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I’ve got a confession: I think sustainability sucks. But before I negate my 25+ years of work in the sustainability movement and offend the many brilliant colleagues with whom I’ve collaborated, let me clarify.

I absolutely believe in the concept of sustainability as popularized by the 1987 Brundtland Commission—led by former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland—defining sustainable development as that which “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

But, we can do a much better job with the messaging of the movement because while there is good news about progress on the environmental front (consider, for example, the expansion of Eco Wave Power), from both a communications and human psychology perspective, sustainability sucks and regeneration rocks.

To sustain, states Oxford, is to “strengthen or support physically or mentally” so that is good; but, it is also defined as “to undergo or suffer (something unpleasant, especially an injury).” With that, I envision someone hanging on the edge of a cliff, hands sweating, a big drop below, sustained but fighting for life, certainly not relaxed and partaking in all of the rich juiciness that life can be.

In contrast, consider the words of pioneering publisher and organic farmer Robert Rodale who, in 1989, coined the term “regenerative organic” to describe “a holistic approach to farming that encourages continuous innovation and improvement of environmental, social, and economic measures.” In other words, going beyond sustainability to actually leaving the soil, people, systems better than you found them. 

Extrapolate out from regenerative farming and think of yourself, the people on your team, in your company, your customers, your vendors—the ecosystem in which you live and work—and imagine leaving things better. This is exciting! To regenerate is “to grow again, to be re-born, to make something grow again.” To be regenerative is to wake up each day, greet the Sun, and see with gratitude and vision anew; to know you can be part of the solution—and it feels good. 

In regenerative business (leadership, farming, living), the goal is moving away from sustaining and aiming not just for a carbon-neutral ecological footprint, but rather, to live fruitfully within the web of life, recognizing both the cyclical and interconnected nature of all life, and our capacity to leave things better than we found them. For as the apex species here on planet Earth, while we can (and often do) cause harm, we also have the opportunity to have a positive impact. Perhaps even more importantly at our core, we want to be of impact. 

In October of 2021, Prince William was in the news for not-so-subtly calling space-race competitors Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Richard Branson to task, saying, “We need some of the world’s greatest brains and minds fixed on trying to repair this planet, not trying to find the next place to go and live.” 

The truth is, the great minds of today know what needs to be done but we (we as in a big enough, collective enough we to really make the necessary change) are not doing it because we are forgetting a key driver in human nature: our desire to leave a legacy. We all want our lives to matter; to believe that in some way, our time here will not be forgotten. 

So all the messaging about reducing one’s ecological footprint is just plain old forgetting deep psychology. We want to leave a footprint! We want to imagine that future generations will remember us! 

Sustainability still hasn’t fully taken off, green movements fail, and billionaires claim a desire to save the world but go to space because we want to leave a mark. So being told to stop leaving a mark just goes against our very nature. Our real task then, is to redefine how we leave a mark. How we create a legacy so that, as every Scout and backpacker knows, we can leave it better than we found it. The first step is to begin integrating the concept of regeneration into your life, personally and professionally. Take a deep breath. Let it out slowly and fully, giving thanks for everything in the circle of life that has gone right to have you sitting here today reading this. Then consider: what do you see, feel, hear, or sense that needs regenerating? It starts with you and with every breath you take.

Learn more about Regenerative Leadership, lunch and learns, and Naturewise Regenerative Vision Quests.

2 Comments

  • Brenda says:

    Thank you for your positive thoughts on regenerative action. To regenerate is to replace! To replace is to know what to use! We have been replacing since day one! Not always in the right direction! Replacing paper, metals, foods, clothing, etc. with current oil dependent products, such as plastics, polyester clothing, petroleum in sunscreens, body lotions, facial products, and developing chemicals to combat insects affecting our food sources. It goes on and on! We need more specific information getting out there to help people make better choices! A major problem as I see it, is the way things are priced! People with a lesser income will keep buying cheaper products which is contributing to the sustainable attitude so that big businesses continue their avarice money making adventures!
    I would like to see hydroponic farming gain a substantial increase in communities so people have healthier foods to eat and I turn be able to make better choices toward a regenerative life away from the authoritarian and totalitarian systems dominating our country!