Regenerative Development


L. Hunter Lovins
President, Natural Capitalism Solutions
SEED Fellow, Regis University

Humanity stands on a cliff’s edge, at risk of total system collapse.[i] Regenerative Development is what humanity needs to avoid this fate. It goes far beyond older framings of sustainable development to embrace the principles of living systems as the basis for development. It shows how humanity can ascend from the degenerative world in which we live, and how sustainable practices are rungs on a ladder to an economy in service to life.

Adapted from Bill Reed’s “Trajectory of Ecological Design.” Diagram, graphic: Capital Institute

Think about it: total civilizational collapse.

The loss of everything that you care about.


For millions of people around the globe, collapse is commonplace: from beggars on the streets in major cities,[ii] to infrastructure crumbling,[iii] to American cities unable to supply clean drinking water to citizens,[iv] to millions of Chinese[v] and Indians[vi] dying every year from acute air pollution.

Today 65 million refugees are on the move, more than at any time since World War Two,[vii] and estimated by Mercy Corps to be growing at 24 new migrants every minute.[viii]  Threatening the stability of the European Union,[ix] this flood of humanity is driving xenophobic populism around the world.[x] Twice that many people need an estimated  $35 billion each year in humanitarian assistance because of conflict or disasters,[xi] exhausting the willingness of even the most generous donor nations to react. And this is before the $1.4 trillion a year needed to implement the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).[xii] Frustrated young men with nowhere to go, no jobs and no prospects are increasingly easy to radicalize, resulting in predictable attacks, for which there is no defense.[xiii] International diplomat Christiana Figueres put it,

People have lost trust that their lives can get better and that institutions are on their side. This in turn is leading to apathy, depression, despair and in some cases to the development of radical views. This cycle must be stopped, before it consumes our collective future.[xiv]

The woes of the world are not an accident. They are created by the old narrative of neoliberalism,[xv] that markets are perfect, the role of government is only to protect individual ability to amass private property. This system, built to defend individual creativity from the evils of fascism and communism works well for a few, but impoverishes the planet and most of humanity. Oxfam estimates that 62 people now have as much as the poorest 3.5 billion. This means that the richest 1% in the world has more wealth than the other 99% of humanity,[xvi] and every major ecosystem is threatened.[xvii]

It’s a mess. Or if it’s not, as Tommy Lee Jones said, “It’ll do til the mess arrives.”

What do we do?

hunter_img_6404Around the world activists seek to stop at least some of the destruction facing us: the professors,[xviii] scientists,[xix] businesspeople[xx] and young people[xxi] get arrested to stop the mining of coal and the pipelines to ship fracked oil.[xxii] Students and clergy[xxiii] demand that their universities and churches divest from ownership in fossil fuels, and human rights activists[xxiv] fight inhumane conditions in Bangladeshi factories or biopiracy[xxv] in India.

Conservationists save remnants of intact ecosystems,[xxvi] and agency personnel enforce pollution regulations.[xxvii] Practitioners of corporate social responsibility, drive enhanced profits from cutting business impacts[xxviii] and ensure that workers and communities are treated decently.[xxix] Green developers create less wasteful, more delightful structures to deliver higher productivity because employees do better in cleaner environments.[xxx] Organizations like CDP[xxxi] and the Global Reporting Initiative[xxxii] set standards, measure reduction of impacts, and occupy neighboring rungs. New accounting systems like the International Integrated Reporting Committee,[xxxiii] the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board[xxxiv] and other metrics sit on rungs proving the business case for more responsible behavior. These servants of “sustainability” are bringing the system back to neutral—able, unlike now, to endure indefinitely without collapse.

This activism is more than noble; it’s essential if we are to preserve life as we know it. But increasingly, even those doing this work sense that it is failing to meet the crises accelerating around us. The conventional definition of sustainable development: meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs[xxxv] is essential, necessary, and insufficient.

It has become fashionable to denigrate sustainability because it isn’t enough. Some fault “green” activities as being only “less bad,” “uninspiring.” But this circular firing squad is silly. It confuses and disheartens people facing a world rushing to economic and ecological catastrophe.[xxxvi] As Jo Confino, Executive Editor of Huffington Post puts it, “The status quo is a huge beast with claws sharpened and teeth bared. All the new models that people are pushing are like mice running around bumping into each other.”[xxxvii]

David Brower, the founder of the modern environmental movement, once asked, “What do you want the earth to look like in 50 years. Let’s do a little dreaming. Aim high,” he said, “Navigators have aimed at the stars for centuries. They haven’t hit one yet, but because they aimed high they found their way.”  The disparate efforts for change are essential foundations, they place “sustainability” as a necessary mid-point of the climb. But where are we going? Humanity is hungry for “a vision all living things can share.”[xxxviii] To supplant the prevailing neoliberal myth, we need a new narrative of a world that works for 100% of humanity, as Buckminster Fuller put it. Our goal must be the equitable distribution of scarce resources to maximize wellbeing for everyone within planetary limits.

The Regenerative Economy

John Fullerton spent 18 years at JP Morgan, leaving as Managing Director. In 2001 he walked away to create a new approach. During the ensuing decade of deep study and awakening, he learned that the essence of life and the evolutionary process is regeneration. He determined that sustainability is the result, not the means of getting development right. Nature, he points out, is sustainable because it is regenerative.

Fullerton outlined what he calls Regenerative Capitalism,[xxxix] articulating what an economy aligned with natural systems and the laws (not theories) of physics would look like. He pointed out that, according to leading evolutionary theorists,[xl] there are patterns and principles that nature (living and non-living alike) uses to build stable, healthy and sustainable systems throughout the world.

Fullerton set forth eight principles:

  1. Right Relationship: Holding the continuation of life sacred and recognizing that the human economy is embedded in human culture, which is itself embedded in the biosphere. All systems—from molecular scale all the way to cosmic scale—are nested, interconnected, and defined by overarching relationships of mutualism within which any exchange takes place.
  2. Innovative, Adaptive and Responsive: Drawing on the innate ability of human beings to innovate and “create anew” across all sectors of society. Humans are innately creative and entrepreneurial. Even in failure, we “begin again.”
  3. Views Wealth Holistically: True wealth is not money in the bank. It is defined in terms of the well-being of the “whole,” achieved through the harmonization of the multiple forms of capital, with system health only as strong as the weakest link. Well-being depends on belonging, on community and on an array of community stewarded assets.
  4. Empowered Participation: All participants of the system must be empowered to participate in and contribute to the health of the whole. Therefore, beyond whatever moral beliefs one may hold, financial and non-financial wealth must be equitably (although not necessarily equally) distributed in the context of an expanded understanding of systemic health. All people long to be part of something bigger than ourselves, and the health of the whole depends upon their participation.
  5. Robust Circulatory Flow: Like the metabolism of any healthy system, resources (material and non-material) must circulate up and down the system efficiently and effectively. Circular economy[xli] concepts for material and energy are one important aspect of this principle at work in a Regenerative Economy.
  6. “Edge Effect” Abundance: In nature the most abundant places are where two ecosystems come together: where a meadow meets a forest, or a river the sea. Creative collaborations across sectors of the economy increase the possibility of value-adding wealth creation through diversity of relationships, exchanges, and resiliency.
  7. Seeks Balance: Living systems harmonize multiple qualities rather than optimize single qualities (such as financial returns in neoliberalism). For example, they balance resilience, the long run ability to learn and grow stronger from shocks, with efficiency, which while more dynamic, creates brittle concentrations of power.
  8. Honors Community and Place: Operating to nurture healthy, stable communities and regions, both real and virtual, in a connected mosaic of place-centered economies. We can have a global exchange of goods and services so long at it ensures the unique integrity of each place as a condition.

hunter_website_dogBeginning to be implemented by organizations like Savory Institute, Natural Capitalism Solutions,[xlii] Capital Institute, regenerative agriculture groups across the world,[xliii] these principles enable us to align our economics with the way the rest of the world works.

Fullerton’s principles are not absolutes. They are part of a rapidly emerging field of holistic thinking. They are interconnected and necessarily work together to sketch a complex pattern that is beyond linear description.

But as a start, they are the best guide I’ve found in 45 years of looking, to how to create an economy that will create conditions conducive to life.[xliv] They are the essential first step to grounding this new field of Regenerative Development. They draw from the best thinking in ecological economics,[xlv] economic democracy,[xlvi] positive psychology,[xlvii] evolutionary biology[xlviii] and the emerging discipline of Humanistic Management[xlix] to offer a new story of who we are as human beings, and how we can craft a finer future.[l]

How You Can Help?

The SEED Institute and Hunter’s organization Natural Capitalism Solutions are part of a global movement to create a regenerative economy. Follow their work and learn how you can help by following them on Twitter @natcapsolutions and liking them on Facebook To receive regular updates send your name and email address to

hunter_websiteRead More by Hunter Lovins

About Hunter (bio and blog list)

End Notes:

[i] Motesharrei, Safa, et al, 'Human And Nature DYnamical' Study: HANDY: Human and nature dynamics: Modeling inequality and use of resources in the collapse or sustainability of societies, Ecological Economics, Volume 101, May 2014, Pages 90–102,


[iii] Golson, Jordan, “It’s Time To Fix America’s Inrastructure,” Wired Magazine, 23 jan 2015,

[iv] Dolan, Matthew, “Flint crisis could cost U.S. a $300B lead pipe overhaul, agency warns,” Detroit Free Press, 5 March 2016,

[v] Mosbergen, Dominique, “Air Pollution Causes 4,400 Deaths In China Every Single Day: Study,” Huffington Post 14, Aug 2015,

[vi] Reuters, “More Indians than Chinese will die from air pollution: Researcher,” The Financial Express, 18 August 2016,

[vii] Baker, Aryn, “How Climate Change is Behind the Surge of Migrants to Europe, Time Magazine, 7 Sept 2015

[viii] “A Global Crisis: Life in Fragile States and the Effects of Mass Migration,” Global Washington, 2016,

[ix] Bilefsky, Daniel, Smale, Alison, “Dozens of Migrants Drown as European Refugee Crisis Continues,” New York Times, 22 Jan 2016,

[x] Woods, Nagaire, “Populism is spreading: this is what is driving it,” World Economic Forum, World Economic Forum, 9 Dec 2016,

[xi] “Report of the High Level Panel on Humanitarian Financing, 12 Jan 2016,

[xii] Anderson, Mark, “$1.4tn a year needed to reach global goals for world's poorest,” The Guardian, 18 Nov 2015,

[xiii] Gregor Aisch, Adam Pearce, Bryant Rousseau, “How Far Is Europe
 Swinging to the Right?” New York Times, 5 July 2016,

[xiv] Christiana Figueres, “Restoring Hope, Huffington Post, 14 July 2016,

[xv] Monbiot, George, “Neoliberalism – the ideology at the root of all our problems,” The Guardian, 15 April 2016,

[xvi] “62 people own the same as half the world, reveals Oxfam Davos report, 18 Jan 2016,

[xvii] Global Biodiversity Outlook 3, Secretariat of the UN Convention on Biodiversity, 2010, s/gbo/gbo3-final-en.pdf

[xviii] Bill McKibben, Author, Educator, Environmentalist,

[xix] Nature Specials, Planetary Boundaries,

[xx] Grantham, Jeremy, “Be persuasive, Be brave. Be arrested (if necessary)” Nature, 14 Nov 2014,

[xxi] Idle No More, Canada,

[xxii] Sarah Jaffee, “Standing Firm at Standing Rock: Why the Struggle is Bigger Than One Pipeline,” Moyers and Company, 28 Sept 2016,

[xxiii], We’re Building A Global Climate Movement,

[xxiv] International Labor Rights Forum,

[xxv] Dr. Vandana Shiva, India,  










[xxxv] Our Common Future,

[xxxvi] Brito Lidia, Smith Stafford, “State of the Planet Declaration,” Planet Under Pressure, 26 – 29 Mar 2012,

[xxxvii] Personal communication, Jo Confino, Conference on Beyond Business As Usual, DNV-GL, Copenhagen, 16 Nov 2013

[xxxviii] Kate Wolf, “Brother Warrior,”

[xxxix] John Fullerton, “Regenerative Capitalism,” Capital Institute, 2015,

[xl] Eric J. Chaisson, Cosmic Evolution, The Rise of Complexity In Nature, Harvard University Press, 2002,

[xli] Towards a Circular Economy,


[xliii] “Wool from Sustainably Raised Sheep Play Surprising Role in Patagonia’s Grasslands Restoration,” Nature Conservancy, 23 Jan 2013,

[xliv] Benyus, Janine, A Biomimicry Primer, Biomimicry 3.8, 2016,

[xlv] Dr. Robert Costanza, Flourishing On Earth,


[xlvii] Peterson, Christopher, “What is Positive Psychology and What Is It Not, Psychology Today, 16 May 2008,

[xlviii] Wilson, Edward O, The Social Conquest of Earth, Liveright, 2013,

[xlix] Pirson Michael, From Capitalistic to Humanistic Business, Palgrave, 2014,

[l] Natural Capitalism Solutions,

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