Resourcefulness. Growing a linear economy is untenable: the waste we create has become a curse of our own making. Instead there is massive economic potential in using resources for as long as possible, extracting the maximum value from them, and recovering the materials at the end. There is personal enrichment in thinking creatively and doing more with less. Creating circular economies reduces waste, reduces the environmental impact of manufacturing and transportation, and reduces demand for new stuff – without reversing prosperity. We have a pathway and the power to decouple growth from material consumption. As places where demand is most concentrated, cities are uniquely placed to stem the flow of materials and eliminate waste. Companies cannot afford to ignore these new opportunities either as they have too much to gain. Collaboration between cities, companies and citizens within a circular economy can literally turn around the wasteful way we grow.
Endless growth of the global economy is a myth. There is a fundamental flaw when growth itself becomes a supreme good, unrestricted by ethical and environmental considerations. Even if we put such restrictions aside the plot will surely unravel, as endless growth is unattainable. How can it be otherwise if we must continuously deplete finite natural resources and pollute where we live in order to grow?
We are forced to re-think the current order rather than remain within it, as our quest for endless economic expansion has overshot Earth’s long-term carrying capacity. In their research, Johan Rockstrom et al. identified nine “planetary boundaries” that we exceed at our peril. Specifically, we are vulnerable to increased global warming from climate change; to depleting the ozone layer that blocks the radiation from the sun; and to loading the atmosphere with aerosols that interfere with climate regimes and monsoon systems. We put ourselves at risk from increasing the acidity of the oceans until marine life collapses; from consuming freshwater reserves until water becomes scarce; and from cutting down our forests until land use changes impoverish topsoil, biodiversity and water flows. We are endangered by our emissions of chemical pollutants; by changing the flows of nitrogen and phosphorus, which are essential for agricultural production; and by the loss of biodiversity.
Knowledge of these boundaries is vital but they have limited use in changing our behaviour. They do not provide solutions. Telling us that there is a boundary we should not cross is often an invitation to get as close to the edge as we think we can go. We are quite capable of dispassionately quantifying these limits, although we are not good judges at living within the boundaries we have identified. We have overstepped our own red lines and have already triggered the tragedy of the mass extinction of species and the chaos of climate change.
The single biggest cause of global warming and the mass extinction of species – the urbanisation of humanity – is potentially the principal solution. The ecological genius of the city enables us to live better while consuming, wasting and polluting less. The solution is hidden in plain sight.