Beyond doom, beyond sustainability

illustration of regeneration vs sustainability

Is sustainability asking for too little? Regeneration is what we really need. And it could be more powerful and inspiring too.

Peak oil, climate change, continuing global economic crises. We live in such uncertain times.

It could be so easy to throw up our hands in frustration and disgust, to go down that dark road of disillusionment, of morbidly chalking it all up to human nature. It could be so easy to buy into the thinking that we’ve destroyed ourselves, and it is just a matter of time before the bomb we’ve set explodes in our faces.

Or, we could play for the best in humanity:

Peak oil is as inevitable as death and taxes. But for every convert that peak oil’s doom-and-gloom extremism sweeps up, it alienates plenty of people who might otherwise climb down from their SUVs.

-Toby Hemenway in “Apocalypse, Not”

When hope is more realistic than despair

“Sustainability” is not just a new, trendy buzzword that hippies and hipsters wax lyrical about in the coolest coffeehouses about town. Sustainably is how we lived, out of necessity, for millennia: making the best we could from the gifts we found in nature.

Nature moves in exponential cycles. Hence the quickening we are experiencing now, this hurtling towards potential and spectacular impending doom. Ecological, economic and cultural disaster, all converging into one great big gigantic cosmic SPLAT.

Though if nature moves in exponential cycles, then might it not also be possible to harness this energy, and to use the forces of nature to reverse the cycle of damage we have done?

Permaculture, the ethics-based design science from which the Transition movement grew, teaches us to observe and interact with the natural world around us, seeking to explore and mimic nature’s patterns in cultivated ecological systems, to become stewards in a mutually beneficial relationship where each party flourishes, so that we can harness the regenerative powers of the planet which blossom all around us, every day, in every season.

Indeed, the Transition movement was born out of a positive response to peak oil; moving beyond “Is peak oil real?” to action based on the underlying assumption that yes, peak oil is very real and is going to very really affect us, and so what are we going to do to transition to this new lifestyle?

Transitioners walk the line daily, between a positive response to changing cultural and climatic conditions on the one hand, and the possibility of apocalyptic abyss on the other. Like a motorcyclist taking a corner at high speed, who must keep his eyes on where he wants to go (lest he end up in a ditch on the side of that road), so too must we keep our eyes on the bright green future that we want to create, instead of the admittedly dire possible alternatives.

One of the Transition movement’s biggest assets is that it recognizes that high-intellect, high-tech design won’t solve the problems of peak oil, climate change and economic crisis. You can’t solve a problem with the same thinking that created it:

“Though the problems of the world are increasingly complex, the solutions remain embarrassingly simple,” as Bill Mollison, the Australian naturalist known  as “the father of permaculture” has put it.

A postcard from the developing world

Low-tech, remembered knowledge of how to move and work in harmony with the natural world around us is, well, the natural way.

Each of us comes from an indigenous culture if we trace our roots back far enough, and therefore all of us bear somewhere within us the knowledge of our ancestors, for whom living within ecological boundaries was not even a concept; it was a given, like drinking water or breathing air.

When working in the developing world as I have done, one has an opportunity to experience the depths of human resilience, to experience generosity from people who have access to fewer resources in one year than we take for granted in a day.

You can feel the heartfelt human connection that transcends language barriers, cultural differences and geographic separation. And you can discover on a practical level what people should know already, but clearly need to be reminded of. That all of us, no matter where we are in the world, want the same things: to feel loved, to connect with our community and to create a better life for our children.

We do truly live in a Garden of Eden, with everything that we need to create a beautiful, vibrant, healthy community and life right before us, if only we train our eyes and hearts to see. With the right perspective, suddenly, problems can become solutions and waste materials can become valuable resources. It just requires a slight shift in perception and a simple foundation of ethics and principles to guide us.

“Sustainable” isn’t natural

With a little discipline and nurturing, we can create the fulfilling relationship with our planet that we only dream of now.

But here’s the rub. When was the last time you referred to the most fulfilling relationship of your dreams as “sustainable”?

Sustainability is simply living – living simply, within our means, and working with natural laws and forces. To expand that means to expand our lives. In nature, energy cycles through the Earth’s system. It changes form and then it comes back again. If you ignore this law you get modern society. To paraphrase the old saying, the Piper always collects his due in the end.

It is time to move beyond sustainability.

We get what we focus on, so let’s play bigger.

Instead of focusing on how to reduce our footprints, what if we were to focus on creating human systems inspired by nature, using biological resources, in order to flourish?

What if we were to focus on re-discovering and re-organizing the vast amount of natural living resources we have all around us, and incorporating them into our designs to create multiple mutually beneficial relationships?

What if we were to focus on how much we could create and contribute to the world, instead of how much we can reduce and reuse? Or worse still (for those who still insist upon business as usual), upon how much we can consume and accumulate?

What if we were to focus on how big a positive impact we could make, rather than how much we can shrink ourselves to minimize our impact?

What if instead, we were to focus on doing things that are healing and inspiring?

Restoring? Regenerating? Recreating?

What kind of world could we create?

— Matthew Lynch

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  1. Auntiegrav says

    The simplest way to state this is that we have to give back more than we take.
    We have to be more useful to the future than we consume right now.

    This is the opposite of the human condition, which is to believe that the universe is here to serve us.
    Even religious believers think that we get to consume everything we want as long as we do it in the name of ‘serving God’, which, in its face, is serving ourselves.

    It’s great to think about this stuff and know the answers, but a waste of time to try and change humans intentionally. This change will either happen (usually through some type of die-off) or it won’t. In the meantime, one can get great satisfaction from living a simpler life and preparing children for the coming Transition.
    The middle of the population curve is adapted to a specific niche. Modern civilization is based on a very narrow niche (petroleum based), and looks more like a spike. Best to be on the fringe in any way you can, because there is no way of knowing which way that spike is going to fall.

    • says

      ‘The simplest way to state this is that we have to give back more than we take.’

      Well said. And the point of the piece is simply that we are capable of so much more than being ‘sustainable’. Especially if we focus on creating a positive impact rather than limiting naturally creative natures.

      I must, however, take exception with your view of ‘the niche of the masses’. While I have also experienced the frustration of sharing a message about the coming challenges with an audience that was not ready hear, and agree with your observation that the majority of modern civilization have adapted to a specific niche in their pursuit of ‘security’ [ironically, at the expense of their own personal resilience and security] there is a very real danger in viewing fellow humans as ‘the alien other’, that we must remain vigilant about.

      No matter what happens, we will always be faced with the challenge of how to live in harmony with our human neighbours, even the irresponsible ones. How will we ever be able to do this if we are unprepared, or unable to relate to each other on a human level? How will we heal our planet, if we are unable to heal ourselves?

      De-humanizing ‘the alien other’ is one of the fundamental reasons why we have collectively got ourselves into this mess in the first place. Viktor Frankl perhaps said it best when he quoted from Goethe:

      “If we take man as he is, we make him worse, but if we take him as he should be, we make him capable of becoming what he can be.”

      If you are correct about the ‘spike’, and we simply write off the unprepared masses as collateral damage in earth’s own survival-of-the-fittest process of natural selection, than how will humanity ever flourish to our full, emphatic potential as good stewards of the planet?

      [view Viktor Frankl’s talk online here:

    • ChuckT says

      “Even religious believers think that we get to consume everything we want as long as we do it in the name of ‘serving God’, which, in its face, is serving ourselves.”

      Sorry Auntie – can’t agree with this unfair characterization of all “religious believers”. I am a Catholic myself, and even the last few Pope’s have been speaking out that we’re here NOT just to use up the world but to be “good stewards” of it. Are there many out there who hold a religious faith and are NOT on the sustainability path yet? Obviously – but many understand it at a gut level – it’s just difficult and painful to make significant changes to our Western Modern way of life. I am pretty conservative politically – and *I* can get it. So all is not lost. I don’t want to see a future for my children and future generations where the earth is completely used up and life is reduced to nothing more than a scramble to survive. Hopefully – more and more will wake up as prices rise, we begin to see more evidence of Peak Oil, Peak Nuclear, Peak Food, Peak Water, etc. The only question is will people cooperate to DO something about these issues. IF not – nature will do its thing and die off will force it. Sad – but reality.


  2. says

    In the long term, I believe regenerative design – creating things, processes, places and organizations that promote abundance without depletion of future resources – would produce a better quality of life, even for those that don’t equate “better” with “simpler”. It would be great if we could sell this message without exploiting fear of an apocalypse. Unfortunately, our current industrialized societies are generally built on short term profit for those controlling the resources rather than long-term benefit for everyone. In America, if a company does not make as LARGE a profit as some speculator said they could have, that company’s stock takes a dive. There has been some rebellion against this type of greed, but those who stand to profit by run away consumption as experts at creating fear and uncertainty.

    Can we craft a positive vision that is so compelling that people will want to be part of it, will want to vote for it, pay for it and fight for it? Can we develop the environmental, cultural and economic models that are needed to convince people it is really possible? …that it is better for ALL of us right now, not just for the planet and our distant descendents? Can we provide evidence to convince (or at least refute) the naysayers? Who is making this happen? How do we take permaculture into the mainstream? Lots of questions; still searching for the answers.

    It will be a tough sell for sure, given how difficult it has been to gain consensus regarding the existence of Climate Change despite the preponderance of evidence. What a great challenge!


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