Some time ago I posed the question “Does ‘sustainable’ still mean anything?” Leaving aside how devalued the word has become my point was that we have set in motion a period of planetary change that we are now powerless to stop. If we are beyond the point of being able to sustain the world much as it is, then maybe it’s time to focus on resilience, the aim of which is to achieve something approaching a “least bad outcome”.

Just recently I came across the term “restorative economy”, coined 20 years ago by writer Paul Hawken. (Okay, so I’m slow to catch up). It struck a chord because it’s obvious to me (if not to most economists and politicians) that we should be working hard to not just hold on to what we have left, but to heal and repair much of the damage we’ve caused. That’s a step beyond mere sustainability.

 “Sustainability cannot be calculated”

In a talk given in 1994, Hawken said “Sustainability cannot be calculated. It cannot be measured. Nobody can tell you what is sustainable, because it’s a dynamic system. Our relationship should be a restorative one. You’re either restoring or degrading. There is no grey middle area.”

This provides a nice perspective, idealistic perhaps, but one that provides a clear cut determinant of good and bad economic activity.

Hawken goes on to point out that “we in the…industrialized nations, have to reduce our throughput [the processing of raw materials to products to waste] by 80 percent.”

Remember, this is 20 years ago that he was speaking. Since then it isn’t just the throughput of industrialized nations that has increased, so has that of some very large emerging nations. We are busier than ever in our collective efforts to degrade the planet.

So, if we are busy degrading, and struggling with sustaining, what hope is there of restoring?

It may be a case of one step forward and three steps backwards, but there are signs that we are beginning to heed the warnings of recent decades.

Restoring rain forest in Nigeria | Image: International Institute of Tropical Agriculture via Flickr under Creative Commons

Learning from natural systems

“Now, in natural systems, there are principles we can use,” says Hawken. “Those principles are very simple. The first one is: Waste equals food. The second principle is: It runs on current solar income. It doesn’t involve capital, it doesn’t involve carrying capacity. The third thing is: It creates, and requires in return, enormously diverse biological pathways.”

The concept of waste as a resource, as an industrial “food”, is becoming ingrained in the manufacturing sector. Closed loop manufacturing is no longer considered oddball. We are increasingly using “current solar income” in the form of direct solar power or indirectly through wind power and biomass. And as The Switch Report’s own growing collection of featured companies reveals, business is creating increasingly diverse industrial pathways.

Stop thinking of it as waste, it's a resource | Image: Tom Beard via Flickr under Creative Commons

But not quickly enough

On the other hand, we may have passed certain tipping points. The loss of arctic sea ice and the melting of permafrost may already be irreversible. If one or more positive feedback loops have already been set in motion then any attempts to restore our natural capital may be doomed to failure.

Is it sensible to invest resources in restoring a rain forest if, in a few decades time, that forest will be lost to rising temperatures and shifting rainfall? We don’t know for sure what the future holds for rain forests or for many other fragile ecosystems, but the question of where our efforts need to be focused to achieve the best (or least bad) outcome is one we need to think about.

Soiless low water gardening can be a tool of both resilience and restoration | Image: CGIAR Research Program on Dryland Systems via Flickr under Creative Commons

Philosophically, intuitively, morally and even spiritually, restoration seems like the right way to go. We really should be seeking to leave our planet in a better state for our children than it was in when we inherited it from our parents.

But realistically?

Global population is expected to grow to 9 billion by 2040, and nearly 11 billion by century’s end. Most of these people will aspire, justifiably, to higher living standards. Companies like ExxonMobil stake their future on the premise that society won’t bear the cost of quickly reducing carbon emissions. And the overwhelmingly dominant economic mindset remains one of endless exponential growth supported by a bounty of limitless resources.

“You’re either restoring or degrading,” says Hawken.

As things currently stand, degradation prevails by a very wide margin. So, worthy and uplifting as restoration may be, concentrating on resilience looks like the better plan for now.

Title image: part of the town Aoujeft abandoned to the Saharan sands | John Spooner via Flickr under Creative Commons