The World In a State of Extreme Transition: Moving from Sustainability to Regenerative Design

Author: Daniel Pinchbeck and Schuyler Brown

Communication is the tool we use to navigate change in this perishable, impermanent world. We talk about what’s happening and what’s coming. We use words to rally and activate citizens; to inform and educate people; to alleviate or aggravate fears, depending on our intentions. Humans use language to make sense of things — even those things that are happening at a scale beyond our grasp. As Wittgenstein said, “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” And so, while it may seem like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic (let’s hope not!), reevaluating the language of climate change can offer a fresh perspective on where we are and where we’re headed.

In our view, the current language around climate change and its solutions is inadequate and even counterproductive. Specifically, we question whether sustainability, the default name for most current efforts towards preservation of life on the planet, keeps us locked into the assumption that whatever we do, we must also sustain the system that is currently in place. Perhaps, this limits us before we even start pursuing these goals in earnest. “Regenerative” — regenerative design, regenerative society, regenerative economics — appeals to us as a more ambitious and dynamic term commensurate with the type of ambitious and dynamic actions that are required for the survival of humanity now.

All successful movements have understood the use and power of language, this one is no different. If it is to succeed, we must be moved by the call-to-action we are being issued. Sustainability, to date, just has not achieved any such effect.

Sustainability, the ability to sustain life to a set of standards, needs to be eclipsed by a new paradigm. As a call-to-action, what sustainability seeks to sustain, above all, is some version of our current way of life, even though the evidence is totally overwhelming that it cannot continue. Living processes, generally, don’t just endure or persevere. Life either flourishes and blooms, evolves and transforms, or it stagnates and dies. The rhetoric of sustainability tends to support the belief that our current form of post-industrial capitalism can be reformed — that it can persist, in something close to its present order.

We propose the new paradigm emerge from the ideals of regenerative culture. We can look at our current institutions and ideologies as a substrate, a foundation, providing the conditions for another level of transformation, just as modern bourgeois society emerged from monarchy. According to chaos theory, the nonlinear dynamics of living organisms allow for the emergence of new orders of complexity, when a system reaches a high level of instability. As the mono-cultural, technocratic approach of post-industrial capitalism crumbles, a new worldview — a new way of being — is crystallizing.