Everything From Smartphones to Housing Can Be Built Without Waste. Here’s How.
Above illustration: Sergei Korolko/iStock, Marisvector/iStock from FastCompany.com
To create a truly circular economy, we need to take a page from the natural world.
The rings of a tree tell a story. A story about the life of the tree, and the environment in which it grew. But what is humanity’s story? Will it be a blackened layer of fossilized smartphones in the footnotes of geology? Or will it be a story like the Daintree rainforest in Australia—one of the oldest surviving forest ecosystems in the world whose current inhabitants boast a direct lineage thought to be over 100 million years old? To envision a 100-million-year-long story for humanity, we must imagine a world where every generation returns the materials they use to the soil, air, and oceans in a way that enables future generations to use that material too. A world without waste or pollution. The transition to such a system—called a circular economy—depends greatly on science.
Our current way of living is destined to change fundamentally in the next few decades. Exactly how that happens is a decision that will be made collectively by all of us. The materials we use to create our new world will depend on the technology at our disposal, which will be determined by the science we perform today and the politicians we allow to govern us. Balancing the long-term prospects of other people’s great-grandchildren against our own short-term interests is not a trade-off that many people give much thought to. But natural systems suggest there is a way to provide technological luxury to us all, at the same time as guaranteeing a positive future for everyone’s children.
Imagine if our future electronic devices could grow from the buildings around us like a tree bears fruit, and throwing away an old device was more like composting a discarded apple core. Smart materials and innovative molecular manufacturing inspired by natural organisms could trailblaze the way to a fairer, more sustainable society that boasts a hyper-efficient, innovation-driven circular economy. An economy equipped to address the multifaceted challenges of climate change, biodiversity loss, and inequality, while bringing countless benefits for all of humanity.
We have a vision of a future where 10 billion people can flourish on Earth indefinitely, without exhausting our planet’s raw materials or harming the other eight million species on the planet. Such a circular economy could even drive our expansion to other planets—and that is a tale we want to hear!
Nature: The Fabric for Life
Our story begins at the planetary scale, where we look at Earth as a single system, basking in solar energy, and consider the consequences that physical laws have had for living organisms. We learn that nature has evolved some pretty sophisticated systems for capturing energy, passing it around, and squeezing as much work out of it as possible. To do this, biological organisms have developed an incredibly advanced toolkit for processing energy and matter.
In comparison to nature, humans do a poor job of maximizing our use of the gargantuan supply of solar energy that flows through the Earth. Our astonishing achievements—like the internet or exploration of space—rely instead on accumulated solar energy stored in fossil fuels. We have become accustomed to extravagant expenditure of stored-up energy as we burn through our supplies faster than they can be replaced. But in a 100-million-year-long story, oil becomes a renewable resource— provided we use it more slowly than it regenerates!
The natural world demonstrates that excellent fabrication does not require profligate energy use and this realization focusses our attention away from energy to look at materials. If we could take a leaf out of nature’s copy book and fine-tune our manufacturing processes to maximize the utility of solar energy, we could give all our natural capital a chance to recover.
Read the full excerpt via Fast Company from the new book “Brave Green World: How Science Can Save Our Planet” by author Chris Forman and Claire Asher (UniPress Books Ltd. 2021, published by MIT Press).