Lessons from nature


Can a circular economy make us happy?

I have been engaging with the ideas and practice of the circular economy for several years and whilst I am inspired by much of the thinking and principles of the circular economy I still come up against a larger concern, can a Circular Economy make us happy?

OK, this needs some explanation. What makes a good life? If you were to ask this question to most people I doubt they’d respond by asking for a biodegradable phone. Most reflections on well-being and what makes a good life revolve around family, relationships, community and sense of self-worth to name a few (see New Economics Foundation and others for more on this). We also know that despite massive economic growth in the UK the well-being of the average Briton has not improved since 1970. So is the economy good for us?

Donella Meadows usefully identified 12 leverage points in a system. These range from playing with the structural elements of the system (a bit more recycling here and there) through to changing the structure of the system (changing how the whole thing works), changing the goals (what the system is trying to achieve) and changing the paradigm (the deepest held beliefs of the system). For me the Circular Economy is trying to change the structure of the system, attempting to change the way industry works and economies produce stuff. However, the Circular Economy does not question the goals of the system i.e. a consumer led free market economy where growth and consuming stuff is king.

So, if successfully implemented the Circular Economy could, and probably will, still be promoting social injustice, huge inequity and conflict around the world. And at the same time whilst increasing GDP not making significant parts of the world any happier. In short the result could be a sustainable but sad world...does anyone want to vote for that?

I am not saying this is all bad...large parts of the world need to consume much more just to meet their basic needs for food, clothing and shelter, and this does improve well-being. But beyond meeting basic needs can the Circular Economy make us happy?

Research on values tells us an interesting story. We know that people who focus on extrinsic self-directed values tend to be less interested in pro-environmental behaviour and more crucially have lower levels of well-being. People with strong intrinsic self-transcendence values tend are more interesting in pro-environmental behaviour and have higher levels of well being. In other words people who try to meet their goals through self-image, social recognition, wealth and power are the least happy, but in current society these are the sorts of values widely promoted through the economy (see Tim Kasser, Common Cause and others for more on this).

A Circular Economy that only focuses on restructuring the current economic model to be sustainable risks reinforcing extrinsic values and the collateral damage that we all become less happy as a result...no thanks. In football terms an own goal.

Yes, I believe the circular economy is a more hopeful response to the current world crisis than some of the others, but are we asking for what we are hoping for? I think we should.

Author: Richard Date: 25.07.2013