In my previous academic life at Williams College, I was fascinated with this question: how does a person’s way of thinking shape the way they interact with the environment? In pursuit of systemic solutions to environmental issues and sustainability, I ultimately majored in Anthropology and minored in Environmental Studies, and though it pained my youthful anarchist mind, I also saw economics as a key to understanding how the world works – though I didn’t major in it. Economics taught me about Capitalism and inputs and outputs; Anthropology taught me about how it is that we come to embody capitalism in cultures around the world, and how our beliefs about the things we need to survive ultimately create cultures of consumption. Environmental Studies taught me the impact of our ways of life on the environment, and our deep need for healthy ecosystems to survive as a species. One of my all-time favorite classes was Environmental Economics 101, where we studied how it is that economic systems of production and consumption lead to environmental problems – and how to solve them.
One of the crucial questions of environmental economics, if simplified, is this: Is the fundamental way our economy works the culprit of our global waste problem, environmental degradation and climate change? Is capitalism itself – the very framework on which all of our jobs, products, and services exist upon – to blame for the unjust pollution that leads to cancers and breathing problems and the degradation of food, water, and the basic necessities of our communal human needs? And if so, do we dismantle capitalism to create a new system, or try to find ways to make the current system work better?
Assuming no one is going to dismantle capitalism in the near future, perhaps another emerging concept could reconfigure literally how we do business: the circular economy This concept, learned in my Environmental Economics class, led me to triple-bottom-line thinking, and ultimately, my current position at Sierra Business Council – a champion of regenerative, circular thinking as demonstrated in projects like the Loyalton Biomass Cogen facility and Ecotech Campus.
Circular Economics is based on solving the issues created by our current mostly linear economy, which describes status quo capitalistic production and consumption (see The Story of Stuff). A linear economy is where we take materials out of the ground by whatever means, turn them into things, use the things, and then throw them in the trash when they are broken, dirty, obsolete, or merely no longer interesting to us. Things go from Point A to Point B, and most of the time, Point B never returns our things to Point A to fill the hole that was remains following resource extraction. And thus, through this whole process, externalities occur: mines and oilfields pollute nearby waters, production factories pollute the air, and landfills burst at the seams (if, that is, our trash doesn’t make it onto the roadside or into the ocean first), and our natural resources slowly dwindle into scarcity. Meanwhile, the GHG emissions from all of these processes warm the climate, stoke wildfires and hurricanes, and threaten the existence of not just humanity but all of earth’s living cycles as we know it.
This world I depict seems pretty gloomy, I know, and it’s very simplified. There is much good that has come out of our current system. And there are things like recycling. But this gloomy simplification is based on real problems that need real solutions, ideally as soon as possible: it’s why Sierra Business Council and other environmental organizations exist. Plus, since China has stopped accepting our trash & recycling and exposed glaring gaps in recycling capacity in our homeland, we clearly need more solutions. If the baseline problem of many of our current troubles is this linearity of production, we need to reimagine how we produce. We need not a linear economy, but a regenerative one. This would allow our system to continue operating under a capitalist economy and endlessly producing things, but with a paradigm shift. No one wants to live in a Mad Max type of world anyway.
The concept of a circular economy is exactly how it sounds: reminiscent of the circle of life, where all waste products produced by the natural environment are repurposed into new life. Plants and animals die; and insects, bacteria and fungi share their remains, creating healthy soil structures and decomposed organic matter that is then fertile food for new plants, which in turn feed animals. Life, death, repeat. Nothing is wasted.
What if we thought of all of our economic processes and products the same way? Where in every instance that a waste product is created, we established a way to repurpose the product and create something else?
This idea of repurposing waste itself is not new; many industrious industrialists have found ways to turn waste products into something else to turn a profit. But I’m talking about something even more revolutionary: a world where the very concept of waste doesn’t exist. Where everything has a place, and is given value in the circle of life, instead of tossed into the trash bin when we’re too tired to fix it or clean it. A world where businesses thrive from creating new things out of old toys and broken kitchen items. Where the products themselves are engineered not for just one life, but for indefinite lives. Even a world where products are shared rather than individually consumed.
A circular economy, and its close sibling the sharing economy, have vast potential. And it looks, in a local example, like a well-thought out biomass cogeneration plant: where waste products from the forest are taken at a sustainable rate, input into the plant to create energy, and waste heat and waste products are used for a wood product economy. Bio-char is used to fertilize agricultural soils and water tables. Shrimp are grown and eaten in an aquaponics system that utilizes the plant’s waste heat. Multiple organizations work together to transform every input and output into a circular system. In a perfectly circular world, everything is accounted for: no harmful energy or emissions escape into the atmosphere, but instead are used in a multitude of creative ways to create things like fly ash cement, heating and electricity for nearby homes, and even the transport trucks used to move the inputs around are electric or solar powered.
It takes time, and creativity, and resources to reproduce this type of thinking in every community around the world. It takes more foresight from every level of production, from policy, to product design, to waste management systems, to create replicable frameworks based on regeneration instead of linearity. But returning to the circle of life is the type of thinking that just might save us from ourselves.