Sustainability versus Regeneration

“Sustainability requires regeneration. You cannot be sustainable without regenerating our relationship with life,” says Bill Reed, a Principal of Regenesis Group, who spoke at Regenerative Travel’s webinar, Regenerative Principles for Hospitality. A monthly series, focused on regenerative practices, travel, and climate change, invited participants this month to engage with Bill, Anna Pollock, Founder of Conscious Travel, Beks Ndlovu, Founder and CEO of African Bush Camps, and Portia Hart, Founder of Blue Apple Beach and Standard Bearer at Regenerative Travel, and delve into the principles and practices outlined in Regenerative Travel’s recent whitepaper, Regenerative Travel Principles for Hospitality. While all agreed there is still much regenerative work to undertake at both the micro and macro level in the travel industry, continual engagement and coevolution with the community, along with quantitative measurements and qualitative attention are and will continue to be the cornerstones of regeneration. 

Sustainability versus Regeneration

Is it sustainable or regenerative? Perhaps both? As regeneration becomes a more commonplace term, the line between the two can become blurred. While each indicates a call to action and attention to environmental awareness, all panelists agreed understanding the difference is the first step in the regenerative journey. Expounding upon Bill’s belief, he states, “sustainability, unfortunately, has become dumbed down to practice efficiency. Basically, it’s reducing the damage. For example, when recycling your bathroom towel in a hotel. That is nice and it’s an important thing, but it doesn’t help us to engage with the systems that we actually need to care for.”

Regeneration defined in this sense, encourages those to look beyond just the actions that make it less inefficient, and see the larger picture. From a business standpoint, Portia explains, sustainability tends to be more a passive experience that maintains the status quo. The popular strawless movement, while it does aid in eliminating plastic waste, fails to incorporate the whole system thinking that regeneration requires.

Portia describes, “I’m not just going to avoid putting a plastic straw in this drink. I’m actually going to think about where the fruit came from that is in the drink, where the alcohol came from, how the person who’s serving it is being paid, how it is priced. When you think about each of these things, do they play a role in actively improving a local community, a local ecosystem, the local ecology?” Anna describes how regeneration is “dealing with living systems and living things” and Beks notes that regeneration requires one to “go that much deeper in terms of what are the results or what are the consequences of our sustainable practices and exercises that we’re doing.”

The permaculture gardens at Blue Apple Beach, Colombia.

Measuring Regenerative Impact

As regeneration gains traction in the travel industry, understanding that the term moves beyond a buzzword, and is instead an effective model and mindset for changing the trajectory of our actions and behaviors, is fundamental. Anna defines the paradigm as “a much bigger mindset. It goes much deeper. It affects the way the entire culture sees the world. I would argue that we have been literally brainwashed into a pattern of thinking that sees the world as separate from us that sees each of us as separate from one another. It’s almost like a machine, whose parts are separate and you can try and control them. Whereas now we understand that the earth is a living system, it too is organizing itself…so the paradigm is a shared set of values or beliefs that shapes how we make sense of our world and how we act in it.” The best practice to understand this paradigm is by observing it and collecting data.

Beks, who has owned and operated African Bush Camps for the last 15 years echoed that while the data to measure and hold oneself accountable is important, asks “at what point do we use our imagination through our natural senses in terms of what are we actually doing or have achieved with the practices that we are bent on actually doing? Both quantitative and qualitative efforts are very important. Data is important to understand statistics such as how many elephants we have stopped from being poached. These results are only achievable through data, but it goes far beyond that. As we start to see our foundation has helped the land become more productive and locals who are growing their crops are no longer clearing vast tracks of fields, we know that they’re more efficient in the land that they cultivate — what has this done for them in a cultural sense?”

Bill reiterates the importance of a firsthand approach tailored with a long view, “There is a real shift in our culture in learning to work with emergence rather than command and control as a mechanical analogy. You can never control anything…We have to pay attention. We have to continually practice this. How do we adjust to meet evolutionary conditions so that we’re staying in the game of evolution, which is critical.” The paradigm shift is thus one steeped in the continual practice of learning and unlearning. 

 Kanga Camp of African Bush Camps in Mana Pools National Park, Zimbabwe

Steps for an Aspirational Regenerative Future

If regeneration is defined as incorporating elements such as engagement and measurement, the upkeep for a regenerative future rests in coevolution. Anna discloses, “Nature is aspirational. It’s constantly yearning to evolve and grow. This is what drives every aspect of life. We are not just human doings or human beings, we’re human becomings…we shouldn’t assume there is some static endpoint when we become either sustainable or regenerative for we are always going to be adjusting to the circumstances and trying to make them better.” As a result of coevolution, potential continues to manifest.

Bill explains that “by not focusing on problems, but by looking at potential, every living system has potential…If we can help people see that potential, wherever your business is, who have any interest in climate change, gender equity, habitat connectivity, whatever the issue is, they then begin to work together. They get out of their solios and that’s when things really take off.”

As regeneration looks to the next decade, tourism has an opportunity to serve as an agent of change in combating climate change. When we ask ourselves the hard questions and evaluate our decisions with respect to the community, then as Beks states, “you can be the trusted partner that is fully embraced and make a fundamental difference within a community.”

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