We know enough to design an equitable circular system that preserves humanity.
by Alexandre Lemille
First published in Renewable Matter magazine #27 (May/June 2019)
We have the opportunity to change the course of our shared history with the amount of information we have gathered so far. By learning from scientists and experts, we could propose new governance and collaboratively implement positive actions to adapt more quickly.
Knowing the specific origins of a potential collapse is the best way to avoid it.
Humans as Predators, Nature as Prey
“Limits to Growth” is one of the major benchmarks for modelling the exponential economic and demographic growth of a finite planet, since its publication in 1972. The 30-years update has once again confirmed that 1972 forecasts were not only accurate, but underestimating the reality. A more recent projection model with a broader spectrum of scenarios has been published recently: the Human And Nature DYnamics (HANDY) model (Motesharrei, Rivas, Kalnay, 2014). This model of human dynamics is based on the predator-prey approach where we are the predators, and the prey is Nature (exhausted by humans).
The predator-prey approach comes from the animal kingdom when the predator population exceeds the carrying capacity (maximum size of the population of a species that the environment can sustain indefinitely). This leads to starvation or the migration of predators until the prey population recovers.
Figure 1: A typical predator-prey model: the inter-dependencies of wolf and rabbit populations (HANDY, 2014)
This model may well be related to our human world, except that we humans are able to accumulate large surplus stocks (described below as ‘wealth’). Stocks in which we draw down when production no longer covers our consumption needs. For example, we are currently bypassing the carrying capacity of the Earth (we consume 80 billion tonnes of materials from the Earth while it can only afford 50 billion), as our population continues to grow exponentially.
“Keeping our stocks of high quality materials is essential for our survival”
Economic stratification and wealth accumulation
HANDY differs from previous models in its greater variety of scenarios (scenario 1: Egalitarian Societies, scenario 2: Equitable Societies and scenario 3: Unequal Societies) and by adding key indicators such as:
- economic stratification (‘Elites’ (rich population) and ‘Commoners’ (poor population) and their corresponding consumption patterns),
- the accumulation of wealth (what we just described as our ability to create surplus stocks);
Understanding the impact of these two components — which have had negative repercussions in earlier civilizations such as the ancient Maya — is essential to understanding how we should maneuver today between inventory management, consumption patterns and, more importantly, ethical and fair access to stocks.
In the projections for egalitarian societies, the balance can be reached slowly when the Commoners do not exceed the carrying capacity of the Earth. Living well at equilibrium shows similar result in equitable societies where growth is slow and salaries equitable. But when the depletion of resources exceeds a certain limit, Nature collapses completely in the three possible scenarios: egalitarian, equitable and unequal societies. Consuming beyond carrying capacity leads to the depletion of Nature, as in the case of Easter Island. This is called the Type-N collapse (exhaustion of Nature). Here the research highlights the fact we are not in this configuration today.
“A fair and equitable access to stocks is far more vital than its circular management”
The disappearance of Commoners
The set-up that comes closest to our global situation is not the collapse of Nature. We all know now that the Earth will continue its path of recovering from all forms of long-term exhaustion, outside of any human-related time horizon. The risk we face today is the disappearance of labor represented here by Commoners. This is called the Type-L Collapse (scarcity of labor).
Figure 2: our current context: “Population collapse following an apparent equilibrium (at carrying capacity) due to a small initial Elite population” while then they grow exponentially, Nature recovers, population does not (HANDY, 2014)
In unequal societies (for more information, please refer to the “Elephant graph of inequality”, www.wid.world), the strengthening of the economic stratification between classes of society is “recurrently found in past collapse societies” according to the researchers. They add that “the solution (here shown in the Figure 2) appears to be on a sustainable path for quite a long time, but even using an optimal depletion rate and starting with a very small number of Elites, the Elites eventually causes the collapse of society”.
In summary, the risk we face is more (current) mismanagement of resources due to inequitable consumption and limited access, in addition to climate change adaptation and mitigation.
“Resource mismanagement together with inequitable access should be addressed as a matter of urgency”
‘Elites’ are not in a visionary position
In the research it is clearly established that “Elites — due to their wealth (i.e. access and control over surpluses) — do not suffer the detrimental effects of the environmental collapse until much later than the Commoners” (HANDY, 2014). They add that “this buffer of wealth allows Elites to continue ‘business as usual’ despite the impeding catastrophe”.
As in all societal organizations, we ask leaders to be visionary in order to give people access to a more prosperous future. It is possible to achieve an equilibrium that would prevent such collapse since we have enough data to drive the world’s population towards such a pathway:
- considerably reduce inequalities (here translated by the widening of the economic stratification between Commoners and Elites in Figure 2),
- reducing the growth rates of the population;
But what comes as a matter of course, is that Elites who benefit from surpluses and control access of the stock cannot be decision-makers at the same time. It would seem that “historical collapses were allowed to occur by Elites who appear to be oblivious to the catastrophic trajectory” (HANDY, 2014), in reference to the Roman Empire and the ancient Maya civilizations. Worse still, Elites also collapse due to the disappearance of Commoners.
It is now clear that we need a different type of governance than the current one. Those with access to surpluses are not the ones best placed to lead our common future. Governance for the future of human civilization should rather be led by a group facing a higher risk of extinction. We should therefore be much more inspired by what the ancestral tribes tell us about their survival techniques in a hostile environment, rather than by all means to plunder their know-how for commercial reasons. Following their precepts should be an obligation in our future governance.
“Elites will collapse regardless of the amount of wealth accumulated or guarded”
Equitable circular economies focusing on the prosperity of society
With such a model of human dynamics, we have our fate in our hands because a Type-L collapse is preventable. But it is clear that we must make drastic decisions in the way we govern our societies and in the evolution of policies.
The circular economy is an excellent solution to resource mismanagement: we manage resource stocks and renewable energy flows in a virtuous approach. The circular economy mimics Nature of how unused resources constitute food for another cycle. However, citizens and communities need more than a better way to manage resources as tomorrow’s business model. They need the assurance that we emerge from an unequal linear world by entering a prosperous and equitable one, aligned with the regeneration of our natural ecosystem that we depend on for life. In a circular context of resource conservation, caring for people will also be “good news” for business prosperity as the business model will be based on the rules of system regeneration and enhanced collaboration.
A results-based economy becomes extremely versatile to meet all social needs, provided results also integrate them into their search for total performance. Since you will be rewarded if you have met the needs of the people in your communities and markets, the more your business will ensure all needs are treated with kindness, the better. Taking care of people and resources is possible when your product disappears behind the offer of a holistic caring experience (caring for stock and for people). In addition, such a results-based economy should provide Commoners with restorative jobs and regenerative activities that implement collaborative strategies.
“The good news is that an equitable-circular economic framework is great for businesses”
Figure 3: In this equitable-circular model, not only waste and pollution disappear but poverty and inequality as well (Lemille, 2018). We also prevent from over-consuming via Collective Decentration (ability to decide on behalf of future generations not born yet).
Lastly, an equitable-circular model should also be governed by diverse communities that understand how to make decisions today that will protect generations of people who are not born yet. Such decision-making process has always existed. It is called “decentration” or the ability to decide whether unborn generations will agree with it or not (shown in Figure 3 as the third priority to focus on). Decentration has helped minorities to survive in an unpromising context as in the case of the Iroquois tribe among others. This should be taught to us all, starting with the Elites.
Reaching an equilibrium to the carrying capacity of the Earth is the only decision we are indebted to take today.
For more on the HANDY model, please visit: www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0921800914000615