It’s too late for sustainability. What are we trying to sustain anyway? Business as usual? A global capitalism that doesn’t work for the majority? Sustainability stories are now being used as a green tick box, greenwashing and excuse to carry on as usual under the banner of ‘sustainable development.’ As with many popularised terms, it has become hijacked and absorbed into the dominant paradigm thus becoming part of the problem. We could easily meet sustainability targets and replace certain materials or energy sources with others, without really addressing the root problems of endless growth, development, anthropocentrism and neo-colonial expansion.
We need to birth and enact a new story that genuinely uses different thinking to the mindset that created this socio-ecological mess. The sustainable development goals by the UN demonstrate admirably the underlying contradictions of sustainability and all of the greenwash that goes with it. Goals of climate action and economic growth are pitted next to each other in nice neat graphics as if there was any solid evidence that these agendas are compatible (there isn’t). Jason Hickel (2019), Tim Jackson (2017) and Kallis (2015) offer quite the contrary evidence – that business as usual is not compatible with climate action.
Given that no climate action will also lead to the end of business as usual (through degenerative collapse), we must begin creating and modelling the new economy, society and culture now, regardless of what sort of action is taken at the ‘global level’. We can choose to either consciously design and prepare for the next chapter of humanity, or we can continue accelerating towards the edge of this cliff – climate and ecological collapse. It is not really a question of whether societal transformation will occur, but when, and how – very soon or soon, in a regenerative or degenerative way.
There’s a real danger that we might adopt and consent to narratives that pretend to be solutions and actually entrench the problem. We need to be critically aware of this, whilst also co-creating the new stories and acting the real solutions. Why will these be any different to the greenwashing and hijacked sustainability narratives?
Firstly, a difference of organisation – the real solutions will not be birthed from the same dominant actors of the global economy which made the poor decisions to get us into this mess. The transformation will be grassroots and come from the margins if it is to be effective.
Secondly, a difference in thinking, from control, rationality, anthropocentrism and colonial mindsets towards cooperative, intuitive, listening, ecological, feminine and regenerative mindsets (‘heartsets’).
Thirdly, the new approach must be embedded with reflexivity and humility rather than arrogance and domination. Reflexivity means being critically aware of the consequences of our actions, and the necessity to implement small and slow solutions that cooperate with people and nature rather than exploiting the majority for minority economic gain. Regularly reflecting on our actions and path opens space for a critical dialogue with our wisest nature, and allows pause to examine/check if our actions are entrenching the problem.
To paraphrase natural farmer Masanobu Fukuoka, we can practice thoughtful observation rather than thoughtless labour, in order to direct our craft, livelihood and lifestyle towards activities that are regenerative rather than degenerative. Humility means listening deeply and actively.
For this we need a generation of restoration activists, re-storytellers, alternative thinkers and doers. For this to be sustained, this means regenerative livelihoods as well as all of the voluntary and activist work that is exploding across the globe in these unprecedented times. We need everyone to step into reflexive leadership that models a listening culture of care and reciprocity. Most importantly, we need to take the first steps of this era of regeneration, bypassing both the greenwash talk of sustainability and the hopeless doom & gloom narratives that are equally disempowering and unhelpful. Generation Restoration can be a transformative time for humanity when we danced our way back from the cliff edge whilst building bridges towards a reality where humans and nature thrive in symbiosis.
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