Embracing the Circular Economy: 3 Lessons from Bhutan

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Originally uploaded ​​Nov 27, 2020

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 Thimphu here.

Great Buddha Dordenma sits 54m tall looking over Thimphu valley. The Buddha houses over one hundred thousand smaller golden Buddha statues.

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 and today 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.

The three principal reasons for the presence and need to recognise the societal blind spot are:

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).

  1. 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.
  2. 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 the Gross 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”

Arne Næss

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.

There’s only one rational direction to step, right?

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.

The rooster in the middle of this painting represents moha, one of the three roots of evil. The wheel of life is a common feature in a Buddhist home.

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.