. 

That is why we cannot just simply sustain, we must regenerate

Regenerative systems, regenerative products, regenerative thinking all acknowledge the need to sustain, but also the necessity for continual improvement over generations. These regenerative ideas are inherently designed to promote both present and future achievements that benefit both people and planet. Our goal should not be to just last over an extended period of time, but to continually improve our conditions over that period.

The book Cradle to Cradle, by Bill McDonough and Michael Braungart, tackles this idea of regeneration thoroughly. He tells the reader to think about the entire life cycle of a product - how it's made, how it gets to the consumer, how it's consumed, and how it's disposed of. Why not create a product whose byproducts actually help to rejuvenate the environment or serve a useful purpose for another industry. What if we could make a shoe that is fully biodegradable, which could discompose to enrich soils. What if we made laundry detergent without harmful chemicals, but then to it added key nutrients so the dissolved detergent would help clean a polluted water supply. The innovation is out there, but we must put our intelligence and energy into action. 

This is why I love the term Regenerative. It forces us to think about the greater systems at play and how to actually make them better - not just less bad

Our planet should be a point of pride. Some say that our presence on this Earth is inherently bad and that human existence, at its very core, goes against the environment. In contrast, regenerative thinking says that we are a part of the cause, but we are also an integral part of the solution - and we must integrate our potential benevolence into everything that we do. By using our collective intelligence and endeavor we can make our marriage with Earth not just sustainable, but help it be continually improved over its lifespan.