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Humanity is engaged in an attempt to build prosperous economies across the world, yet current economic practices are threatening the very future of humanity and the natural world. In the face of a looming Earth emergency, can new thinking lead us to new practices?

To address the deteriorating condition of our home planet in the Anthropocene, there is an emerging consensus that we need to think towards ‘regenerative’ practices. It is not sufficient to try and just sustain the global environment in an increasingly depleted and polluted condition. The world is a dynamic and everchanging place: our own bodies replace their 100 trillion cells every seven years or so. Life is continuously renewed through the action of great variety of interconnected forces. Could modern economies operate in a similarly regenerative manner?

The term ‘regenerative’ is being used in an evergreater variety of contexts: regenerative farming, development, design, nutrition, medicine, economies. I have written a lot about creating regenerative cities and moving towards circular economies. Such perspectives are now being articulated in many places, but meanwhile the essentially degenerative impact of our economic activities on the world’s living systems continues.

Nature operates as an essentially circular system and invariably all its waste products become sources of new growth

It is astonishing that current accounting practices still do not factor environmental externalities into national balance sheets. Governments and companies still tend to see the destruction of Nature and resource depletion as an inevitable price of progress, refusing to quantify inconvenient externalities in the price of products. Few policymakers have been willing to adopt green accounting models to assure a commitment to maintaining and regenerating natural capital. With an ever-increasing understanding of the planetary crisis we are facing, we have to urgently address this fundamental systems problem. Can we overcome the selective blindness that allows us to live with the status quo? Can we detach ourselves from a seemingly irreversible entropic, degenerative, linear, downward spiral? How can a regenerative approach prevail?

The crucial issue of environmental externalities has been discussed for decades, but with only gradual progress being made to deal with it. It is becoming apparent that if externalities are directly experienced at the local level, there is a good chance that they will eventually be addressed, particularly where people’s health is at stake. Relevant examples include effective measures that have been taken to deal with effects of smoking, asbestos pollution and contaminated drinking water.

At the wider, national level, economists have attempted to quantify the ecological costs of economic activity since the 1980s. In a pioneering study in 1986, economist Lutz Wicke costed the environmental damage caused by the West German economy at 6% of the country’s gross national product. To deal with this damage he recommended a comprehensive ecological tax reform to help stimulate the emergence of a regenerative economy. But most of these recommendations remain on the shelf, while many systemic environmental problems remain stubbornly unsolved.

Climate change, of course, is a global systemic externality of an urban-industrial civilisation relying on vast annual inputs of fossil fuel energy. Yet the world community still refrains from adopting correct price signals by methods such as cap-and-trade permits or by direct regulation, sufficient to internalise negative externalities. But the very rapid decrease in the cost of regenerative energy systems such as solar, wind and energy-storage technologies is coming to the rescue. Initially stimulated by feed-in tariffs in Europe and Australia, regenerative energy technologies are increasingly self-funding as they become cost-competitive with fossil-fuel-based energy technologies.

But even 100% adoption of regenerative energy technologies will barely stabilise global carbon concentrations. Meanwhile the challenge is to stimulate the greenhouse gas absorption capacity of terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. But while we discharge ever more CO 2 into the atmosphere, the capacity of the biosphere to absorb it is being significantly reduced. From 1990 to 2015, natural forests declined from 4.28 billion ha to 3.99 billion ha, a loss of 290 million ha. The area of planted forests increased from 167 million ha to 277 million ha. This may help to meet global timber demand, which is expected to triple by 2050, but it is not nearly enough to stabilise terrestrial carbon emissions. Large-scale regeneration of both forest ecosystems and farmland soils is urgently needed to make a significant impact.

Another key, underreported systemic crisis we face is river water contamination caused by the twin problems of cities not returning the nutrients contained in urban sewage back to farmland. Farmers are forced replace these lost crop nutrients by applying artificial fertiliser to their fields, with substantial quantities leaching away into rivers. As a result, there are now some 500 dead zones in the world’s oceans. Add the fact that we are likely to face phosphate fertiliser supply shortages in the coming decades, and it is clear how important it will be to close this particular circle through the introduction of regenerative sewage technologies.

Now another global crisis is receiving much publicity: pollution of the oceans with plastic detritus is becoming a problem on a similar scale to climate change, but so far there is little action on the horizon to deal with it. It is becoming evident that this problem can only be solved by intercepting plastic waste before it enters the marine environment through the application of innovative recycling technologies that

Issue 313

Resurgence & Ecologist


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