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Introducing the New Climate Buzzword: ‘Regenerative’

This hefty term is being widely adopted by industry, but not everyone will live up to its meaning: to restore the harm we’ve already done.

The term “regenerative” has replaced the term “sustainable.” Maybe it’s the new term “renewable” – who knows. It’s the latest ubiquitous catchword in climate speak. Solar companies are already marketing themselves as “regenerative energy” businesses. The term “regenerative concrete” is causing quite a stir in the building constructions. “A more regenerative way of thinking,” say tourism offices. Economists are calling for the creation of new metrics to track the transition to a “regenerative economy.”

Doug McMillon, CEO of retail behemoth Walmart Inc., has made perhaps the most famous move to commandeer this cumbersome, five-syllable term, which was formerly limited to the narrow domain of agronomists and cellular biologists.

He praised his objective of developing a “regenerative corporation” to an audience of investors this week, even if he sells more than $500 billion in consumer goods each year, much of it is made with extractive petrochemicals and eventually ends up in a landfill.

There are important contrasts between “sustainable,” “renewable,” and “regenerative,” and before the latter becomes more popular — or loses all significance — it’s important to understand where it came from and what it means.

The term “regenerative” was first used in theology and literally means “to bring forth again” (from the latin verb regenerare, where the “re-” prefix means “again” and the rest signifies “capable of producing or creating”).

The word was first used in the 15th century to describe a spiritual rebirth, and it was then adopted by biologists to explain the regrowth of animal tissue, such as the lizard tail, which fully re-forms after being severed. Ecologists didn’t start using the phrase until the 1880s to describe the recovery of forests after a destructive storm or fire.

Advances in “regenerative medicine,” which uses therapeutic stem cells, tissue engineering, and other methods to repair or replace damaged human organs, cells, and tissues, have been made in recent decades. “Regenerative agriculture” refers to farming and livestock grazing practices such as no-till, cover-cropping, and silvopasture, which, among other things, rebuild soil organic matter, restore the biodiversity of microbes, fungi, and beneficial creepy crawlies, and vastly improve farmland fertility, moisture, drought resilience, and, most importantly, its capacity to sequester carbon.

While “sustainable” agriculture refers to non-harmful agriculture that is free of herbicides and other agrochemicals that degrade agricultural quality, regenerative agriculture goes farther to actually repair damage that has already done. Organic farming can be a part of either of these, although it is not required. While organic farming has many advantages, there are also examples of organic farms that have a net negative influence on the environment. Thousands of acres of dead, chemically burnt farmland have been turned to terrain that sequesters nearly 3.5 pounds of carbon dioxide for every pound of grass-fed beef produced by Will Harris’ regenerative farm in southwestern Georgia, for example.

In terms of “renewable” energy, it refers to non-polluting, inexhaustible sources like wind and solar, whereas new “regenerative energy” companies like Silicon Ranch are trying to go beyond that by integrating solar farms with regenerative poultry and livestock programs, thereby making a net-zero operation climate-positive.

But can concrete – or, for that matter, the tourism sector or a $500 billion retail company – ever be truly regenerative? Yes, concrete—there is a new “self-healing” product that contains an enzyme found in human blood that allows it to fill in cracks that inevitably form overtime—but the entire tourism industry, which relies heavily on carbon-intensive air travel, and certainly retail companies that prioritize low-priced consumer goods, have a long way to go before they transition from being less-bad to becoming that essential meaning of regenerative, which is to “bring forth again.”

Paul Hawken, an environmental activist and the editor of Drawdown, believes that the retail industry, and by extension, the global economy, can, and must, become regenerative. At a recent GreenBiz event, he called for a complete rebranding of the climate movement, saying, “the climate-slash-regenerative movement will be the largest movement…that we’ve ever seen on Earth,” Hawken’s new book, “Regeneration: Ending the Climate Crisis in One Generation,” and his new website, Regeneration.org, both elaborate on this point.

It’s actually what we do every day, Hawken said, 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.

Let’s hope soy. According to scientists, our atmospheric carbon levels are currently at 412 parts per million, and we need to reduce them to 350ppm to address climate change and moderate global warming. To do this, global industries must be far more than just less terrible.

We need to hold all those who claim to be “regenerative” responsible once consumers and stakeholders understand the term. Then it’s up to all of us – lawmakers, industry leaders, investors, and consumers — to get there.

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