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What is Restorative Development?

When people were few and resources were many, we might have been excused for degrading those resources as we took them. As time went on we began to try to slow the destruction and in a few places to repair the damage we had caused. Twenty years ago, the governments of the world agreed that our goal should be to replace “destructive development” with “sustainable development.” However, the level of damage we are inflicting on soils, water, air, forests, grasslands, fish and even the global climate in our pursuit of economic growth has accelerated to the point that our repairs are not keeping up with the rate at which we are causing damage.

At the most recent meeting of heads of state, it became clear that most governments are no longer even trying to achieve the goal of sustainable “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” In fact, it may no longer be possible to do so with the loss of environmental goods and services that have already occurred. Once many resources such as biodiversity are gone, they can never be restored.

In order to get back onto a sustainable trajectory, we need to find a new approach to development. It is essential to shift to “restorative development” in which we meet our needs in a manner that restores degraded ecosystems, restores degraded natural processes, and restores degraded human communities or societies. Simply put, rather than “fixing” after we “break”, we need to “give back” while we “take.” There is an expanding set of examples where degraded lands are returning to productive pasture for livestock and wildlife, fisheries are rebounding, forests are expanding and carbon dioxide is being pulled from the atmosphere as added organic matter in agricultural and grassland soils. Restorative Development must be our goal in order to sustain all of us along with the rich biological world on which we depend.

The nation behaved well if it treats the natural resources as assets which it must turn over to the next generation increased… in value. President Teddy Roosevelt