Rebuild Economics of environmental stewardship

Building a Regenerative Economy

A new eco­nom­ic sys­tem must be designed to serve the time­less needs of human­i­ty while still mak­ing sure to respect the envi­ron­men­tal lim­i­ta­tions of the planet.

Com­pe­ti­tion does not need to be baked into our econ­o­my. The glob­al econ­o­my can instead incen­tivize coop­er­a­tion on a mas­sive scale. Our cur­rent econ­o­my, that entrench­es rigid class sep­a­ra­tion, could soon enough van­ish into the records of history.

Accord­ing to the regen­er­a­tive eco­nom­ic think­ing shared by impact investor John Fuller­ton and spir­i­tu­al teacher Thomas Hüble, a new eco­nom­ic sys­tem can do much more than react to fac­tors like ris­ing or declin­ing GDP fig­ures. Instead, a new eco­nom­ic sys­tem can become the orga­ni­za­tion­al mod­el by which wealth is redis­trib­uted more equi­tably to meet the basic needs of all peo­ple. By pur­su­ing long-term think­ing, rather than being sole­ly focused on short-term quar­ter­ly prof­its, invest­ments have a bet­ter chance at being more close­ly affil­i­at­ed with eco­log­i­cal con­ser­va­tion and restoration.

Algae bio­plas­tics cul­tur­ing, Eric Klaren­beek and Maart­je Dros

In many ways, a regen­er­a­tive econ­o­my cor­re­sponds to a cir­cu­lar econ­o­my in that both require val­ue chains to make use of recy­cled mate­ri­als and both encour­age pro­duc­tion of longer-last­ing goods. These changes will go hand in hand with more respon­si­ble man­age­ment of nat­ur­al resources. And more last­ing effects will include the cre­ation of social and envi­ron­men­tal cap­i­tal to ensure more demo­c­ra­t­ic access to vital resources.

In overde­vel­oped coun­tries, prin­ci­ples of degrowth will need to be pur­sued to mit­i­gate the risks of over-pro­duc­tion and over-con­sump­tion. In her book, Plen­i­tude: The New Eco­nom­ics of True Wealth, Juli­et B. Schor (Pro­fes­sor of Soci­ol­o­gy at Boston Col­lege) makes the case for an econ­o­my that pri­or­i­tizes eco­log­i­cal and social flour­ish­ing through cul­ti­va­tion of the wealth inher­ent in human rela­tion­ships.23 The idea of plen­i­tude offers an ide­al frame­work for the process of shift­ing val­ues away from mate­r­i­al con­cerns to more far-reach­ing dynam­ics between peo­ple and planet.

“Real change means putting pur­pose at the cen­tre of how val­ue is defined by firms, gov­ern­ments, and the eco­nom­ic the­o­ry that informs pol­i­cy-mak­ers.” — Mar­i­ana Mazzucato

“RIPPLE (cymat­ics 1–9)” Jake Ama­son, 2018

A Pro­fes­sor of Eco­nom­ics of Inno­va­tion and Pub­lic Val­ue at Uni­ver­si­ty Col­lege Lon­don (UCL), Mar­i­ana Maz­zu­ca­to pro­pos­es a kind of sym­bi­ot­ic cap­i­tal­ism in which all par­tic­i­pants thrive.24 We believe in the need to change how pub­lic val­ue is eval­u­at­ed in order to tack­le soci­etal chal­lenges. Pub­lic insti­tu­tions and col­lec­tive enter­pris­es yield ben­e­fits that ought not to be exploit­ed for pri­va­tized profit.

As tax­pay­ers, we cit­i­zens get to be share­hold­ers in the pub­lic ser­vices that enable untold oppor­tu­ni­ties to devel­op. It’s essen­tial we stand up for com­mon access to the very secu­ri­ties that make inno­va­tion possible.

The econ­o­my can shift to empow­er local­ized solu­tions to endem­ic prob­lems. In this way, the very act of prob­lem-solv­ing becomes a means for going straight to the root cause of unfair eco­nom­ic agen­das. In the future we imag­ine, gov­ern­ments, com­pa­nies, and insti­tu­tions will enact mea­sures to set an agen­da of basic decen­cy, dig­ni­ty, and oppor­tu­ni­ty to pur­sue mean­ing and pur­pose in one’s life.

Rebuild Economics of environmental stewardship

Lines Can Bend into Circles

We can repli­cate the ele­gance of bal­anced and self-sus­tain­ing ecosys­tems by cre­at­ing a mod­el of renew­al, remak­ing, and recy­cling to resolve crises from extrac­tion to extinction.

We act as though the resources of our plan­et are with­out end. We sim­ply extract raw mate­ri­als, use them to man­u­fac­ture goods, and then use these goods for a rel­a­tive­ly short time before throw­ing them away. Once we’re done with them, the only pur­pose of our dis­card­ed prod­ucts is to take up space in land­fills and pol­lute the oceans. Trash is every­where. As Ziya Tong explains in The Real­i­ty Bub­ble: Blind Spots, Hid­den Truths, and the Dan­ger­ous Illu­sions That Shape Our World,

“…for every 150 kilo­grams of prod­uct we see on the shelves, behind the scenes there’s anoth­er 3,000 kilo­grams of waste that we don’t see. In total, the world pro­duces approx­i­mate­ly three mil­lion met­ric tons of garbage every twen­ty-four hours. That num­ber is expect­ed to dou­ble by 2025. And if busi­ness con­tin­ues as usu­al, by the end of the cen­tu­ry it will be an unfath­omable ten mil­lion met­ric tons of sol­id waste a day.”25

This process that leads to ram­pant pol­lu­tion is neat­ly summed up by the Ellen Macarthur Foundation—a char­i­ty that espous­es the val­ues of a cir­cu­lar economy—by the phrase “take, make, dis­pose”. Rather than sim­ply “dis­pose”26 of mate­ri­als no longer in use, we see this series of steps that describes our cur­rent lin­ear econ­o­my as a process of “take, make, waste”. The issue of unre­strained waste des­per­ate­ly needs to be resolved. The preser­va­tion of our envi­ron­ment may depend on our abil­i­ty to tran­si­tion this lin­ear process into a closed loop and start liv­ing cir­cu­lar­ly in terms of our pro­duced materials.

One clear alter­na­tive to pur­sue is using waste to our advan­tage. That’s how the old world did it. Feces has been one of the most impor­tant resources for agri­cul­tur­al growth as long as peo­ple have been grow­ing their own food. In Chi­na, cen­turies back, human waste from denser pop­u­la­tions was trans­port­ed to the coun­try­side, where it was con­sid­ered “brown gold” for its ben­e­fit to farm­ing. It’s only in recent his­to­ry that Chi­na has dis­tanced from its tra­di­tion of sus­tain­able agriculture.

What’s brew­ing with­in our guts and turned into “night soil” is maybe a more vis­cer­al exam­ple of cir­cu­lar think­ing. Yet, obvi­ous­ly there’s entire sup­ply chains of every­thing imag­in­able to con­sid­er. All the indus­tri­al mate­ri­als sup­port­ing our lives right now got here through some basic process of extrac­tion, man­u­fac­tur­ing, and deliv­ery. Yet, out of the mate­ri­als in our imme­di­ate purview, so many more were required for the cre­ation and release of these items. We have stacked up tremen­dous amounts of resources, which we must find ways to repur­pose so that when we are fin­ished using them in one form, it’s not all just stink­ing up our plan­et and space beyond.

“Float­ing Rub­ber”, Arch Mcleish, 2018

Nat­ur­al won­ders like the moon and Mt. Ever­est are each lit­tered with crap. In Zia Tong’s exten­sive chap­ter on “The Curi­ous His­to­ry of Crap—From Space Junk to Actu­al Poop” from her book The Real­i­ty Bub­ble, she recounts how on the moon there are, “…96 bags of urine and vom­it, there are old boots, tow­els, back­packs, and wet wipes. With no garbage cans at hand, the astro­nauts also lit­tered the land­ing site with mag­a­zines, cam­eras, blan­kets, and shov­els. And after sev­er­al inter­na­tion­al mis­sions, there are now 70 space­craft on the sur­face, includ­ing crashed orbiters and rovers.”27 We can clean up much bet­ter than we have, and we’re start­ing to make this a pri­or­i­ty. For the first time, a mis­sion has been estab­lished to go to Ever­est and retrieve every­thing that does not belong there, from corpses of fall­en trekkers to the assort­ed detri­tus of dis­pos­able con­tain­ers, all of it hav­ing accu­mu­lat­ed from pre­vi­ous expe­di­tions. If we can learn to stop defil­ing our most sig­nif­i­cant and dis­tinc­tive ter­rain, then maybe we can learn to pre­serve any stretch of sacred earth.

The cir­cu­lar econ­o­my is par­tial­ly a col­lec­tion of many strate­gies for sus­tain­abil­i­ty for­mu­lat­ed over the pre­vi­ous decades. The Ellen Macarthur Foun­da­tion iden­ti­fies three key prin­ci­ples upon which the entire cir­cu­lar sys­tem can be built.28

The first, “design out waste and pol­lu­tion”, con­cerns the idea that waste is not a nat­ur­al byprod­uct of the util­i­ty of the objects we use, but is main­ly a result of the way we choose to con­fig­ure all those mate­ri­als. By switch­ing our per­spec­tive on the source of waste, we can hope to find dif­fer­ent approach­es that min­i­mize its generation.

The sec­ond prin­ci­ple is a call to “keep prod­ucts and mate­ri­als in use”. This prin­ci­ple chal­lenges all sin­gle-use items and is a direct con­fronta­tion to the prac­tice of planned obso­les­cence that is such a hall­mark of many mod­ern com­pa­nies. To quick­en the pace of our cycles of con­sump­tion, and to ensure a stead­ier flow of prof­it, prod­ucts are inten­tion­al­ly designed for short life­cy­cles. This is an espe­cial­ly dif­fi­cult pol­i­cy to change though. We can­not rely on the per­pe­trat­ing cor­po­ra­tions to sud­den­ly have a moral change of heart. The prac­tice must be either reg­u­lat­ed out of exis­tence or have the incen­tive to con­tin­ue the prac­tice removed. The foundation’s idea of “keep­ing prod­ucts in use“ envi­sions a world of life-long repair, main­te­nance, and reman­u­fac­tur­ing of prod­ucts in order to stop this unnec­es­sary process of destruc­tion and repur­chase. It is telling how far removed we cur­rent­ly are from sus­tain­abil­i­ty that the cir­cu­lar econ­o­my frame­work des­ig­nates recy­cling as a last resort, con­sid­er­ing how it seems to be one of our best options today.

The third of their prin­ci­ples is the process of “regen­er­at­ing nat­ur­al sys­tems”. This ele­vates our goals beyond mere reduc­tion of harm to the envi­ron­ment, and up to the actu­al real­iza­tion of pos­i­tive impact. It requires us to seek sym­bio­sis with sur­round­ing ecosys­tems. Our human activ­i­ties should slot neat­ly into local arrange­ments of flo­ra and fau­na, using the kinds of tech­nolo­gies and agri­cul­tur­al prac­tices that com­ple­ment the pres­ence of life. Make no mis­take, aim­ing to actu­al­ly regen­er­ate nat­ur­al sys­tems is incred­i­bly ambi­tious. It com­pris­es not just a scal­ing back and soft­en­ing of our impact, but a 180-degree rever­sal of a glob­al trend through the appli­ca­tion of an entire­ly new par­a­digm. But this opti­mism is nec­es­sary. We need a tar­get that actu­al­ly inspires us and a goal that might even speak to our incred­i­ble potential.

The cir­cu­lar econ­o­my may not be exact­ly the solu­tion to all our eco­nom­ic prob­lems though. For one, the frame­work does not real­ly chal­lenge the mali­cious role of mar­ket forces. We must keep at the fore­front of our minds that, as of right now, waste is good for con­ven­tion­al busi­ness. We should under­stand that man­u­fac­tur­ing infra­struc­ture is all set up with huge amounts of waste as a nat­ur­al byprod­uct and that to change this will be very cost­ly. Busi­ness­es are unlike­ly to vol­un­tar­i­ly make these shifts if it in any way affects their bot­tom line. And so, while the fun­da­men­tal solu­tions engrained in the cir­cu­lar econ­o­my are sure­ly of great val­ue, we must always think how best to pair these trans­for­ma­tion­al notions with a strat­e­gy for the gen­er­a­tion of col­lec­tive reg­u­la­to­ry pow­er from below.

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