This blog post gives me an opportunity to reflect not just on the contents of IIED’s book Virtuous Circles: Values, Systems and Sustainability but also on the principles of sustainability and my own research on sustainable consumption.
Virtuous Circles is an output of the IIED coordinated Designing Resilience project that provides information and advice to decision makers on how to create an alternative and sustainable future. The project is being trialed as small-scale initiatives in communities within the Latin American and Caribbean region. A key message of Virtuous Circles is that current industrial and economic cycles are linear and it is this linearity that is the crux of our ecological unsustainability. The alternative, therefore, is circular systems. Although “circular metabolism” and “closing the loop” are not new phrases, it is worth pausing here for a few moments to reflect on this crucial concept. All dominant systems - from energy to food to manufacturing – require large amounts of external inputs that are dependent on fossil fuels, continuous extraction of virgin materials and/ or the unsustainable harvesting of renewable resources. On the other end, vast amounts of waste are produced in the form of air pollution, greenhouse gases, toxic water pollution, and land fill waste. Virtuous Circles argues the alternative to such a linear system is to minimise external inputs by integrating various systems (from energy to food to water to housing etc) so that one system’s waste is another system’s input. Such an approach basically mimics nature – nature is made of many cycles and, left untouched, nothing is wasted. Biodiversity is key to the absence of waste. In any ecosystem all biological waste can only be used back into the system if the system is diverse enough as different organisms have differing food requirements. Biodiversity is nature’s way of converting waste into resources. Biodiversity creates a powerful argument why monocultures, prevalent in our civilization, are inherently unsustainable.
Virtuous Circles focuses mainly on food and agriculture systems but demonstrates how a sustainable system of food provision is actually integrated into effective water, energy, waste management and building systems. Virtuous Circles also argues small scale and fair trade initiatives are key because such types of institutional arrangements can develop and foster the kind of knowledge that is required to practice and promote ecological sustainability. Such institutional arrangements also allow for the majority to have access to secure and fulfilling livelihoods. Countless inspiring case studies are documented within the book. The book also makes several recommendations. The two that stand out to me are: the emphasis on designing and implementing a major eco-literacy programme to raise awareness of the hidden environmental and social problems caused by our current linear systems; and the need to create training centers and institutions to develop the new skills and knowledge base required to implement circular systems. Virtuous Circles also makes the point that circular systems allow for growth in a balanced way and so challenges the widely held assumption that no growth is the only sustainable alternative to the current unsustainable linear growth model – a point that underlies the argument in my research: quality and type of growth is key, not growth per se. It is possible to have positive and enriching growth in circular systems.
Virtuous Circles is an output of research in developing countries but the ideas and learnings are equally pertinent in affluent countries like the UK as principles of sustainability are planetary. My interest is both in the developing world – I am Indian – and in the developed world – I am a long time Londoner. My current research involves investigating what citizen led projects in urban communities in London and other UK cities are doing to reorient unsustainable systems - energy, food and waste – towards sustainability so that all people everywhere can live and consume more sustainably. I have long been troubled by the conundrum of consumption: consumption is not intrinsically good or bad and some forms are even necessary for living a creative, educated, healthy and fulfilling life. But most forms of consumption currently run on oil. Furthermore, consumption patterns in western economies are still dependent on the unsustainable and unjust extraction of resources from poorer regions of the world. And so I felt the movement to live and consume more sustainably really needs to start in the affluent world. This provided me with the motivation for my research.
Virtuous Circles resonates with me because my research also focuses on small-scale grassroots projects. Although my research is not yet complete, I agree with the point made in Virtuous Circles that grassroots projects have an immense amount of knowledge that is invaluable to understanding how we can transition to a more sustainable world. Unfortunately, this knowledge is often ignored by policy makers, despite the lip service given to “communities”. This is true whether the community is in the developed or developing world. Another reason Virtuous Circles resonates me is the emphasis on integrated systems – when I started my research I didn’t want to be sectoral specific and choose either energy or food or waste systems, primarily because in nature these systems are not separated into sectors! All are integrated and IIED’s findings show that effective integration is key to sustainability.
On a final note, I was heartened to see German chemist Justus von Liebig’s attempt to persuade the London authorities to build a sewage recycling system for the city in the 1840s mentioned in the book. This missed opportunity is something I often think about – London would have been a pioneer sustainable megalopolis if a sewage system that used our sewage as nutrients for farms was implemented instead of the current approach of dumping the sewage into the river. Liebig’s solution would have integrated the system of food provision with the system of waste management. Liebig’s solution may have also avoided the need for artificial fertilisers (which is dependent on potash extraction and fossil fuels, and contributes to soil degradation and declining yields) to the scale it is used today and possibly would have also negated the need for supra infrastructures such as the proposed controversial 24 mile long London’s super sewer. This summer when The Regent’s Canal in East London was covered by toxic algae bloom, a by-product of high levels of nitrogen and phosphorous in our washing up liquids and detergents that find their way into the waste water stream, I thought again of Liebig and London’s missed opportunity. And so, Virtuous Circles reminds me that at the heart of sustainability is a very simple idea: zero waste