Storm Cunningham on reWealth, Renewal and Restoration

by Mallika Naguran

The twentieth century was the last and worst of the “de” centuries, writes Storm Cunningham in his book reWealth! (McGraw-Hill, 2008). Words like development, depletion and degradation are “de” words that mostly insinuate a certain loss or dewealth; unfortunately, these words are those we have grown accustomed to while building habitats for living, work and play.

reWealth not deWealth - Storm.

In the 21st century which is fast becoming a restoration economy, claims the author, a new wave of words beginning with the prefix “re” will wrestle down “de” to open doors to an exciting three-dimensional way of providing for life while nurturing the natural environment. Redevelopment, replenishment, remediation and restoration. Words that now make us rethink how we have used resources at our disposal.

Storm refers to the typical growth patterns of three modes of development: new development at the beginning of the life cycle, maintenance or conservation in the mddle and restorative development at the end of this lifecycle. Conservation keeps ecosystems in place, however, should the environment be already under threat due to paucity of ecosystems or resource constraint,  there is a compelling need to go beyond conservation to restoration.

Restorative measures that reverse dewealth activities bring a new form of wealth creation which Storm estimates to be two trillion dollars worth annually. This is the basis of rewealth or asset renewal “for a better present and future”. Instead of destroying the environment by compulsively building something to fulfil short-term goals, there is a better way: renewing the health, beauty, quantity, value of resources or reusing natural, built and socio economic assets. This can be done without depleting, degrading or destroying other assets of long-lasting or irreplaceable value.

“Rewealth is basing wealth creation primarily on asset renewal,” explains Storm. Many conservation efforts tend to work in isolation, which poses problems from a macro perspective. As economies and communities are living systems, they have to be cohesive, he says.

Words such as “conservation”, “sustainability” and “green”, writes Storm, “often divide or simply bore people”. Restorative development on the other hand is more appealing of a nonpartisan nature. “If you can look around our planet and honestly say this is a situation you’d like to sustain, you’re just not paying attention,” writes Storm.

“I’m for restoring this mess,” says the former Green Beret SCUBA medic who has travelled around the world to find environments deteriorating over time. Seeing a few restored places that were in better condition than they were on his previous visits such as the restoration of a forest, a historic community, and a reef fishery in Central America triggered “a series of epiphanies as to what was possible for the entire planet.”

Renewal Engine

Storm in his first book The Restoration Economy (Berrett-Koehler, 2002) laid the ground for a renewal engine that’s to become the guiding principle in the follow up reWealth! This book is a must read for anyone who is figuring out how to renew degraded assets, whether natural, built or socioeconomic. It should be textbook material for decision makers in politics, construction, architecture, agricultural, manufacturing, investment, entrepreneurship, conservation and more.

Storm explains that for regeneration to succeed there has to be a renewal of the natural, built and socioeconomic environments together. To help put this into the right perspective is the concept of renewal engine.

How the Renewal Engine works.

“The renewal engine is a permanent, non-profit, public-private organization. It makes decisions according to the three ‘renewal rules’: rewealth (basing wealth-creation primarily on asset renewal), integration (of natural, built, and socioeconomic assets) and engagement (of all stakeholders),” says Storm, adding that the latter two rules create efficiencies and synergies for the first.

With global recession gnawing at the heels of stable economies, a renewal engine is just the sweet pill to swallow. “Despite all the talk of ‘disappearing wealth’ during this financial crisis, the fact is that there's no shortage of (mostly private) money available for revitalizing our cities and restoring our natural resources,” says Storm. “But most communities and environmental NGOs do not know how to partner effectively with the private sector to accomplish projects that enhance the public good.” The renewal engine is just the model needed in bringing together design, organisation and funding for renewal at the community or regional level.

Storm discovered the renewal engine at work first in Chattanooga, USA, and the next in Bilbao, Spain which he documents in his book. “In both cases, highly-polluted cities that seemed to have no economic future became global models of regeneration,” he says. These were communities that embarked on restoration without a model to work from, guided only by their own intelligence and intuition.

For renewal engine to work, the first start is to create and maintain a shared vision of where the community wishes to go. This follows creating a renewal culture that attracts and nurtures restorative investment. What comes next is creating a constant flow of renewal partnerships: public-public, public-private, and private-private. “The goal is rapid, resilient renewal,” says Storm.

Rewealth is also the only basic type of economic activity that can be pursued forever, he argues. “Unlike many activities that go under the rubric of ‘sustainable’ or ‘green’ but which are merely less-damaging forms of sprawl and extraction (dewealth), there never comes a time when people say we've got to stop revitalizing - our quality of life is too high or we need to stop restoring this watershed- the water is too clean and there are far too many native fish in the river now.”

Rewealth imperative in economic crises.

Storm is also the founder of Revitalization Institute, a global non-profit academy for community renewal and natural resource restoration, which has lately taken on a greater research role. It helps member institutions become a more effective factor in the revitalization of their own communities, regions and countries.

For practical help on the ground, Storm gives advice through a recently established for-profit company called Resolution Fund, LLC. “We train both the public and the private sectors how to be better partners with each other on regeneration projects. Then we help bring the right private partners together on the right projects in the right communities at the right time,” says Storm, who has since been engaged to look into the needs of two rustbelt cities as well as a disaster-wrecked city in the U.S. He also advises a national community development organisation in Canada on ways of using public and private funding for restoration projects.

Storm attributes his passion for integrating economics and nature to his undergraduate business major and biology minor at Windham College in Vermont. He lives in Arlington, Virginia, USA with his family and pet colony of Solomon Island skinks.

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Readers can contact Storm at, and learn more at the following websites: