Note — May 08, 2022

Should We Ditch Sustainability?

The term ‘regenerative’ has been having a moment for a little while now, I’ve written about it a few times elsewhere. I generally think that’s a good thing, we are beyond simply “don’t destroy as much,” we need to help nature regenerate. However, Leyla Acaroglu makes the argument that we should stick with the language of sustainability for a while, and for some good reasons. First, the movement has only recently been making productive inroads and achieving some success with governments and big business, let’s not change the words around and mix things up again. Second, let’s first learn to walk properly with sustainability before trying to regenerate. Why change to a new framing when we can barely even achieve the old one? Third, and perhaps more importantly, by switching to ‘regenerative’ we are also appropriating and colonizing (again) the age-old practices of indigenous peoples, let us be more humble and learn from them first.

Two more things. Acaroglu attaches together material extraction from the global south and the act of shipping them back the finished and discarded products to be disposed of. You might say “well d’uh,” but those two issues are often treated separately, even though both are part of the same chain and each time the negative impacts are inflicted to the same people.

Second, some corrupt the word sustainability by taking it to mean “to sustain our current ways.” She counters this greenwashing by associating the concept with sustainment instead. “[B]ringing the concept of sustainment into our lives. It’s the opposing force to what we have, which is destruction, deterioration and exploitation, and the design decisions of today can help rectify the mistakes of the past.”

Sustainability as a movement is the process of shifting social values and reorienting away from exploitation as the dominant approach towards a regenerative society, one where we give back more than we take. In order to get to this better state, we have to redesign all of our current processes, systems, services, products, lifestyles and mindsets. […]

If environmentalism was about protection, sustainability is about survival, and regeneration is about thriving. This is a process of societal transformation. […]

Of course regeneration should be our collective goal, as we must work with nature not against it. But we need the regeneration of cultural equity, reconciliation and reparations as much as we need to reverse our collective exploitation of nature purely for personal and economic gains. […]

The current system is riddled with lies, externalities and injustices, and these all fit together. These are the unsustainable systems that need to be completely disrupted. But to do so, we must reject the idea that sustainability is about sustaining what we already have and instead, embrace bringing the concept of sustainment into our lives.