From planet-negative to planet-positive species
In order to solve climate change, achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, and create a future we actually want, we need to think fundamentally differently than we ever have before. Humanity needs to become a planet-positive species. And it is entirely possible.
What is a planet-positive species? It is one that benefits from and contributes to the well-being of the planet. All species are, by nature, planet positive. Earth’s biodiversity exists in a delicate symbiotic, interconnected system of systems that ensures that life thrives in abundance – that this one living planet flourishes.
Humanity, however, has long steered away from its inherent nature and instead carved its planetary pathway in fire, blood, and concrete, which has brought both beauty and comfort along with destruction. Overall, we have clearly become a planet-negative species causing untold devastation at nearly cataclysmic scales to ecosystems and the biodiversity upon which we depend.
In part, all of this is a result of losing our connection to nature – creating the illusion that we are somehow separated from Earth’s biodiversity instead of the reality that we are an integral part of it. We are also born into an existing system that has its own long history of evolving social and economic institutions over which we as individuals seem to have little power or control over. We are both mentally separated from nature, and seemingly inextricably tied to an operating system that is predicated on the exploitation and extraction of natural and human systems.
To make matters worse, within this system, a relatively small number of countries become so rapacious that they threaten not only the natural systems of the planet but all our social and economic systems as well. The climate crisis is the greatest challenge in the history of our species. It is not an attack from an alien species or a monster from the deep seas, and there is no silver bullet. It is a crisis of our own making, and it affects everything else. The climate crisis is already increasing poverty, creating refugees, threatening food and geopolitical security, further degrading ecosystems, and exploiting our human and ecological systems. It will get worse unless we change.
Changing the growth status quo
But how do we do that? We must move beyond the current endless growth economy we were born into and instead work to create a regrowth economy where we are producing abundance for all life through restorative and regenerative processes. Essentially, we must become a planet-positive species – for the Earth and ourselves. To do this requires a mindset shift and an understanding that human and planetary well-being are the same thing.
It means that we must also change the mental models we operate in. The best that we can achieve in our current system is encapsulated in the framework of sustainability. Which basically means, the ability to maintain the current system within our planetary boundaries. But if we want to become a planet-positive species and place well-being, justice, and inclusion at the core of our human economic and social systems, then sustainability is not sustainable.
If we want to provide joy, happiness, and well-being for every person in a truly equitable way that ensures all life can thrive in abundance, we can't do it in the current system without massive, widespread behavior change, wealth redistribution, and a fundamental transformation of our geopolitical structure. All unlikely realities any time soon. But what if we changed the system itself? What if we pushed beyond even sustainability to create a new framework for a new system? A regenerative society and economy would be sustainable, and it is a huge business opportunity.
The challenge of system change
The challenge of system change feels overwhelming. There is a lot to do to create that regenerative future. But humanity has had many examples of changing global systems. As one of my favorite authors, the late Ursula le Guin, reminded us long ago, there was a time when the divine right of kings felt like it was impossible to change after hundreds of years of kings and emperors ruling over all people. That changed, and it is possible to change this system to one that benefits all life. The surprising thing is that it is all possible because of the climate crisis, which demands that we change everything, as another favorite author, Naomi Klein, said almost a decade ago.
The climate crisis can be an amazing opportunity. From turning on our lights to heating our homes, from producing all the stuff that we waste every day to burning long-dead phytoplankton from tailpipes to move around the world, to the food that we consume and how we produce that food, everything that we do produces emissions that cause global warming. At the same time, we are degrading and destroying the natural sinks that pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere through photosynthesis and store it safely, in plants’ biomass, soils, and oceans. Since we must change everything, then this is our golden opportunity to create the future we want by design.
Toward a regenerative society
The good news is that solutions to the climate crisis already exist. We have all the technologies and practices that can turn off the emissions to zero and enhance our natural ecosystems' capacity to their maximum. This is how we can stop global warming and begin the process of reversing it. We know what to do, and these technologies and practices will only evolve and get better over time while new ones are woven in.
But in order to fully realize a regenerative future, we need to go beyond just climate solutions to see the cascading benefits of solutions when they are implemented as an ecosystem, accounting for interconnections, dependencies, and co-benefits. Understanding the cascading benefits of an “ecosystem of solutions'' allows us to address multiple challenges like wealth inequality, women's health, biodiversity loss, air and ocean pollution, and the mental health crisis. More importantly, this mindset allows us to aspire to be the best humans possible. This is the basis of a regenerative future.
We need to shift our mindset and recognize that human and planetary well-being are one and the same. We need to move beyond climate, beyond sustainability and toward a regenerative society and economy that benefits all life. We need to become a planet-positive species. To do so we need to imagine the future we want, imagine what it will be like to be a planet-positive species. And then, we need to act with solutions that already exist today. Now is the time for implementers, not spectators.
Illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.