On December 7, 1972, the crew of Apollo 17 captured the above view of the circular Earth, reinforcing in humanity’s psyche the circularity of our cosmic home. The Blue Marble was taken at a distance of about 29,000 kilometers (18,000 miles) from the surface. It is one of the most reproduced images in history. It shows the earth as a round world (or, more accurately, a sphere, or to be even more precise, an oblate spheroid that is flattened at the poles and bulges in the middle). Although it was known for a long time that the earth was round, this is one of the first times we got a glimpse of what the earth really looked like.
The geometric circularity of the planet reflects the cyclical nature of the natural systems that exist within it. According to some sources, both root words – circle (circularity) and cycle (cyclical) – share a common derivation. The Greek noun “kyklos” means circle. Its transliteration into Latin is cyclus, which evolved into our English word “cycle.”
Nature, with her 3.8 billion years of innovative research and development has gotten pretty smart, and she found that best ways of doing things was in cycles – circles – the carbon cycle, nitrogen cycle, phosphorus cycle, hydrological cycle, and so on – to keep materials and energy flowing through the biosphere and available for use by the members of the biosphere (which, by the way, includes us). This should give us a good idea that circular/cyclical flows are the way to go in our society and economy, as they are in the environment. Even the hexagon, one of the most common shapes of nature, is the closest thing to a circle that allows for zero wasted space in a structure, such as a bee’s honeycomb or the eyes of a dragonfly.
“When we look at what is truly sustainable, the only real model that has worked over long periods of time is the natural world.”
– Janine Benyus / Co-founder, The Biomimicry Institute
The basic laws that govern nature, and by extension, our environmental-social-economic system are the laws of thermodynamics, and this is where we must start to gain an understanding of what needs to be done and what changes need to be made in order to place us on a course through the funnel of sustainability, and out the other side to a regenerating, flourishing planet. These laws set limiting conditions for life. The first law says that energy is conserved; nothing disappears, its form simply changes (e.g. heat, movement). Another way of stating this is: “Energy cannot be created, or destroyed, only modified in form.” The implications of the second law are that matter and energy tend to disperse over time. For matter, this is referred to as “entropy.” Putting the different laws together and applying them to our system, the following conclusions can be reached:
- All the matter that will ever exist on earth is here now (give or take a little bit).
- Disorder increases in all closed systems and the Earth is a closed system with respect to matter. However, it is an open system with respect to energy since it receives energy from the sun.
- The flow of energy from the sun creates structure and order from the disorder.
The Natural Step (TNS) developed four system conditions that lay out the principles for a sustainable society. Behind the framework there is a science-based understanding of the complex adaptive system that is our world, and is based on study of ecosystems, laws of nature (including thermodynamics, conservation laws, laws of gravity, biogeochemical cycles, photosynthesis, systems thinking, flows of resources and wastes), social systems, social institutions (including trust and fundamental human needs), and psychology. The system conditions, or principles of sustainability, are shown adjacent.
So now that we have established the system conditions, or principles, for sustainability, how does it fit into our human system? There are two primary ways of representing the relationships between the environment, society, and the economy. The first, and more common, is the “Triple Bottom Line.” However, the Triple Bottom Line is an illusory concept, often shown as a Venn diagram. It depicts the areas of economy, environment, and society as separate realms with some overlap, wherein lies sustainability (sometimes referred to as “weak sustainability”). However, the inverse of this that there are areas of each that do not intersect and act independently of the others. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The second, and more accurate and realistic, depiction is a whole-systems view called “strong sustainability.” It is shown as nested circles, where the economy is shown as a subsystem of society, and society is wholly contained within the environment. The following diagram, from The Natural Step Germany, depicts this needed reframing of the concept of sustainability quite well.
We can see the truth of this when we examine the different forms of capital that are available to the economy and necessary for a successful business model: financial, manufactured, intellectual, human, social and relational, and natural. Of these, four flow from outside the economic sphere. Intellectual, human, and social and relational capital all arise from society. Natural capital, of course, can only be derived from the environment. Manufactured capital partly arises from society in the form of infrastructure provided to the economy (e.g., such as transportation networks, energy grids, water systems, Internet networks), and other systems. The other two, financial and (part of) manufactured capital, are only made possible by the other types of capital.
Recently, a new paradigm of economics has been developed by a British economist, Dr. Kate Raworth, and is termed “Doughnut Economics.” Despite the name, this system is primarily based on ecological and social limitations and the use of the economy as a tool to create “a safe and just space for humanity” between an ecological ceiling, beyond which we risk significant harm to ourselves from planetary overshoot of limits, and a social foundation below which nobody should be allowed to fall lest they risk their health, court income poverty, etc. The environmental ceiling consists of nine planetary boundaries, beyond which lie unacceptable environmental degradation and potential tipping points in Earth systems. The nine planetary boundaries are climate change, ocean acidification, chemical pollution, nitrogen and phosphorus loading, freshwater withdrawals, land conversion, biodiversity loss, air pollution, and ozone layer depletion (four of which are currently calculated to be in overshoot status). The social foundation consists of the twelve top social priorities below which lie unacceptable human deprivation such as hunger, ill-health, and income poverty.
So where are we today? The existing reality is also known as business-as-usual and the linear economy. It is comprised of three simple elements: take – make- waste. As a society, we take stuff from the Earth, we make different stuff out of it, and then we stuff it back into the biosphere, hoping that we never have to see it again. We extract metals, minerals, and other resources from the Earth, and transform them into products, most of which get discarded within six months of usage.
Unfortunately, as the linear economy continues to be business-as-usual, where business converts natural capital into money as fast as possible, life-supporting resources are decreasing, and the demand for these resources is increasing. This problem is illustrated by the funnel concept created by The Natural Step organization.
The Natural Step Germany defines sustainable development as a strategic mission to eliminate society’s unsustainable systemic errors and avoid crashing into the wall of the funnel (1). We need to create a sustainable society (2), stabilizing the resources and structures available, where we “meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” The clear goal is to make it to the opening of the funnel, where the opportunities for prosperity have stopped declining. Through innovation, creativity, and the unlimited potential for change, we can open the walls of the funnel and become regenerative (3).
According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, we face sharp volatility increases across the global economy and proliferating signs of resource depletion (as shown in the funnel framework), and the call for a new economic model is getting louder.
While companies have done fairly well at improving resource efficiency and exploring new forms of energy, less thought has been given to systematically designing out material leakage and disposal and designing in circular concepts.
Again, according to the MacArthur Foundation,
“A circular economy is an industrial system that is restorative or regenerative by intention and design It replaces the ‘end-of-life’ concept with restoration, shifts towards the use of renewable energy, eliminates the use of toxic chemicals, which impair reuse, and aims for the elimination of waste through the superior design of materials, products, systems, and, within this, business models.”
– Ellen MacArthur Foundation
Such an economy is based on a few simple principles. First, at its core, a circular economy aims to ‘design out’ waste. Waste does not exist—products are designed and optimized for a cycle of disassembly and reuse. These tight component and product cycles define the circular economy and set it apart from disposal and even recycling where large amounts of embedded energy and labor are lost. Secondly, circularity introduces a strict differentiation between consumable and durable components of a product. Unlike today, consumables in the circular economy are largely made of biological ingredients or ‘nutrients’ that are at least non-toxic and possibly even beneficial, and can be safely returned to the biosphere— directly or in a cascade of consecutive uses. Durables such as engines or computers, on the other hand, are made of technical nutrients unsuitable for the biosphere, like metals and most plastics. These are designed from the start for reuse. Thirdly, the energy required to fuel this cycle should be renewable by nature, again to decrease resource dependence and increase system resilience (e.g., to oil shocks).” Below is a graphical depiction of the circular economy, created by the MacArthur Foundation.
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