Sustainability, Resilience, Regeneration – What’s the Difference?

Post COVID, there is a clear shift in how businesses and governments are looking at Sustainability. There’s an argument to made for Resilience. And that makes sense until we ask – wait, who is going to be more resilient?

And where does that leave Regeneration?

Let’s break it down:

The Problem of Sustainability

Sustainability is trying to postpone disaster. It aims to meet “growth-economy” needs while minimizing environmental impact, focusing on present needs while considering future generations.

While sustainability is regarded as a positive concept, it has a few key weaknesses:

  1. Trade-offs and Balancing: Achieving sustainability often requires balancing competing priorities and making trade-offs between economic, social, and environmental goals. This can be challenging, as different stakeholders may have conflicting interests, making it difficult to find comprehensive and universally acceptable solutions.
  2. Lack of Clear Definition: The concept of sustainability can be vague and subjective, lacking a universally agreed-upon definition. This ambiguity can lead to different interpretations and applications, making it challenging to establish clear goals and measure progress effectively.
  3. Incomplete Scope: Sustainability often focuses on environmental aspects, such as reducing carbon emissions or promoting resource efficiency. However, it may overlook other important dimensions, including social justice, equity, and cultural considerations. This narrow scope may hinder holistic and inclusive approaches to addressing complex societal challenges.
  4. Inadequate Implementation: Despite widespread recognition of sustainability principles, translating them into concrete actions and policies can be challenging. There may be a lack of political will, insufficient funding, and limited institutional capacity to effectively implement sustainability measures at various levels, from local to global.
  5. Insufficient Long-term Thinking: While sustainability aims to consider the needs of future generations, it can still be constrained by short-term thinking and immediate economic pressures. This can lead to a focus on short-term gains rather than making truly transformative changes necessary for long-term sustainability.
  6. Greenwashing: Sustainability has become a buzzword, and there is a risk of “greenwashing” – where companies or organizations make superficial or misleading claims about their environmental practices without implementing meaningful changes. This can undermine the credibility and effectiveness of sustainability efforts.
  7. Limited Global Consensus: Achieving sustainability requires global cooperation and collaboration. However, there is often a lack of consensus among countries regarding the priorities, strategies, and responsibilities associated with sustainability. This can hinder collective action and impede progress on a global scale.

In practical terms, sustainability has not delivered.

For forty years the institutions of the world have worked to “mitigate” climate change with no results – or worse – failure to stop the rapid destruction of the ecosystems which keep us all alive.  Leaders and businesses have largely ignored the cries of our dying planet. A desperate scientific community has taken up arms to spread the word, but the media won’t listen. And inequality keeps growing – social, economic, climate, you name it. 

One example: plastics. Despite the constant promotion of the “circular” economy and the push for plastic recycling, only 15% of plastic waste was collected for recycling in 2019, and 40% of this material ended up as recycling residues needed further disposal. We are not serious about sustainability, period.

And get this: none of the world’s leading industries would be profitable if they actually paid for the natural capital they use!

The Problem of Resilience

Resilience is disaster-recovery. It focuses on the capacity to withstand and recover from shocks and stress, prioritizing short-to medium-term responses and recovery of mainstream economic interests. Here are the key weaknesses associated with resilience:

  1. Lack of Clarity and Consistency: Resilience is a multifaceted concept that can be interpreted and applied differently across various contexts and disciplines. This lack of clarity and consistency in its definition and measurement makes it challenging to establish uniform frameworks and assess the effectiveness of resilience strategies. It is simply another way to distract us from the job-to-be-done: saving the Planet for future generations of Life on Earth.
  2. Reactive Approach: Resilience often focuses on recovering from and adapting to disruptions or shocks after they occur. While this reactive approach is essential for addressing immediate challenges, it may not adequately address the underlying root causes or prevent future disruptions. A more proactive and preventive approach is necessary to build long-term resilience.
  3. Limited Emphasis on Equity: Resilience efforts may not always prioritize addressing social inequalities and ensuring equitable outcomes. Vulnerable communities, such as marginalized groups and low-income populations, may face disproportionate impacts from shocks and have limited resources to cope and recover. Neglecting equity considerations can perpetuate existing inequalities and hinder comprehensive resilience.
  4. Trade-offs and Trade-offs and Balancing: Similar to sustainability, resilience requires balancing trade-offs between different priorities. Prioritizing certain aspects, such as economic interests or infrastructure development, may inadvertently neglect social and environmental considerations. Finding the right balance and ensuring trade-offs are fair and equitable can be challenging.
  5. Incomplete Systems Thinking: Resilience approaches focus on individual components or sectors without fully considering the complex interdependencies and interactions within systems. This narrow focus may lead to fragmented solutions that fail to address the broader systemic challenges, limiting the effectiveness of resilience strategies.
  6. Overemphasis on Bouncing Back: Resilience is often associated with the ability to bounce back to a previous state after a disruption. This approach overlooks opportunities for transformation and positive change. Resilience should also include the capacity to adapt, learn, and innovate, allowing for new and improved systems to emerge. Wait, that would be regeneration!
  7. Limited Attention to Long-term Challenges: While resilience typically focuses on addressing immediate shocks and stresses, it may not give sufficient attention to slow-onset and long-term challenges, such as climate change or social inequalities.

Various consulting companies have different approaches to building resilience:

  • BCG’s “sense, adapt, thrive, and transform” approach helps build a more resilient enterprise, but is does little or nothing for the Community or Nature.
  • McKinsey’s approach is to state that while the executives’ first instinct might be to cut costs and shore up established holdings, a better way is to build new businesses.
  • Bain says finding ways to make business more resilient means prioritizing resilience over low cost or efficiency. “Just in time” is replaced by “just in case.”
  • Accenture’s business resilience thinking has three components: business continuity, technology continuity, and crisis management.

All of these approaches do nothing for community resilience. In fact, they may even damage it. Resilience, as preached by our consulting companies, is simply another way to “kick the can down the road,” and ignoring the collapse scenarios ahead.

Regeneration as the Solution

Regeneration is fixing the causes that lead to disaster. It involves restoring and revitalizing the Common Good in both natural and social systems, emphasizing active restoration and enhancement to address urgent needs.

Its limitations are based on how it is defined:

  1. Lack of Clear Definition and Measurement: Regeneration is a complex and multifaceted concept, and there is no universally agreed-upon definition or set of criteria to measure its progress. This can make it challenging to establish clear goals, assess outcomes, and compare different regeneration initiatives. Thus, in our book, we define regeneration as the regeneration of the Common Good – across all 9 domains: Social, Economics, Nature, Work, Culture, Media, Law, Technology, and Politics.
  2. Unclear Boundaries and Scope: Regeneration can encompass a wide range of activities and interventions, including ecological restoration, social and economic transformation, and community development. The lack of clear boundaries and scope can lead to confusion and inconsistent implementation, making it difficult to evaluate the effectiveness and impact of regeneration efforts. The point we make in our book is that regeneration must begin with the community and its regenerative leaders. It is not another top-down global imperative. Rather, it is cosmo-local. (That’s a subject for a future blog post).
  3. Trade-offs and Balancing: Similar to sustainability and resilience, regeneration may require balancing trade-offs between different goals and priorities. For example, there can be tensions between economic development and ecological restoration, or between community well-being and conservation objectives. Identifying and navigating these trade-offs can be complex and challenging. Our emphasis is on the community: local communities must lead – using radical participation (Citizen’s assemblies, for example) and transparency.
  4. Implementation Challenges: Regeneration often requires significant resources, coordination, and collaboration across multiple stakeholders and sectors. Implementation can be hindered by factors such as limited funding, conflicting interests, bureaucratic hurdles, and a lack of institutional capacity. Overcoming these challenges and effectively implementing regeneration initiatives can be a daunting and overly political task. Thus all financial awards and projects must be open to the public. There is no room for closed-door allocation of public funds (aka corruption).
  5. Time and Patience: Regeneration processes typically operate on longer timescales, as they involve restoring and transforming complex ecological and social systems. This can require patience and long-term commitment, which may be at odds with short-term economic and political pressures. Sustaining momentum and support for regeneration over extended periods can be challenging, unless the regeneration efforts are led by local regenerative leaders (public, private, and plural).
  6. Power Dynamics and Equity: Regeneration initiatives can inadvertently perpetuate power imbalances and inequalities if they do not adequately consider issues of social justice, inclusivity, and equitable distribution of benefits. Failing to address power dynamics and ensure community participation and representation can undermine the effectiveness and legitimacy of regeneration efforts. Hence our definition of regeneration as the regeneration of the Common Good.
  7. Scale and Scalability: While successful regeneration projects may exist at a local or small-scale level, scaling up these efforts to have broader societal impact can be challenging. Replicating and transferring successful regeneration models to different contexts and scaling them to achieve meaningful change can encounter various barriers, including resource limitations, differing local conditions, and stakeholder resistance. Again, this entails cosmo-localism not globalization.

Why Regeneration?

Without regeneration, we are left to consider this thought from George Tsakraklides:

Given that humanity has no plans to curb emissions, the climate breakdown itself will bring enough disruption to civilisation to lower CO2, undoubtedly at a huge social cost. But will we manage not to kill each other over resources, and the blame game that ensues?

Sustainability and resilience do not serve the common interest. In fact, they are based on economic separatism: the idea that a business exists separate from society and Nature.

We have run out of time.

The last exit on the road to extinction is regeneration.