Sustainability is Only Half the Solution, Regeneration is the Other Half

author: Carol Sanford
published: Sept. 3, 2013,   recorded: November 2006,   views: 2054

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It’s a hell of a way to run a business -- consuming more resources than you bring in, selling off your assets, and cooking the books to make things look good. Yet, says Carol Sanford, that is precisely how humans are operating the vast enterprise of living on earth. The U.S. runs a particularly unsuccessful “Business of Inhabitation,” as Sanford calls it, taking up four times more resources than any other nation.

Sanford finds the business model a useful way of thinking about issues of sustainability, not least because changing corporate behavior will have a large impact on consumption of energy and other critical resources. She notes current efforts to meet the challenges of sustainability, such as government regulation of industry intended to control different types of pollution. Some corporations have even undergone an “environmental awakening,” like DuPont, which in some of its dirtiest ventures (such as mining titanium from Australia’s mountains) has pledged to be neutral in impact.

But meeting regulatory requirements and adopting a sustainable approach “fall short of what we need to do for the planet,” says Sanford. Our problem-solving minds break things down and seek ways merely “to arrest disorder” or protect what appears valuable. Sanford offers an example of this way of thinking: the ‘straightening’ of Florida’s Kissimmee River to make farming easier, which destroyed natural habitat, polluted water and necessitated a billion-dollar restoration project.

We need an evolutionary leap into the “wholeness mindset,” which involves asking how we regenerate and bring in more of what we need without degrading what is already there. Making such a leap will not be easy; there is no “best practices” list for this new way of thinking. We need to be governed “by a metaphor that says we are part of a continuously evolving and interrelated system,” says Sanford. Kingsford, the charcoal maker, underwent such a transformation in philosophy, in its effort to reduce water, heat and waste bills. Rather than simply finding efficiencies in separate areas of manufacturing, the company “looked at the essence of the charcoal briquet,” and figured out a new process that reduced pollutants, waste and energy consumption. If they had pursued sustainability alone, says Sanford, they never would have created a better product that solved problems in a more systemic way, and also won them a bigger chunk of the market.

This kind of “higher order thinking” will ultimately mean more human intervention in nature, not less, but it will be informed by knowledge of how “everything flows from earth to earth,” says Sanford.

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