Green Tau issue 35

22nd February 2022

What is a circular economy? 

It is easier to describe its opposite. A non circular economy is that takes, makes and throws away. For example, chop down a tree, make its wood into a sheet of paper and then, after a single use, throw the paper away. Another example would be taking oil out of the ground, making it into a plastic cup  and then, after a single use, throwing it away.

In a circular economy the ‘throw away’ section is discarded. Instead the product is reused or recycled or repurposed so that its value is not lost. In a circular economy the sheet of paper after its initial use, may be reused (writing on the back of it), possible repurposed (used to wrap a parcel) and then recycled. Being recycled the waste paper may become a fresh sheet of (recycled) paper. Going back into the economy that sheet of paper can be recycled 6 or so times before the fibres become too short. At that point the sheet of paper might be recycled as a lower grade material and become a paper bag, a news paper, a cardboard box etc. Ultimately this paper based waste product can be composted and its nutrients returned to the soil. 

In a circular economy the intention is not only to ensure the reuse of waste material (really it is not waste but ‘raw’ material) but also to ensure that there is no waste of energy and water.  Recycling paper uses about 70% less energy and water than making virgin paper and produces about 70% less air pollution. If the paper mill has solar panels, say, it operate with zero loss of energy. If it can clean, reuse and/ or  return its water to the water system, it can operate without loss to the water system.

A circular economy seeks to regenerate natural resources. In the case of paper this would be planting and maintaining woodland to ensure supplies of wood for future generations who wish to make and use paper. Not all resources can be regenerated. Once fossil oil has been extracted from the earth, more cannot be generated. Oil was created 300 million years ago when climatic conditions were particularly suitable for its formation. The formation itself took place over 200 million years during which time climatic conditions were again suitable. Oil is finite resource. 

Is the rate at which we using the earth’s resources sustainable? Bluntly, no! If we compare the amount of resources we use each year against the rate at which those resources can be replaced, then we have not been living within our means since 1970. Each year the Global Footprint Network calculates the resources we use against the capacity of the earth to regenerate its resources and pin points that day in which the two coincide. In 1970 that date was 31st December. Since then this date – Earth Overshoot Day – has rapidly receded global consumption has exceeded the rate of regeneration. In 2021, it fell on July 29. Our current lifestyle is unsustainable. Moving to a circular economy is one way of addressing this problem. 

The development of a circular economy, both globally and locally, is happening. We see it in recycling schemes where plastic bottles are collected, processed and remade into new bottles. We see it with clothing manufacturers where clothes no longer required by the user are returned and either re sold or recycled to create new cloth. There are schemes which reuse and repurpose old furniture. There are even companies that reuse and repurpose unwanted kitchen units. Some projects are small, others large but they are all a step in the right direction. As consumers we need to step up and activity choose to be part of the circular economy.

Further reading:

Green Tau Reflection

Inheritance and Greed

Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.”

So begins the conversation that leads to Jesus’s parable about the greedy farmer.

Is it that the brother has kept all the inheritance for himself? Or maybe has palmed off his sibling with a pittance? Maybe the inheritance was a house that could not easily be divided between two? Maybe it was a farm that might be uneconomic to run if halved in size? 

Certainly for what ever reason, the sibling feels short changed and wants a fair share of the inheritance, indeed wants justice. 

Jesus doesn’t ask for clarification, nor does he suggest ways in which the inheritance might be divided, or ways in which to engage the brother in talks about what might be a just and fair solution to the problem. Instead Jesus tells the sibling to be wary of greed – and not just any greed but “all kinds of greed.” Jesus then tells the crowd a parable. 

There was once a rich and successful man – so successful that his annual harvest was more than his warehouse could hold. So the man tore down the first warehouse and built an even bigger one, assuring himself that with all this great wealth he would certainly be able to retire and enjoy the good life. And yet that night he died having failed to enjoy any of his gains. 

I wonder what the sibling thought? How was this an adequate answer to what must have seemed a valid request? Did the sibling conclude that Jesus was criticising his brother for wanting to keep all the inheritance rather than sharing it? Or did the sibling sense Jesus saying that there were more important things in life than accumulating wealth and maybe especially so if it was inherited wealth for which one had perhaps not even worked?

What might this passage have to say to us as we wrestle with finding a just settlement of the climate crisis? Is there a global inheritance that needs to be divided? Is there a rich harvest being garnered that is more than one person’s need?

The natural wealth of the world is certainly something inherited by each generation. A rich inheritance of resources: lands, birds and animals, rivers and lakes full of drinking water, forests burgeoning with timber, minerals, numerous plants with which to feed ourselves and from which to create clothes and medicines, energy from the sun, irrigation from the rains, power from winds and thermal energy, a multitude of mini beasts that keep the solid rich and fertile, insects that pollinate crops, oceans that shift heat around the planet, and so on and so on. It is a vast wealth that should satisfy all our needs. 

Earth Overshoot Day marks the date when humanity’s demand for ecological resources and services in a given year exceeds what Earth can regenerate in that year. in 2021 Earth Overshoot Day fell on 29th July. Since then we have as a global population been living beyond our means. We have been consuming resources faster than they can be replenished and instead have been accumulating excess waste, particularly of carbon dioxide. Something is wrong! And it’s wrong on two counts. 

Firstly as a global population we cannot carry on living beyond our means. To do so leads to disaster. Or as Mr Micawber in ‘David Copperfield’ explains it: ‘Annual income 20 pounds, annual expenditure 19 pounds 19 shillings and sixpence,  result happiness. Annual income 20 pounds, annual expenditure 20 pounds nought and six, result misery.’ For those of on earth in the 21st century the misery we face is most readily seen in the climate emergency: excess amounts of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, is so markedly changing the climate that wild fires, floods, droughts, heat waves and storms  that might be once in a life time events are now annual occurrences. The changing climate is simultaneously changing the landscape, expanding deserts, shrinking ice caps, shrinking the tundra, narrowing the  temperate Alpine zone, draining river basins such as the Amazon and the Po, rising sea levels and the loss of islands and coastal lands.  This misery is not limited to the climate but is also found in rapidly declining biodiversity of the planet. Over the last 40 years the world’s wild life population – animals, plants, birds etc – has declined by more than 60% and some 10-30% of all species now face imminent extinction. And in the declining availability of essential resources such as fresh drinking water. 

On the second count, the overshoot is bad because its pain is not being shared equally across the global populace. For many of us in the west life remains safe, comfortable and affordable but for many more, especially those in the global south human life is extremely vulnerable and painful.  In the UK we face from time to time shortages of items such as cauliflowers or potatoes, people elsewhere face life threatening shortages. In Ghana last year the staple crop of maize was 60% below average. This year heat waves in Bangladesh have destroyed about 20% of their staple rice harvest.

We should be hearing this as demand from our siblings to divide the world’s inheritance and to do so fairly. 

Those of us currently enjoying western lifestyles need to reassess what we consume of the earth’s resources and undertake to consume less, and to share – to give – a greater proportion to the underprivileged. Such levelling up needs to take place both globally and nationally.  Here in the UK in 2018, the richest fifth of the population had incomes 12 times that of the poorest fifth, whilst a quarter of all wealth is held by just 1% of the populace. Globally the richest 1% hold 43.4% of all wealth.

Unlike the rich man in Jesus’s parable, we do not see many of the rich and wealthy dying overnight. Rather we see them (and us) contributing the greater amount of carbon dioxide and other waste products that are the cause of climate change and biodiversity loss. It is not rich individuals who are dying unfulfilled. It is our global family that is dying prematurely and unfulfilled. If we did but live within our means and did so equitably across the globe, life would be richer and sweeter and peaceable. 

This is the message that should be heard at COP26 and should be the model for the agreements made there. It is also be the message we individually should hear and act upon.