Putting the Circular Economy in Better Shape

Well, this is embarrassing.

Only a post ago did I explain the circular economy, where loops can be closed and we can thrive on a finite amount of resources. But, as is often the case, imitating the principles of nature is more complicated than we think.

Last weekend I was at the wonderful International Conference for Youth in Agriculture (ICYA) in Leuven, organised by the International Association of Students in Agricultural and Related Sciences (IAAS). One of the speakers, Jos Willemsen, had a plausible addition to the paradigm of circularity. And it starts with the following:

The act of eating is not an act of consumption. The act of eating is part of the process of creation.

On a small timescale, nature seems circular. For example, when a cow eats grass, a large part of the nutrients are wasted and excreted the form of cow dung. Luckily, this is broken down by bacteria, multiplying and making the nutrients available to plant life again. The circle keeps going. But on a larger timescale, there are changes.

About 4 billion years ago, life on Earth was in its infancy. The process of using inputs from the environment to grow and accumulate more energy had only just begun. Slowly, self-replicating molecules became rudimentary cells. Then multicellular organisms started appearing, and with them, complex ecosystems. Life has evolved and its capacity to eat and create has expanded. That’s not a circle. It’s an ever-increasing spiral.

Over time, life increases in complexity.* This so-called loop is actually open, inviting inputs to accumulate more life. Why is this?

Everything is food.

Not everything is food for us. But virtually everything out there is food for something – and not just life’s waste products like cow dung, though that is an important part of it. For many organisms, eating adds new inputs to the ecosystem. There are bacteria which use the minerals in rocks as a source of energy. Thanks to these bacteria, new minerals join the spiral and become available for other organisms to eat. Or – think of the sun, and the energy it adds to our system every day.

As we eat, we are adding energy and complexity to atoms as they move up the food chain. In the process, we excrete waste products which are taken up by other organisms. In fact, a more appropriate way of looking at organisms would be to call them organs of this system. These organs use each other’s waste products to create more life within a system which invites new inputs. The conditions become more abundant over time.

How does this change the way we look at resource usage?

Currently, practical examples of the circular economy involve what is known as downcycling. The circle is not 100% efficient, so there are losses on the way. Resources lose their potential as they flow through the circle. Let’s use the example of MUD Jeans from my earlier post. MUD Jeans essentially sells refurbished jeans. Clearly there are losses. The cotton in a pair of jeans can only be reused so many times before it is useless. Still better than a linear model, but we can do better.

How? By teaming up with life. It is life which can increase the complexity and usefulness of waste materials. The carbon dioxide you and I breathe out every day becomes more complex and useful thanks to plants. Likewise there are many more examples. If we team up with life and design systems to make use of the spiral, we can create abundance. People such as Joel Salatin, Mark Shepard, and Ernst Gotsch are pioneers in implementing this idea in the form of agroecology, agroforestry, and permaculture. The result is a more robust system which becomes richer as time goes on.

How does this relate to vertical farming? Vertical farming is about as sterile and controlled as it gets. Can we apply spirals to vertical farming? Certainly!

Presenting with Jos Willemsen was Zjef Van Acker, from the Association for Vertical Farming. He explained how upspiraling can be applied to vertical farming with the example of The Plant in Chicago. The Plant is a refurbished warehouse which makes use of the different resource flows in a vertical farm to produce all sorts of products. The oxygen produced by the plants goes to aid the fermentation of kombucha. Kombucha fermentation produces carbon dioxide, which goes back to the plants. Likewise, The Plant brews beer and produces mushrooms. Biodigesters are also used to produce methane and electricity. Thanks to life, its own waste products increase in complexity and value. Nothing is downcycled at all.

Where are the inputs, though?

Like many vertical farms, The Plant is not economically viable. Perhaps this has to do with the long-term nature of a spiral system. The speakers also concluded that different farming methods will play different roles. In a rural area, forget about vertical farming. Permaculture is much more effective.

The Plant’s vertical farm is a collection of organs working in harmony. Expanding the system boundaries, a vertical farm can also be seen as an organ within its environment – just like the different organs in Jos’s analogy being applied to permaculture. Vertical farms too can help direct resource flows. They can metabolise the environment’s waste products, helping the world spiral upwards towards abundance.

You can find the session here. The presentation on upspiraling starts around 1h10 into the video. Before that, there is another presentation on urban agriculture by Prof. Josse De Baerdemaeker. This may become the topic of a new post as well.

*As it turns out, this is consistent with Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, which advocates activities which increase the complexity of the individual as well. Coincidence? Possibly.

Later, Jos sent me an email and used the analogy of energy to describe spirals. Energy gets converted from one form to another. Under resonance, the (unstable) system spirals upwards.

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