Beyond Sustainability, Beyond Organic – Why We Prefer Regenerative Ecological Design Over Sustainable Design at SymbiOp

Over the past few decades, you probably have heard a lot about “sustainable system design” or just “sustainable design”.

You’ve heard people designing sustainable gardens, designing sustainable communities, sustainable businesses, maybe even designing larger sustainable systems like cities, agriculture, and economy.

On the other hand, you probably haven’t heard much about regenerative design. Or maybe when you heard it, it was called ecological design, traditional ecological knowledge, indigenous land management, permaculture, holistic design, or living system design. Recently, these practices are getting more coverage in the media, but still far less than sustainable design.

So what is regenerative design? Why do we prefer it over sustainable design? How are they different?

Sustainable design and regenerative design do overlap a bit. Similar elements can be often seen in both, such as recycling, renewable energy, localism, etc. Both also “somewhat” share the same goal – Let’s keep humans and our ecosystems around for as long as possible. (We will get to why I say “somewhat” later.)

However, there are some fundamental differences in perspective and approach, i.e. how we see the problem and how we solve the problem.

A core approach of sustainable design is to reduce negative impacts.

This means designing:

  • Materials that are less toxic.
  • Products that break less.
  • Houses that use less energy.
  • Factories that create less waste.
  • Communities with less crimes.
  • A person that does less harm.

The label “organic” is a prime example for this design approach. What makes a product organic is defined by the lack of certain negatives – no genetic engineering, no irradiation, no synthetic fertilizer, pesticides, antibiotics, etc. But it says nothing about how many positive benefits this product creates for the people and the planet.

In the case of climate change caused by greenhouse gas emission, most of the solutions have been about reducing emission, with carbon neutral being the gold standard. But, this doesn’t actually solve the problem. It just delays it.

Even if we design a system, where all the products and services have few negative impacts, the impacts will still accumulate over time, and degrade our social-ecological well-beings until it collapses.

On the other hand…

From neuroleadership.com

Regenerative design’s approach is to reduce negative impacts AND produce positive benefits.

This mean designing:

  • Materials that are less toxic AND provide health benefits.
  • Products that break less AND can be easily fixed, upgraded, or decomposed.
  • Houses that use less energy AND generate extra energy for the neighborhood.
  • Factories that create less waste AND up-cycle the waste into beneficial products for other use.
  • Communities with less crimes AND more social-economic well-being.
  • A person that does less harm AND more good.

In the case of climate change, we need to create regenerative solutions that not only reduce emission, but also capture them. In fact, we need to capture more greenhouse gas than we emit, to undo the damage that’s already done.

It’s not hard to see that a system created using regenerative design will last longer, because all of its products and services produce more benefit than harm for the people and the planet.

While this difference in approach between the two designs is pretty straightforward, it hints at a deeper difference in perspective.

Sustainable design’s focus on negative impacts reinforces the perspective that we, humans, are intrinsically harmful to nature.

If the best we can do is less harm, we will eventually end up feeling guilty and despair for just existing. This perspective eats away our motivation to act, to be creative, to strive for more. And it’s simply not true.

We can and have been beneficial to nature.

Throughout human history, we have made many ecosystems more biodiverse and resilient than they would have been without us. Some more well-known examples are the polyculture agroforestry in the eastern Amazon, the Pacific Northwest forest gardens, and much of California’s wilderness, all of which showed evidence of regenerative design.

An ancestral Ts’msyen village site in northwestern British Columbia still harbors a distinct mix of species beneficial to humans at least 150 years after it was planted. Photo by Storm Carrol.

Some forms of regenerative design are practiced in Indigenous communities throughout the world. These communities have been around for tens of thousands of years, much longer than modern civilizations. While many such communities and their practices were lost due to colonization, many existing Indigenous and non-indigenous people continue to use regenerative design to benefit the people and the planet.

This is proof that we, humans, aren’t intrinsically harmful to nature. With the right perspectives and practices, we can become a nurturing force of life again.

Remember when I said sustainable design and regenerative design “somewhat” shared the same goal of keeping humans and our ecosystems around for as long as possible? This is only true superficially.

Fundamentally, the goal of sustainable design is to sustain, which means to stay the same.

Designing sustainable systems implies designing systems that stay the same – systems that allow us to keep having what we have been having and keep doing what we have been doing.

Since you are reading this article, I probably won’t need to convince you that our current system is what’s causing our social and ecological crisis. If we keep our current system the same, the devastation to the planet will take millions of years to recover.

This need to stay the same, is not only unhelpful for our current crisis, it’s also a major design flaw for creating any systems that last – systems that are resilient. This is because of a foundational reality of our universe:

The only constant in the universe is change.

This isn’t just a clever quote. It’s a direct result of the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics. (We will leave the Physics for another article.)

This means no system, be it a garden, a city, or a planet, can stay the same forever, simply because everything in the universe changes constantly. This includes everything inside and outside of a system. Genes mutate. Behaviors shift. Cultures progress. Climate change. Even our sun will die one day.

What’s more, most changes in the universe are complex and nonlinear, which is a fancy way of saying they are extremely hard to predict accurately*.

For example, it takes a supercomputer running nonstop at 2.8 quadrillion calculations per second to forecast the weather for 16 days, not even with 100% accuracy. Similarly, the human brain makes 4×1029 molecular calculations per second. It will take our fastest supercomputer running 30,000 years to accurately predict just 1 second of one person’s behavior.

Predicting how the entire social and ecological system of the planet will change is mathematically impossible.

Thus, to sustain, to constantly work against the tides of unpredictable change in order to stay the same, is futile.

Cover art by John Jude Palencar for Parable of the Sower, a science-fiction novel by Octavia Butler about change and resilience.

Sustainable design ultimately lacks this deep understanding of our changing universe. It sees the world as simple static numbers instead of complex dynamic processes. This fundamental flaw means that it’s an ineffective tool for creating systems that are truly resilient.

This is where regenerative design shines.

The goal of regenerative design isn’t to stay the same, but to regrow, adapt, and transform through change.

In an earthquake, a flexible building can move with the shockwaves and stand, while a rigid building will collapse. Similarly in an economic downturn, a resourceful business can create new revenues to survive, while a stubborn business will go bankrupt. The ability to regrow, adapt, and transform is ultimately what makes a system resilient through unpredictable changes.

In fact, some of the oldest systems on earth are regenerative systems.

The Caspian Hyrcanian Ecoregion has been around for 40 million years. The Amazon Rainforest has been around for 50 million years. The Daintree Rainforest has been around for 180 million years. These ecosystems survived ice ages, super volcano eruptions, asteroid impacts, and mass extinctions.

What makes these ecological systems extra resilient is their fractal regenerative design. This means regenerative design is employed at every level of the system – from the cellular level to the ecological level.

Forests can regrow after wildfires. Animals can adapt to predators and diseases. People can learn new skills to overcome struggles. A liver can regenerate from as little as 25 percent of its tissue. Even a bacteria can relocate when it runs out of food.

Not only does each level of a regenerative system regrow, adapt, and transform by itself, it also produces positive benefits for itself and all the other levels. Plants are eaten by animals. The “waste” from animals gets further repurposed by worms, fungi and bacteria into nutrients. The nutrient dense soil then nurtures the plants again.

These interconnected mutually beneficial relationships form a symbiotic network that continue to expand the regenerative ability of the entire system.

A symbiotic network of trees and fungi. Art by John Upton

Thus, in order for us to survive this crisis and beyond, we have to regrow, adapt, and transform. We have to re-establish symbiotic relationships not just amongst ourselves, but between us and nature. Because nurturing a planet regenerating with life is far more resilient than just keeping ourselves sustained.

This is why, at SymbiOp, we often call it regenerative ecological design, instead of just regenerative design. It’s to remind us where we learned from, where we can keep learning from, and where we have to give back.

This all sounds great, but what does it have to do with SymbiOp Garden Shop & Landscaping?

You probably have already read about how our landscaping crew specialize in regenerative landscapes, which have less negative impacts and more positive benefits than “sustainable” landscapes.

Once established**, regenerative landscapes emit less carbon and continuously remove carbon from the atmosphere. They waste less water and create microclimates that facilitate more rainfall. They need fewer fertilizers and produce more nutrients on their own. They need little to no pesticides and attract more beneficial insects that keep the pests in check. The list goes on.

In addition, regenerative landscapes are also more adaptive to changes like diseases and climate change, because the landscapes have higher biodiversity and more symbiotic relationships.

SymbiOp Garden Shop at 3454 SE Powell Blvd, Portland, OR.

Our new garden shop is also organized in ways that help you design your own regenerative landscape.

  • We have native and edible plants that can be used in regenerative landscapes.
  • We have educational labels that show you each plant’s ecological functions and what companion plants can be planted near them to create symbiotic guilds.
  • We have homesteading supplies that help you process your harvests and further expand your backyard regenerative system to include your human system.
  • We have gardening and non-gardening books about regenerative designs.
  • We have staff with deep plant knowledge and regenerative design experiences.
  • We have locally-made houseplants, arts and crafts, and home goods that serve as unique gifts and are vetted for their social-ecological benefits.

This will always be a work in progress. As much as we want to do everything regeneratively, we are still constrained by the larger system that is not regenerative, yet. We still carry products that come in plastic packages that one day we would like to do without. Or better yet, have packages that will decompose into nutrient dense soil.

One day, we want to put solar panels on our roofs. We want to use electric trucks for landscaping and for when products get delivered to us by manufacturers. We want to cultivate public food forests in the city that feed the public. We want to steward our state and national parks to restore ecology and reverse climate change on a larger scale.

We will continue to learn new things from science, from Indigenous people, from nature, and transform our company practices to be more and more regenerative.

We will continue to cultivate beneficial symbiotic relationships in our company as a worker-owned cooperative, and with the greater community – local makers, farmers, gardeners, nonprofits, etc.

We believe that building more regenerative organizations, more worker-owned cooperatives like SymbiOp, is one of the most effective and lasting ways to transform our whole economy into a truly resilient system that benefits of the people and the planet. Stay tuned for future articles on how we plan to do all of that!

Will you join us in this regenerative movement?

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* It’s hard to predict the exact outcome of this climate change, if we do nothing to mitigate it. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t or can’t do anything. We have geological evidence of mass extinctions caused by past climate changes. We see increasing extinction rates for current species around the world. More and more people are experiencing more devastating storms and droughts more frequently. We can’t predict the future, but we can certainly be more prepared for it, and restore the damages that are already done.

** Much like any living organism, a regenerative landscape requires an initial investment of resources and care. Once the landscape matures, the benefits of the regenerative design will become more pronounced.

4 thoughts on “Beyond Sustainability, Beyond Organic – Why We Prefer Regenerative Ecological Design Over Sustainable Design at SymbiOp”

  1. Thank you JT for publishing such an informational and instructive article.
    I believe many people would like to be more regenerative in their life, you have put it so eloquently into words that inspire such action.
    This has been a very inspiring read!

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