In the 25 years after ‘sustainability’ was coined, the world continues to derive the majority of its power from fossil fuels, while forests and oceans are being emptied of their resources at alarming rates. If language shapes behaviour, perhaps a clearer term is needed to achieve our climate goals.
The term ‘sustainable development’ was first coined during the 1992 Rio Earth Summit as the guiding principle for collective human action towards addressing the issue of climate change. In the 25 years that followed, the term ‘sustainability’ has been stretched to allow the world to carry on being powered predominantly on coal, oil and gas. In a recent interview with the Regen Room, environmentalist and director Damon Gameu said the term ‘sustainability’ was largely redundant, arguing that we’re sustaining a fundamentally unsustainable system.
Sustainability is an aspirational, albeit vague concept that leaves some questions unanswered. Like the question of what we’re trying to sustain and for how long. In the context of a society run on fossil fuels, it insinuates sustaining the use of fossil fuels instead of transitioning to renewables. The results of sustaining fossil fuels over the last two decades have left us with a fast diminishing carbon budget that’s well off the Paris Agreement goals of keeping emissions below 1.5 degrees celsius.
Rather than focusing on building new sources of energy that work in harmony with nature and sacred indigenous sites, Environmental Ministers have had to strike a difficult balance between both sustaining an economy run on fossil fuels and the environment, often at the expense of the latter. When Australia’s current Environmental Minister Sussan Ley for example, approved the destruction of an aboriginal burial site to make way for an open cut coal mine in Gunnedah, she did it on the basis that “the economic benefits.. outweighed the loss of heritage value,” not mentioning it’s also some of the most fertile soil in the country for maintaining native flora. If language has influenced policies to continue sustaining fossil fuels thus far instead of phasing them out, perhaps we need to reevaluate the term ‘sustainability’ altogether.
“The term regeneration is more descriptive than sustainability, in that it suggests the need to focus on not just sustaining, but replenishing the planet’s resources.”
Environmentalists like Gameu have been urging the need to introduce a new term into our ecological vocabulary that does a bit more heavy lifting, on the premise that language shapes the way we understand and approach an issue. Back in 2013, founder of the World Future Council, Herbert Girardet proposed the use of the word ‘regeneration’ as an alternative, which he believes helps us better visualise the actions we need to take to create true environmental reform. He believes regeneration points out two key things that sustainability does not. Firstly, the need to regenerate old systems altogether, by switching to existing renewable energy technologies like wind and solar. Secondly, beyond significantly reducing or halting fossil fuel practices, it points to the need to regenerate what’s been damaged over the last 250 years of industrialisation and 5,000 years of deforestation.
The term regeneration is more descriptive than sustainability, in that it suggests the need to focus on not just sustaining, but replenishing the planet’s resources. In his 1973 publication Small Is Beautiful: A Study of Economics As If People Mattered, German economist E.F Schumacher stated the need for new modes of production that “strive to work with nature instead of attempting to force their way through natural systems.” These systems were visualised in Gameu’s recent documentary 2040, which pictured green cities powered by solar energy grids, traversed by electric transport. Also featured in this hopeful vision of the future were wind farms, regenerative agriculture and buildings covered in urban gardens, all technologies we have available to us today.
“The next five years will determine the next 100.”
When comparing regenerative versus sustainable agriculture, engineer and member of the Savory Regenerating Institute Glen Behrend said “sustainable practices, by definition, seek to maintain the same, whereas regenerative practices recognise that natural systems are currently impacted and it applies management techniques to restore the system to improved productivity.” In the case of regenerative agriculture, restoring the natural system involves a range of principles that stray far from mainstream practices. An example of this is a focus on not just monocropping, but improving agro-ecosystems, by focusing on increasing biodiversity, along with enriching soils which have become nutrient deficient thanks to traditional agriculture. Other practices include designing the farm in a way that expresses the landscapes unique essence, mimicking natural biodiverse ecosystems to make it more climate resistant.
By its very definition, regeneration requires that we go beyond sustaining our fossil fuel practices. It means striving not only towards zero emissions, but restoring lost topsoil, habitats and biodiversity. Gameu stresses that “the next five years will determine the next 100.” The most well known determinant for what climate exchange will ultimately look like in the next century is the rate of carbon emissions — and they’re still increasing globally — which means we’re not yet on track to meet the Paris Agreement of 1.5 degrees celsius. “If no structural change underlies this slowdown, science tells us that emissions will simply gradually continue to increase on average,” states Joeri Rogelj, climate change lecturer at the Grantham Institute, Imperial College London. If meeting our climate targets requires a structural change as Rogelj states, perhaps the language we use can change our trajectory.