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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.

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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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Rebuild Economics of environmental stewardship

Degrowth & De-enclosure to Foster Economic Justice

Estab­lish more mean­ing­ful equi­ty through alter­na­tive eco­nom­ic prin­ci­ples. Huge glob­al dis­par­i­ties in socio-eco­nom­ic devel­op­ment result­ing from gen­er­a­tions of resource extrac­tion and exploita­tion must be addressed through repa­ra­tions. With less mas­sive indi­vid­ual for­tunes there will be more col­lec­tive for­tune to spare on repair efforts.

Degrowth is an eco­nom­ic the­o­ry defined sim­i­lar to how it sounds: a pro­pos­al to move toward de-esca­la­tion and de-infla­tion, and to move away from cap­i­tal­ist notions of con­tin­u­al growth. Degrowth refers to find­ing an alter­nate path of greater abun­dance for all to share. To cre­ate greater equal­i­ty of resources, the pol­i­cy would neces­si­tate rerout­ing resources across not only indi­vid­u­als who live with­in nations, but also across the coun­tries of the world.

The astro­nom­i­cal wealth inequal­i­ty in our world is a nat­ur­al fea­ture of cap­i­tal­ism. But we can begin to shift these scales with pro­grams that dis­trib­ute wealth where it’s actu­al­ly need­ed, toward: edu­ca­tion, equip­ping the pop­u­lace with improved diets, paths away from fos­sil-fuel depen­dence, and improve­ments in the over­all safe­ty net for those who have been most affect­ed by the neg­a­tive off­shoots of cap­i­tal­ist excess­es. Rather than tight­en­ing spend­ing on social pro­grams at this cru­cial junc­ture in human his­to­ry, we believe we should re-engi­neer spend­ing to focus on areas in need of revi­tal­iza­tion like edu­ca­tion, health­care, infra­struc­ture, and ener­gy.

“The point of aus­ter­i­ty is to cre­ate scarci­ty. Suffering—indeed, poverty—must be induced for the sake of more growth. It doesn’t have to be this way. We can call a halt to the mad­ness —throw a wrench in the jug­ger­naut.” — Dr. Jason Hick­el, Degrowth: A Call for Rad­i­cal Abun­dance

Ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry British colo­nial­ist

Dr. Jason Hick­el illu­mi­nates how scarci­ty cat­alyzes cap­i­tal­ism by cre­at­ing arti­fi­cial con­di­tions for pri­vate wealth to be amassed. Enclo­sure is the process by which resources that were once free—like access to clean water—came to be walled off and con­trolled by man­age­r­i­al author­i­ties. This tran­si­tion caused a dimin­ish­ment in pub­lic wealth which, in turn, result­ed in con­di­tions that led to increased pri­vate wealth. A grue­some exam­ple of this was how colo­nial­ists would burn down trees that bore nuts and fruit so that native com­mu­ni­ties could no longer rely on this once abun­dant source of food. This vio­lent force of gen­er­at­ing scarci­ty then allowed those same colo­nial­ists to coerce the peo­ple whose habi­tat they had just dam­aged, to work in order to earn mon­ey that could then buy the food now con­trolled by the colo­nial­ists.29

As Hick­el fur­ther explains in his arti­cle, “Degrowth: A Call for Rad­i­cal Abun­dance,”

“Ellen Wood argues that the ori­gins of cap­i­tal­ism lay in the enclo­sure move­ment in Eng­land, dur­ing which wealthy elites walled off the com­mons and sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly forced peas­ants off the land in a vio­lent, cen­turies-long cam­paign of dis­pos­ses­sion.  This peri­od saw the abo­li­tion of the ancient “right to habi­ta­tion”, once enshrined in the Char­ter of the For­est, which guar­an­teed that ordi­nary peo­ple should have access to the resources nec­es­sary for sur­vival.”

We feel that de-enclo­sure (free­ing up resources that were unfair­ly seized and con­sol­i­dat­ed) is a nec­es­sary response to rem­e­dy the adverse effects of enclo­sure. De-enclo­sure will require releas­ing the grip of all that’s owned by the exploita­tive con­trollers of cap­i­tal. The under­ly­ing foun­da­tion for con­sol­i­dat­ed pri­vate own­er­ship is root­ed in a tra­di­tion in which cru­sad­ing invaders take over native lands by vio­lent force. The uneven glob­al dis­tri­b­u­tion of wealth still reflects this his­to­ry; a his­to­ry that many nations have yet to tru­ly con­front and rec­ti­fy.

Restora­tion of the commons—meaning the abol­ish­ment of pri­vate own­er­ship of nat­ur­al resources—also has the impor­tant advan­tage of restrict­ing state-spon­sored vio­lence. Safe­guard­ing peo­ple against human-rights vio­la­tions and unjust poli­cies, must become a glob­al pri­or­i­ty. Indus­tri­al lead­ers need to take a firm stand on this issue as well. Over the last cen­turies, the cre­ation of mate­r­i­al goods has led to so many resources hav­ing been extract­ed and exploit­ed from com­mu­ni­ties unable to pro­tect against rav­ages car­ried out by colo­nial­ists, that we are long over­due for a restora­tion of bal­ance.

Dr. Hick­el writes that, “Degrowth, at its core, is a demand for rad­i­cal abun­dance.” While it might appear para­dox­i­cal, the log­ic is quite sound. As pri­vate wealth con­tracts and pub­lic wealth expands, more peo­ple will expe­ri­ence abun­dance.

By pur­su­ing this redis­tri­b­u­tion of access to resources, we can restore the union of com­mu­ni­ties with the nat­ur­al world and its abun­dance of nour­ish­ment. Turn­ing away from unsus­tain­able growth based on lim­it­ed resources and coer­cive tac­tics, is one step to enable eco­nom­ic jus­tice across the glob­al pop­u­la­tion. The pri­ma­ry change we need to con­sid­er is how to col­lec­tive­ly con­serve pre­cious resources, like forests and rivers, pro­tect these resources against exploitive prac­tices, and build open access to these resources with­in the infra­struc­ture of com­mu­ni­ties.

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Rebuild Economics of environmental stewardship

Regenerative Materials for Regenerative Structures

Nature itself presents an ide­al mod­el for inte­gra­tive design effi­cien­cy. When we learn to trans­form what remains of our waste into pro­duc­tive inputs, we can rearrange the fun­da­men­tal prob­lem of pol­lu­tion.

In the future, we believe we can use regen­er­a­tive mate­ri­als as sus­tain­able alter­na­tives to car­bon-pos­i­tive and non-degrad­able mate­ri­als. In this way, we can aim to bet­ter nour­ish and sup­port the plan­et, local ecolo­gies, and our civilization’s var­i­ous economies.

Why Mate­ri­als Mat­ter: Respon­si­ble Design for a Bet­ter World by See­tal Solan­ki exam­ines what it means to live in a mate­r­i­al world, how the mate­ri­als we use affect our future, and how we can respon­si­bly reshape our world by chang­ing the ways we con­sume, man­u­fac­ture, and design.

Algae bio­plas­tics print­ing, Eric Klaren­beek & Maart­je Dros

Beyond her writ­ing, Solan­ki is a founder and direc­tor of a mate­ri­als research design stu­dio and a school called Ma-tt-er. Solanki’s orga­ni­za­tion offers pub­lic talks, demon­stra­tions, and cours­es to gen­er­ate wider aware­ness as to how mate­ri­als func­tion as exten­sions of our­selves and our envi­ron­ment.

Ma-tt-er draws our atten­tion to the types of mate­ri­als that can be repur­posed for more respon­si­ble prod­ucts. For instance, gold can be scav­enged from dis­posed elec­tron­ic cir­cuit boards and trans­formed to cre­ate new sur­face fin­ish­es. To cut down on exor­bi­tant water use in var­i­ous pro­duc­tion dye­ing process­es, a strain of a soil-based organ­ism called Strep­to­myces coeli­col­or can act as a liv­ing pig­ment of pinks, blues, greens, and yel­lows that can be applied to dye tex­tiles like silk with lit­tle to no water required. For a sus­tain­able alter­na­tive to fiber-board, we can turn toward the com­plete­ly self-bind­ing plant source of lupin. This deci­sion would have the added val­ue of increas­ing nitro­gen in soil as the lupin grows, pro­vid­ing fer­til­iz­er for oth­er plants. Mean­while, coconut water can even replace leather as a biodegrad­able, water resis­tant, and veg­an alter­na­tive to an oth­er­wise unsus­tain­able mate­r­i­al through a process of fer­men­ta­tion and thick­en­ing of its nat­u­ral­ly-occur­ring bac­te­ria into cel­lu­lose.30

Vol­vo Liv­ing Sea­wall tiles

Many mate­ri­als that pro­vide regen­er­a­tive qual­i­ties have long been tout­ed by envi­ron­men­tal­ists for their sus­tain­able poten­tial. Locat­ed in Cam­bridgeshire, Eng­land, Mar­gent Farm has con­struct­ed open spaces on its prop­er­ty for the demon­stra­tion of the pow­er of its main crop, hemp. Along with the dynam­ic fea­tures of hemp as a mul­ti­fac­eted mate­r­i­al, the farm focus­es on rela­tion­ships with design­ers, well­ness experts, and sci­en­tists, who all share a desire to inves­ti­gate the expand­ed poten­tial of the plant. Hemp offers an exam­ple of a resource with cir­cu­lar, closed-loop poten­tial with how its growth can sequester car­bon while simul­ta­ne­ous­ly releas­ing oxy­gen to replen­ish the atmos­phere. Col­lec­tives, like Mar­gent Farm, that are com­mit­ted to grow­ing organ­ic, sus­tain­able, and envi­ron­men­tal­ly friend­ly crops will act as lead­ers in a bur­geon­ing indus­try of regen­er­a­tive mate­ri­als.

The larg­er task before us is to devel­op sys­tems of pro­duc­tion and exchange that abide by sim­i­lar regen­er­a­tive prop­er­ties.

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