Becoming a part of nature, once again
What if the solution to the climate and ecological crises had been in front of us all this time? For too long, we misunderstood socio-economic development as an increasing degree of separation from Nature. We over-relied on material and technological solutions that ended up turning our way of life unsustainable and our planet potentially uninhabitable for us. Now, we are confronting two overwhelming challenges, of which the COVID pandemic is just the most recent consequence. Unless we are ready to change things drastically, it will not be the last.
Nonetheless, we now have reasons to believe it is not all doom and gloom. A new project on the Red Sea's Saudi Arabian coast could be the first significant step in the right direction. The vaccine for future pandemics is the same as the vaccine for the climate and ecological crises; a genuine reconciliation with Nature, a new understanding of economic development based on regenerative sustainability.
Sir David Attenborough recently presented his life argument to all of us, what he called his witness statement. In it, he tells us we need to "rediscover how to be sustainable." We need to move from being "apart from Nature, to becoming a part of Nature, once again." Luckily for us, some visionaries have been working for decades on rediscovering sustainability, making it a meaningful concept and a significant policy, strategy, and standard. Even more, they have been telling us how it should evolve, what the next frontier in human development is. Their conclusion is that sustainability is not good enough.
Ecological economist Herman Daly published his anthological "Towards a Steady-state economy" in 1973. He told the world loud and clear that there was a different way to do things. There had to be. One that took care of everybody while acknowledging and respecting the limits of our one and only ecosystem, Planet Earth. He set the basis for a paradigmatic change; global economic endless growth is not feasible in a limited ecosystem. It is unsustainable. After this conceptual evolution, others brought tangibility. In 2009 Johan Rockström led 28 scientists at the Stockholm Resilience Center to define the nine planetary limits. A set of quantitative planetary boundaries establishing how far we can stretch Nature's physical capability to support our economic development. If Daly said there was a ceiling, Rockström figured out where it is precisely. Three of these boundaries (biodiversity, the nitrogen cycle, and climate regulation) have already been crossed.
Conventional linear economic structures work relatively straightforward: energy and materials as input, waste and greenhouse emissions, the output. The resulting growth cuts against the living world's cycles, evolving at the expense of our natural assets in an uneconomic manner. It is destined to cross Rockström's boundaries and any other. 20th Century economic systems are "degenerative by design," defines Kate Raworth. She is the ideologist of the Doughnut Economy. This circular approach, to be applied in Amsterdam as the way out of the COVID-driven economic crisis, produces socio-economic benefits within the living world's boundaries. The goal is not to grow but to thrive. It is about rethinking our business models to reconcile with Nature in a seamless symbiosis, enhancing environmental and social value, not just maintaining it.
Sustainable economic development approaches are, of course, essential. However, their purpose is eventually short-sighted. Pioneers like Pamela Mang and Bill Reed understood already in 1995 that the mission of economic sectors like the development industry should be to positively contribute to the health of the planet. Having a low environmental impact, or none at all, should be a given. Even the recently announced Net Zero goals by some nations and companies are not enough.
We need to move from linear degenerative to circular regenerative business models. The answer is regeneration, an approach that treats resources in a circulatory flow, creating zero waste and revitalizing energy and materials sources. The purpose is to enhance and complement Nature, restoring and extending natural habitats, and increasing their biodiversity. In the regenerative business model Nature is the greatest inspiration for minimalist technology and design and the most valuable asset for nature-based solutions and strategies. Some fascinating examples are already flourishing around the world.
Saudi Arabia is the location for the most ambitious regenerative project ever undertaken. A massive eco-tourism resort the size of Belgium, it is conceived to become a seed to make the coast of the Red Sea thrive. The project checks all the sustainability boxes, from 100% renewable energy to circular agriculture and aquaculture. But it goes beyond that. The goal is to increase the destination's net conservation value by 30% in 20 years. Land and marine habitats, including coral reefs, will be extended, and their biodiversity enriched. This will lead to more resilience, CO2 capture capacity, climate change mitigation, and ecological crisis moderation, including fewer chances for future pandemics.
Regeneration is the answer to the question "what would Nature do?." The natural way to move forward, the most intuitive, the only one.