Our understanding of nature and the environment has changed a lot since the Second Industrial Revolution (1870-1914) internationalized the economy and consolidated great capitalism, laying the foundations of the current economic paradigm. At that time, the idea of nature as a force capable of self-regeneration dominated, a force to beat and dominate thanks to the technological advances that would achieve moral, social and cultural progress for humanity.
More than a century later, we know with the certainty provided by the data and the perspective of time that nature is far from being what we believed, and from possessing the powers that we attributed to it in our desire for excessive growth. Today we know that nature has a limited capacity for regenerationand that, at a certain point, the impact of our economic activities on the planet could be irreversible.
However, we continue to produce under the same economic paradigm that generated the problem; we continue to manufacture and consume under the same linear model of yesteryear. Our understanding of nature and the environment has changed a lot since that Second Industrial Revolution. Our economy, not so much.
Not so much, very little, barely, or maybe, in essence, nothing has changed. We continue to produce and consume under a system created in the 19th centurywith that design that the American architect William McDonough and the German chemist Michael Braungart called cradle-to-grave (“from the cradle to the grave”): extract, produce, consume and discard.
In the linear economy, our economy, most of the stuff that is thrown away will never be used again. The materials used in manufacturing are designed to satisfy a single utility, leading to a global modus operandi whose problems can be summed up in this simple evidence: the rate of consumption of natural resources is greater than their rate of regeneration.
Being the formulation of the problem so simple and logical, it should not be difficult for us to understand it. However, the linear design still prevails today, when its negative and global consequences are well known: overexploitation and overconsumption of natural resources; the increase in the prices of raw materials as a result of their depletion; the increase in solid waste, gas emissions and the greenhouse effect; the promotion of a model of life based on the motto “use and throw away”; and inequality in development and conflicts over control of resources.
But as the words of William Nordhaus, 2018 Nobel Laureate in Economics, remind us: “markets do not automatically solve the problems they generate”. The transformation of the dominant production and consumption model has been manifestly necessary for decades. Today it is urgent, and it could be acted upon, with the impulse of a few, many, and the efforts of all, from the circular economy.
The circular economy breaks with the concept of “end of useful life” and the dynamic “extract, produce, consume and discard” of the linear economic model, creating closed production cycles, circular, in order to convert all waste into resources. Circularity does not limit production, it does not limit growth; but it does substitute the extraction for the repair of what was already extracted in its day; consumption by use; and disposal for reuse.
The circular economy implies undoubted material benefits for companies and consumers, such as the substantial savings in material purchases, the improvement in supply security, the reduction of price risks and externalities, the commitment to the durability of products and services, the promotion of innovation and the discovery of new forms of monetization.
But it also has a positive impact on the way of understanding the main regulatory ethical principles of the economy. The meaning of the concept of property, freedom of enterprise or the accumulation of goods are subordinated to the well-being of others, and not only to one’s own benefit; are linked to the common good.
European and national strategies, such as the European Green Deal either Spain Circular 2030and the action plans derived from them offer a framework of invaluable help to stimulate circularity, but a true transformation, at all levels, can only be achieved through a change in social awareness, not only of companies, but also, above all, of consumers, so the most effective instrument to possess the appropriate tools and the critical capacity necessary to achieve this change continues to be education.
An education in another economy is possible, and the postgraduate initiative of the CEU San Pablo University and the Editorial Unit School through the Master’s Degree in Circular Economy and Sustainable Development stems from this conviction. The objective: to train Spanish-speaking professionals from all over the worldwith online training and hand in hand with the best professionals who work every day in this area of development, in circular production and consumption processes, to promote an economic model that is truly respectful of people and the environment.
Dr. Fernando Bonete Vizcaino, pProfessor at CEU San Pablo University and director of the Master in Circular Economy and Sustainable Development CEU-Expansión.
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Circular economy and sustainable development, possible through education