Brick Walls and Battered Egos - sustainability is no short-term fix Print
Written by David Brunnen   
Monday, 19 May 2014 08:08

batter brick wall 

It would surely be a great consultancy business that combined expertise in repairing brick walls and a care service to bandage bruised egos. 

If ever there was a bleak reminder of the gulf of incomprehension between ‘Linear’ and ‘Circular’ economists it came last week in a gathering hosted by Prospect magazine to discuss sustainability. 

The overwhelmingly predominant view of economics is categorized as ‘Linear’ because it follows the deeply embedded conventions of the industrialized world where things are made, used and then, all too often, made waste.  Those who are concerned about the diminution of scarce resources reject this Linearity and its consequences; they prefer more complex, circular, ‘whole systems’ models of a ‘restorative’ economy where the focus is on re-use and the minimization of waste.

At the Prospect gathering, this gulf was not articulated so starkly but followed a brief discourse on the quite remarkable global acceptance of that term ‘Circular Economy’; a term that (even in translation) seems to enable meaningful discussions between different countries, cultures, scientific disciplines, major brand manufacturers and retailers and even (with a push) some investor communities. 

The focus for much of the Prospect event was the sustainability of food production but the policies and principles under discussion could equally well apply to the challenges of population growth, scarce natural resources, the management of ever-larger cities and a multitude of related environmental issues.

For reasons of pragmatic policy debate, some would prefer to use the term ‘Resource Efficiency’ but, for those who do not see any future in outmoded linear economic models, that perspective falls way short of ‘Resource Effectiveness’.   Committed Circular Economists would see trends in resources, energy, credit, growth, food security and all manner of ‘externalities’ as pointing to the need for a massive rethink of business practices. But even then, that use of the word ‘externalities’ implies system models that are still not sufficiently complex or accommodating.

The bleak reminder of the gulf came during a recounting of intellectual battles with Treasury mindsets dedicated to relatively simplistic economic management models and their entrenched view of environmental projects as cost burdens rather than investments that would yield a measurable return.  The battle was, reportedly, all too typical of the brutally reductive mindsets that plague the financial services industry and lead directly to short-term ‘Band Aid’ fixes for deep rooted conditions.  That policy debate was, it seems, argued on grounds of ‘resource efficiency’ because of the environmental lens – the focus – of the times.

But more fundamentally that debate could or perhaps should have been between those who hold faith in a linear model (with tweaks and patches to explain away the inconsistencies and unintended consequences) and those who would argue for a more complex ‘whole systems’ approach.  Professor John Kay, in the RSA Journal (issue 4, 2013), set out the shortcomings and gross approximations of current economic models and Ken Webster, writing in ‘A New Dynamic’, envisaged the shift towards an understanding of more-realistic but complex systems.

The battered brick walls and bruised egos of recent policy battles are testimony to entrenched positions where the word ‘disruptive’ is either good, bad or both.  Political economics often lag the shifting realities of business practice but must eventually adapt to change; changes that are rapidly being facilitated with greater ease within digitalized economies. 

The wholesale shifts away from consumers who want to buy stuff towards those who want only to buy the use of stuff (academics would call this trend a Service Dominant Logic) is just one dimension of a wider appreciation that the minimization of waste, the reuse of scare resources and the true consequences for future generations of constant credit creation, cannot be fudged forever.

Bridging the intellectual gulf requires middle grounds and adaptations that are most likely to occur in spite of the management and outmoded ideological addictions.  Future economists and business leaders are finding more and deeper insights in their MBA studies.  More things (behaviours, transactions and influences) can now more easily be measured and observed.  More and more our everyday experiences reveal how we value things in the context of their interactions with other things.  Look no further than the remote controller in your pocket that you call a smart phone, or the proposed umbrellas that would signal weather data to meteorologists, or the steering wheels that are designed to sense your tension and invoke calming measures, whilst all the while warning other drivers to steer clear. And bit-by-bit those long-established definitions of GDP become increasingly irrelevant by being blind to values (like Google searches) that are no longer manifested in products.

The complexities of ‘whole’ systems, their inter-dependencies and personalized values, are being made malleable.  We are surely approaching a time when we will have the technological expertise to envision systems models that are more complete.  As the data becomes available it is increasingly harder to remain in ignorance and the shortcomings of old linear models will become less tolerable. 

The problem for those who battle against brick walls comes when finally the walls crumble but the heroic victor, now semi-conscious, collapses on the rubble whilst others skip across with a cheery, ‘Thanks mate’!  Tackling these issues head on is not recommended.  Far better that the wall is left to rot of its own irrelevance when citizens find new gateways – assisted, no doubt, by technology and a lust for learning.

We may, at times, feel uneasy or threatened by the onward march of robots that undertake the drudgery of our lives but it reminds us all that mastery, that digital expertise, is vital to the pursuance of sustainability. It’s not just about dwindling scarce resources.  Nor is it about finding a crisp headline to sell a policy.  The debate is primarily about gifting to our children a world that they in turn will be able to sustain for their children.


 Readers may also wish to read 'A Few Words About the Circular Economy'





Last Updated on Monday, 19 May 2014 08:39