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The Circular Economy: are we still missing the point?

When it comes to the circular economy, we often lose ourselves in technical details. As a result, current dialogues and efforts still do not get to the essence of what a CE really means.


There is only one CE that works perpetually and that is the CE of life. From housing to food production, from mining to the Wood Wide Web, nature builds from the bottom up in a circular and a regenerative way. And it is this last feature - regeneration - that is the key to infinity and thrivability (the life-intrinsic developmental potential for evolutionary growth). So, what does the biological phenomenon of regeneration mean? It is a process of renewal which leads to a higher order of health, wealth, vitality and viability. Regeneration leaves something to be more and do more. It is about adding more value than you take. The saying ‘Leave it better than you found it’ pins it down nicely. And that is exactly what the survival champions on planet Earth do.


Whales are the managers of the mariene circular economy. Picture by Guille Pozzi on Unsplash

Whales manage the vertical fluxes of nutrients in the oceans. They are the stewards of the marine circular economy which contributes to climate regulation as it ensures the vital process of carbon draw down from the atmosphere into the oceans. Plankton make clouds when the sun burns to hot. They enhance albedo, highlighting that in nature, even the tiniest of creatures contribute to a stable, life-friendly climate. Crustaceans in turn, turn seawater and carbon into shells which become limestone, a material human society cannot do without. Not only can their shells self-heal, some are also twice as tough as our most impressive high-tech ceramics. And they do all this at ambient temperature using life-friendly chemistry and only locally sourced materials. If they have learned how to achieve all that, surely, we can too?


Sea otters contribute to climate regulation because they are the stewards of the underwater kelp forests, which store as much carbon as the rain forests. Picture by John Yunker at Unsplash

Sea otters are the stewards of the kelp forests, which store as much carbon as the rainforests. So, these underwater regenerative foresters further advance carbon draw down by contributing to an essential feedback loop of the biosphere. Herbivores like deer and elk promote photosynthesis – the most effective carbon draw down solution to date - because when they nibble from branches and twigs, they stimulate plant growth. Bison not only increase the resilience of prairie ecosystems, they promote their productivity too. The carbon rich fertile soil below their hoofs is more than 10m thick and rich in microbial life. Richer soils lead to increased plant biomass and richer plant communities, which draw down even more carbon from the air. So, the prairie ecosystem becomes richer and more productive over time, despite millions of hungry grazers that munch away at them every year. What if we could develop food production systems with cattle that grow healthy soils, just like the prairie ecosystems?


Fungi mine rocks and they make rain. In nature the byproducts created are as important as the innovations. Picture by Raf Gorissen

Fungi mine rocks. In fact, they are the largest mining company on Earth and they trade the minerals with plants for sugars. These minerals are important nutrients to stimulate plant growth and thus further promote photosynthesis. The plants on the other hand mine the atmosphere, they draw down CO2 and turn it into sugars which they trade with the fungi. Even more important is the fact that plants produce O2 as a byproduct while fungi make rain. The essence of long-term evolutionary success is therefore to contribute to the cycles and feedback loops that keep life alive. When autumn sets in, trees get rid of their leaves but not of scarce and valuable resources like nitrogen. They have learned how to retract and retain rare resources because in nature, strategy and design is cheap while materials are expensive. What if we could factor in life-supporting byproducts for our innovations and set up effective strategies that prevent loss of rare elements, just like the trees?


Trees retract valuable elements before they shed their leaves. Picture by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Spiders turn dead flies and water into spider silk, a material stronger than Kevlar, yet made at ambient temperature. Mussels create a superglue that is extremely adhesive, water-resistant and non-toxic. The living world is chockfull with chemicals and designs that can do extraordinary things like self-assembly, self-healing, antioxidation, antifreeze, lubrication, fire-retardance, self-cleaning, UV protection, fire-resistance etc. What’s more, in nature, the byproducts created are as important as the innovations themselves. That’s because life banks on

- bio-logical innovation I It is only an investment if it leaves the world better off

- bio-fabrication I Use minimum materials to create maximum effect

- bio-chemistry I Build in a way that is bio-compatible (safe) and bio-degradable.


So, our circular economy will only work if both the biological & technical cycles align with the circular economy of life. Now that we are finally understanding the nature of life, we can shift gears and use nature’s design strategies to create life-friendly products and processes. In fact, it is a fundamental requirement for a circular economy because a circular economy without life-friendly innovation perpetuates toxicity. If it is not life-friendly, it is not circular after all.
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