A few hundred years ago, the same could be said of humans. Before then, we discarded hand tools, worn out loin cloths, or lunch leftovers without harming the food chain. Today, we are swamped by discardable materials that are killing other species and contaminating our homelands.
In the 1990s, governments told its citizens to recycle, so many of us still feel a pang of guilt for supporting the ‘cradle to grave’ model of business. Unfortunately, the average person is trapped between the policies of the supermarket and the ‘recycling’ depot. The good news is that we can always see bad news as an opportunity for doing things better.
The bad news is that the oil industry makes $400 billion a year from plastics and plans to grow. Advised by economists of a bygone era, our governments take pride in summarising each financial transaction as our ‘Gross Domestic Product’. Shockingly, this does not differentiate between useful and damaging transactions. In this case, the killing of aquatic life and greenhouse emissions gets written off as ‘externalities’.
The really good news, however, is that this brings opportunities for enlightened technologists, designers, economists, accountants and entrepreneurs. Plastics is often seen as a technological challenge. Less than 10 percent of plastic has ever been recycled because it degrades during each recycling stage. On the other hand, if governments were to persuade the finance industries to think beyond the cradle-to-grave model, things would be different.
Economists could save us from being fleeced at each stage in a nosedive from cradle to grave. First, governments take our taxes to subsidise the extraction of non-renewables. The oil is turned into plastics used to churn out ‘reusable’ bags and ‘widely recycled’ bottles. We pay again for these services. Once we have consumed our drinks and discarded our bags, we pay a third time for them to be buried as landfill.
We must see these failures as an abundance of opportunities. Top of my list is the redesign of money and the reform of economic orthodoxy see money-is-dead. Designers and educators can do better, too. Scooters, bicycles and clothes are ill equipped to carry shopping, because we still produce ‘fashion designers’, ‘packaging designers’ and ‘automotive designers’. Instead, we need ‘clothing designers’, ‘logistics designers’ and ‘collective lifestyle metadesigners’.
There are opportunities in the finance and marketing sectors, too. If costed over their respective cradle-to-grave lifetimes, a silk kimono is cheaper than a Primark T-shirt. It is the only the industry’s failure to innovate beyond the single, ‘point-of-sale’ revenue stream that conceals this fact.
Actually, the Holy Grail of a ‘circular economy’ has been tantalising us for half a century. In 1976, instead of seeing the economy as a one-way trip of valuable resources, Walter Stahel and Genevieve Reday reimagined it as many benign loops. They could see that more circular models of business would bring more jobs, income streams and more benefits for all.
What we lack is a joined-up understanding that enables us to think further ahead. We must also re-language what is ‘normal’. While the economic ‘flatland’ fixes our attention onto the next quarterly figures, we forget that the sun offers us ample free energy for the next four, or five billion years.
As we silently orbit the sun, it occurs to me that the ‘economic circle’ metaphor is reaching its sell-by date. Does it refer to a time loop that repeats, or a set of processes arranged spatially, in a ring? The same ambiguity applies to ‘sustainability’. The verb ‘to sustain’ might mean ‘holding things together’, spatially, or making something last longer. A ‘sustainable’ economy is not enough. It must be regenerative.
Similarly, the term ‘supply chain’ is now in everyday usage, but it selfishly ignores all but one strand of many. What is a ‘value chain’? It sounds benign, but living systems could not exist in one-dimension.
Ecologists talk about ‘food chains’, but only as part of much larger ‘food webs’. If cities were truly ‘green’ they would act as public gardens supporting webs of eco-diversity. Just as rainforests gobble up banana skins, so urban walkways would be thankful for any organic matter.
By thinking beyond the circle we can envision locally interdependent food webs that transform our understanding of economics. By cultivating ‘diversities-of-diversities’ at all levels, we can seed an economic ‘synergy-of-synergies’.
Read more of John Wood's articles in Sublime
• McDonough, W., & Braungart, M. (2010). Cradle to cradle: Remaking the way we make things. North point press.
• Stahel, W. (2010). The performance economy. Springer.
• How Big Oil Misled The Public Into Believing Plastic Would Be Recycled
• World fails to meet a single target to stop destruction of nature – UN reportWorld fails to meet a single target to stop destruction of nature – UN report