Conventional economics is degenerative. Business as usual depletes our finite natural resources faster than they can recover and we become inevitably poorer as a result. The exciting idea of ‘building back better’ is to create a different system that will not collapse under its own weight – a social and economic system that does not bankrupt those who are more vulnerable and does not steal from future generations.
The next step of ‘greening’ our existing economy is a false dawn. We buy into eco-consumerism as individuals; our corporations promote green growth and appeal to nature to persuade us that their products and policies are environmentally friendly; our politicians resort to nudging rather than disrupting our collective behaviour. Green sheen reduces some of the damage we do, but still results in the decline – gradual and otherwise – of the natural world around us and our place within it.
‘Sustainability’ goes one step further and aims to maintain what we’re doing while avoiding the long-term depletion of natural resources. In other words, to limit the destruction of the environment to a level that can be managed. Assuming we could find such a balance and a self-restraint that eludes us, it’s not enough. This equilibrium does not fix what we have already broken. Perhaps sustainability was sufficient in the past – before the climate started to change and the environment became degraded and the impact of climate injustice became unconscionable.
If we reached the goal of sustainability, we would not be stepping back from the red lines we’ve crossed; we would simply not stray any further into the red. We have already overstepped four planetary boundaries: atmospheric carbon dioxide levels (an indicator for climate change), the extinction rate (an indicator for loss of biodiversity), deforestation, and nitrogen and phosphorus flows. How much longer could we sustain our current position before large, irreversible changes become unavoidable? We don’t really know.
If the end goal is not sustainability, then what is it? A restorative economy would be the first step towards a more positive outcome. It puts back what has been broken, through, for example, renewable energy and resources, biodiversity gains and reforestation. Restoration focuses on reversing the damage caused by human intervention by focusing on such economic activities as remanufacturing, waste management and improving soil productivity – in the hope of building back more resilient communities and economies.
‘Regeneration’ goes one step further. If restoration means to make something well again, then regeneration means to make it better. At some point, the damage has been repaired and something new emerges. This is the vision of a regenerative economy that thinkers like Bill Reed of ReGenesis or John Fullerton of the Capital Institute have described. Regeneration applies when an unwanted material is transformed into a new useful material or when we upcycle instead of recycle. It applies when natural systems are not simply returned to some prescribed origin condition but improved to such an extent that we feel a more profound sense of wellbeing – our community and the place where we live are secure and safe.
Circular economies are restorative. Reuse, repair, renew, refurbish, remanufacture: all of these strategies extend the useful life of products in a circular economy. Circular economies can be regenerative too. A vital part of our social and economic recovery is the creation of these circular economies locally, so that progress does not stall at greening and moves towards restoration and regeneration. We are not there yet, but we have started this important journey beyond sustainability.