BY IAN EDWARDS
By the time Henry David Thoreau meandered through Cape Cod in the mid-19th Century – 200 years after colonials began to settle here – the thin spit of land was already deforested.
“Large schooners were once built of timber which grew in Wellfleet,” he wrote in the travelogue Cape Cod. “The old houses also are built of the timber of the Cape; but instead of the forests in the midst of which they originally stood, barren heaths, with poverty−grass for heather, now stretch away on every side.”
Anyone driving up a verdant Route 6 today might be surprised to think the view was treeless only a century ago.
However, the National Park Service provides confirmation: “The dominant vegetation of outer Cape Cod’s forests, mostly pitch pine and black oak, has changed little over the past 9,000 years, with the very important exception of almost total deforestation by European settlers from 1650 to 1900. Over the past 100 years much of the upland forest has grown back, especially on National Seashore lands, which are protected from housing development. However, with fire suppression, the seashore’s current forests are much less diverse than the prehistoric forests.”
Nature, left alone, regenerates. Cut fingers heal. Spring brings back perennials. We rear children. When nature can no longer regenerate we face extinction scenarios, such as the ongoing loss of biodiversity across the planet.
We have historically encouraged nature to regenerate by, for example, replanting forests and cultivating depleted fish stocks. Cape Cod, itself, has benefitted from reforestation programs throughout the 20th Century – as much as these programs might be best categorized as agriculture.
By comparison, a regeneration strategy is a larger, forward-looking vision of working to rebuild natural capital so that it has the ongoing power to sustain us far into the future. We might agree that key resources that we rely on for our quality of life are limited.
Sustainability pioneers call it “overshoot” in which the world’s resources can’t keep up with growing demand. We’ve “overshot” nature’s capacity.
Water, arable soil, and rare earth minerals are among the key inputs to our lives that are facing critical threats from climate change, overuse, and diminished resilience. We might ask ourselves what might be lost to Cape Cod if the trees had not returned. We certainly know the limited success of the fishery programs that struggles to support a local industry.
Building in a two-way relationship with nature means that instead of depleting a resource, society might also regenerate it. “How?” becomes the question that inspires new innovation.
“Sustainability,” which is a term made problematic by political and moral overtones, can be reframed as a way to reverse the resource scarcity threat. In this way, sustainability becomes strategic planning, which is a routine value-creating exercise used by most companies to maximize risk management and opportunity.
Think about the planet like a business. On any given day, for example, an operations manager might have to juggle input shortages. Rationing and optimization, substitutes, phase-outs, recycling and reverse logistics all play into how we strategically manage resource procurement today. If a vendor no longer carries a key input, or it has been discontinued or it’s now obsolete, you (as operations manager) are going to have to look at different sources or innovate away from the scarcity.
“[Resource scarcity] is actually an opportunity to reframe the world economy and create trillions of dollars in value,” say the writers of Resource Revolution: How to Capture the Biggest Business Opportunity in a Century.
“The risk of scarcity is expected to rise significantly, leading to supply instability and potential disruptions… but this also creates opportunities for competitive advantage,” echoes a PwC report from 2011. Understanding the risk extends beyond accessibility, to price volatility and trade barriers.
The Paris Agreement, however it survives in the new world political order, is a starting point in global response to our collective sustainability challenge. While traditional sustainability has relied on lean manufacturing, efficiencies and recycling as ways to reduce the draw against natural resources, a more comprehensive sustainability response may demand more.
“Regeneration”, a subset of sustainability captures a wide array of strategies and philosophies to balance the needs of society and nature. It expands on the ideas of efficiency and harm-reduction, hallmarks of modern sustainability practice, to include a more holistic approach. Restoring natural capital (natural assets like flowing streams, mountain tops, and fertile soil) is a foundational idea in regeneration that is a more routine concept when described as resource strategy.
If industry put back into nature at least as much value as it extracts, then we might see not only a reversal in resource scarcity but also an overall systemic improvement in the environment. In this scenario, resource stocks that are threatened have a potential remedy. Extraction of nature is matched with replenishment. It makes sustainability an equation: inputs = outputs.
“Many businesses now recognize that we are living beyond the planet’s means,” says Malcolm Preston, of PwC’s global sustainability practice. “This is where strategic decision making meets sustainability. Getting this right will define the winners and losers of the future.”