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Human as keystone species: Shift the mindset from 'mitigate' to 'regenerate'

This article is adapted from the VERGE newsletter, running Wednesdays. Subscribe here.

Every so often, news lands in unexpected ways.

As I read about this week’s Earth Overshoot Day, which marks the point in time annually that we’ve used up more natural resources than our planet can renew in an entire year, I found myself reflecting back to March 24, 2017 — when the Trump administration granted approval for the Keystone XL Pipeline. 

Having thrown myself on the frontlines of rallying against it, the news hit hard, even though I knew it was coming. I channeled my disheartened frustration into a poem later that night and, in doing so, found myself describing a vision of humanity itself becoming a beneficial keystone species.

Let me explain, with a little help from systems theory and ecology. Keystones are, by definition, "a species on which other species in an ecosystem largely depend." Perhaps you’ve seen the iconic story and video about the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park back in 1995, and how it triggered a trophic cascade of changes that ultimately restored balance across the entire ecosystem.

I wondered: What would it take for humans to become a beneficial keystone species? To evolve our ideologies and institutions in such a way that we become a net-positive contributor to the natural systems upon which our businesses and supply chains, not to mention our lives and all life depends?

It may sound like an idealistic and aspirational vision, but I genuinely believe it’s the question of our time. Here’s why.

Mitigation and adaptation alone are no longer enough. The 'sustaining' part of 'sustainability' will no longer do. It’s time that a widespread focus on regeneration take center stage.
Fast-forward to the present, and this week’s marker of Earth Overshoot Day. Nowhere in the coverage I’ve been tracking — including honest pieces about how we’re underestimating the crisis, and even those laudably attempting to map out solutions — have I seen anything about the need to focus on restoring and regenerating the resources we’re depleting, or the potential of technologies, partnerships and new business models to do so.

The conversation about earth overshoot — about the climate crisis and increasingly urgent need for transformative action more broadly — has focused largely on mitigation and adaptation. That is, on the need to slash emissions and decarbonize our energy systems while bolstering the resilient capacities of our communities and companies in a climate-changed world. There’s even a tension between the two: Which is more important? Where do we invest first? The answer, of course, is that we need a comprehensive strategy and integrated portfolio of both at the same time.

This week, however, I find myself called to make the case that mitigation and adaptation alone are no longer enough. The "sustaining" part of "sustainability" will no longer do. It’s time that a widespread focus on regeneration take center stage.

"I like to explain regenerative business as the process of increasing the capacity of every system you touch," said Amanda Joy Ravenhill, executive director of the Buckminster Fuller Institute, in an interview recently for the GreenBiz 350 Podcast.

She shared with me the story of Guayaki and its Market Driven Regeneration Business Model, which puts the regeneration of people, community and nature at the center of everything the company does. Working directly with indigenous peoples in South America, Guayaki is growing mate — the primary ingredient in its tasty, caffeinated beverages — in ways that sequester more carbon than they emit and increase biodiversity on the lands across their supply chain, all while preserving native culture and improving people’s lives. Guayaki has been carbon net negative for 22 years with a 100 percent fossil-fuel-free fleet and a growing stronghold in the mate market.

Of course, Guayaki isn’t alone. General Mills recently announced plans to convert 1 million acres of farmland to regenerative agriculture practices by 2030, and more companies in food and ag are jumping on the bandwagon as the co-benefits of increased land productivity, water-retention and worker health become clearer. Lush Cosmetics is working to change the beauty industry one ingredient at a time by doubling down on its own regenerative business model, too — investing millions in agroforestry, ensuring 100 percent fair trade and organic ingredients, and even rewarding regeneration through the Lush Spring Prize to fund innovative social and environmental regeneration projects around the world. 

The list is all too short, and largely dominated by companies that grow stuff. There are exceptions, such as Fresh Energy’s work to advance policies that create pathways for pollinators across solar farms; and Interface, with its Factory as Forest model, demonstrating what’s possible by reimagining and redesigning industrial facilities to fulfill the ecosystem service benefits that used to exist in their place. 

Our chances of ensuring a habitable planet — for businesses, communities and all species to thrive — requires that way more companies operating at way larger scales focus not just on sustaining but truly regenerating the natural world.

If you’re unclear what it would mean for your company or industry to make moves towards regenerative models, you’re probably not alone. I’ll be doubling down my own efforts to understand, feature and advance examples — and if you’re working on or know of any, I’d love to hear about them ([email protected]).

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