There is currently no universally agreed definition of the circular economy, but there are four core principles that underpin the model. These are:
• Waste equals food
• Build resilience through diversity
• Use energy from renewable resources
• Think in systems
These four principles were discussed at length during last week’s launch of the world’s first MOOC course relating to the circular economy. Nature operates according to all of these principles with ease – but it has had around 3.8 billion years to figure out how to do so. Our lifestyle ambitions meanwhile have accidently disengaged themselves from these natural world mechanisms ... we have a lot of catching up to do.
So, one of the top-level academic questions is: How can our waste build capital? What is needed to ensure that the goods of today become the resources of tomorrow? This is not simply about achieving a means to an end (waste equals food, aka closing the loop), it’s about building prosperity long-term.
And that’s where the other three principles come in. All are necessary, and must work in tandem, to achieve the first principle.
Build resilience through diversity. You only have to look at how viruses work – one of the most powerful examples of the second principle. But step up a few evolutionary notches, to species-level, and we have a slight problem. Biodiversity is in decline worldwide.
We might have better luck with the third principle – to work towards energy from renewable sources. There are some big-hitting fossil fuel divestment campaigns rumbling at the moment, from the likes of The Guardian. But there are some powerful dissenting voices too. Anything that disrupts the status quo has to prepare for a rollercoaster ride, often with unintended consequences or outcomes.
The fourth, and final, principle is a bit of a head-fuck. Think in systems. Go on … just try. The realities we exist within are bound by webs of interdependence. So every action has a reaction, except often we are blissfully unaware of what those reactions are because we tend to apply one-dimensional thinking to our rationale.
At its most basic, systems thinking requires a collective approach: a convergence point whereby different people, who see different parts of the system, come together with different views to understand what it is that individually none of them see. (Your brain might already be hurting at this point …)
Systems thinking is also about recognising that you are part of the problem, even if you so badly want to solve it. So it’s pretty challenging on a personal level. You’ll need to re-examine all that you have been taught, or have been told, over the years. Because it might well be proved wrong.
The final footnote to all of this pretty much screams ‘impossible’. It is the realisation that all four principles of the circular economy will have to synchronise. They can’t work in isolation from each other otherwise circularity will only curve so far.
So any intentional re-engineering of our current linear economy will likely need to be assisted by luck. That luck could be a critical mass, a tipping point, a perfect storm brewing … in other words, an event in which a rare combination of circumstances will act to aggravate a situation drastically.
But don’t rule it out. Nature found a way, after all.
“I believe things cannot make themselves impossible.”