by Ned Bagniewski

Over the last decade sustainability has become a “holy grail” of the green movement, spanning across environmental organizations and the corporate world alike. However, the Earth’s climate and ecosystems have already suffered significant impacts from human activities. Is sustaining the Earth, in its already degraded state, sufficient? Or, is it time that we consider pushing beyond sustainability to achieve something greater?

Many scientists believe that we have entered a new geological era, known as the Anthropocene, beginning when human activities became the predominant source of impacts to Earth systems. Humans are responsible for the release of climate-altering carbon emissions reaching a level of atmospheric concentrations not experienced for more than 400,000 years. While Earth’s climate has altered in the past, the current rate of warming is about 10 times faster than the natural recession of the most recent ice age.

Additionally, our wildlife and ecosystems are experiencing a loss of species from 1,000 to 10,000 times faster than the natural background extinction rate due in large part to habitat destruction, climate change, and overhunting. In fact, the World Wildlife Fund’s 2018 Living Planet Report estimates that wildlife populations throughout the world have fallen by 60% since 1970. According to Earth Overshoot Day, in 2018 human consumption of Earth’s natural resources exceeded the annual planetary budget within 8 months. That organization estimates that at this rate, the resources of 1.7 Earths would be needed to sustain our rate of consumption. With the human population projected to increase by more than 3 billion people by 2100, we need to seriously reconsider whether achieving the definition of sustainability, which is simply “causing little or no damage to the environment,” is enough.

A newer concept, referred to as regenerative design, could redefine how humans interact with the Earth and the natural systems that we depend on for clean air, water, sustenance, and all other essential life functions. Regeneration is the concept of going beyond sustainability by producing a positive environmental impact. Cities, infrastructure, and agriculture can all be reimagined to contribute to a healthier planet rather than further contributing to environmental degradation. 

For example, buildings can deploy green roofs with native plants that act as carbon sinks, reduce energy consumption, and serve as food sources and habitat for insects and birds. Storm water can be captured to reduce runoff, grey water can be recycled, and waste water can be treated to filter out pollutants and recharge aquifers.

Further, infrastructure such as roads and parking lots can be paved with permeable pavements to reduce runoff and improve water quality. Public rights-of-way along roads and highways can be vegetated with native trees, grasses, and flowers to improve air quality, absorb carbon emissions, and provide habitat. Additionally, this practice will reduce maintenance requirements associated with non- native turf grasses that are traditionally planted within rights-of-way. Wildlife crossings can be developed to reduce vehicle-wildlife collisions and to provide corridors that reconnect fragmented habitats.                                                                                    

Also, regenerative agriculture moves away from the current techniques of seasonal tilling and annual monoculture crops. Agricultural practices of no-till, planting of perennial crops such as Kernzo, silvopasture – where livestock pastures are planted with trees, and use of natural soil amendments such as biochar can regenerate soil health, reduce erosion, provide improved wildlife habitat, and eliminate synthetic fertilizer applications that contribute to aquatic ecosystem degradation when they enter waterways.

The concept of regeneration is relatively new, and at this time the empirical evidence of its success is somewhat limited. However, examples of projects attempting to achieve the status of regenerative design can be used as case studies to learn from. The VanDusen Botanical Garden Visitor’s Centre in Vancouver, BC achieved Living Building Challenge certification for its cutting edge design. While not fully regenerative, The Ray is a section of highway in Georgia that serves as a test pilot for safer, more environmentally conscious, and more technologically advanced transportation. Finally, The Land Institute has been researching more sustainable and regenerative agricultural techniques since 1976.

Despite the relative newness of regenerative design, it is a concept that we can all strive for in our own communities, and even our own homes, in an effort to not just do less harm but actually improve the natural world around us. In a time of unprecedented climate change, wildlife population decline, overconsumption of natural resources, and exploding population growth, it is necessary to push the boundaries on what we think is possible for human interaction with the natural world.