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#105 Closed loops
Last Thursday was King's Day in the Netherlands, where a country-wide flea market is the centerpiece of the event. Thousands of people sell their old belongings for a few cents, while kids play music or do magic tricks to earn some money. If done well, it's a chance to make a good profit. In Amsterdam, prime spots on popular streets are reserved weeks in advance with tape and chalk. My oldest son, J, had reserved three spots, but unfortunately, the rain had washed away all the markings. Luckily, a friendly neighbor offered some space for our little stall.
At 9:05 am on King's Day, I received a message from my wife (the market starts early) saying that sales were going well, but with a sore heart, she had sold one of our favorite bedtime books. Although we had read the book countless times, our kids had outgrown it. I was sure that the book would bring joy to new children and their parents.
This experience made me think that this is precisely the feeling that the circular economy should promote repeatedly. We should be able to say, "With pain in our hearts, we've decided to let go of the old iPhone," or "We regret to inform you that our beloved couch has found a new home elsewhere." It's a combination of sadness in parting with something good, and the excitement that it will bring joy to someone else.
The architect Thomas Rau spoke at a recent company event. Rau is well-known for his clear views on circularity. He designed the stunning (fully circular) headquarters of Triodos Bank and founded Madaster, an online registry for materials. I had interviewed Rau a few weeks earlier and was struck by the clarity of his opinions. On stage, he was more polished, but no less opinionated.
Rau's premise is that striving for sustainability is a distraction from the real challenge ahead. Sustainability implies optimizing within the system, but with a broken system, striving for sustainability ensures that we end up with a perfectly efficient but still broken system. Instead, we need a new system, and for Rau, this is circularity. Circularity promotes the continuous use and regeneration of resources in a closed-loop system, without generating waste or pollution.
It's challenging to find a recent talk by Rau in English online, but here's a talk from 2013 that captures some of his main ideas:
For any organization, the transition from a linear economy to a circular economy requires a complete overhaul of its processes, technologies, leadership, people, and business models. First, however, it's a cultural overhaul. We need to transition from thoughtlessly using and replacing materials to deeply caring for them. We need to grow profoundly attached to mundane stuff such as asphalt and concrete.
I'm currently reading The Dawn of Everything, a book with fascinating content despite its dull writing style. Although I haven't finished it yet, it has already taught me that our current linear system, with its focus on consumerism and exploitation, is an anomaly and not the inevitable result of human development.
The Dawn of Everything is one of these books that challenges some of my underlying assumptions about how the world works. Written by David Graeber and David Wengrow, the book argues that what we think we know about the origins of human society is based on flawed assumptions and incomplete evidence. The authors contend that the history of human society is much more complex and varied than we previously thought, and that many societies throughout history have organized themselves in radically different ways than we do today.
The book explores historical cities that lacked hierarchies and societies that had completely different forms of organization depending on the season. It tells stories of times when leaders were kept in check and followers ruled. These examples illustrate that there are alternatives to our current way of living. Some of these examples may even be improvements.
The shift towards a circular economy gives us the opportunity to experiment with new forms of human organization, social evolution, and cultural innovation. I find it incredibly exciting to be living in a time where we can work on these challenges firsthand. We may discover that as we close the loop on our products, we gain much more than we anticipated.
On King's Day, my kids spent all their earnings on new old stuff. R bought an electronic book and Pokemon cards, and J bought a large pile of cartoons. They also spent money on food and experiences. Although they let go of an old children's book, they gained things that are more relevant to them now. There’s a truth in there somewhere. Well done, boys!