Okay. Now you’re here and thank you for clicking. Over the next 4 (just four!) or so of your precious minutes, I’m going to try to shift your fundamental understanding of what sustainability really looks like. There’ll hopefully be something in here for everyone.
The inspiration for this blog comes from the many protests, talks, webinars, seminars and sustainability consulting hours where I’ve had sustainability explained to me. The ideas in this blog are actually very simple, but it’s something that I (and hopefully future you) use every time I think about sustainability.
We, as people with human minds, have no other choice than to split the world around us into distinct categories in order to understand it. Some of the first works of scientific inquiry we do at school is dissecting a frog – splitting it into its component parts in order to understand it better. It works insofar as it allows us to understand better what ‘frog-ness’ means.
The exact same is true for how we begin to look at sustainability. We split it into the TLAs (three-letter acronyms): ESG (environmental, social, governance), CSR (corporate, social, governance), PPP (people, planet, profit) that make up the jargon of just about any sector. We’re going to focus on the common split of sustainability into environmental, social and economic categories and how they are often viewed wrong, and how a shift in how you look at them can help you think about sustainability.
If we look at the Google Image results for “social environmental and economic sustainability” we can see the age-old Venn diagram of three, equally sized, spheres which signals to us that these are equally weighted, slightly intersecting components of sustainability.
This gets a big fat NO from me and anyone who’s looked at sustainability at depth because it doesn’t get close to the reality of how these three ‘pillars’ of sustainability interact.
Here’s three reasons why the visualisations above are wrong:
It shows that the economy, the society and the natural environment are of equal size and importance for sustainability
It shows that the spheres only somewhat interconnect (and in the bottom-middle case in the figure above, don’t intersect at all).
The large part of each of these systems exist in isolation from each other which is inextricably wrong. This also makes it look like these spheres can exist without each other.
Now to a better framing of these three spheres. Below we have a visualisation that better fits the reality of the world that we live in.
Here’s three reasons why the visualisation above is better:
The economy, society and nature are not equal and never will be. We cannot see clearly from our limited human perspective – we wake up in concrete boxes, get in our metal boxes to sit in another concrete box for 8 hours, get back in our metal boxes to our personal concrete boxes in order to rest and occasionally get in a longer metal box that flies to enjoy ourselves. When we look at it from this perspective of course we’re going to be prone to mistakes when it comes to recognising the true proportion of things. We’re the centre of our worlds but not the centre of the world.
The economy, society and nature don’t just interconnect, but are subsets of each other and are interdependent. The economy exists only within (and never outside) the society that made it up, human society exists only with nature and not outside it and nature can exist on its own without the others. As much as we like to think that we are gods, we are merely a subset of a wider nature, a little circle next to penguins, ants and mushrooms’ with no more authority in nature’s order of things.
This also tells us a lot about the fragility of each of these three systems. If the economy is on its knees (because a group of American blokes decided to take excessive risks in 2008 or a flu-like virus starts killing all the old people in rich economies in 2019), society will still function just fine like it has for the last 10,000 years (apart from some very upset billionaires) and nature will probably be better off. If society implodes because a certain trembling Russian decides to push a big red button, nature will recover even if every last one of us is obliterated. But if nature is on its knees, so is our society and economy, and without society, the made up laws of economics will cease to be. The economy, whatever the news likes to tell you, is wild and fragile if you look at it relative to the other spheres.
The economy needs nature but nature does not need the economy.
We make mistakes (like destroying half of our regions biodiversity) as people and communities because we don’t see the world in the correct way. Shifts such as this towards seeing how systems actually exist and depend on each other can help us all make the critical decisions that make up our personal and collective impact.
This podcast has been my mantra for the last year and speaks some deep truths of our society and the nature of things.
Further watching: – How language shapes the way we think | Lera Boroditsky – One of the biggest squeezes on how we interpret the world around us is language. In this Ted Talk, Lera Boroditsky explains how the categories we use to break things down and thus interpret them can distort even our most fundamental senses from our sense of direction to how we see and understand colours.
We were very proud to share our new logo with you all a few weeks ago. The starting point for our new brand was change. Change because that’s the reason we come into work in the morning and leave at night satisfied and hopeful for tomorrow. And here she is:
Ultimately, this is a nice shape that has elements of a leaf, an F and an S, is cyclical and green so can be interpreted in many ways but is always going to be a logo that suits a sustainability company with the initials F. S. This blog entry however is a deep dive, so we will be going into the logo’s symbolism (and beyond).
The logo shape is inspired by the Greek letter delta, used in maths and engineering to denote change. I used the uppercase letter delta (the triangle below) a lot in thermodynamics calculations and always loved how active the shape was: one, it’s an arrow and two, it sometimes looks like a door or portal which your numbers would step through changing state. We settled on the lowercase delta because it holds dimensions of our initials. The lowercase is still used in calculus to denote change (Wikipedia).
The two shapes contrast nicely with the uppercase representing structured, methodical, human change and the lowercase representing cyclical, chaotic, natural change. It’s an obvious choice to go for the lowercase symbol because true sustainability must conform to nature’s rules of order.
This ramble is to do with how we see the world only in the context of human understanding, especially in maths, engineering but most importantly in economics and business. We do this, I presume, because we’ve never been very good at calculating anything that is changing – there are just too many added complexities. In a very similar way, we simplify almost everything into heuristic models (tools for thinking) that we can easily wrap our brains around.
I heard a great example of this in a Reith Lecture (1967) called Only Connect by anthropologist Edmund Leach (pictured above in an early mirror selfie) about jellyfish and watches. This bizarre comparison was made to explain that our society: businesses, institutions, governments, fac**ook groups, are understood within our human brains only in ways that we can fully grasp, not in ways that are necessarily true. That is, when we think of a watch, one can imagine the cogs and springs fitting together and ticking along nicely. But when we get to a jellyfish – whoah! There is absolutely no way that anyone can configure all of the connections that allow that jellyfish to tick… or pulse rather.
We then see businesses (and I’ll keep to this example as a section of society) as ‘well oiled machines’ and ‘ticking like clockwork’ and never a ‘well fed or energetic jellyfish’. We, and our interactions, are of course far more complex than clockwork and it is to dumb down the true beauty of human society to put it in the same category as springs and cogs. We are dynamic, flexible and utterly resilient, and this is something to be admired and remembered, especially in the context of societal projects like climate justice and biodiversity regeneration.
“All the way through I have been urging you to keep on remembering the total interconnectedness of things as distinct from their separate isolated existence. But there is more to it than that. In most cases the connectedness is dynamic, not static” Edmund Leach (1967)
In Lesson One, Origin and Definition, we looked at our collective home (the earth) as if it were a spaceship. This is a useful way to see the earth when it comes to systemic issues such as sustainability. We can use a crisis in a fairly simple system – the control panel signalling a malfunction on a spaceship – to represent a far more complex system – the climate crisis on earth. But first we’ll get the definitions out that way.
What do we mean by systemic? I know this word is thrown around these days and is used to signal thoughts of frightening, large scale problems: systemic racism, systemic sexism and so on. In a social or political context, systemic often means as a consequence of issues inherent to a system, scary because the system is rarely defined in the news and media, leaving us to wrongly construct a malicious ‘system’ in our heads which the source of all of society’s ills. This is neither accurate or constructive and throws the blame around to the point of the cause becoming obscured by ignorance. There are many social systems that sexism and racism exist within like a nation, an economic system, the judiciary system. Which one is it, Vox? Let’s not fall into the Vox under-thinking trap. A system is something with a boundary, within which interactions give the system certain characteristics. By this definition, we are all systems, with our skin the boundary and the various biochemical interactions happening inside us giving us the pretty neat property of living. With our spaceship-earth analogy, the boundaries are the metal and glass exterior of the ship and the atmosphere of the earth; both boundaries that mark the point where lifeless space becomes a habitable environment. The interactions that occur within these boundaries are physical chemical reactions like combustion and social exchanges, which give rise to characteristics of the system such as technological advance and climate change. Looking at something as a system prompts us to look at the whole first, the big picture, before getting bogged down with complexities – it’s all about making the infinitely complex simple. A few thousand years ago Aristotle noticed the following:
The whole is more than the sum of its parts
That is to say, that the properties of a system cannot be explained (or solved) by looking at its component parts, just like consciousness cannot be explained by the individual neurones in your brain. Similarly, we can’t explain our unsustainable collective behaviour by looking at single policies, individual actors or events.
Why is this important?
Recognising that our species’ destruction of the living world is a characteristic of a complex social and physical system rather than the result of the actions of one orange man is a tough pill to swallow (and by tough I mean it takes a different way of thinking in order to get your head around). Thinking in systems that have interactions, emergent characteristics and boundaries is something that is a little abstract, but it is the only correct way to view a problem like sustainability and its solutions.
We must start to look at some of the more comprehensible characteristics we know are apparent in our global system (because we’re measuring them) and the interactions that have led to our crisis. Seeing in systems works as a tool for thinking about solutions too, and this is made especially easy when we know what our system, spaceship or planet has got to look like 100 years from now. Next time we will look at the system of spaceship earth in today’s crisis state next to a future world that is aligned with sustainable visions for the future. We will use this comparison to determine the interactions and characteristics that need to occur in order to achieve a system that is in equilibrium with nature.
In early 2019 I travelled halfway across the planet from London to Bhutan to live, study and research sustainability in the world’s most sustainable country.
I lived with students at Royal Thimphu College, a campus that must be up there with the most beautiful in the world. Waking up and opening the curtains to a 50m tall meditating golden Buddha perched a few km away in the snow-capped Himalayas was a sight that inspired awe, fascination and a profound interdependence between me and the country I was lucky enough to inhabit. You can read more about Bhutan and my time in Thimphuhere.
Bhutan is the world’s only carbon negative country and I was there to find out why. Is it by function of the national Buddhist tradition? The synthesis of this ideology and Bhutan’s unique development models, institutions and policies? Or simply down to Bhutan’s fortunate hydroelectric capacity coupled with a scarcity-enforced low-impact lifestyle of Bhutanese people.
The answer is not simple and took months of late night reading, meaningful conversations and fieldwork to (at least in part) uncover.
First off, I’ll dig into some of the terms in the title:
The circular economy is a model, or more of a utopian vision of an economy that is ultimately closed loop. This closed loop mostly refers to material (closed by recycling or reduced consumption) and carbon (closed by renewable transition and efficiency gains or reduced consumption). The concept of a circular economy began to circulate in the EU around 2015 and this year andtoday stands as a pillar of the European Green Deal.
I have written about the technology and innovation that it takes to actualise the circular economy throughout my degree in Denmark, a front-runner in the global race to cultivate renewable energy technologies. Though I am familiar with the concept from a technical standpoint, I had always been puzzled by the lack of societal focus in circular economy literature. A meaningful change in the behaviour of European society (consumption patterns) can undoubtedly compliment the technical advances that steer an economy from linearity to circularity, and at a relatively low cost compared to a solely technology drive approach. Two hands on the wheel will change direction faster than one. This deficiency of a societal dimension of the European circular economy is what I call a societal blindspot.
To illustrate this blindspot I will draw on a quote by American sociologist Edward O. Wilson.
“The real problem of humanity is the following: we have Palaeolithic emotions, medieval institutions, and god-like technology.”
E. O Wilson
If we take god-like technology in the context of the circular economy as the alternatives to a fossil-based economy, then the Palaeolithic emotion is our behavioural approach to solving the same problem.
Jevson’s paradox: A paradox which states that efficiency gains always lead to increased consumption in today’s economy (that is, without changing the patterns by which we consume).
There is an overall blindspot within academia (an absence of papers). The theory that supports a circular society (and the policies that support this behavioural transition) is therefore not readily available to European decision makers today.
The circular economy is a growth-driven idea (as it must be to gain any support politically these days) and supports our current consumption patterns. This stands as a paradox of sorts that need some deep thinking to overcome.
A Buddhist Economy is closely related to a circular economy and holds important ideas that can be used as a blueprint for what a circular society looks and thinks like.Buddhist Economics is a heterodox approach to economics developed by E. F. Schumacher in the 50s which can be said to be the active political and economic model in Bhutan. As a political philosophy, Buddhist Economics is embodied in Bhutan through theGross National Happiness conceptualisation of socioeconomic development.
There is an epistemological parallel between the cyclical world-view of a Bhutanese Buddhist and a member of a circular economy. I propose then that the transfer of the societal elements held in Buddhist values that make the Bhutanese population sustainable would be beneficial to the circular economy movement.
I set out then to define what these elements are, their theological basis and relative importance in Bhutan compared to other forces that influence circular/sustainable behaviour. Through looking at three core elements of Buddhist Economics I explore the potential for Buddhist ethics to be superimposed onto a European societal context.
Lesson 1: Finding the Way
The first of these ideas is The Middle Way. The Middle Way is defined by a central notion of absence of extremes, extremes of sensuality, indulgence, materialism, and extremes of self-affliction, self-mortification, and asceticism. There are some clear parallels with environmentalist attitudes and The Middle Way, but that is not the most interesting thing to a circular economist.
In the same sermon that Buddha first mentioned The Middle Way, he also outlined the way that humans can follow this path. This starts with defining the middle, or the norm to which flows of carbon and materials must be directed towards. This is defined by knowledge production which, in Buddhism like in a circular economy, must adhere to strict ethical guidelines. The best representation of this Middle is the planetary limits (such as atmospheric concentrations of CO2 above 400 ppm) and an economy that functions in a circular way to meet the needs of people and nature.
The end of most knowledge production today is profit, growth or developing technology that fetches economic return. This end is not in accordance with the Middle that we have set. The importance of seeking this Middle cannot be more relevant considering what is at stake — our very existence.
Lesson 2: Exploiting our Inner Resources
The central Buddhist concept of interdependence states that everything exists in virtue of a cause and does not exist if that cause is absent. Basically, we exist because of what is around us, from the breaths we take down to our deepest thoughts of being. Blindness to this fact has cultivated the destructive anthropocentric worldview that exists in global society today, a view that we exist outside of and are superior to our surrounding environment.
A deep understanding of our interdependence with nature is something that 20th century Norwegian philosopher Arne Næss noticed is of vital importance for people to develop environmentalist world views, especially for the European citizen. Næss thought that a true understanding of people’s position relative to nature (which is inherently a circular, sustainable world view) is something that is acquired, just like Nirvana is acquired through following Buddhist teaching.
“Through deep experience, deep questioning and deep commitment emerges deep ecology”
Deep experience and deep questioning are the keys that unlock a worldview that sees nature as more than a dead machine to be manipulated and used for human gain but as a living part of us, responsible for our psychological and physical wellbeing. This is something that is unconscious and extends past rational scientific understanding to wisdom.
So do we have to become monk-like to behave in accordance with circular visions of the future? The short answer is yes, but we won’t have to swap our Balenciaga trainers for sandals any time soon. In the same way that Attenborough’s blue planet triggered a shift from plastic to recyclable straws, exposure to true nature, exposure to true nature can shift one’s entire worldview to one of depth, interdependence and sustainable behaviour. (An amazing fact that I always keep with me is that the majority of European countries have no natural forest, only replanted forests that are far less diverse, and unimaginably less intriguing than the ones we cut down to whittle into arrows).
This education-based approach is by far the most cost-effective strategy to steer a society towards circularity but will always exist on the fringes of popular European thought because it is not economic.
Lesson 3: Stepping back
“When on the edge of an abyss, the only thing that makes sense is stepping back.”
Leopold Kohr (1989)
This quote I think is the perfect analogy for society’s position today. The abyss we’re standing in front refers to the systemic imbalance between what we emit as a human economy and what the natural world is able to sequester. This imbalance will lead to a kind of slow-motion ‘crunch’ where irreparable damage is done to nature as a result of long term stress.
Stepping back is a little trickier to understand. When on the edge of an abyss, the only thing that makes sense is stepping back.
In looking at this analogy past its face value, the problem is not the ‘abyss’ per se, but the fact that a societal intention to ‘step back’ is not being actualised. This raises some interesting questions regarding the nature of a society that is engaging in activities contrary to the thing that ‘makes sense’.
If we think of a man on the edge of an abyss, we assume he got there as a result of not seeing the world in the right way; he is not in his right mind, maybe due to intoxication or a psychotic episode. He no longer sees beauty in the sunset and has made a decision — simple and rational to him — that it is not worth sticking around to see another. Is this the condition of European society at present? Though a substantial simplification, I do believe that there is value in viewing the problem though this simplified lens to expose a condition of society that is best explained by social psychology, looking into the consciousness of our society.
Now, scale this up to the size of European society, a society on the verge of committing crimes against nature that are comparable to those committed in the world wars of the early twentieth century. The first generation of the Frankfurt School were intrigued by a reality of the early twentieth century that makes such little sense — the holocaust. By exploring the sociological reasons why a ‘developed’, rational nation full of doctors, philosophers and university graduates can commit such barbaric acts, the Frankfurt School stands as an important resource in examining the social forces that promote the destructive societal activities that constitute the sustainability crisis of the twenty-first century.
For the Frankfurt School, eighteenth century Europe’s movement towards reason as the principal belief-system (The Enlightenment) explains the ills of today’s society. When a pre-reason society uses a belief-system such as Christianity or Buddhism to arrive at knowledge, this knowledge is used to serve a higher purpose such as building Peter’s Basilica or Taktsang in Bhutan.
When society uses reason to arrive at knowledge, they use this knowledge to create the most favourable end for humanity, to create maximum utility. Because of this, when reason is the core of knowledge creation, knowledge is inherently anthropocentric. To the Frankfurt School, the enlightenment project was about domination of nature. Nature, through its exploitation and domination by technology and science, is the means for attaining an arbitrary and unreflectively formulated end and, in the capitalist tradition, this end is profit. To take control of their external nature, human society is thought to have had to reject their internal nature and conform to instrumental rationality, where nature is measured only by its instrumental value and is commodified. A member of a society which the above describes has lost its all true feeling of interdependence and their own naturalness — they are rationally irrational.
“At the moment when human beings cut themselves off from the consciousness of themselves as nature, all the purposes for which they keep themselves alive-social progress, the heightening of material and intellectual forces, indeed, consciousness itself-become void, and the enthronement of the means as the end, which in late capitalism is taking on the character of overt madness, is already detectable in the earliest history of subjectivity”
Adorno & Horkheimer (1972)
In Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment (1972), a false system is described, created by a reason-based society, that will participate in such destructive activity towards both nature and humanity. One mechanism that is covered intensely by the critical theory of the Frankfurt School, and is said to be conducive to the creation of a false system operating under a false consciousness is the culture industry. The culture industry is the body of contemporary media: film, radio, and newspapers in Adorno’s day; Netflix, Spotify, and Twitter in 2020. These media, so deeply embedded in a corporate capitalist system, are described by Adrono and Horkheimer to manipulate society into passivity and mindless consumption by shielding people from the real calamities and true mindlessness of human activity.
An example of this manipulation can be seen in analysis of wildlife documentary filmmaking, specifically that of David Attenborough — perhaps the individual responsible for showing the wonders of the natural world, through film, to the most people in Europe if not the world. Through showcasing the serenity of natural systems in distant, exotic lands, Attenborough leaves the viewer in awe but also, more dangerously, content with the state of the world and far from as critical as one should really be. Though not made with malicious intent, the culture industry operates here to distort society’s vision because scenes of serenity sell far better than scenes of bleak monoculture. Through the culture industry, even the most well-intentioned people are perpetuating a system heading into an abyss without realising it.
Interestingly, a notable shift in British public attitudes toward single use plastics since 2017 can be partially attributed to Attenborough’s Blue Planet II, which depicts the destructive effects of plastics on marine ecosystems. The show, watched by one fifth of the British public upon release, caused 88% of this audience to change their behaviour, and a 100% spike in global internet searches regarding the dangers of plastic in marine environments.
Despite this faint silver lining, the immense influence of the culture industry in shaping public opinion and behaviour remains an unconstructive force in a societal shift towards circularity as long as capitalism remains the principal motivation for media generation.What I argue here is that the mode by which the media operates to disseminate such transformative information must be treated with great care as to not indoctrinate but liberate the societal mind.
The Buddhist concept of moha (delusion, confusion or ignorance) is a central teaching and one of the three poisons in the Mahayana tradition that cultivate craving, the root of suffering. This can be likened to the theory presented above where a false consciousness (a kind of delusion) cultivates the growth economy, a root of environmental destruction. Buddhists consider moha as a standard constituent of the human condition. I believe that it is far healthier to think about delusion and the destructive tendencies that come with this delusion in the mode suggested by Buddhism where there is no grand oppressive system to blame but simply our human nature. A perk of viewing societal delusion in this way is that the enemy of constructive human behaviour is transformed, rightly, from a system to ourselves. The solution is therefore within society and can be found, as is the case in Bhutan and the Mahayana Buddhist tradition, through a process of collective enlightenment, education and community.
With this great potential of the culture industry to disseminate a false reality comes an equally great potential to disseminate truth and in turn promote collective enlightenment. I therefore return to the example of wildlife documentary filmmaking, and its sizeable effect on a wide British audience. A change in focus, from a reality that is false to true, a world that is pristine to a world that is vulnerable, can inform the public without coercion through knowledge, the same knowledge Buddha speaks of as to realise the middle way. But what is the difference between this knowledge and that of instrumental reason? The difference is the worldview that each is bound to: true interdependence and the market respectively. For stepping back requires true knowledge combined with a worldview that places humans within nature — a circular worldview as contained within the societal dimension of the Circular Economy.
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