15 June 2011

Want Not Waste

The cries for a weekly waste collection as a human right give us a fine opportunity to introduce a classic green economy discussion into our bus-stop conversations. Waste is an obsolete concept: the future is one without waste where materials will circulate through our economy rather than entering as raw materials at one end and being dumped into landfill at the other.

This conception of the economy as circular is due to Kenneth Boulding, a leading figure in the development of a green approach to economics (and has now been picked up by the Ellen Macarthur Foundation, where much detail can be found). Kenneth Boulding was born in Liverpool, UK in 1910 and studied at Oxford, Harvard and Chicago; he taught economics at Michigan and Boulder, Colorado. He began his career in fairly conventional economic vein, and achieved an impressive academic reputation for publishing and teaching. However, after the war he changed tack, attempting to fuse biology and economics in the book Evolutionary Economics published in 1944. This was the first attempt to synthesise the scientific aspects of economics and ecology and thus an important precursor to green economics.

As an early proponent of the need to move towards a non-growth or ‘steady state’ economy, Boulding used the contrasted images of the cowboy and the spaceman to explore our attitude to our environment. The cowboy, who finds his apotheosis in American capitalism, is always pushing outwards, expanding his available resources, finding ever new frontiers to exploit. The spaceman, by contrast, is forced to recognize the limits of what he has brought on his small ship:

‘Earth has become a single spaceship, without unlimited reservoirs of anything, either for extraction or for pollution, and in which, therefore, man must find his place in a cyclical ecological system which is capable of continuous reproduction of materials even though it cannot escape having inputs of energy.’

This image provides a stark illustration of two of the key principles of green economics: the importance of the circular flow of materials around the planet and the need to handle wastes positively. It is an interesting ironic development of this contrast that, with the NASA project to put a human being on the surface of Mars now itself using up a large quantity of earth’s resources, the cowboy will meet the astronaut at the final frontier: space.

Boulding was also critical of the straight-line thinking inherent in mainstream economics; this he described as ‘a linear economy . . . which extracts fossil fuels and ores at one end and transforms them into commodities and ultimately into waste products which are spewed out the other end into pollutable reservoirs’. This way of organising an economy was, he declared, ‘inherently suicidal’. His alternative was a prototype for the spaceship earth which he thought he had identified in the traditional village economy of Asia. Rather than a linear form this had a circularity built in—‘a high-level cyclical economy’. This was written nearly forty years ago and laid the groundwork for the closed-loop economy and the principles of permaculture that are now being translated into practical policy in calls for a zero-waste economy.

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