Beyond Sustainability: Talking About Our Regeneration

Ecological fatalism, unfortunately, is on the rise in North America. As a communicator, to me this means we need to emphasize the symbols of hope and possibility that are emerging in our culture. It also means moving beyond the idea that we need simply to lessen the harm of human activity (i.e. the public’s role in sustainability is to try to reduce their harm by purchasing the right products and then hope for the best) to the notion that human activity may actually have a regenerative role to play with ecosystems as well as in our communities.

Earlier this month, I participated in the opening conference of what I consider to be a major symbol of hope and regeneration: the new Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability at the University of British Columbia. CIRS is a beautiful, bright building on the inside and out, and it felt amazing to be in a space that has a negative environmental impact by producing clean energy, capturing carbon, and filtering water from several buildings in the vicinity.

Perhaps even more impressive than the building itself was hearing from Dr. John Robinson, the driving force behind CIRS, about his vision that those who work in the CIRS center will ultimately shift from having the role of  “occupant” to being actively engaged in managing the performance of the building as an “inhabitant.” The productivity, health and happiness impacts on CIRS “inhabitants” will be measured as well, potentially providing a living model of how interacting with regenerative spaces and technologies can influence ecological behaviors and values.

This idea of shifting from a guilt and reduction mindset in current environmental framing to one of regeneration resonated with me given what we have learned at the Social Capital Project about the five barriers to environmental engagement. At the CIRS event, I gave a talk about the need to shift from an emphasis on a sustainability frame that assumes development (and often consumption) can happen in ways that do not negatively impact the environment to frames that incorporate the idea of resiliency, which at its heart is about increasing the chance of survival in times of great uncertainty or fluctuation.

But since giving the talk, I’ve been thinking about the difference between regeneration and resiliency and while it seems that we may need both ideas woven into our problem-solving efforts, I find the idea of regeneration much more positive and inspiring. It is a realistic yet hopeful perspective on where we are going that assumes some type of positive future is possible. Please send us your symbols and stories of climate possibilities.

Photo credit: Don Erhardt, courtesy of UBC's Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability