Next week, on Wednesday 31 July, we’re hosting an Edinburgh meet-up looking at how a Basic Income could support a Circular Economy. Our speaker is Teja Hudson, a zero waste consultant and founder of Zero, a social enterprise that aims to prevent waste and improve sustainability in Scottish workplaces. In this blog Teja shares some of her thoughts on the relationship between people and planet, social change and how the Circular Economy fits into the wider climate change conversation.
Timothea Armour, Citizen’s Basic Income Network Scotland Editor
Ahead of next week’s discussion, I asked Teja some questions to find out a bit more about how what she does fits in with what we do, and how creativity is important to all of it!
Timothea: At its broadest reach, this event will be exploring the relationship between the way both humans and the planet are being failed by the current system. How are those two things interrelated?
Teja: I think it would be a huge misconception to suggest that humans and the planet are not almost totally interrelated at this point. We completely rely on the planet and all of its systems for survival, so if the conditions in the biosphere shift too far away from what we need to live then we face extinction like any other species. We have already seen that our failing economic and social systems are having a vastly negative impact on the ecosystems, species and climate around the globe, promoting greed and environmental abuse for profit… Which in turn makes our systems even worse… The two are caught in a negative feedback loop. I say almost totally interrelated because there’s one distinction: unlike us, the planet will ultimately be fine. It has endured five mass extinction events already, so life here would eventually bounce back in some form after a sixth; the total failure point for humans is much earlier than for the planet in general, even though life as we know it would be gone and the new wave of life might be unrecognisable to us.
But it’s not a done deal yet. The good news it that the presence of a feedback loop makes it a lot easier to affect positive change on both fronts.
What is clear is that the current system of capitalism and free markets and endless growth is failing us socially; not only are we leaving too many people behind on too many fronts, we are also failing to tap into the full potential of our social resources to do better. How many brilliant and creative minds have we lost to preventable social inequalities: poverty, hunger, disease, gender inequality, persecution, violence, lack of education…? How many people want to make the world a better place but are too busy struggling to survive to be able to? And how many people would become artists and inventors and entrepreneurs and thinkers and care workers and philosophers and volunteers and cross-disciplinary experts if they could afford to quit their day job?
These people represent a vast untapped well of potential for social change. Humanity needs those people. Our environment needs those people. And if we can unleash their potential into the world, we might actually see the kind of change and the rate of change we need, to bring ourselves back into balance with the natural world. This is what the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals are aiming for, so the principle is there in 193 nations, we just have to do the work now.
Timothea: What is the Circular Economy and where does it fit into other discussions relating to the environment, for instance, recycling and climate change?
Teja: The Circular Economy is a way of looking at the resources on our planet and understanding that everything is part of a circular system instead of a line. Since the Industrial Revolution we have largely been operating with a Take-Make-Waste attitude, which is a linear progression that moves in one direction only, and at the end we create an enormous amount of waste that we try to hide in landfill or send somewhere else so we can pretend it doesn’t exist. We just throw away all those materials and mine for new ones, which is a very damaging and inefficient way to do things.
With the Circular Economy, you take waste out of the equation completely, so when an item reaches the end of its life it is broken down into raw materials again and those materials are used to create something new. It mirrors what happens in nature, everything is used to create something else over and over again and nothing is wasted. The aim is to keep resources circulating around that loop for as long as possible, bringing in very little virgin material and preventing anything from escaping. Right now we do this with the recycling that does happen, but the aim is to build that idea of eventually breaking down and reusing the materials from every product into the way we manufacture and use absolutely everything.
From a climate change perspective, it reduces emissions because it takes less energy to recycle/remanufacture something than it does to extract the raw materials and create it from new, and will potentially reduce the distance materials will travel, as they’ll already be distributed instead of having to be shipped from the locations of natural deposits. We’ll also view all of the rubbish in the world as a resource of valuable raw materials and will end up collecting lot of the physical pollution and excavating existing landfills to extract the value from them.
Timothea: How and why should organisations like Zero, whose primary concern is an environmental one, and CBINS, whose primary concern is social, be working together to change the situation?
Teja: Since environmental and social concerns are so closely linked, the task is for humanity to find a way to satisfy each within the boundary of the other. Our goals and values are the same; for humanity and the planet to survive and flourish together, so what helps the environmental movement to accomplish that will also help the social movement to accomplish that, and vice versa. If we help each other, we can also pool resources and audiences and be more effective overall.
Timothea: Lastly, on a slightly different tangent, before set up Zero, you were working in the arts. Do you feel like a creative approach is important to the sort of work that you’re doing now, and do you think Basic Income could help us deal with the problems we face as a society more creatively?
Teja: I feel like creativity is really important in all aspects of our society, but especially at the moment with the social and environmental problems we face. We’ve been going along a certain track of capitalism and rational markets and the supremacy of man over his environment for a very long time now, and we thought it was working really well but we’ve just realised that it’s actually taken us way out on a limb. We’re hanging over a chasm and we urgently need to find a way out of this before the branch breaks, but we can’t use the same way of thinking as the last 250 years because that’s what got us into this mess in the first place. I think we’re going to need a great deal of diversity of thought to pull us back from the edge and find a new way forward that won’t take us over the chasm again. This is where we need the artists and the inventors and the entrepreneurs and innovative thinkers and also the women and the people of colour and those with varied abilities and identity, from every nation on earth. We need them all because we are them all.
But this is also a problem, because I know from experience that it’s very hard to be creative when you’re stressed or pressured or uninspired, and particularly when you’re worried about money – all of which is more likely to describe the lives of the people we need, than those who have held power and led our thinking since the industrial revolution. So the system is definitely keeping these people down and making it very hard for them to flourish or to reach the halls of power, but their previous absence is precisely why we need their presence now.
I have personally known so many artists and creative people who have struggled to practice their art and been weighed down by the need to make a living instead. I have seen incredibly talented people walk away from their industry because they can’t afford to keep practising and others compromise their art to make it more “commercial” in order to scrape by. I have seen the same thing with people wanting to start businesses – especially those with a more social or environmental focus – or write books, I have seen brilliant minds and kind souls get sucked into the corporate world instead of focusing on solving world problems. I have been in many of those situations myself in both art and business. And this is all to say nothing of the hours and opportunities to practice, develop and advance that are lost to mediocre employment or paralysis brought on by worry about money, nor the danger of society’s artistic endeavours resting exclusively in the hands of those who can afford to stay in such a career.
This is where Basic Income would be a revelation. With the basic necessities taken care of, artists would be able to focus on their art. Carers would be able to care for those who needed them. Anyone with an good idea would be able to start a business and afford to live until it was generating enough to support them, even if that took a while or if the focus was not on profit. Most of all, it would mean that when we needed them, highly experienced creative people, free thinkers and problem solvers would be available to help solve the problems of 10 billion people on one small planet instead of being stuck in a dead end job, ruined by a lifetime of struggle, stress and disadvantage.
If you want to hear more about what we’ve been talking about here, come along to Basic Income and a Circular Economy at Woodland Creatures at 6:30pm on Wednesday 31 July