True Sustainability Means Circularity

Linear thinking is destroying the planet.

True Sustainability Means Circularity
[Illustrations: Max Krasnov via Shutterstock]

Four decades have passed since mankind walked on the moon. This triumphant event marked the first time humans could gaze back at their world. Our round, blue and white planet floating in black space enabled humanity to see the finite nature of their home–it defined the boundaries of our living world. We watched in amazement as Neil Armstrong took his first step and uttered the words, “That’s one small step for man; one giant leap for mankind.” This magnificent achievement opened our minds to new desires. Gazing at Earth, we didn’t see what we had made; we saw what had made us: a planet, home to billions of living things, including 3.5 billion human beings.


Our achievement was sparked by a desire among nations to be the first human to step foot on the moon. The Space Race inspired us to dream, createm and achieve the impossible. However, there was another race that continued even after we got into orbit: our population. From our first glimpse of Earth in 1969 our planet’s population has doubled to 7 billion people and is expected to reach 9 billion in this decade.

As our population has grown so has our appetite for material consumption, the engine of economic growth and the measure of human prosperity. According to the 2011 State of the World, “People must consume to survive, and the world’s poorest will need to increase their level of consumption if they are to lead lives of dignity and opportunity.”

Emerging markets are predicted to surpass the United States within a decade. Currently, China and India already account for 20% of the global consumer class. According to China’s Ministry of Public Security, they now have more personal vehicles than the United States. All of our human economies, in total, pay little attention to the effects production and consumption has on our planet. This growth in consumption is at the expense of our natural economy, weakening and destroying ecosystems and resources that are vital to the long-term survival of all living things. Despite this ecological disaster, humanity continues to refuse to live within its biological constraints. Paul Hawken wrote in Blessed Unrest, “There is no reason that we cannot build an exquisitely designed economy that matches biology in its diversity, and integrates complexity rather than extinguishing it.”

While people within emerging markets are learning to consume, consumption is a behavior deeply ingrained into the United States’ culture. We view shopping as a recreational activity, a national pastime. Consumer spending is a key index, responsible for two-thirds of the U.S. economy. It’s how we value our worlds’ economies. As countries drive business growth its citizens are driven to desire more. What has resulted in the U.S. is a society that is 70% overweight, has 30% larger homes than in 1960, a self-storage business (to hold all our stuff) that exceeds the revenue of Hollywood, and wastes 40% of its food. Zara, Forever 21, and Gap, some of the world’s largest clothing retailers introduce new clothing lines every month to establish not only a desire to purchase, but also a fear that if consumers wait it will be out of stock or out of season. With all of this careless consumption it’s no wonder America’s largest export is its own trash. Former Harvard University president Derek Bok did a study on happiness and found that despite all of our increased consumption Americans are not any happier than they were in 1950. We have become hostages to our own “stuff” through ever increasing consumer debt, which is why increased productivity and consumption has not increased human satisfaction. Our model of economic growth has created an engine of prosperity that is simply not sustainable or meaningful.

So how can humans behave in a way that is sustainable? Is sustainability achievable? Simply put, sustainability is enough for all forever, which idealistically means human and environmental rights of all living systems. This would require us to respect, believe in, and desire to work within our biological ecosystems.
The Native American Indians understood this connection and for thousands of years lived on the land, yet for the last 200 years Americans have lived off the land. We have destroyed its grasslands, polluted its rivers, chopped down its forests and killed off a majority of its key species. This has resulted in a 35% decline in the Earth’s ecological health since 1970. A recent study by Living Planet Index found that 50% of the earth’s wildlife has been lost in the last 40 years.

Growth and extinction are natural processes of evolution and capitalism reflects the survival of the fittest philosophy. Business and economic growth can continue to drive society but we must realize the connection our ecosystems have to our long-term survival. As Adrian Bejan, says in his book, Design in Nature, “To be alive is to keep on flowing and morphing. When a system stops flowing and morphing, it is dead. Thus, river basins configure and reconfigure themselves to persist in time.”


Adaptability, resilience, and sustainability are necessary for all living things to survive. Humans have done the same through constant evolving of thought resulting in paradigm shifts. Just as we once thought the world was flat. These corrections in science led to a change for mankind, we discovered the new world and distant galaxies. Many see our current challenges as impossible with our current business models of natural destruction and control, but at one point so was sending a man to the moon.

To convince and influence humanity to work with natures’ biology instead of destroying and controlling it has been slow to adoption as self-interest presides over lands, governments, and economies. It is going to require a bigger paradigm shift in our thinking to adopt a sustainable mindset. The thought of sustainability brings to mind finite resources, which creates fear and self-preservation behaviors. But what if we were to see the Earth as infinite?

Just as humans once believed that the Earth was the center of the universe, new expansive thinking will move us into the future. Our modern day minds have been trained to approach problems in a linear fashion, with a beginning and an end, cradle to grave–our society functions on this type of thinking. Markets are judged on linear measurements, quarterly numbers, annual sales, and growth projections. Entrepreneurs start businesses, grow them, and then look to sell as the end game. Supply chains have a beginning and an end and business plans are created to show value and growth, all through linear processes. We measure everything in finite models, but this linear approach, based on short-term thinking has not, and does not, complement a sustainable earth model. Our natural ecosystems work together through regeneration. It’s not linear, but circular like the shape of our planet.

Our planet is a sustainable model built on a foundation that all living systems are connected; nothing is linear. Circles are a better example of how to solve problems because they never have a beginning and an end. Our business models are viewed as cradle to grave when they should be cradle to cradle. As stated by Karl-Henrik Robert, founder of The Natural Step, “The water that we have now is the same water we have always had on this planet. There is no new water.” One day of solar energy from our sun equals humanity’s energy needs for the next 25 years. Thinking of solutions through this different lens can provide humanity with infinite possibilities.

The earth’s seasons forever repeat themselves in a cycle, as do our oceans’ currents and weather patterns. For humanity non-linear thinking has been around for thousands of years. The Mayan calendar saw meaning and purpose to cycles built into a circle of repetition. Euclid, Plato, Leonardo da Vinci looked for answers within the mysteries of our planet and universe. “Leonardo loved to observe and draw living structures, anatomy, birds’ wings, trees, waves, and water flow. His namesake, Leonardo of Pisa had discovered a series of numbers that would become known as the Fibonacci series–its application in charting the repeating patterns of natural growth…” said Stephen Skinner, author of Sacred Geometry.
Our ecosystem is interconnected and dependent on each other for survival, we are part of the cycle: the circle of life. So our approach to human economies and ecologies must be addressed in a circular viewpoint not a linear one.

Businesses will need to start viewing growth through the eyes of sustainable capitalism, which can be infinite.


For example our current system of industrial agriculture–the growing of one crop on the same land over and over–is directly at war with nature. Farmers continue to need more pesticides, herbicides, and antibiotics. It is a battle we are not winning as new strands of disease, and resistance to antibiotics creates super bugs. It is nature’s way of ridding the earth of monocultures. Many farmers are returning to bio diverse methods, which have resulting in increased crop yield, healthier soil, and rising carbon levels. These farmers are experiencing first hand that working with nature can be better economically, environmentally, and socially sustainable for all.

Our economies would see much needed growth if they went beyond the take- make-dispose system and capture the economic value within a circular model. According the Ellen MacArthur foundation, a group dedicated to educating and informing businesses of the economic gains found in a circle economy worked with McKinsey to find that the circle economy system is worth 700 billion in the consumer goods sector alone, while benefiting land productivity and job creation.

Once this paradigm shift takes hold our creative minds will design a future that can sustain life and an economy built on dignity and self worth for all. Our intelligent minds got us into our current situation and they can guide us out, pending we push through the tough social, political, moral, and environmental choices before us. However, it starts with re-framing our thinking to the problem. Sustainability is anything but linear. The answer has been around us, but we were blinded by the abundance of our earth, then we feared its finiteness; yet for infinite possibilities it requires us to see ourselves as part of the cycle. As Janine M. Benyus a biologist stated, “There is no need to invent a sustainable world; that’s been done already. Its all around us.” We must courageously bring our Earth and ourselves back into meaningful balance.

Ralph Waldo Emerson said it well, “The eye is the first circle; the horizon which it forms is the second; and throughout nature this primary figure is repeated without end.”

About the author

Steven DuPuis is a designer and entrepreneur who founded DuPuis Group, an agency that creates sustainable and responsible growth models for businesses.