BEYOND SUSTAINABILITY ALGAE AS A PLATFORM FOR REGENERATION
We live on a planet with finite resources, which the planet regenerates infinitely; this is the ideal that we must emulate if we are to ensure that Earth remains hospitable to our life form. It is not enough to be “sustainable”. It is barely enough to be “circular”. We need to aim for “regeneration”, mimicking ecosystems in all aspects, e.g., resource use, energy flows, nutrient recycling, and biogeochemical cycles. The earliest recorded use of the idea we call “sustainability” is found in the work of Hans Carl von Carlowitz who used the term “Nachhaltigkeit” (sustainability) in his 1713 treatise on forestry titled “Sylvicultura Oeconomica“ According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the concept of the “Circular Economy” has been around since the 1970s, with no single point of origin or author. The publication of “Our Common Future” AKA “The Brundtland Report” by the United Nations in 1987, put “sustainability” into the spotlight globally with the setting of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals in 2015. In 1994, John Elkington put forward his “Triple Bottom Line” sustainability framework, which he later recalled as a management concept in 2018. Elkington has now moved on to the idea of “regeneration” with his 2020
publication, “Green Swans – the Coming Boom in Regenerative Capitalism”, inspired by the work of John Fullerton, who is considered the architect of “Regenerative Economics” as first described in his 2015 publication,
“Regenerative Capitalism: How Universal Patterns and Principles Will Shape the New Economy.” In 2016 Daniel Christian Wahl published his book “Designing Regenerative Cultures” that has become the standard for how we can redesign our businesses, economies, and technologies to achieve regenerative cultures.
Less Talk more Action
Clearly, we have been talking and thinking about sustainability, circular economy, and now regeneration for decades. Similarly, we have known for a long time about the existential challenges of Climate Change, soil degradation and loss, dwindling potable water resources, the Holocene or Anthropocene extinction , global food shortages, the global plastic dilemma, the rise of superbugs, and so on. Yet with all this knowledge and forewarning we make no significant progress to addressing these challenges or reversing the damage we do to the Natural Capital, “defined as the world’s stocks of natural assets which include geology, soil, air, water and all living things.” with which Earth has been endowed. The solutions to these existential challenges require a multidisciplinary approach, involving, e.g., economic theory, political science, and the natural sciences, but most importantly, understanding and managing human behavior. If we do not manage the people who use Natural Capital, then we will never achieve the regenerative
cultures necessary to keep Earth hospitable to us. Given current levels of globalization, technology, economic development, population, and other critical factors, we will not easily find a silver bullet for all the challenges we face; however, we do have access to what can be a viable
platform for regenerative economic activity in algae.
The Algae Potential:
Algae can truly be considered as the “founders of the feast” that humans enjoy on Earth. Figure 1 gives a simplified representation of algae services in the past, what they currently do, and what they have the potential to do for us in the future. If we accept that all human economic activity is based on Natural Capital, then we must also accept that algae are the foundation on which all Natural Capital was built and continues to be supported. Earth without algae would be devoid of free oxygen, the ozone layer, and multicellular and complex life forms, for starters. One biochemical process changed our planet into what we now have instead of the anaerobic, super-hot sphere of 4.7 billion years ago. That biochemical process was photosynthesis, and the first organisms to perform photosynthesis were the ancestors of algae. Cyanobacteria, AKA blue-green algae, were the first photosynthetic group of organisms on Earth. We no longer group cyanobacteria with algae since cyanobacteria are prokaryotic (no membrane-bound nucleus or organelles) while algae are eukaryotic. However, for this article we will retain cyanobacteria in the “algae” group. Cyanobacteria exist today and they were the major primary producers on Earth until the rise of the algae around 650 million years ago, which research indicates led to “food webs with more efficient nutrient and energy transfers, driving ecosystems towards larger and increasingly complex organisms”. Without photosynthesis by autotrophs such as algae there would be no efficient natural mechanism for converting the sun’s energy into chemical energy needed by heterotrophs. The purpose of photosynthesis is the production of glucose, the basic building block for carbon-based life and the essential energy molecule for respiration. Oxygen is nothing more than the waste product of photosynthesis. Respiration is the photosynthesis process in reverse. Algae both photosynthesize and respire but produce more oxygen through photosynthesis than they consume in respiration, which creates a surplus of oxygen. Ultimately, glucose and oxygen terraformed Earth into the paradise capable of allowing the evolution of humans and sustaining them. Algae are Nature’s nanites, essentially nanotechnology at its finest, on a scale that humans have yet to comprehend, and they represent a real opportunity for us to keep Earth hospitable to us.
In our search for the multidisciplinary solutions to the economic, social, and environmental challenges we face, algae represent a viable
economic platform that could replace fossil hydrocarbons, provide the same products, while preserving and repairing the natural environment and ecosystems, and paying off our Natural Capital debts. Decades of research have yielded the science and technological advancements necessary to use algae for beneficial purposes.
We now need to scale their production and use to commercial/industrial quantities and find the business value propositions that encourage the private sector to adopt this new, regenerative platform. This step change will not
occur quickly. We will likely encounter many more failures than we do successes in this emerging sector. There are also
many other candidates with similar potential, such as hemp or fungi; the ideal scenario would be parallel efforts
to harness as many of these natural platforms as possible to be the bases of future regenerative economies and cultures.
Sustainability alone is not enough, we must aim for regeneration; we owe it to future generations to at least try.
Author: David Ramjohn, CEO – AlgEternal Technologies
Date: February 2021