As the United States recommits to the Paris Agreement, many cities, businesses and organizations that have never slowed down on climate action are gearing up to strengthen and multiply their efforts to create a healthy and resilient future for everyone. One such organization is Atlanta-based Southface Institute, leading the way toward a sustainable, equitable and healthy built environment for over 40 years. Shane Totten, Southface’s Director of Strategy and Impact, shares his thoughts about the importance of this step for the sustainability community and gives a glimpse into the nonprofit’s vision for a regenerative economy that will contribute to achieving the 2030 climate goals.
What does the rejoining of the Paris Agreement mean to you and Southface as sustainability professionals?
Personally, I’m excited the gates are being opened again, and we can run with our work to protect our environment in time to hopefully meet the Paris Agreement’s goal of reducing carbon emissions by 40% by 2030. The sustainability community has not given up on this goal over the last four years, but changing policies made some of our work an uphill battle, despite our hope to benefit everyone in our communities, cities, country and the world. With cities contributing 70% of the world’s carbon emissions, and the buildings in those cities contributing 40% of that, it is urgent that policies be made to support the work of dramatically containing and reducing those impacts and eliminating them from future development.
Where does Southface Institute’s vision of a regenerative economy fit in to a more resilient global future? Aren’t there already enough alternative economic models?
We need alternative models until we get it right, and it is clear today that linear-based economies, even at their best, are not a sustainable model moving forward, either for the planet, the people or those seeking long-term capital gain. Since the industrial revolution, our society has evolved into the linear economic model of “take-make-use-dispose,” harvesting cheap materials to produce products for mass consumption for the greatest economic gain, and with such a large, global consumer base, our natural resources are being quickly depleted and the amount of greenhouse gasses being released into the air is detrimental to our health and the stability of the planet for future generations. Plus, it creates greater waste and working conditions that exploit people and communities.
Sustainable, circular models, where goods are repurposed or recycled back into circulation instead of sent to the landfill are needed and growing. The circular economic models were initially created for manufacturing. What Southface means by a regenerative economy is a circular-based economy that is dynamically balanced, inclusive of the natural environment, the built environment and the social environment in a way that inherently creates an ever-greater capacity for life and human flourishing. So it is not only about retaining the resources we currently have but also about creating new resources that benefit people, planet and profit.
“Regenerative economy” sounds so academic. What kind of person is it for?
You don’t have to be a scholar or a sustainability professional to be part of a regenerative economy. You just have to be human. In my latest article, The Regenerative Economy: Sustaining Society’s Future by Design, you can see existing examples and opportunities that already shift linear, wasteful models into ones that create more resources amid production and use. The article showcases a case study of The Kendeda Building for Innovative Sustainable Design, a demonstration building on the campus of Georgia Tech showing what is possible in design, architecture and construction to create climate-friendly, resource-efficient designs that reduce buildings’ impacts on global warming and the natural environment while creating spaces in which people may thrive. This means opportunities in areas like materials production, procurement and building construction, while creating green building jobs and uplifting equity. We hope that everyone feels like they can in some way contribute to this vision.
What does this economic vision look like in Southface’s evolving work?
At Southface we focus our work in three areas: mitigating climate change through resource efficiency and environmental impacts where nature and buildings meet, working to improve human health in buildings, and growing the knowledge base and skills needed in a workforce to make these changes happen. Right now, we’re excited to work on projects across the country that reduce carbon emissions and improve energy and water efficiency in nonprofit buildings and build up community resiliency in the face of climate change. We’re researching indoor air quality and building techniques to monitor and improve it, while concentrating all of these efforts to provide pathways to truly affordable, healthy housing. And we continue to publish and offer a range of live and on-demand trainings in building science, building skills and various green certifications. That way, there are people prepared to implement techniques fostering healthier indoor environments and lowering the impact of buildings on our ecosystems, our water supply and reducing greenhouses gas emissions. Hopefully public health will be safe enough again soon so we can invite you to our Atlanta campus to see our work in action!
Sarah Mundell is Communications Project Manager, Content, at Southface Institute.
Shane Totten, AIA, BIT Pro. As Director of Strategy and Impact at Southface Institute, he stewards the regenerative strategy and its implementation into Southface’s programs and services.
To learn more about Southface Institute’s vision of the regenerative economy, its impacts and the implementation of regenerative design at The Kendeda Building for Innovative Sustainable Design at Georgia Tech, read Totten’s full article, The Regenerative Economy: Sustaining Society’s Future by Design.