February 02, 2021
When a National Geographic article on the circular economy popped up in my social media feed, I had just read an essay collection Making kin not population by leading anti-racist, ecologically-concerned, feminist scholars. And suddenly it felt like circularity, connectivity and realisation of the history of the anthropocene was on everyone's lips, from big publishing houses to well known philosophers, the hot potato. For two weeks an article on climate crises had been one of the top news on the biggest daily magazine in Finland. We must be moving towards circularity. Champagne for all! Or?
But we are not quite there yet. How the change to circularity will happen is quite unclear. What seems certain is that we need both, radical change on individual as well as systemic levels, the way we think and the way we act. The business approach is related to theories of production, consumption and economy and relies on heavy argumentation, statistics and hopes for new innovations. The message between the lines is clear: circularity should not stop economic growth, but it should not burden the environment as the current system does.
The slightly different, humanistic, more radical approach looks even longer back into history to find the keys for the change. With the clear focus on big structural changes, the aim is to create an inclusive, respectful and open system. Circularity does not lie so much in facts and figures, but rather in the ways we think of planetary beings and ourselves. Here, the economic growth is highly questioned and the motivation for the change drives from movements and political struggles which have been going on already for a long time.
“ [...] two-thirds of the material we scratched from the planet slipped through our fingers. More than 67 billion tons of hard-won stuff was lost, most of it scattered irretrievably. Plastic trash drifted into rivers and oceans; so did nitrates and phosphates leaching from fertilized fields. A third of all food rotted, even as the Amazon was deforested to produce more.”
The quote from Robert Kunzig's article is referring to 2015. From then, the equivalent numbers must have gone up. Looking at the circularity from the perspective of business and production, there are numbers that speak by themselves. Moving to a circular economy is an urgent must.
Reading the article about overproduction and exponential growth of consumption makes me just ask the very simple questions many of us must have: What? Why? How is it even possible that so much is produced just to be wasted? Why is this happening? And why is it not talked about?
It is said that the first spins of the steam engine which started the industrial revolution and massive use of fossil fuels, were the first milestone that really kicked off the abusive use of natural resources. Before, the laborious work and time it took to manufacture the goods made them much more valuable and accessible for a smaller number of people. Soon everything that could be turned into consumable goods, for development of the industrial infrastructure and filling the endlessly hungry engines was cut down, extracted from the soil or pumped from the bottom of the sea.
Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing writes vividly about how Oregon became the nation's largest timber provider in the early 1900th century. The building of the railroads and development of an easy supply chain was a key factor in the short success story. Within less than 100 years Oregon went through the rise and fall of the industry as the wood supply slowly runs out. “This is a story we should know. Industrial transformation turned out to be a bubble of promise followed by lost livelihoods and damaged landscape.” The story of Oregon is a typical story of fast gained profits of capitalist industrialization.
The capitalist industrial economy is linear. There is no looking left or right, or thinking of the consequences in a longer timespan. The huge overproduction and the stories similar to Oregon are the protagonists of capitalist industrialization.
Next to circular economy, gift economy, sharing economy or caring economy are terms which describe the new approach on how our relation to nature could be redefined. Regenerative agriculture for example aims to give back and work together with the soil, microbes and plants to create circular practises for food production. There are already many lessons that we’ve learned and simply by looking at nature and it’s circularity there is a lot that can be changed in terms of how we produce food and how we deal with the waste. The actual mechanisms of production and (re)treatment of material, development of new practices, are some of the key factors for a circular economy to thrive. Economy and production is not thought of merely as a one way stream, but rather as an interaction between the co-dependent beings.
Understanding circularity has one key feature which everyone seems to agree with: we need to stop thinking ourselves as separate (superior) from the environment. We are equally part of the environment as the plants, animals, soil or the air is. And somehow the understanding of the belonging and interdependence comes in stages. Michelle Murphy writes in her essay “Against population, toward afterlife” about kinship. The essay made me realise how deep and spread out the web of connection we are talking about is, when we try to understand the mechanisms of industrial capitalism and linear thinking.
Murphy’s essay is driven from feminist decolonial politics. It is giving voice to the part of industrial capitalism which did not profit, and is still not profiting, from the abusive system.
The roots of the anthropocene go much deeper in history than the first springs of the first steam engine and the kinship between people, places and other beings helps to understand how circularity has both spatial and temporal dimensions. Murphy’s perspective broadens the question of circularity into the social questions of racism, discriminationa and oppression. The industrial development would not have been possible, and is in fact based on the oppression of plants, animals and people. The kin.
What is striking and resonates in me, is the way Murphy approaches the concept of alterlife. It includes the uncertainty, the already wounded and broken. The capitalist system is driven by the logic of strongest survive, and strongest are the ones who manage to exploit and abuse more than others. Anthropocene, which is expecting the apocalypse to happen in the future, missed to acknowledge the fact that for many it has already happened. The violations against other beings are already so profound, that the world (for some) has collapsed quite some times already. Violently damaged environments have made people and animals leave worlds behind.
When we think of circularity, the recognition of others and other ways of being, should be equally part of it as are the new practises of food production or reuse of textiles.
Rather than thinking of circularity purely on economical terms or trying to find different methods of production, it would be important to look at theories of decolonialims and feminism. These perspectives allow more voices to be heard and therefore create the possibility for seeing the planetary relations.
Circularity, being one with the environment, creates self-interest in working for other planetary beings than just for humans. This can motivate people into acting differently as abusive relation to other planetary beings equals to abusive relation to oneself. “ the violences against land, water, airs, and the many beings that are co-dependent on one another is also violence on bodies”, as Murphy writes.
However it seems that human capability to work with self-interest is limited on a very narrow temporality window. It is quite difficult to think about the impacts of our actions, which might have a hundred-year or more scale on them. Before circularity can rule anything, we should be able to overcome our limitations, or accept them, and work within them.
What became more evident during the pandemic and what could help us to move toward circular systems and circular thinking, is the notion of locality and intimacy. It feels much more achievable to think and act within the community which is close to me and understand the decolonizing politics, empowering acts and allowing gestures locally. This would also mean that in order to re-create, and at the same time dismantle and shut down the system, we could start the change from the local communities and environments.
At the moment I strongly believe in local communities and activism. For us at TAUKO this means that we are searching and developing new ideas and ways to act in direct interaction with the community we are part of.
And the best part, it is way much easier to have champaign with your local community!
Text: Mila Moisio
Photo: Laura oja
Anna Lowenhaut Tsing, The Mushroom at the end of the world (Princeton university press, 2015 )
Michelle Murphy, "Against population, towards alterlife" Making kin, not population ed. Adele E. Clarke and Donna Haraway (Prickly Paradigm Press, 2018)
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