Only a circular economy will lead to prosperity for all

Chile, in this January 15, 2016 file photo.

We need an end to our "take, make, dispose" model of consumption. Image:  REUTERS/Rodrigo Garrido/Files

Ellen MacArthur
Founder, Ellen MacArthur Foundation
A hand holding a looking glass by a lake
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The majestic swell of the Southern ocean provides an endless spectacle. This seemingly simple succession of crests and troughs is perhaps one of the most striking memories I keep of my life at sea. Over the years, in my mind, it ended up symbolising the subtle combination of constant change and continuity that characterises most living systems. Just as Heraclitus famously said that "one cannot step into the same stream twice", one cannot witness two identical waves building up and receding. Each one is unique, so similar yet so different, a perpetually evolving landscape, a perfect illustration of feedback-induced unpredictability.

The first age of machines, brought about by the Industrial Revolution, rationalised many informal processes and created a new worldview underpinned by the idea of control: we could predict what would come out of the man-made system, provided we guaranteed consistency of feedstock. Put in simple terms, if you pressed the same button you would always get the same result - the big machine's levers did away with uncertainty, and paved the way for mass standardisation. It worked very well, and the unprecedented level of economic development experienced by western countries since the middle of the 19th Century is a testament to that efficiency.


In order to refine the system, to make it better and faster, specialisation was a key tool and experts soon became the emblematic figures of progress... yet one could argue that along the way was lost a sense of interconnectedness: the notion of being part of the 'bigger picture' somewhat faded away. A rather strange thing, considering that the industrial "take, make, dispose" linear model is based on the ability to extract finite resources in order to produce the goods that get sold to consumers, thus powering the growth engine. A system very much relying on the environment within which it operates, but which somehow has to make a conscious effort to take a step back and consider its dependencies and level of resilience.

There are many voices currently calling out for a more transverse, less silo-like worldview, and to a large extent information technologies enabling global knowledge sharing contribute to advancing that agenda. What the Earth Time-lapse tool allows us to see is the change happening to our system as a whole, and to understand the cascade of transformation that unfolds: it provides a pattern to think big picture, to use a "macroscope" as Joel de Rosnay would put it. Why would it matter? Because making sense of stocks and flows is essential in order to foster effective use of resources, identify areas of brittleness, and rebuild capital where necessary.

Furthermore, living systems' metabolisms are anything but linear and only a bird's eye view - with the right timescale - can reveal that characteristic in a plain manner. A quarter of a century might seem a lot at the level of an individual, yet it is but a blip on the scale of time, a 'blink and you'll miss it' type of moment. Isn't it then staggering to think, looking at these animations, that so much can happen in so little time? Shouldn’t we be inspired to believe that large scale change is possible within our lifetime, when we look at the Earth Time-lapse?

As Janine Benyus’s biomimicry taught us, living systems work by building things (that includes organisms) up and breaking them down, never creating any component or substance that does not have a place or a use in the bigger system… Now that we have a better view of it, we should perhaps adapt our economic models so they too actually fit that system and become restorative and regenerative in order to achieve long-term prosperity and resilience.

We need a more circular economy.

Ellen MacArthur participated in the World Economic Forum's Annual Meeting in Davos.

Data in the Earth Time-lapse videos is courtesy of Berkeley Earth, Carnegie Mellon University, Google Earth Engine, NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, University of Maryland and USGS.

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