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Did Aristotle invent the circular economy?

Circularity has only recently hit the headlines. But its philosophical roots could go back to ancient Greece or even before.

As a concept that spans myriad ideas, circularity unsurprisingly has many parents. Some claim that the idea of circularity – at least in terms of recycling or reusing resources, preserving and extending what is already made, and designing to ensure longevity – has prehistoric antecedents.

Dr Maikel Kuijpers, assistant professor of Archaeology of Early Europe at Leiden University, suggests that ancient populations pioneered the idea of recycling waste, laying the foundations for the circular economy. “The repurposing of objects and materials may be as old as tool use itself,” he notes. “In Palaeolithic times, smaller flint tools were made from old hand-axes. People in the Neolithic period had no problem reusing standing stones to construct their tombs, such as seen in Locmariaquer in France.”

Even ceramics, made from clay and therefore available in abundance, were frequently recycled. Old pottery was often ground down to powder and used in the clay for new pots. On Minoan Crete, this ceramic powder, known as grog, was also used to manufacture the mudbricks from which houses were built. “In fact, up until the 20th century, repair, reuse, and repurposing were common ways of dealing with material culture,” says Kuijpers.

Circular economy ideas certainly make an early appearance in the history of philosophy, according to Dr Roland Mees, philosopher and a director of sustainable finance at ING. Mees is the author of the forthcoming book Sustainable Action and Motivation: Pathways for Individuals, Institutions and Humanity. He says two schools of Greek philosophical thought are relevant to circularity. The first is Aristotle’s idea of ‘the good life’, dating from almost 2500 years ago. “Essentially this asks us to take responsibility for our actions,” says Mees. “When we reflect on our life in old age, we should be able to honestly say to our grandchildren that we took the right decisions.” In relation to the circular economy that means responsible stewardship of the world’s resources, from which future generations should benefit.

The second idea comes from oikos, which is the root word of both ecology and economics. “Oikos refers to the family, their belongings and their home: in the context of circularity the home is our planet,” explains Mees. “Since the Industrial Revolution, the economy has departed from the broader concept of oikos and come to focus solely on profits and monetary value. We need to restore the oikos link between ecology and economy and put right the damage that we are inflicting on the earth. That is the ethos of the circular economy.”

Aristotle and Airbnb

Aristotle’s ideas are also evident in one of the most recent manifestations of the circular economy: sharing platforms, such as car-pooling site BlaBlaCar, or co-working providers such as WeWork. A number of authors, including Michelle Thorne, leader of the Open Design of Trust Things programme with Mozilla and the University of Dundee, note that the logic of the sharing economy, which enhances product utility – was stated more than 2000 years ago by Aristotle who noted that “On the whole, you find wealth much more in use than in ownership”.

Much later, Aristotle’s sentiment – and attitude toward ownership in common – found favour with Karl Marx. He deplored capitalism’s creative destruction and noted in Das Kapital that market-oriented farming meant that crops were produced in the countryside for consumption in cities (where the waste was produced) – eliminating the possibility of circularity. “in London … they can do nothing better with the excrement produced by 4½ million people than pollute the Thames with it, at monstrous expense.”

Marx’s near contemporary, John Stuart Mill had a starkly different philosophical outlook but shared Marx’s disdain for the waste associated with economic growth. Building on the work of Adam Smith and Thomas Malthus, Mill was a utilitarian (believing an action is right if it tends to promote happiness). He understood that the availability of natural resources imposes strict limits on the scale of economic activity. He wrote in Principles of Political Economy that “if the earth must lose that great portion of its pleasantness which it owes to things that the unlimited increase of wealth and population would extirpate from it [or destroy], for the mere purpose of enabling it to support a larger, but not a better or a happier population, I sincerely hope, for the sake of posterity, that they will be content to be stationary, long before necessity compels them to. In other words, we must be content with our high standard of living and not constantly aim to increase our wealth at the expense of the planet.

A distinct identity emerges

While the thinkers mentioned above – and many more both inside and outside the Western tradition – often focused on the values of simplicity, respect for nature and frugality that underpin the circular economy, circular thinking as we now know it only began to come together in the 1970s.

Architect Walter Stahel posited that a linear economic model is unsustainable; a notion recognised by the Club of Rome in its report Limits to Growth, published in 1972. In developing a ‘closed loop’ approach to production processes, Stahel established many of the basic ideas that constitute today’s interpretations of the circular economy, including product-life extension, long-life goods, reconditioning activities, and waste prevention.

Around the same time, James Lovelock formulated his Gaia hypothesis with biologist Lynn Margulis. While not a direct precursor of today’s circular thinking, it encapsulates the holistic nature of circularity. Gaia essentially anthropomorphises Earth, describing it as a superorganism that responds dynamically to the various travails humans put it through. The essential message is that the planet deserves greater respect and that we need to live within the parameters set by the natural world – one that chimes strongly with circularity. While many dispute some of the more fantastical aspects of Lovelock’s theory – it is widely disliked by scientists – evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould says that is missing the point, describing it as “a metaphor not a mechanism”.

More recently, thinkers have begun to focus on circular solutions. Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins and Hunter Lovins’ 1999 book Natural Capital describe a global economy in which business and environmental interests overlap, recognising the interdependencies that exist between the production and use of human-made capital and flows of natural capital. Radically, they believe that a new type of industrialism “that differs in its philosophy, goals, and fundamental processes” has the potential to “free up resources, reduce taxes on personal income, increase per-capita spending on social ills (while simultaneously reducing those ills), and begin to restore the damaged environment of the earth.” In short, everybody wins. It is this mindset that has been adopted by the multinationals that have embraced the circular economy in recent years.

Bringing things full circle – to some extent looking back to Aristotle’s belief that “nature has made all things specifically for the sake of man” – Janine Benyus, author of Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature (1997), says that we need to learn from, and then emulate natural forms, processes, and ecosystems to create more circular designs. “The core idea is that nature has already solved many of the problems we are grappling with: energy, food production, climate control, benign chemistry, transportation, collaboration, and more,” says Benyus. “It is studying a leaf to invent a better solar cell, or a coral reef to make a more resilient company.”

As Benyus points out, in nature there is no waste, everything is a nutrient and feedstock. “Mimicking these earth-savvy designs and processes can help humans leapfrog to technologies that sip energy, shave material use, reject toxins, reuse all materials, and work as a system to create conditions conducive to life,” she says. This can be done at three levels: firstly, by mimicking a natural form to improve efficiency and effectiveness; secondly, by mimicking how it is made (e.g. without toxic chemicals or hazardous processes); and thirdly, by mimicking natural ecosystems (to ensure production has no negative consequences to people or the environment).

Are tweaks enough?

Like Benyus, German chemist Michael Braungart and American architect Bill McDonough’s seminal 2002 manifesto Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things draws inspiration from nature. It calls for the transformation of human industry through ecologically intelligent design. Cradle-to- cradle design sees the safe and productive processes of nature’s ‘biological metabolism’ as a model for developing a ‘technical metabolism’ for industrial materials. Crucially, Braungart and McDonough believe that products shouldn’t only be designed for continuous recovery and reuse but also emphasise that rather than minimising waste, we should be striving to create value – a message that aligns comfortably with the zeitgeist of corporate support for the circular economy.

However, ING’s Mees cautions that there is a strong argument to be made that the circular economy cannot simply be a tweak to our existing globalised society, based on shipping, flights and transportation of resources from one end of the world to the other. “As Kate Raworth has noted with her doughnut theory, which emphasises the need for us to live within our planetary boundaries, solutions need to be local and regional in nature,” he says. “If goods are from China and the consumer is in Argentina, then circularity will be the exception, not the rule. Of course, globalisation will continue to exist. But a globalised, market-friendly version of the circular economy may not be enough to address the problems facing the world.”