A Regenerative Economy and Seaweed


Trouble in paradise!

We have arrived in the Anthropocene, the geological era in which human activity is the dominant influence on ecosystems.  Our climate is changing. It is changing in negative ways for species existence. 200 years of industrial revolution has already increased our temperatures by 1C, future change is expected to be much more exponential.  The global scientific community has urged the world to stay under 1.5 degrees Celsius, if we want to stave off disastrous consequences of floods, draughts, storms and fires. No doubt such events would lead to water and food shortages, contributing to further displacement of people and populist fears.

We are in an ecological crisis. The Intergovernmental Platform for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) recently released the daunting prospect of another million species likely to go extinct under a business as usual scenario. We are eroding our life support systems and exceeding several planetary boundaries already. With more information coming in, it becomes clear that other planetary boundaries, such as ocean acidification, are approaching rapidly. The 2nd World Oceans Assessment will soon be released and the trends of ocean health are unlikely to be encouraging. Our oceans are in trouble.

We are currently with about 7.5 billion people on earth and growing.  Inequality is rising.  We seem to be locked into an economic system dominated by a form of capitalism that has little recognition for the fact that we are wholly dependent on the ecosystems that we are a part of.

How did we get here?

The answer is about as varied as the components in the interconnected system that produced the outcomes. The risks of population growth were already a source of caution by Malthus back in the early eighteen hundreds. The perverse nature of unbridled economic growth on a finite planet has long been a source of concern to economists and scientists alike.  Leading thinkers, including some  economists over the last 200 years leads me and many to conclude  that the single line focus on GDP growth has ignored and subsequently depleted our natural capital to a perilous state. This was also recently depicted in a brilliant (NZ grown) movie ‘Capitalism in the 21st Century’, which drew sold out theatres and is a must see. 

Now what?

We need solutions and we need them fast. There exists various brands of alternative economics, e.g. ecological, circular, sharing, green, new, doughnut etc economics, but we like ‘Regenerative Economics’, because it is action oriented. To regenerate means to bring back the life force. Regenerative Economics refers to valuing the critical services of the sun and ecosystems from a systemic perspective. Here, the toolbox goes beyond accounting, but requires an account-ability, which is both more relational and related to the eventual outcomes.  If we truly place value (beyond price) in healthy functioning ecosystems, fueled by the only true source of energy – the sun – then it becomes economic to invest in healthy ecosystems and in subsequent production and consumption systems that mimic or work with ecosystems as the foundation for our economy. Anything less is un-economic. Our institutions (human capital) needs to change to accommodate this transition. In the newly emerging blue economy, we may just have the ability to precipitate this change.

On a personal level our world views, mindsets and relationships (social/cultural capital) matter. It is easy to become thoroughly depressed about the state of the world. Climate anxiety, climate guilt and anger are real feelings that affect and paralyze an increasing number of people. Acknowledging but not dwelling on the problem may give us the energy to focus on solutions. Consider this ability to refocus on solutions as our Inspirational Capital! There are readings that put a smile on your face, such as The Solutions Journal.

Healing nature heals us. We can only heal nature when we ourselves are healing; it is a symbiotic process. If we look for solutions, we may see opportunities that ‘switch us on’. When that energy converges, magic can happen. Enough philosophies. Paul Hawken and likeminded thinkers are turning to doing as we too propose in a regenerative economy. ‘Drawdown; the most comprehensive plan ever proposed to reverse global warming’ gives us a smorgasbord of solutions to light our fires. Seaweed are on that smorgasbord of solutions.

Seaweed as a regenerative solution..


Macro-algae forests covering 9% of the world's ocean surface, could produce sufficient biomethane to replace all of today's needs in fossil fuel energy, while removing 53 billion tons of CO2 per year from the atmosphere, restoring pre-industrial levels.

This amount of biomass could also increase sustainable fish production to potentially provide 200 kg/yr/person for 10 billion people.”

- N’Yeurt et al (2012)

Algae, seaweed and particularly Giant Kelp are emerging as a critical leverage point in the transition to a regenerative economy. The numbers vary wildly, but it is a fact that seaweed has the capacity to sequester carbon faster than terrestrial plants and trees. Seaweed is critical habitat for fish and other marine life. With more seaweed, there is likely to be more fish around.  Drawdown features Bren Smith and his inspiring story of underwater gardening. Additionally, Brian von Herzen and the Climate Foundation are working on marine permaculture. These marine integrated farming and permaculture approaches work with ecosystems, requiring no artificial inputs and implementing design structures that work with nature. These systems have the potential to help the ocean recover from warming, acidification, overfishing and habitat destruction. Tim Flannery has also put his voice behind seaweed (and Concentrated Solar Power) in his book ‘Sunlight and Seaweed’- a truly inspirational read.

72% of the earth is covered in ocean. N’Yeurt et al (2012) calculated a mass balance for ocean afforestation stating: ‘These rates are based on macro-algae forests covering 9% of the world's ocean surface, which could produce sufficient biomethane to replace all of today's needs in fossil fuel energy, while removing 53 billion tons of CO2 per year from the atmosphere, restoring pre-industrial levels. This amount of biomass could also increase sustainable fish production to potentially provide 200 kg/yr/person for 10 billion people. Additional benefits are reduction in ocean acidification and increased ocean primary productivity and biodiversity.’ This is a lofty goal, but one for which we have the technology emerging. Additionally, seaweed can be a source of food to feed the growing population, be used to replace petrochemical based fuels and plastics and have many nutraceutical and pharmaceutical properties to exploit. Even if we only get partly toward that goal, we will be on a pathway for a transition toward a regenerative economy. We will be transitioning to more functional institutions. We will be healing the oceans and heal ourselves.

NZ context – what is critical here?


New Zealand has stewardship over the 9th largest Exclusive Economic Zone in the world, around 4 Million km².  This is 15 times the size of our landmass. The growth of aquaculture here is inevitable and therefore a critical question that underpins our work becomes:  If we were armed with the knowledge of varied land use vs monoculture in agriculture before the advent of that industry, would we have designed it the way it has played out? Or, would we have designed the system to take advantage of the many ecological and economic benefits that varied land use is now proven to have?   

Even solutions as promising as seaweed are at risk of fragmentation and not living up to their potential, if we approach this with a fragmented mind and narrow, (neoclassical economics) worldview rooted in scarcity. Considering the limited (when compared to international operations) and heavily regulated (for good reason) seaweed industry in New Zealand we now have an opportunity to design the emerging industry using regenerative economics. In order to explore these options, I convened RegenSEA to pre-emptively invite communities, organizations and governments into a systemic conversation for a regenerative sector which we actively design to take advantage of benefits that do not just address the financial bottom lines. Please join us in this discussion and design process and help us restore our climate.