From Sustainability to Regeneration
Winter is always a favourite time of mine for cosying up with books I’ve been meaning to get round to reading earlier in the year.
Last winter my highlight was Isabella Tree’s book Wilding, which charts the course of the awe-inspiring ‘rewilding’ project on the Knepp estate in Sussex. It’s a beautiful book that highlights just how rapidly ecosystems can recover when nature is left to take its course.
This winter I’ve been tucking into books about soil health and what’s called ‘regenerative agriculture’ – essentially farming in a way that restores the natural health and vitality of soil and kicks the destructive habit of intensive chemical use. Highlights have been Dirt to Soil by Gabe Brown and Call of the Reed Warbler by Charles Massy.
All these books have got me thinking about the use of that little prefix ‘re’.
Back in the mid-90s, when I was first studying environmental issues, the key buzz phrase was ‘sustainable development’. Terms like ‘sustainable development’ and ‘conservation’ have done us great service, and no doubt still have a long way to run. But all language evolves, and these days you’re increasingly likely to hear terms like ‘re’-wilding, ‘re’-birding, ‘re’-generative farming or even ‘re’-generative design. There are books about how to build a ‘re’-generative business, or even become a ‘re’-generative leader.
Those two small letters, ‘re’, pack a powerful punch. They evoke a sense of restoration – of revival, repair, recovery, and of renewal. They hint at something that can be reinstated, or regrown, perhaps under the power of natural processes. The narrative of ‘re’-generation introduces a subtle change of emphasis – less about the need to ‘sustain’ (which can imply restraint, or a forcible staying within limits; even sacrifice), and more about ‘growth’, or perhaps ‘regrowth’ (in other words a sort of unleashing of abundance, in this case of nature to heal and repair itself).
These concepts resonate deeply within us, because they are the principles on which all life is based. Growth is something that as humans we naturally welcome and celebrate, especially applied to nature and our own lives. It’s only perhaps that by myopically focusing on economic growth that we’ve got it all wrong.
The ‘re’ in rewilding and regenerative agriculture speaks of the restoration of ecosystems, and the unleashing of nature to re-establish its natural balance. The idea that we can reverse the sense of decline that’s become the perceived trajectory of our natural world, is not just incredibly hope-inspiring, but also offers us a powerful vision for practical action. Many people long to be the hero of their own story (the power of the Hollywood narrative lurks deep in our Western psyche), and there’s a lot more room for heroes in the ‘re’ vision of the future. It appeals to humans to step up to the mark and reverse decline through our own creative endeavours. I suspect this subtext – of humans at the centre playing the rescuing hero – may yet prove to be the ‘re’s’ secret power.
But what does all this mean for us as growers and gardeners?
Well, imagine …. what would the world of cut flowers look like if it truly gave back to the world in a regenerative way? What would a cut flower farm or cutting patch look like, that sequestered carbon, multiplied biodiversity, regenerated the land’s natural ecosystems, restored and enhanced ecosystem services, not just within its own borders, but also beyond? One that operated in an entirely closed-loop way, with no waste, generating all that it needed from within the system? Whose products and services enhanced the lives of its customers and employees, displacing less damaging forms of consumption or work? Which gave back to its community, which inspired and informed others, and multiplied its benefits in as many ways as possible?
These may sound like big questions, but I’m on a journey to answer them, and I’m taking some time this year to explore and think about this, starting with my own operations. I’m not sure how far I’ll get, but every journey starts with a beginning.
There are many tools and frameworks available to help. One is permaculture – an ecological design system for agriculture and growing that’s applicable to all human-designed systems. One of the key permaculture principles is ‘the yield is infinite’, which might sound paradoxical for a system bounded by ecological limits. But it makes more sense when you consider just how many ways it’s possible to measure a ‘yield’ – for a flower farm it might include produce, compost, food (from co-planting and roaming poultry or livestock), energy and water (from renewables or rainwater collection), habitat and microclimate creation, shade, shelter, health, wellbeing and sociability.
Other tools that can help include carbon footprinting, systems thinking, and life cycle analysis. I’ve used many of these in my previous career and I’m keen to apply them to the world of cut flowers. I’ve got lots of ideas and people I want to speak to about this, and I’ll be sharing what I discover along the way.
If there’s one thing for certain, as we square up to the start of 2022, there’s never been a better time to put the ‘re’ into pretty much every aspect of our lives.
So as January begins, I wish you a flourishing year ahead, that’s filled with plenty of renewal, rejuvenation and rediscovery.