Very important work has been done over the last decade to take industrial ecology and the circular economy into the mainstream. A lot of credit has to be given to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. At the same time, it needs to be highlighted that the cascading of material and energy flows in small and fast and large and slow cycles is a core pattern of ecosystems and the biosphere. For most of our history as a species we managed our household (economy) based on understanding these patterns of nature (ecology). Bioregionally adapted ‘circular economies’ are nothing new. They are the only long term viable economies! Our current linear and globalised system is the aberration!
With its modern day roots in the work of John Todd and colleagues at the ‘New Alchemy Institute’ — founded in 1969 — the rediscovery of the need to base all technological development and design on ecological understanding started half a century ago. This pioneering work evolved into ‘industrial ecology’ and industrial symbiosis’ in the 1990s (see for example the work of Walter R. Stahel, Thomas E. Graedel, Bradon R. Allenby, and Marian R. Chertow), and was rebranded as ‘Cradle to Cradle’ by William McDonough and Michael Braungart in the 2000s only to be rebranded again by the Ellen McArthur Foundation as the ‘circular economy’ in the 2010s.
Each of these worthy and well-meaning impulses has generated new insights and ways of working. They all contributed to the mainstreaming of a more systemic approach to production and consumption, a growing understanding of the need to transition from a degenerative industrial growth society to a regenerative life-sustaining society, and helped to starting the transformation of how we meet human needs in ways that fit into nature’s circular patterns of creating conditions conducive to life.
It serves to remember and revisit these different waves of the same impulse because in each ‘re-branding’ important aspects were added and also important aspects were lost or de-emphasised. In taking the conversation ‘global’ we have lost some of the key lessons of the pioneers: the shorter the loops, the greater the win-win-win positive impacts of closing the loops with regard to resource and energy efficiency, resilience building, regional economic opportunity, and ecosystems restoration.
A common mistake is to speak and think of ‘circular economy’ or ‘regenerative culture’ as a singular. Such thinking is informed by the profoundly un-ecological neoliberal economic doctrine of ‘scaling-up’ and ‘globalising’. To create human economic and industrial patterns that fit into the way life sustains ecosystems and planetary health we need to co-create diverse circular economies in service of diverse regenerative cultures. The underlying patterns and principles might be the same, yet the place-sourced expressions of these will be unique adaptations to the bio-cultural uniqueness of their bioregional context.
The critical questions to keep in mind are:
- What are we producing and why, and if we have a good reason, could be do so more locally?
- Can underlying needs be met by other means than the consumption of products, materials and energy?
- Which materials are we cycling at what scale from local to regional to global?
- What regionally adapted renewable energy sources can enable these circular flows?
- How do we transition away from a global fossil-material culture dependent on depleting non-renewable sources of material and energy to a regeneratively grown bio-materials culture that is adapted to the bioregionally available sources of renewable energy and biomaterials?
- How can we re-inhabit our watersheds, life-sheds, or cultural bioregions in ways that nurture human, ecosystems and planetary health?
It serves to remember that for most of our specie’s evolution we were bioregionally focused and understood the critical importance of being custodians of ecosystems health and productivity for our long-term future. Living within the circular and regenerative patterns of life is central to our existence.
As we individually and collectively heal the wounds caused by a cultural narrative based on a false dualism separating nature and culture we can rediscover how to heal, nurture and fit-in. As co-creative participants in ecosystems and the biosphere, we are able to do what life does best: creating the conditions for more life to thrive through the syntropic sharing and circling of energy and matter in patterns that are aligned with the healthy functioning of ecosystems and the biosphere. Life is fundamentally a regenerative community generating shared abundance, rather than an individualistic struggle for survival under resource constraints.
The great work of our time — upon which the survival of our species depends — is to turn away from being degenerative and exploitative immature members in the community of life and towards a future where diverse regenerative cultures engage in the healing of communities and ecosystems at a bioregional scale, thereby contributing to improving human, ecosystems and planetary health.
In thinking systemically and with view of the long-term about the fundamental systemic transformation of our systems of production and consumption, we need to face up to a few facts about circular economies. When it comes to industrial materials ‘up-cycling’ is an over-sell and runs against the second law of thermodynamics!
There are always energetic and material losses in the industrial metabolism of the famous Ellen MacArthur Foundation ‘butterfly diagram’. Therefore we will need to work on contracting the volume of material cycled in the industrial material cycle as we increase the volume of material cycled in the biological material cycle. In short, we need to transform away from the use of fossil materials and energy and towards renewable energy use driving a biomaterials (r)evolution. To achieve this, we need to re-regionalise production and consumption.
Our current industrial growth society uses pretty much all the elements in the periodic table, while the fantastic diversity and complexity of life on Earth is by and large based on the low-energy intensive cycling of only four elements: carbon, oxygen, hydrogen and nitrogen. All other elements will eventually “run out” as we will not have the energy available to recycle them and separate them out from the composite materials and products we transformed them into with excessive fossil energy use, only to dump them into landfills shortly after.
If we are setting ourselves the goal of transforming our industrial systems let us do so in ways that the resulting system can be regenerative in the long run. To do so, we have to pay attention to two critical measures:
- Energy Return on Energy Invested (E.R.O.E.I.) — a ratio of the energy needed to drill, mine or build energy sources to the amount of energy obtained
- Material Return on Energy Invested — a ratio of the amount of energy needed to extract minerals to the amount of pure, concentrated material obtained.
These two measures can help us understand that we will run out of the material and energy basis of our current industrial system much faster than conventional data on material availability suggests. It has never been about the geological estimates of total reserves. There are three types of limits to obtaining the metals and minerals our current industrial system depends upon:
- Economic Limit (too expensive to mine in the current economy)
- Mineralological Limit (too low concentrations in substrate to mine)
- Energy Limit (mining requires critical amounts of energy that are needed for other uses)
The inevitable decline and eventual unavailability of rare elements, rare metals, and fossil energy sources are confronting us with a potentially huge opportunity for innovation and economic diversification and resilience building at the bioregional scale. The diverse bioregionally focussed and globally collaborative regenerative cultures of the future will meet their needs in circular economies based on regeneratively grown biomaterials processed by renewable energy at a bioregional scale.
Link to a downloadable pdf of the issue of ‘Circular Asia’