Think not ‘Après nous, le deluge’ …but the Spaceship Economy — Lionesses of Africa

by Lionesses of Africa Operations Department

The date was March 8th 1966 and one Kenneth Ewart Boulding stepped forward to present his paper at the 6th Resources for the Future Forum on Environmental Quality in a Growing Economy in Washington, D.C. (here).

With our usual apologies about the gender specific usage from yesteryear, let’s take ourselves back to 1966 and listen to what he had to say…(our emphasis):

We are now in the middle of a long process of transition in the nature of the image which man has of himself and his environment. Primitive men, and to a large extent also men of the early civilizations, imagined themselves to be living on a virtually illimitable plane…there was always some place else to go when things got too difficult, either by reason of the deterioration of the natural environment or a deterioration of the social structure in places where people happened to live…

The closed earth of the future requires economic principles which are somewhat different from those of the open earth of the past…I am tempted to call the open economy the “cowboy economy,” the cowboy being symbolic of the illimitable plains and also associated with reckless, exploitative, romantic, and violent behavior, which is characteristic of open societies. The closed economy of the future might similarly be called the “spaceman” economy, in which the earth has become a single spaceship, without unlimited reservoirs of anything, either for extraction or for pollution, and in which, therefore, man must find his place in a cyclical ecological system which is capable of continuous reproduction of material form even though it cannot escape having inputs of energy.”

So began what is known as ‘The seminal text’ on The Circular Economy. In a background paper for an OECD/EC Workshop on 5 July 2019 “The Circular Economy: What, Why, How and Where”,(here), they confirm: “It is truly astonishing how this single brief paper (with just five references) set out most of the insights on which current circular economy thinking is now based, and little less astonishing how long these insights took to become more firmly entrenched in thinking about the environment, resources and the economy.

Back to the hero of our story this weekend still on stage unaware of the excitement he will be generating in 2019 and indeed in 2022…“The difference between the two types of economy becomes most apparent in the attitude towards consumption. In the cowboy economy, consumption is regarded as a good thing and production likewise; and the success of the economy is measured by the amount of the throughput from the “factors of production,”…

By contrast, in the spaceman economy, throughput is by no means a desideratum, and is indeed to be regarded as something to be minimized rather than maximized…”

Let’s leave Kenneth for a while to ponder on his words. On the one side he is saying that we have the cowboy economy or as Milton Friedman pushed, the shareholder value concept seen in his article for the New York Times those many years ago (here): “…there is one and only one social responsibility of business—to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game, which is to say, engages in open and free competition without deception fraud.

On the other hand, the ‘Spaceship’ economy – everything you have is all you have, as shown so well in the film The Martian (2015) (Trailer here), the hero of which finds himself on the planet Mars with 31 days of supplies, yet 3-4 years to wait for rescue…everything has to be ‘circular’. Anything that is required must be created by what and only what, he has in front of him. That which escapes, negatively impacts.

Back on our stage, Kenneth is in full flow: “It may be said, of course, why worry about all this when the spaceman economy is still a good way off…so let us eat, drink, spend, extract and pollute, and be as merry as we can, and let posterity worry about the spaceship earth.

Why should we not maximize the welfare of this generation at the cost of posterity? “Après nous, le deluge” has been the motto of not insignificant numbers of human societies. The only answer to this…is to point out that the welfare of the individual depends on the extent to which he can identify himself with others, and that the most satisfactory individual identity is that which identifies not only with a community in space but also with a community extending over time from the past into the future.

…there is a great deal of historical evidence to suggest that a society which loses its identity with posterity and which loses its positive image of the future loses also its capacity to deal with present problems, and soon falls apart.”

This speech was soon picked up by others, such as an address the President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science made (here) in 1970: “The object of the next industrial revolution is to ensure that there will be no such thing as waste, on the basis that waste is simply some substance that we do not yet have the wit to use… In the next industrial revolution there must be a loop back from the user to the factory, which the industry must close.”

Just how did this recognition of a finite amount of material on Earth and how we should prepare ourselves for the day when we all have to behave as if on a spaceship, move and evolve from there until the present day…

Having been whacked off course by Milton Friedman’s shareholder value concept that was wholeheartedly picked up by nearly all business leaders across the globe, it seems we now find ourselves in the position whereby if we want to get anything through and into law, or even into normal usage, we have to colour out any phrases that might upset other powerful interests – and they have serious lobbyists! As Kirchherr, Julian and Reike, Denise and Hekkert, Marko, in their paper: ‘Conceptualizing the Circular Economy: An Analysis of 114 Definitions’ (September 15, 2017), found (here): “…the circular economy is most frequently depicted as a combination of reduce, reuse and recycle activities, whereas it is oftentimes not highlighted that CE [Circular Economy] necessitates a systemic shift…the definitions show few explicit linkages of the circular economy concept to sustainable development. The main aim of the circular economy is considered to be economic prosperity, followed by environmental quality; its impact on social equity and future generations is barely mentioned.

Do we find ourselves still so fixated by creating pure shareholder value that although recognizing the need for a circular economy, we hide it behind economic prosperity, or is this something that is talked about openly by shareholders, but behind the scenes they still push profit? Perhaps the strength of the political will is too weak, it’s not for nothing that the most oft-heard complaint at the various COP meetings is that previous promises have not been met and new promises are simply old promises, cleaned up and presented as new – ‘Après nous, le deluge’ it seems, has powerful friends.

Perhaps this is why the concept of sustainable development within the Circular Economy is hidden (as suggested above by Kirchherr et al). With perfect timing, this week the EU announced that Gas and Nuclear would be considered Green (here), perhaps there is a lesson for us all – better to have some movement towards saving the planet (through pleasing some powerful lobbies), than no movement. Think we are making this up about having to be careful about keeping all parties ‘on side’ rather than opening a full ‘Them vs Us’ battle as we are seeing in parts of the world? The recent US Supreme Court ruling on limiting the EPA’s powers says it all about the dangers of polarisation. Coal is firmly back on the agenda.

Are Martin Freeman’s words still too strong in our unconscious minds? There is no doubt the opening paragraph in his NY Times article (here) pulls no punches: “…businessmen believe that they are defending free enterprise when they declaim that business is not concerned “merely” with profit but also with promoting desirable “social” ends; that business has a “social conscience” and takes seriously its responsibilities for providing employment, eliminating discrimination, avoiding pollution and whatever else may be the catchwords of the contemporary crop of reformers. In fact they are — or would be if they or any one else took them seriously — preaching pure and unadulterated socialism. Businessmen who talk this way are unwitting puppets of the intellectual forces that have been undermining the basis of a free society these past decades.” (Yikes!)

If the private and public sectors are hamstrung, growing up as they have with Milton Freeman’s words ringing in their ears, and an insatiable appetite for campaign finance in some quarters that feeds the lobbying world, then perhaps it is up to us to lead the way up and into the spaceship. The only way we can do that is by aggressively preparing now.

Don’t just think reduce, reuse and recycle, but go the full 9 yaRds, with the 9R’s: Rethink, Refuse (are straws really even needed?), Reduce, Reuse, Re-gift, Repair, Rent, Recycle & Rot, all the while imagining that we are on a spaceship. Nothing must escape.

Of course we shall today fail in creating a true spaceship ecosystem – as the phrase goes, “Nothing concentrates the mind more than the hangman’s noose”, yet that noose will come fast. But the plans we put in place today, the knowledge we gain from trying but failing and still trying again, will go a long way towards avoiding the ‘deluge’ or flood of tomorrow. We would also suggest that through turning the ‘old way of doing things’ on its head, so ‘social equity and future generations’ first followed by ‘environmental quality’, one will arrive at and enjoy ‘economic prosperity’. Many of our inspirational Lionesses have done just that and ‘economic prosperity’ for them and their communities is a very welcome by-product of their determination to drive ‘social equity and future generations’. They have shown it works. Now time for all of us to follow their leadership.

This was something that our hero this week hoped for, ending his speech by admitting of such efforts, that “This may sound like a rather modest optimism, but perhaps a modest optimism is better than no optimism at all.

A dark reminder from 1966:

“…a society which loses its identity with posterity and which loses its positive image of the future loses also its capacity to deal with present problems, and soon falls apart.”

Stay safe.

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