Circular logic: why we don’t have to destroy to develop

COLToday’s post is by Jane Cull, Founder and Lead Consultant of Life’s Natural Solutions, member of the Advisory Board of the Barcelona Consensus, and former Associate Editor of the Journal of Applied Systems Studies

We require a different way of seeing and thinking if we as a species are to continue to exist on this planet with a growing population. In fact we need a different kind of economy if we are to do that. Our present linear economy of take, make and dispose will not work in the long run as it is based on depletion and destruction. An economic model of growth and development that is based on the depletion and destruction of life is not only unsustainable, it simply won’t work. It’s illogical and does not make sense.

Obviously, resources will run out or be depleted to such an extent that it will be slow or impossible for them to recover. The result is of course that businesses will fail, there will be a lack of jobs, consumers will cut back on spending, and economic growth will decline. We need to instead start to sustain all life (societies, ecosystems, future generations, circular resource flows) if we are to have economic growth and development with a growing population. If we sustain life, then we can sustain ourselves. We must sustain life to sustain ourselves. This is a “circular” or “systems” view of life.

The systems worldview shows us that the world or life does not revolve around us. We are part of and sustained by the web of life. We are intrinsically interconnected and mutually interdependent with it. We are not separate or removed from the very thing that sustains us. This is the systemic reality that we live and participate in, but we do not see it and we need to see it if we are to live sustainably on this planet. We have to sustain life in order to sustain ourselves. It is a circular or systems view of life. It is a shift in our worldview, a shift in paradigms, our way of seeing and thinking.

Moreover, we need a systems view of the world because that is how the world works and operates. We need to understand and work with natural cycles, interconnections and interdependencies of living systems, understand the interconnections and interdependencies of social and environmental systems. We need to be thinking systemically to drive innovations and solutions. We need to be also critical in our thinking. Will the solution work? If it won’t work, why not, what are we not seeing? What is or are the blind spots? What is missing?

So what kind of economic model fits with what is needed to sustain life and at the same time have economic growth and development with a growing population? The model is circular and it is called “Circular Economy”. Circular Economy is about restoration, regeneration, renewal, refurbishment, remanufacture, reusing, recycling, redesign etc. It is a way to stop the depletion of resources, remove chemicals from products, restore nature, decrease pollution, drive energy through different sources of renewable energies (wind, solar, geothermal, biofuels etc), have zero waste.

In fact, waste is perceived as a valuable resource instead of something to throw away, dispose of, incinerate etc. Waste equals food. Waste either becomes a biological nutrient (materials are safe to return back to the biosphere to regenerate or sustain life again) or a technological nutrient (products and materials go back into the manufacturing stream to become the same or another kind of product).

This is what William McDonough and Michael Braungart call a Cradle to Cradle approach. There is now a certification program where businesses can begin to use this approach to drive innovation and circular business models forward.

Another element of Circular Economy is the Service Economy where the current model of ownership of products changes to leasing, i.e., consumers purchase a service instead of a product. The product is leased out for a particular period of time and is then returned back to the manufacturer for a newer model.

Another is the Bio-based Economy where biomass (natural renewable raw materials) is used to make products (biological nutrients) and provide bio-fuels as an alternative to fossil fuels. There is also industrial ecology, where the waste of one industry becomes the product for another.

There are enormous economic benefits of transitioning to a circular economy. In a recent report put out by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and McKinsey & Company, it was found that “over US$1trillion a year could be generated by 2025 for the global economy and 100,000 new jobs created for the next five years if companies focused on encouraging the build-up of circular supply chains to increase the rate of recycling, reuse and remanufacture.”.

Systems thinking, as I previously mentioned, is also critical as a tool in implementing a Circular Economy. Systems thinking enables us to do expansive and detailed thinking where solutions are reflected on so that wise decisions and choices can be made that take into account impacts and consequences socially and environmentally through considering interconnections and interdependencies. There is also “closed loop thinking”. When considering a by-product, can this material or waste be used in another industry or in another manufacturing process instead of putting it into the environment, moving “from waste to resources” as the OECD says?

However, business and governments face many challenges given that the status quo has been maintained for decades. There are also entrenched vested interests in keeping the status quo going on its present destructive path. However, there is one inescapable reality that businesses and their executives face, as management consultants Accenture point out – “continued dependence on scarce natural resources for growth exposes a company’s tangible and intangible value to serious risks.”

These risks can be reduced through moving towards a circular business model. Resources need to be regenerated if businesses are to survive in the long term. In fact, the term “resource” from the Latin means to rise or recover again, hence the distinction changes to “re-source”. It is a recursive, systemic distinction, reflecting ongoing cycles that sustain life. This is of course vastly different to how we presently see resources in the linear economic model of take, make and dispose, based on depletion and destruction where resources revolve around us, a human-centered worldview.

In nature there is no such thing as waste. Everything is recycled again and again and again which is of course necessary for the ongoing continuum of life. All living systems, including ourselves, are sustained by ongoing cycles in ecosystems and the biosphere. Nothing exists in separation. Systemic interconnectedness and mutual interdependency is the fundament of life in these ongoing cyclical flows.

Imagine for a moment what our world would be like if we transition to a circular economy. There would be clean air, clean water, an abundance of life, and diversity of species. Soils would be fertile instead of contaminated or depleted of nutrients. Barren land would be reclaimed and regenerated for farming or for bio-based materials. We would learn how to work with the natural cycles of nature instead of depleting or destroying it. Forests would be regrown with a view to sustainable harvesting and managing. No toxic chemicals in products (there would be no environmental pollution and no human health issues related to chemical toxicity), no pesticides or heavy metal contamination of food and soils – our food would be healthy to eat through organic farming practices). Fisheries would be sustainably managed (both oceanic and freshwater). Countries would become more self-sufficient

In other words, we would no longer be exposed to the fluctuating risks of markets and supply and demand of scarce resources. Consumers all over the world would be able to live sustainable healthy lives due to the changes taking place in business and governments, Consumers cannot live healthy and sustainable lives if business does not provide the goods and services for them to do so.

We can begin the process of sustaining life itself, both human and environmental in transitioning to this kind of economy. Social and economic benefits abound if we transition to a Circular Economy. Consumers drive demand, businesses grow and expand, new businesses start up creating new jobs, governments regulate, provide policy and incentives, economies grow and develop in the transitioning process.

It’s a win-win for humanity, business, governments, the environment and the web of life on which we depend for our ongoing, continued co-existence. The challenges and hurdles in transitioning to this kind of economy can be overcome. It requires a willingness and commitment to overcome them, to come up with answers and solutions, to work together and collaborate to make this happen as a collective transitional process.

Useful links

Resource Productivity in the G8 and the OECD – A Report in the Framework of the Kobe 3R (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle) Action Plan

Towards a circular economy: A zero waste programme for Europe European Commission

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6 comments to “Circular logic: why we don’t have to destroy to develop”

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  1. james greyson - 25/03/2015 Reply

    Super article!

    I wonder about added goal of ‘growing population’. Is that a requirement of meeting other goals or an obstacle to them?

    The video says the OECD is actively supporting its member countries with these efforts. I’d say there’s big scope for them to do more by:
    • actively challenging their own non-circular logic; eg promoting incineration as a kind of waste-prevention.
    • actively exploring new policy options to make circular economy happen far and fast enough to actually solve problems; eg

    • Jane Cull - 30/03/2015 Reply

      Hi James

      Glad that you liked the article. Can you explain your first sentence. Is this in the context of circular economy?

      • james greyson - 30/03/2015 Reply

        I was asking about your first sentence 😉

        You seemed to present circular economy as a way to keep going with a growing population. Yet a growing population looks like a system behaviour linked to non-circular economy. When we act like the devouring bacteria in a petri dish we expect to see growing population (up to a certain messy tipping point). So my question was whether you think growing population is a necessary goal for the future or whether we’d be better off with globally shrinking populations as a way to make circular economy more feasible. If the 2nd option then perhaps circular economy is an ideal example of the kinds of system changes needed to make falling populations achievable?

        • Jane Cull - 31/03/2015 Reply

          Hi James

          Thanks for clarifying your question. I am not advocating a growing population. I am merely pointing out that economic growth and development with a growing population is possible within a circular economy. In fact it is the only way to go with a growing population. In relation to the 2nd option where you asked – “circular economy is an ideal example of the kinds of system changes needed to make falling populations achievable?”. I have one question as a response to your question. Why do you think that the implementation of a circular economy would necessarily lead to falling populations? What are you seeing? I cannot imagine for a moment that would even be achievable as it would require all governments to implement a policy to reduce population levels and I cannot see that happening.

          • james greyson - 31/03/2015

            Population is a good example of a system variable that responds more to system behaviour than government policy on the variable. People in countries with fastest growing populations are not following anyone’s policy, they’re responding to the insecurity of their lives.

            Linear economy is one (not the only) example of the default policies that countries blindly pursue, causing outcomes opposite to the global security that everyone needs. Please see this discussion thread for more about population and system change policy,

          • Jane Cull - 01/04/2015

            Hi James

            You wrote: “Linear economy is one (not the only) example of the default policies that countries blindly pursue, causing outcomes opposite to the global security that everyone needs.” Completely agree.

            To add to what you wrote: “People in countries with fastest growing populations are not following anyone’s policy, they’re responding to the insecurity of their lives.” Yes, it is insecurity but it also their worldview, i.e. socially it is expected that people get married and have children, buy a house, have a mortgage etc. There is tremendous pressure on young people to have children by their families and in a wider context the culture or society in which they live and exist. This is changing somewhat especially in western countries where women are choosing to have a career instead of having children.

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