Circularity Back to the Future
“Will the circle be unbroken?” The Carter Family
“For every thing (turn, turn, turn) there is a season, (turn, turn, turn) and a time for every season under heaven.” Ecclesiastes via The Byrds
“It’s the circle of life; and it moves us all…” The Lion King, Circle of Life
Infinite linear growth on a finite planet is an idea whose time has past. It may be that we don’t need to invent a new way of thinking about living and working but rather return to a way of thinking that has been with us for millennia.
From the Zodiac, representing a 360-degree map of constellations, to the Krebs Cycle, describing cellular energy metabolism, our culture, science, myth and art are filled with circles, closed loops and circular processes. Walk through a forest and you will be challenged to find one perfectly straight line. Observe the process of life in the forest and you will find only closed loops connecting to other closed loops, neatly summarized by the aphorism, “Waste is food.” It’s only natural to be circular.
And for many centuries so too did the human mind find itself flowing in tune with the turning of seasons, with the endless progression of no moon, new moon, full moon and from the observable cycle of birth, life, death, and new birth of all living things.
Many ancient religions, from the Egyptian to the Hindu, conceived of time and life as composed of circles or cycles. The story of Vishnu is a beautiful case in point: In the Hindu religion, Lord Vishnu is the preserver of the universe and is responsible for maintaining balance. Vishnu’s sleep is a symbol of the cyclical nature of time and the universe. Every four months, Vishnu takes a four-month long nap to let the universe rest and renew itself.
Contrast this with the Old Testament, in which time starts “in the beginning” and flows forward from that once-in-time divine creation. Similarly, in the New Testament, time before the birth of Christ flows to Christ’s birth and forward again to his return. In this pattern, each individual life is not circular but a linear flow from birth to death to salvation or damnation. Thus, in the 1700’s the idea of progress, primarily in Christian Europe, was born – a linear flow to better .
The heart of modern economics is aligned with this linear mindset. The goal and measure of the good life is growth, moving forward in a straight line from less to more. More goods, more people, more of everything without limit. This mindset can be summed up as take, make, use, throw away – the very opposite of circularity – a linear open loop. And the modern world’s economy, like the magic brooms in the story of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, keeps taking resources, making things, and throwing them away into the earth’s natural reservoirs – the sky, sea, and land – way past natural limits. This brings us to the pressing need for a new mindset and model for economic action, one than can be summed up as “circularity.”
In 1972 for the first time in modern history a group calling itself The Club of Rome surveyed the state of the world. Led by Dartmouth professor, Donella Meadows, they released their findings in a document called The Limits to Growth. Fifty-one years later this phrase is still not one many public figures dare utter. A limit proposes that the straight lines be bent backwards and reconnect to itself at source – making the line a circle. We are back to where we started. Take, Make, Use, Begin Again with no loss in value or waste. Rinse and Repeat. Circularity — easier written than implemented and the essential economic pattern for the future.
However, even circularity may be an insufficient pattern. Circularity implies a return to a point on the circle in the same plane. The pattern of a regenerative economy in which the very action of production creates more life would look like a spiral, not a circle.
When you reflect on your own life and own organization, where is circularity already occurring? Where are the linear flows beginning to bend back on themselves? Do you see instances where the act of work liberates more energy and gives back more than it takes? Let us know your thoughts.