Sustainability isn't enough. Here's what is.

The solutions to the climate crisis hinge upon embracing regeneration as a universal organizing principle according to entrepreneur and author Paul Hawken.

Written by Elsa Wenzel
Read time – 5 minutes

Sustainability is a limited framework. The solutions to the climate crisis hinge upon embracing regeneration as a universal organizing principle.  That’s according to entrepreneur and author Paul Hawken, who just published a "what-to-do," action-packed handbook for those seeking to channel collective action on complex, systemic problems in ways that nurture life and livelihoods. 

"To me, regeneration is not about saying this is a better word so much as opening and expanding the sense and possibly enlarging what it means for human beings, companies and NGOs, to come together ... and solve the climate crisis," Hawken said Thursday at the GreenBiz VERGE 21 virtual event. "A regenerative movement will come. The climate slash regenerative movement will be the largest movement ... that we've ever seen on Earth."

His new book, "Regeneration: Ending the Climate Crisis in One Generation," is joined by a website that details "what needs to be done and how to do it on all levels of agency, from a classroom to a CEO." The site offers snapshots of systemic issues — including clean cookstoves, electrifying everything and wasting nothing — with action items, key players, governance, bad actors and media to digest for each.

This manual for ending the climate crisis in a generation carries forward the work of the 2017 New York Times bestseller that Hawken edited, "Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming."

Although Project Drawdown’s list of the top 100 climate solutions (10 displayed above) have influenced business leaders, inventors, activists, academics and policymakers, it stopped short of detailing concrete steps for achieving them. That's what Regeneration and a companion website set out to achieve. Curious about a Drawdown solution such as "degraded land restoration"? Hawken hopes you’ll visit instead of getting stymied by Google searches on such topics as he did.

"We’re being homeschooled by the planet," Hawken told GreenBiz co-founder Joel Makower. "To be in alignment with life in everything we do, think, feel, take, buy, make everything ... That's lesson No. 1." Mix in mass cooperation, support and collaboration with plenty of dreaming, and his take on regeneration offers a decentralized movement with no charismatic leader.

We’re being homeschooled by the planet.

What would it take for the masses to devote their work and lives to this regenerative framework?

All the jargon around 1.5 degrees Celsius, decarbonization, negative emissions and so forth in the "climate club" means nothing to 99 percent of people, Hawken said. Yet regeneration describes the innate qualities of being a human being. "It's actually what we do every day, all 30 trillion cells in our body are regenerating every nanosecond, or we wouldn't be having this conversation. So it's innate to being us, that we take care of ourselves ... And that's why I feel like it'll be the largest movement on Earth."

Yet the language around climate change is warlike, framed in terms of tackling, fighting, combating and mitigating. Hawken sought an alternative to such combative words, focusing on the concept of "drawing down," which describes reaching the point at which greenhouse gases peak and begin to decline on an ongoing basis.

Self-organizing systems

The world's 4.3 billion people living in poverty don't have the luxury to care about an existential threat because they have daily existential threats to meet the needs for education, warmth, clothing and jobs, Hawken noted.

"We have to understand that poverty doesn't want to be fixed by privileged people; it wants to fix itself," he said. "And the solutions to reversing global warming are actually tools; we want to create the conditions for self organization in the world. It's what everything does, you see, look out your window, look at nature, everything creates the conditions for self organization, life creates the conditions for life. It happens in our body, it happens in nature. So really, we're talking about regeneration as creating those conditions for the world as a whole."

The solutions to draw down carbon in the atmosphere have cascading, regenerative benefits that improve systems for life on the planet, even if global warming did not exist, he added.

A different take on technology

Technologists should think differently in a world of regeneration, which includes looking to the past, said Hawken, citing the work of "Farmers of Forty Centuries" in China, Korea and Japan. After all, regenerative agriculture is an emerging, burgeoning technology.

"The climate slash regenerative movement will be the largest movement that we've ever seen on Earth."

"And it's just as complicated, if not more so than any bright shiny object, including your iPhone, because you're dealing with life, an extraordinary amount of complicated interrelationships, in the soil," Hawken said of the community of trillions of organisms found in any given plug of earth.

At the core, technology should not be the primary focus; change starts with dreaming, creativity and intent, he added. And it takes somebody such as wind turbine inventor Henrik Stiesdal to ask, "Why not?" and then to pursue a goal as "unreasonable" but game-changing as developing wind farms that float on the ocean.

"When you do an unreasonable goal, what happens is you enliven innovation, creativity and, and that's what we need and that's what's happening in technology," Hawken said.

Collective responses

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Change what we measure and incentivise

This response asks us to broaden our metrics of success; to move away from a narrow economic focus, and to make visible and measurable other aspects of our lives that we care about and would like to see improved.

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First Nations Wisdom

Embed Indigenous wisdom

This response requires us to listen and learn from Indigenous cultures around the world - then integrate these learnings.

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Upgrade democracy

This response urges us to tap into the exciting participatory democracy movements and experiments that are taking place at a national or local level around the world.

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Educating girls & empowering women

This response encourages us to activate our agency, skills and resources to support girls’ education and elevate women with opportunities for growth, employment and leadership.

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River Regen Aus

Give Rights To Nature

This response requires our legal systems to acknowledge that we are dependent on, and in partnership with, nature - and to evolve by granting personhood rights to ecosystems so that they may be protected under law.

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