Regenerative Sustainability: From damage control to improving the environment

Professor Robinson is moderator of the AAAS symposium,  Beyond Climate Models: Rethinking How To Envision the Future with Climate Change, Friday, February 17, 1:30-4:30 p.m.

Few people now disagree that humanity faces some serious environmental, social and economic challenges, which, for better or worse, will need to be addressed in the coming decades. One fairly influential school of thought argues that the underlying cause of sustainability problems of all stripes is unsustainable rates of material consumption, sometimes called over-consumption. So the solution must lie in a reduction in such consumption.

This approach suggests that we must ultimately learn to cut back significantly, to change our values, lifestyle and behaviour so as to use less ‘stuff’. Insofar as increased human activity is required, the goal must be to reduce the negative impact of such activity, to do less damage. In other words, human activity is seen as essentially negative in terms of its impact on the planet and on (most) people. To use an influential formulation of this view, there are indeed ‘limits to growth’ and we must learn to stay within those limits.

One view is that human activity is to blame

This view of the world has been the subject of criticism from what has been called the cornucopian side of the ledger, which disagrees with the view that such limits exist. However, I want to suggest a different idea altogether, which accepts the view that sustainability problems are real and pressing – indeed the fundamental challenge faced by humanity in this century – but proposes a different route to addressing them.

This route—which we call a new sustainability agenda—focuses on what Professor Ray Cole of UBC’s School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture, and his colleagues, in speaking about buildings, call ‘regenerative design’. The question posed by this approach is whether buildings, and other systems, can be regenerative in the sense of producing net benefits to both human and natural systems. Can our activities actually improve environmental quality and human well-being?

What if human activity could improve environmental quality?

To the extent that the answer is yes, then the implications are surely profound. If human activity can be regenerative, then it need not necessarily be minimized. The focus shifts from reducing harm to improving benefit. The goal is not simply to approach net zero impact, but to reach net positive impact. The whole mind-set changes from damage limitation to improving environmental and human conditions.

I have described this agenda in terms of a question. We do not know how regenerative human-built infrastructure and human-made processes can be, over what time frames, and within what system boundaries. It may be that the potential is limited to certain kinds of activities, which make up a small part of overall human activity. But certainly this question is worth posing.

UBC’s CIRS building is net positive in seven ways

This is the research agenda for the Centre or Interactive Research on Sustainability (CIRS), opened at UBC in November. In fact, CIRS has been designed to be net positive in seven ways: four environmental and three human. Put most simply, adding a 60,000 square foot building to the UBC campus will reduce campus energy use and carbon emissions, improve the quality of the water flowing through our site, and sequester more carbon in the building than all the carbon emitted in building it and supplying it with materials. On the human side, CIRS is intended to make its inhabitants healthier, more productive and happier.

We will not know if and how we have succeeded in these goals for a few years. But we think this represents an exciting research agenda for sustainability, one that offers the promise of being much more inspiring and motivating than prevalent sacrificial approaches.

 For more information about CIRS and sustainability at UBC, visit:

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