L. Hunter Lovins
President, Natural Capitalism Solutions
SEED Fellow, Regis University
It’s become fashionable to denigrate sustainability because it isn’t enough. Some promoters fault “green” activities as being only “less bad.” This, they say, is “uninspiring.” “You wouldn’t want your marriage to be called sustainable, would you,” they scold. A company that is cutting its waste, emitting less carbon is only doing less harm, but the earth is still warming, our waste is still increasing.
Less Bad IS More Good
Deceptively facile as these comments are, David Brower, founder of the modern environmental movement warned that such circular firing squads are silly. If you’re standing on the edge of a cliff, he observed, the only progressive move is to turn around and then step forward, what he called the ecological U-turn. But if you’re on a bus speeding towards the cliff’s edge, if you don’t first slow down, THEN turn around, you’ll flip the bus and roll on over the cliff.[i]
Dana Meadows was clear that the role of efficiency is to buy time to enable us to redesign how we make and deliver all products and services, then ultimately manage all institutions to be regenerative of human and natural capital, the arc of transition of Natural Capitalism.[ii]
Progressive change agents love to engage in these sorts of turf squabbles but they confuse people facing a world headed to catastrophe.[iii] As Jo Confino, Executive Editor of Huffington Post puts it, “The status quo is a huge beast with claws sharpened and teeth bared. Unless we work together we’re just little mice running around bumping into each other.”[iv]
If Team Humanity is to survive, we will realize that we are all in this together. No one of us has the approach that will definitively be the right one, and a lot of experimentation is still needed. Only by appreciating our diversity and differences, and still working collaboratively will we can find our way forward.
Ladder to a Better World
Imagine a pool of muck.
That’s not far wrong from the situation in which we now find ourselves. We’re trapped in a manure lagoon created by the neoliberal narrative under which we all suffer, and the degenerative economy that practices business-as-usual.
Rising from the muck is a ladder. On the foundational rungs are the activists seeking to stop some of the destruction facing us: the professors,[v] scientists,[vi] businesspeople[vii] and young people[viii] willing to get arrested to stop climate change, loss of biodiversity, impact on indigenous communities—for example, the mining of tar sands, the massive carving away of the earth to mine Canadian bitumen and the pipelines to ship tar sands sludge or fracked oil.[ix] Students and clergy[x] demanding that their universities and churches divest from ownership in fossil fuels, and human rights activists[xi] fighting inhumane conditions in Bangladeshi factories or biopiracy[xii] in India all occupy nearby rungs.
On nearby rungs are conservationists saving remnants of intact ecosystems,[xiii] and agency personnel enforcing pollution regulations.[xiv] Several rungs further on are practitioners of corporate social responsibility, driving enhanced profits from cutting business impacts[xv] and ensuring that workers and communities are treated decently.[xvi]
Organizations like CDP[xvii] and the Global Reporting Initiative[xviii] set standards and measure the reduction of impacts as they occupy neighboring rungs. New accounting systems like the International Integrated Reporting Committee,[xix] the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board[xx] and other metrics sit on rungs proving the business case for more responsible behavior. Sustainable Development Goals[xxi] deliver basic quality of life in ways that can endure.
In the same area are green developers creating less wasteful, more delightful structures that deliver higher productivity because employees do better in cleaner environments.[xxii] A few rungs on are the architects of Platinum LEED buildings, and Living Buildings,[xxiii] and Wellbeing Standard buildings.
All of these servants of what is known as “sustainability” are bringing the system back to neutral—able, unlike now, to endure indefinitely without destroying itself. All of this work to achieve what we have been calling sustainability or sustainable development is essential to getting our noses above the muck.
Such activism is more than noble. It gets the world back to balance, essential if we are to preserve life as we know it on this little planet.
An Economy in Service to Life
It is only when we achieve the stability of a world that is no longer degenerative, when we slow the runaway bus, that we can turn to the question of, “Where, now, do we want to go? How do we create a world that works for 100% of humanity?” The disparate efforts for change are essential foundations in our climb to “sustainability” as a necessary mid-point of the climb.
We haven’t got all of the answers, but the ladder’s destination might better be described as the Regenerative Economy.[xxiv] The prior blog, Regenerative Development,[xxv] shows that this is how we will achieve genuine sustainability.
Sustainability is the outcome, not the objective. Looking to natural systems as the model, nature itself is sustainable because it is regenerative. The essence of life and the evolutionary process of all life is regeneration.
This vision of an economy aligned with how the universe actually works supplies the missing clarity of vision needed to inspire sufficient commitment to enable change groups to work together transformatively, in a dynamic, creative mosaic.
Yes, no one rung on the ladder is, by itself, sufficient. But these foundational rungs of the ladder are just as crucial as those above them. Cut the legs off the ladder and we sink further into the mire. Break too many of the rungs and the integrity of the ladder collapses.
Humanity is hungry for “a vision all living things can share.”[xxvi] If we combine what is known about how transformations occur with the best science of what is necessary, the outline of the way to avoid collapse emerges. But to get there we really are all in it together.
Read More by Hunter Lovins
[iii] Mary Papenfuss, “Society Could Collapse In A Decade, Predicts Math Historian,” Huffington Post, 6 January, 2017, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/peter-turchin-cliodynamics-society-collapse_us_586f1e22e4b02b5f85882988
[vi] Nature Specials, Planetary Boundaries, http://www.nature.com/news/specials/planetaryboundaries/index.html
[vii] Grantham, Jeremy, “Be persuasive, Be brave. Be arrested (if necessary)” Nature, 14 Nov 2014, http://www.nature.com/news/be-persuasive-be-brave-be-arrested-if-necessary-1.11796
[ix] Sarah Jaffee, “Standing Firm at Standing Rock: Why the Struggle is Bigger Than One Pipeline,” Moyers and Company, 28 Sept 2016, http://billmoyers.com/story/standing-firm-standing-rock-pipeline-protesters-will-not-moved/
[xi] International Labor Rights Forum, http://www.laborrights.org/creating-a-sweatfree-world/sweatshops
[xvi] International Labor Organization, http://www.ilo.org/global/about-the-ilo/lang–en/index.htm
[xviii] Global Reporting Initiative, https://www.globalreporting.org/Pages/default.aspx
[xxii] US Green Building Council, http://www.usgbc.org/articles/leed-dynamic-plaque-diaries-alliance-center
[xxiv] John Fullerton, “Regenerative Capitalism,” Capital Institute, 2015, http://capitalinstitute.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/2015-Regenerative-Capitalism-4-20-15-final.pdf
[xxv] Hunter Lovins, “Regenerative Development,” The Regenerative Development Blog, SEED Institute, https://regisseedinstitute.com/2017/01/10/regenerative-development/