The cir lar economy Brendan Montague introduces our special investigation Photograph by Paul Bulteel
We are now approaching the era of the ‘circular economy’, and not a moment too soon. Finland has adopted the circular economy as national policy; in London agencies are using this model to meet the mayor’s aim of becoming a zero-waste city.
A true circular economy would produce no waste at all: raw materials would make the original product, and at the end of its life this product would be broken down to provide the raw materials for the next. There would be no crisis of single-use plastics, no tsunami of waste in our seas, no exhaustion of natural resources – from gold to forest.
The circular economy is becoming fashionable today because governments worldwide have no other choice. The traditional economic model – make, sell, dump – is no longer viable. The fact that Finland, governed by a free-market party, is leading the way is a cause for celebration.
The Ecologist can claim a small amount of credit for these developments. Teddy Goldsmith, its founding editor, was among the first in the UK to diagnose the ecological crisis caused by mass production – and to present a solution.
Goldsmith was an advocate of systems thinking, which is the basis of the circular economy. The economy is a system, and shares many of the features of natural systems. Like any animal or species, if the human economy exhausts its energy supply or the sinks for its waste, it can no longer survive.
The Ecologist ran a special issue in January 1972 – later published by Penguin as A Blueprint for Survival. It warned:
“Pollution control proper must consist of the recycling of materials, or the introduction of practices which are so akin to natural processes as not to be harmful.”
The consequences of not fundamentally changing our economies, of not changing how we produce our goods and services, were described clearly and forcefully: the “failure of food supplies”, “exhaustion of resources” and “collapse of society”.
The book warned then that “at times of great distress and social chaos … governments will fall into the hands of reckless and unscrupulous elements” who will go to war over “the world’s resources”. In the era of Trump and Putin, it resonates clearly today.
Blueprint was – nonetheless – focused on solutions. In the section ‘Strategy for change’ the book describes a ‘stable society’ – a precursor for the proposal of a ‘circular economy’. The Ecologist called for mass recycling, more durable goods, and the reduction of synthetics in manufacturing.
But it went much further, calling for a society designed to meet the needs of all its members, where the quality of what was produced was more important than the quantity, where local democracy held real power, and where people lived together in supportive communities connected with Nature.
The Blueprint remains a powerful and vital document as it approaches its 50th anniversary. This special Ecologist section aims to give a deep understanding of the circular economy: its practical application, its academic roots. The ideas we championed half a century ago are taking hold. The future is still worth fighting for.
Resurgence & Ecologist