Today, the engine of a large part of the economy is the value chain from quarrying raw materials through manufacture to sale, use and disposal in landfill or by burning. This cycle is getting ever shorter. There is a movement to recover certain valuable raw materials from discarded products, but this is a very imperfect process, and there will always be a large fraction of raw material that cannot be recovered. Except in certain rare cases, the recovered material cannot be used for the same purpose as the original raw material, because of quality control issues.
To counter this, some of us imagine moving to a ĎCircular Economyí, in which raw materials are made to go round and round as many times as possible before finally being abandoned in landfill.
The Circular Economy is not an abstract concept dreamt up by economists. Itís not even really about melting glaciers or managing allotments (though they are connected). Itís really about you and me and changing the way we conduct our lives, the jobs we do and the purchasing decisions we make.
Itís about not showing our loved ones how much we love them by putting shiny bright hi-tech items under the Christmas Tree. Itís about not spending Saturday at Grand Arcade, spending our hard-earned wealth on lovely new things. (Itís probably about not even having a Grand Arcade to go to.)
Itís about cherishing the old ways of doing things, and making them just go on and on, in preference to clever new innovative hi-tech which will impress, but wonít last.
Itís about finding new ways to distribute wealth creation that do not rely on consumption. It means unlearning our tendency to buy and unwrap some new gadget to make us feel good, and instead feeling rewarded by repairing the old.
Itís about questioning innovation (thatís not going to go down well in Cambridge!) Innovation means being able to do new things, but it also means unreliability, short product lifetimes, and (because the Intellectual Property is deeply embedded and encrypted in the product) increasingly the impossibility of repair. There is an argument that we will need innovation to dig us out of the hole we are have made for ourselves, and this may be valid, but it may also be that we are in reality simply digging the hole a bit deeper. We need to look critically at this, to be sure weíre doing the right thing Ė we could be making it worse, or merely hiding it for now and putting off the Day of Judgement.
Only by creating a Circular Economy can we hope to have a society that can continue for hundreds of years into the future. Our present way of working is not sustainable Ė unless things change, there will be no Ďlong-termí.
For the Circular Economy to become a reality, not only our habits, but our financial systems will have to change radically. Today, it is very hard to see how either of these is going to happen.
Chris Moller, Cambridge UK