The good, the bad, and the economics.

Conch shell

I like frameworks and theories and ideas that can be plotted into a grid. They offer me a chance to unpack things in a methodical way and search for the gaps in my thinking.

Frameworks are filters with which we can view the world.

I picked up a lot of these during my undergrad at a top business school, well known for churning out accountants and financial types. Our course load included plenty of math, statistics, accounting, and several flavours of management economics (yeeeew!).

In our economics classes, we learned about game theory, economies of scale, diminishing marginal costs, the difference between normal returns and profit, and the like. Useful stuff for understanding the way world markets function. I say function in the operational sense – I do not claim they function well.

We are taught these theories because they prepare people like me to keep accumulating wealth for our employers or ourselves to keep the societal status quo in balance. You know, be successful.

It’s not just employers and the government who want this either. We all want to be useful, earn a living, be able to feed ourselves and participate fully in society.

Extractive economics: tradeoffs vs. false choices

What I didn’t fully realize ’til later on is that the type of economics I studied is just a small area of the overall field. In fact, we mainly learned theories based in extractive economics. The macro side focused on the way banks work and the methods the Bank of Canada uses to manage inflation, and so on. The micro side on how best to reduce the cost of widgets, scarcity and demand, and how to operate within various market structures (and so on).

We learn not necessarily that greed is good, but that growth is.

Okay, that’s not strictly true. I had one class  – Business and Sustainability – that would plant seeds (pardon the pun) within me that would take some time to germinate. But the mainstay of my formal education was to learn economic theories to apply in extractive scenarios, which is to say: to make things efficiently to make a profit.

What I do appreciate about economic theories in general is that they help us dispell blatant wishful thinking.

i.e. Basic economics tells us that money comes from somewhere; one cannot just print money to become richer. Ergo, if a politician promises more money to a ministry or project, we are justified in asking where money will be removed from, and how the system may rebalance (or not). It also helps us understand the basic mechanisms of subsidy and taxation as rather effective monetary instruments. We learn about tradeoffs.

But while tradeoffs will always exist, false choices are the result of too narrow thinking. 

Extractive economics is a pyramid scheme

We take new materials from the ground and sell them once, so profit depends on an ongoing supply, and someone is always losing.

The world (and neighbouring planets) are of finite composition. Which means we will run out of new materials eventually. They didn’t talk about this at business school, which is why we should not be surprised that most people who operate in businesses or government today do so by making use of economic theory grounded in extraction. It’s a narrow view, but the prevailing one.

Enter the circular economy

I actually did first learn about the circular economy in that Business and Sustainability course I took way back when. I learned that most wealthy countries are so because of extraction of natural resources, and that their dependence on it creates significant risk in comparison to knowledge economies.

I learned that endless growth is actually impossible within a closed system, like our Earth.

But it’s easy to forget. Or to bury. In our modern world, success is culturally defined by having wealth. We strive and compete and earn and shut out the inequities of our arbitraged global economy. Not all of us are prepared to live off the grid.

The circular economy offers some hope that we won’t have to.

The circular economy asks:
  • how can waste from one process must become fuel for another, just as it is in the natural world?
  • how can we create quality of life without relying on a cycle of endless growth?
  • how can we debunk the idea that accumulating financial wealth is the only form of success?

Taking back our economy.

You can be progressive thinking and still find the field of economics incredibly useful, just don’t fall into the trap that our leaders do that growth is the only measure of economic strength. They may tell us that extraction of resources is the only way to create prosperity. We can disagree.

For more, I highly recommend the book The Ecology of Commerce, by Paul Hawken, which I ever so fittingly found in a secondhand bookstore.

It’s a book about economics even an environmentalist could love. And vice versa. In it, he explores why we need to move beyond extractive economics, and why a circular model that respects the laws of nature holds so much potential.

The Ecology of Commerce, by Paul Hawken
The Ecology of Commerce, by Paul Hawken

The case of the disappearing trash can

overflowing trash cans

What would happen if your household garbage bin disappeared for a day? And how about the council supplied bins too?

When would you reach for the bin? I’m betting that for most people, it’s early and often throughout the day, and frequently after mealtimes.

If you couldn’t find it, would a bit of panic set in? Maybe frustration, or anger perhaps, if there was nowhere to toss your trash?

Canadians lead the world in niceness and mounties, but we’re also right up there in per capita garbage generation. Canadians produced an average of 777 kilograms of landfill each in 2008. That’s about 15 kilos per week, per person. A little over 2 kilos each day.

I feel sick.

Garbage is a systemic problem.

To toss something into the bin is second nature. It’s ingrained in our culture. We have vast systems of transportation, processing, and landfilling that are all there so we can easily, handily, and cheaply toss things away whenever and wherever the feeling strikes us.

Yes, sure, collecting our waste in one big pile is marginally better than throwing things directly into the ocean. But there are other issues.

Garbage is a waste our of money.

We pay many times over for our folly. We first pay when we buy things designed to be thrown out, and again through taxes to fund the removal, and then again when the garbage wreaks havoc on the environment (in or out of landfill).

Consider that we actually extract, refine and import petroleum resources to power vehicles so we can transport tonnes of materials that we don’t even believe ourselves to have any value to landfill. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you, this is absurd.

Garbage is a not an investment

A rule of thumb for managing your finances is to never invest in a depreciating asset. Most cars, for example, are depreciating assets, and therefore not a place you’d put your money in the hopes of getting more or even the same amount back later. You buy a car, but you do not invest in a car.

Let’s think about this in the context of landfilling – we are never going to get anything good in return for the money we’re putting into the landfilling system. We are buying garbage collection infrastructure, but it’ll never pay off as an investment. In business parlance, the ROI is sh#t.

What else could we be doing with the money?

Here’s a thought experiment: what if we took the same resources we’re using now for trash collection and used them instead to collect organic materials? The organics we’d collect would have value as soil inputs. This means we’d be investing in a system that pays dividends rather than one that’s effectively a money pit. We would be creating something of value. Waste would become food.

And now back to your bin.

A by-product of the current vast system of garbage collection is that we have given ourselves permission to throw away whatever we want, and we’ve also given businesses the social licence to sell products that are designed to be sent to landfill, often after a single use.

But enough is enough, and these days more and more of us are choosing to live a Zero Waste lifestyle. Don’t be afraid of this terminology. This most often isn’t producing no waste at all, but just dramatically less in the household. Near-o Waste.

When we reduce our reliance on the bin, we’re creating an alternative system design. We’re taking a step towards not taking more than is our privilege or our need, and toward putting all that energy and funding for waste collection into something more worthwhile.

Where to start? Maybe you don’t feel ready to go cold turkey on trash by literally giving up your bin. But you could start with composting or quitting single use plastics.

Free yourself from the bin!

Waste = food

All living things produce waste.

Within a system in equilibrium, the waste from one process provides food, or fuel, for another. Nature is the ultimate recycler.

Waste = food.

This is the simple logic that underpins the philosophy of Zero Waste.

Through the lens of Zero Waste, the issue of waste isn’t so much that people produce it at all, but that we produce so darn much of it, and in such a manner that it resists reabsorption into the natural cycle.

So while humankind has forever thrown things away, it’s only recently that this detritus has become synonymous with trash, garbage, or landfill.

Garbage is a design problem.

When we can’t recover waste materials, and they become garbage – that is, they become un-useful for anything else – it’s because of bad design.

We either designed a product with the expectation it would end up in landfill (and we were okay with that) or we simply didn’t consider its end of life at all.

Garbage often happens when products are:

  • made with hazardous materials.
  • made of more materials than necessary.
  • made of materials that are not easily recycled.
  • made of a combination of materials that are difficult to separate.
  • difficult to repair.
  • designed for single use.
  • unnecessary.

There are ways to tackle these issues:

  • design with the end of life waste product in mind.
  • use materials that generate useful waste and eliminate the rest.
  • find ways to use the waste that already exists within the system.
  • design products for long term use or reuse.
  • use the least amount of resources possible.

Truly sophisticated design will bring us closer to the natural cycle from which we’ve become disconnected. ‘Send to landfill’ isn’t a plan anymore.