Regeneration – beyond sustainability

The concept of sustainability is noble – to live here on earth in ways that won’t compromise the well-being of future generations – to sustain society, the economy and the environment. In his book Designing Regenerative Cultures, Daniel Whal  positions sustainability at a  neutral point between conventional practice and regenerative practice. Sustainability is “100% less bad”, so he raises our view to a regenerative horizon.

regenerative design framework

The regenerative design framework from Designing Regenerative Cultures

In this diagram, sustainability is transcended by restorative practices, but these are still our efforts to “fix” nature, still under the delusion that we know best. Beyond restoration in reconciliation we begin to reintegrate ourselves as “integral parts of nature”. And then, when we achieve regenerative practices we co-create with the natural world.

…we are co-creative participants in a 14-billion-year process of universe becoming conscious of itself. We are a keystone species capable of creating conditions conducive to all life. We can design for human, ecosystems and planetary health, and nurture resilience, adaptability, transformability and vitality (Wahl, 2016).

Climate change is the most pressing of many crises we face and calls us to this future. This resonates with how Paul Hawken claims that climate change is happening “for us”, challenging us to rethink the way we live on earth.

Epochal change

Do we stand at the dawn of the Regenerative Age? We were once hunter-gatherers and then transitioned to the Agriculture Age. The Industrial age is less than three hundred years old, and as our activity on the planet became more frantic we have moved on to the Information Age. Stephen Covey predicted we would move on to the Age of Wisdom – perhaps this is the Regenerative Age?

We live in a time of extraordinary opportunity. The Renaissance and the Enlightenment were relatively minor variations on an already existing theme in comparison to the transformation that is now under way. The birth of regenerative cultures and a regenerative human civilization is the most profound transformative innovation that our species has undergone since we started to turn from nomadic hunters and gatherers into settled agriculturalists some eight to five thousand years ago (Wahl 2016b).

In the spirit of inclusiveness that permeates his book, Daniel Wahl encourages us to accept and retain the good things that have emerged from our evolution. While the collateral damage of the industrial age is now compromising our chances of survival, it also generated a lot of good and accelerated the development of societal assets such as education and transport.

Three horizons

The three horizons Daniel Wahl identifies in the diagram below clarifies the path of regeneration. The world in crisis (horizon 1) dominates current reality, but two other realities are discernible. Horizon two is a turbulent world in transition and transformational change and horizon three  is a viable world wanting to emerge. Otto Scharmer identifies a similar dynamic (see here).

At the very least this calls us to question our assumptions about how the world is and to ponder how it might be. Business as usual is no longer good enough.

3 Horizons

The three horizons from Designing Regenerative Cultures

Some examples of regenerative practice

The diagram below, also from Designing Regenerative Culturesshows the range of regenerative design challenges from green chemistry through to national and international collaboration.

scales of regenerative design

Regenerative design applies to products, systems and complex interacting systems touching on all elements of human life. It seems daunting, but there are examples around us including:

  1. regenerative agriculture
  2. regenerative forestry
  3. living buildings.

1. Regenerative agriculture

The image at the top of this post is internationally renowned soil scientist Dr Christine Jones (right) examining soil at Linda Matson’s Maungatapere property. Linda has learned from nature and supplemented rye and clover pastures with a wider range of pasture plants including dock, chichory and plantain. This diversity promotes the development of a rich and healthy soil which in turn benefits animal health and the health of those that eat the animal products. Farmers like Linda are reducing external inputs, learning to draw on the massive reserve of minerals in the earth and recycling those minerals. By growing more topsoil, Linda is probably already sequestering more carbon than her farm is producing. Read more about regenerative agriculture here.

2. Regenerative forestry

In the 1980s when farm subsidies were removed a lot of sub-viable farmland reverted to bush. Totara regenerated easily and now totara  is abundant on Northland farms. The Northland Totara Working Group have identified totara as an ideal timber tree. Its ability to regenerate and flourish, combined with its timber qualities make a sustainable forest resource. Selective harvesting ensures the canopy cover is maintained and the soil protected. Read more about the Northland Totara Working Group here.

3. Living buildings

Te Kura Whare, Tūhoe’s new $15 milllion headquarters near Whakatane is designed to be zero net energy, water, toxicity and waste and integrates into its surrounding landscape. It is the first New Zealand building built to the Living Building Challenge standard.

Consider the work you do. What steps can be taken to inculcate regenerative design?


Wahl, Daniel (2016). Designing Regenerative Cultures (Kindle Locations 748-750). Triarchy Press. Kindle Edition.

Wahl, Daniel (2016b). Designing Regenerative Cultures (Kindle Locations 1099-1103). Triarchy Press. Kindle Edition.

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