We are just three steps away from a circular economy
It's that simple, yet the case for incremental change remains stuck in a mindset groove. So how do we design ourselves out of this one, ponders James Greyson.
The circular economy vision is obvious and vital. It’s been obvious and vital for at least 47 years, since Kenneth Boulding first presented a paper entitled The economics of the coming spaceship Earth. Yet it hasn’t happened. Could it still happen or is it just too hard?
The persistence of the prevailing ‘turn resources into waste’ linear economy makes change seem really hard. Yet getting a circular economy underway, and beginning a serious response to a multitude of serious problems, may require just three simple steps. The obstacle to those steps is also simple. It’s the same thing that blocks all sustainable development; blind faith in the power of incremental initiatives to change the world.
The start of a circular economy is ironically stalled by the wishful belief that whatever we’re now doing is the start of a circular economy. Year after year when a circular economy still doesn’t get going, the belief is simply reasserted with fresh initiatives again intended to build a critical mass of good examples and reach a tipping point of whole system change.
New products, new business models, new efficiencies – thousands of good examples show handy glimpses of what could be seen on a large scale in a circular economy. Yet there’s no tipping point because complex systems can only respond to how they are designed, not to how they should be designed.
As a systems change tool, the good example is trapped in a catch-22. Any initiative that doesn’t succeed in today’s economy can show that such ventures have no place. Any successful initiative can show that the particular product, method, campaign, business or collaboration can get on just fine within the existing mechanisms of modern economics. Either way the case for wider change stays stuck.
The shift from linear to circular economic model must actually happen now. Further delay means unmanageable resource, ecological, food and climate security risks. Fortunately we’re only three steps from a circular economy. Two of the steps update our mindsets to enable the third step that provides the economics part of ‘circular economics’.
So, here’s the first step. The well-intentioned waste hierarchy has since 1975 tied decision-making to waste-making. In my local area of East Sussex for example, billions of public money is locked into decades of shifting waste from land-dumping to air-dumping.
The first step to a circular economy is to guide decisions to the systematic prevention of waste. This is called precycling: action now that prevents materials becoming waste in the land, air or water. When you build a compost bin you’re precycling. Later when you throw in kitchen scraps, that’s composting or waste management. Every material resource and every product can in some way be precycled by clever design and other actions.
The green movement rightly identified economic growth as a defining feature of economics, but then got confused thinking that growth inevitably means growth of resource flows and impacts. Anti-growth ideas became so enmeshed with green ideas that most politicians became allergic to green policy, including circular economy.
The second step is to say what should be obvious, that growth has a future only through economic activity that supports further economic activity. Circular economy is the basis for such growth. And the activity of transition to a circular economy is a bonus source of growth.
The world has been slow to respond to the signals of eco-campaigns. Price signals, such as bottle deposits, taxes and tradable permits have been tried to a small extent. What hasn’t been tried, or even discussed, is to implement steps 1 and 2 in markets so price signals guide all the whether to invest, what to buy, how to design decisions that everyone makes every day.
Existing economic tools are not designed for this but the third and final step is to enact a tool designed for the task. ‘Precycling premiums’ would be paid by producers in proportion to the risk of their product becoming waste. The fund of premiums would be spent throughout society to build the ecological and technical capacity to cut the risk of materials ending up as waste.
This quirky variation of ‘insurance’ could handle the risk that products become problems as waste, pollution, emissions or toxins. Material flows could be reconfigured so that used resources become new resources for people or nature. The long-term global loss of ecosystems and soils could be reversed. Even climate change could be addressed.
Excessive long-distance resource flows require excessive energy – which requires fuel products that today end up as atmospheric or radioactive waste. None of this is too hard. Boulding pointed out in 1966 that “the technical problems involved are not insuperable”. So shall we get on with it?
James Greyson is a systems change designer and speaker. You can follow him on twitter @blindspotting
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