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September 03rd, 2020

An ecosystem-relevant update is ready for download

topic:Sustainable Development
by:Nora Sophie Griefahn, Tim Janßen
org:Cradle to Cradle

Celebrating the corona crisis as an opportunity does not do justice to it and its consequences. Devastating health impacts and the burdens from lockdown aside, we should not prematurely rejoice about the temporary reduction of environmental problems. Of course, ecological damage shrinks when the global economy is in a corona-coma. But when we wake up from this coma, these problems will grow back to their old size – that is, unless we use this involuntary restart for an update that is essential to the Earth's ecosystem, and is therefore ecosystem-relevant. This update, "Cradle to Cradle", must go from being an optional app to an integral part of the operating system - with the following result: 

Imagine a world in which the man-made concept of waste no longer exists. All products are designed in such a way that all of their components are either biodegradable or can be fully separated and thus endlessly recycled with the same quality. In everything we do, we humans no longer ask ourselves how we can do it less badly, but how we can do it well. In this world, the mere thought of behaving as if we do not exist - i.e. "climate neutral" - is absurd. In this world, we have used our creativity and our spirit of innovation to become beneficial. We celebrate our large ecological footprint because it is a positive one.

What may sound utopian here is perfectly normal for all other species on earth – and it is also already highly developed for us humans: Cradle to Cradle (C2C) - a consistent, circular economy. 

According to this concept, everything circulates in endless cycles and consists of healthy materials: full diapers become fertilizer, carpets clean the air in the room, chair covers are edible (even if not enjoyable), exterior facades trap fine dust particles and CO2, tire abrasion is biodegradable, textile dyes clean the groundwater, flowers grow from carelessly discarded packaging, buildings produce more energy than they consume, agriculture makes soil fertile. All this and much more has already been developed to market maturity. C2C follows the insight that all resources on this planet are limited, and that this does not need to pose a problem.

Our current economic system is the exact opposite of this. Everything is designed in such a way that it inevitably moves from the cradle to the grave. Supposed "recycling" merely postpones this point in time, and should honestly be called "downcycling". Under this system, landfills are growing, waters and living creatures are poisoned, and soil is being destroyed.

This common way of doing business does not only harm the earth and all creatures that live on it, but also makes us humans less resistant to threats. It forces people to flee their regions, makes them vulnerable to droughts and plagues, and aggravates inter-generational conflicts. Now more than ever, we need people of all generations to unite under this common cause, as opposed to espousing a self-centered perspective on our own future or the future of our grandchildren. 

This fragile system, though, is being hit hard by the coronavirus crisis. So-called value chains are collapsing, sending the global economy into a recession of historic proportions. For the first time, Oxfam predicts that poverty will increase again worldwide, and with it hunger, wars, and oppression. It is understandable why governments promise to fight simply to maintain the status quo. But the status quo contains a serious programming flaw: the cradle-to-grave economy - and we must now fix this flaw.

It is only fair to provide companies with short-term liquidity guarantees so that they can survive a crisis that they themselves did not cause. However, it is absurd to set up economic stimulus packages for technologies that are already yesterday's technology today. It would be unfair to let the "dinosaurs" among them die out as a result of the corona crisis, for which they are not to blame - especially in view of the people whose livelihoods currently depend on them. However, governments must now start the engine of innovation by providing incentives for improvement and thus accelerate the evolution of innovation.

The EU's Green Deal should not be seen as a burden when waking up from the corona-coma, but rather as an opportunity for the complex and, therefore, at least in the short term, quite expensive, but necessary update. The Green Deal must therefore become even more radical. The astronomical sum of about one trillion Euros may only give an economic advantage to those companies that give our living space an ecological advantage.

The principles of competition are often demonised just as much as state regulations. Yet, when cleverly combined, the two are a real dream team. As a population represented by the state, we set the course: an economic system that not only does not harm us and our environment but benefits everyone. Which technologies we use to achieve this goal will be decided by competition and innovation, and companies that do not keep up with the times must also go with the times.

In light of a growing world population, its shrinking poverty, and the resulting increase in energy demand, one thing must also be clear: the strategy of sacrifice, i.e. to do less of the wrong thing, is as unattractive as it is futile in the long run. This has been clearly demonstrated by the coronavirus crisis, which has forced us humans into a mandatory time-out. In other words, we do not need less consumption, economy, and technology, but other forms of it - better ones. These must be developed and then properly implemented as well.

But we, as human beings, achieve our goals much quicker and with greater satisfaction when we are enticed with reward rather than threatened with punishment. So far, however, only a select few reap the benefits of our current system - even if they destroy living spaces in the process. With the C2C update, this must change. We must finally take the market seriously and not only privatise the profits from value creation, but also internalise the negative costs of damage creation. Only in this way can prices truly reflect the environmental impact of products. This is how we ensure the necessary economic cultural change: C2C is ultimately the more competitive model.

We must regard CO2 as a raw material and use it in a smart circular economy. Digitalisation will enable us to control material flows - and thus finally make appropriate use of resources. Additionally, we have to make much better use of the only resource that is delivered to us free of charge: the energy of the sun. When designing solar and wind power plants, we should therefore make sure that they are designed to be recyclable - this is the only way to overcome both the climate crisis and the waste crisis.

So, let us finally stop thinking about how we do not want to live and what we want to reduce. Instead of glorifying the aim of becoming ecologically neutral, we should set positive goals. What type of air do we want to breathe in 2050? How can we make living spaces worth living in? Which technologies enable us to live a positive existence as beneficial creatures of the earth? Or to put it even more briefly: how do we want to live in the future and how can we achieve it?

To err is human; the flaws of our current economic system are piling up in the landfills. But it is equally as human to have the ability to recognise and correct mistakes. By following nature’s example and letting everything circulate in endless cycles, we can live very well and look forward to a positive future. The ecosystem-relevant C2C update is ready for installation right now.

Nora Sophie Griefahn and Tim Janßen are founders and managing directors of the non-governmental organization Cradle to Cradle NGO (C2C NGO). 

Image: Mikel Martinez de Osaba

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