Redesigning The Economy: From Linear To Circular & From ‘Me’ To ‘We’

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By Andrew Thomson, James Gien Wong and Tom Harper

This article was published in The Beam #9 — Subscribe now for more on the topic.

The rise in interest of the circular economy (CE) has been rapid and widespread within the domain of business, economics, and recently, politics. Championed by organizations such as the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the key concepts of a circular economy are now directly influencing policy across Europe, from Finland to France and Spain to Slovenia; and globally too with India and China both exploring what circularity means from their own economic, national, and cultural perspectives.

By definition, a circular economy is an economy that is restorative by design, aiming to keep resources at their highest utility and value at all times. The simplest way to depict a circular economy is to contrast it with a linear economy. In a linear economy, materials flow in a straight line from resource extraction through manufacturing, to landfill. A linear economy is characterized by two unsustainable processes, resource scarcity and excessive pollution load. Both cause ecosystem degradation, wealth concentrations and social inequities. A circular economy aims to overcome these nested problems through intelligent design inspired by nature’s genius, which reuses and redevelops resources already operating within the production cycle via renewable means.

Kenneth Boulding’s essay The Economics of the Coming Spaceship Earth, written in 1966, is often cited as the origin of the ‘circular economy’ concept. Walter R. Stahel, Gunter Pauli, William McDonough, Michael Braungart, Tim Jackson, Bill Rees and Robert Costanza all began work on complementary ideas in the succeeding years but it was the groundbreaking work of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation that truly established the framework in its 2012 report, Towards the Circular Economy Vol. 1: an economic and business rationale for an accelerated transition.

Their approach to igniting the conversation and engaging big business has been effective in driving a systemic shift where other initiatives have failed to scale. It has been invaluable in helping steer the development of business models, processes and wider economic considerations towards restorative systems, whilst becoming an overarching narrative with a new language that focuses on ‘doing more good’, over ‘doing less bad’. Yet, as big, important and necessary an idea as the circular economy is, there have been nagging suspicions that there is space for further evolution, with current rumblings that something is missing.

As Prof. Peter Hopkinson from Exeter University highlights, most people understand the linear to circular shift in framing, but struggle with the economy concept. So we propose the question: is there a broader, underlying story which further redefines the purpose of an economy waiting to emerge? We believe so, because what we are essentially trying to do at this critical time is build circular flows of materials on the same extractive linear economic operating structures and belief systems that caused the linear flows in the first place; a system that is deeply entwined with our political systems, beliefs and behaviors, which influence most aspects of our lives.

Redefining the economy bit

For simplicity, it is worth remembering the root meaning of the word economy — from the Greek “Oikonomos,” loosely translating as ‘household management’. To simplify further, we can suggest in its purest form, the economy is our collective way of ‘managing our home’ — at different scales — put into action. Do we like what we see? Can a Circular economy from a broader definition continue to condone dominion and acquisition of the commons, key features facilitating our current market economy?

Circular economy thought leaders have recently begun exploring the purpose of an economy in more depth; from Kate Raworth with Doughnut Economics (2017), Alex Lemille with CE 2.0 to Ken Webster, in the recent Disruptive Innovation Festival documentary. They outline multiple initiatives arising across the world which aim to demystify and broaden the ‘Circular’ and the ‘Economy’ concept.

These thought leaders are rightly questioning how better to recirculate and distribute value in a broader sense, emphasizing how integrating and replenishing the commons is essential and outlines what early 20th century economists such as Polanyi in The Great Transformation articulated over 70 years ago, that the economy should be designed to serve society, not subordinate it.

From a Linear MEconomy to a Circular WEconomy

We can go deeper with this question of how to nurture equality, as well as societal and inter-species wellbeing by approaching economic activity from an integrated and deeply holistic systems perspective. Building upon the brilliant linear to circular framing and communication strategies of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, we explore framing the transition from ME to WE — challenging and shifting the thinking from rational economic human (HomoEconomus) — ‘Me-centric’, towards an empathic, reciprocal human (HomoEmpathicus) — ‘We-centric’, which we call ‘WEconomics’.

Weconomics offers us the opportunity to effectively widen our circle of compassion and wellbeing to incorporate the wider web of life, through all of our unique and individual interactions with the economy around us. To achieve this, it is necessary to design a broader, more inclusive definition of the circular economy: one that champions the delicate and deep regeneration of social value in a way that encourages the celebration of our diversity whilst acknowledging our differences. Weconomics aims to address the underlying me-centric narrative, that is inherently responsible for the two greatest problems now confronting our very survival, global inequality and ecosystem degradation. It is no accident that these two problems have simultaneously emerged to become the two greatest threats of the 21st century, they are tightly interconnected. This interconnection albeit problematic, also offers promise.

Act locally, think globally

At a practical level we envision a Circular ‘We’conomy scaling action towards multiple decentralized, localized circular activities that draw resource and inspiration from grassroots online and realtime communities operating regenerative practices; facilitated by makerspaces, fab labs/cities, community swap shops, cooperatives, community-supported agriculture; optimized by digital connectivity (or platforms). Underpinning these activities (which are already scaling-up across parts of the planet), lies a core narrative, one already held by indigenous communities within diminishing pockets of our globe — that we did not weave the web of life, we are merely a part of it, and whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves.

To begin to lay the groundwork for a deep systemic shift from ‘me’ to ‘we’, there needs to be a two-pillar approach to transformation, inner and outer. We name these complementary processes Human Interior Transformation (HIT) and Social Exterior Transformation (SET). Redefining the current circular definition to an economy that is regenerative and restorative to the commons by design, aiming to nurture community through economic practices that are conducive to life.

Andrew Thomson is a Co-Founder of Stop Reset Go and founder of Holonic. He is also an active member of the enkel collective, which explores new alternatives for a brighter future and part of the New Economy Network Australia (NENA).

James Gien Wong is the principal Co-Founder of Stop Reset Go, with a focus on developing bottom-up, citizen-centric, and rapid whole system change solutions for humanity.

Tom Harper is a Co-Founder of Stop Reset Go. He is a member of the Sustainability in Production Alliance a community of creative professionals looking to accelerate the transition to a circular economy within the live production industry with the use of Holochain.

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