From Ecological Deficit to Regenerating Natural Capital
Think of the soil, the fresh water we have had for millennia, the carbon atoms stored tightly away in coal and oil deep underground as a very full bank account that we inherited. Until recently, the budget of use and regeneration was balanced. Animals, insects, plants and humans ate and were eaten, grew and returned to the soil. Carbon atoms flowed out to the atmosphere and back into the plant matter on earth in equal levels. Then we entered the age of the industrial revolution, three centuries ago. In short order we started drawing down the capital of this natural inheritance, squandering it like there’s no tomorrow (perhaps a self-fulfilling prophecy! Fast forward to today: we have an ecological deficit – a scarcity of fresh water, the carbon imbalance in the atmosphere, and the loss of top soil, and of natural forests (and the species & cultures that live in them). This generation’s solutions to the ecological debt we inherited (and continue to deepen) will have to be regenerative – that is, the way we live, work and organize economically will have to build the capital back up. That process has already started.
France, China Japan, India, Denmark, Holland, Germany and many other countries and cities have instituted either national or municipal circular economy policies and initiatives. The principal idea of the circular economy is that there is materials flow. The industrial convention of a line from resource to manufacturer to consumer to landfill is, ironically, being thrown out. In a circular economy the concept of ‘waste’ doesn’t exist. One company’s by-product of manufacturing is another’s feedstock. Products and services are designed to be shared, reusable and recyclable. Systems and processes for manufacturing, agriculture, transportation, housing and energy become inherently collaborative both between businesses and people and with nature. The mindset of modern product, process and system designers is to ensure best use of resources and plan for re-use and/or recycling of the materials and by-products.
Some examples of circular systems:
- Rice paddies can be structured to host fish and ducks to control insects rather than using pesticides. Nutrients and other plants grown in the paddies also feed the fish and ducks.
- Jeans (cotton denim) can be sewn with cotton thread not polyester and with easily removable buttons and zippers so that at end of life they can be reconstituted into cotton thread (or viscose thread) and made into new clothes.
- Houses can be built to produce their own power and the owners can sell any excess to the energy grid.
- Regenerative agro-forestry can utilize a diversity of tree crops to regenerate the soils and add revenue for farmers. For example, chickens feed under the shade of hazelnut and pine trees planted between bands of crops. The manure is a great fertilizer. The trees provide windbreaks and secure nitrogen and phosphorous to the soil.
- Pulp for paper can be made from a farmers straw residue (after leaving behind enough straw for soil nutrients). The pulp’s sugar by-products can feed into biopolymer manufacture.
- A biopolymer computer can be made to be deconstructed and all the parts reused and recycled and the heat from using the machine itself can be captured to produce energy.
- Tools can be shared through tool libraries and clothes leased rather than bought.
It’s more systemic than the examples above indicate, of course. Imagine the possibilities of collaboration between businesses and communities because policy and markets make it the best or only way to function (the environment already requires this of us, we just haven’t been doing it).
Economies that regenerate the wealth of natural capital acknowledge that we live more stable lives when our ecosystems function, and help moderate extremes (like rain, wind, drought, fire and sea levels). They acknowledge that ecosystems HAVE to function to make life on earth possible. We are fortunate that there are brilliant, inventive, entrepreneurial people all over the world building policies, systems and businesses that hold this fact as true. Now we must actively convince conventional capital to find its way to financing this transition on a timeline and scale that recognizes the urgency.
How to apply this to the forest fibre supply chain? By:
- Reaching out to investors and governments to enable next generation solutions for forest conservation.
- Scoping out the entrepreneurs that can produce alternatives to pulp products from ancient and endangered forests and connecting them to markets.
- Building the market demand for next generation products like new thread from old clothes and agricultural fibre pulp for paper.
- Supporting forest product customer companies to improve their sourcing.
- Advocating for product design that reduces use of virgin fibre from ancient and endangered forests.
Must do. Can do. Are doing!
“The regenerative future is a world in which, when natural systems are fully understood and valued microeconomically (by companies) and macroeconomically (at the national and global level), we will be in a position not just to sustain ecosystems and everything that is dependent on them, but, in fact, to begin to restore them to optimal health and productivity”. — Bill Kramer ‘Next Billion’ An Initiative of the William Davidson Institute University of Michigan (https://nextbillion.net/the-regenerative-economy-a-new-approach-to-capitalism/)