In a remote corner of the UK, 23 men and women try to build a new life and new society from scratch, isolated from the rest of the world
So reads the premise behind Eden, a new reality TV programme that started on the UK’s Channel 4 this week. Spending one year away from civilisation (well, in Scotland), a merry band of professionals, ranging from personal trainers and shopfitters to doctors and carpenters are challenged with “building their own shelter, growing their own food, and raising their own livestock”. The producers say that it’s all in the name of “challenging everything about modern living, raising questions about what we need to be happy, what we want from our communities and how we are influenced by society as a whole.” If they’re serious, circular economy thinking should be part of this experiment.
Viewers of the first episode have already dismissed the concept as ‘hipster Big Brother’, with one morbid commentator saying ‘this would be much improved by the occasional zombie attack’. Others have pointed out that the show was too easy, with participants given a sizeable head start with a shed of provisions, such as “basic building tools, as well as some animals and basic cooking ingredients and equipment”. Twitter was overwhelmed by a tragic and untimely goat death.
What were you expecting? As primetime viewing, a cynic might argue that Eden isn’t about building a new society at all. Only the coming weeks will reveal whether the participants and producers are more concerned with Instagram withdrawal symptoms, arguments about the washing up and the inevitable romantic encounters, rather than what is a fundamentally intriguing question: if you were building a new civilisation from scratch, knowing what we know about the world now, what would it look like?
It’s highly unlikely that the Eden commune will be considering the values and principles that will frame their new society. If the opening minutes are anything to go by, “getting back to the wilderness”, distancing from “horrible news stories” and proving to their mates at home that they are tougher than they thought are some of the group’s early preoccupations.
With the prevailing economic model of the world they’ve left behind still revolving around throughput of energy and materials, the way that the participants approach the tasks of food production and construction could still follow the take-make-dispose pattern. Most likely, they’ll muddle along for a year in this manner and provide light entertainment for the nation’s living rooms. But this experiment could be made more interesting if three core principles of a circular economy were adopted, helping to showcase – in microcosm – elements of an economy that could work in the long term.
Principle 1: Preserve and enhance natural capital
The first principle to be observed is the need to preserve and enhance natural capital. With food as one of the primary demands of the Eden participants, this point should be paramount. When it comes to crop growth and livestock management, any model that extracts nutrients from the soil in a linear manner is destined to fail over time, and become reliant on external inputs such as fertiliser. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, “a circular economy enhances natural capital by encouraging flows of nutrients within the system and creating the conditions for regeneration of, for example, soil”. It’s a pity the pioneers on the show don’t have access to the internet, as there are inspiring stories of regenerative agriculture taking place today. Leontino Balbo Jnr CEO of Native, the world’s biggest product of organic sugar, having restored the biodiversity and rebuilt the natural capital of some 20,000 hectares of his farmland. Joel Salatin, of Polyface Farms, has developed a model for farming livestock that doesn’t plunder grazing land – it might appear old school, but is far from it, showing a deep understanding of natural systems. And some 500-odd miles south of Eden lies Kingsclere Estates, where farmer Tim May applies a mixture of modern approaches and traditional methods to ‘increase organic matter levels, fix nutrients and aerate the soil’, with the aim of maximising the potential of the land ensuring that it remains profitable.
Principle 2: Optimise resource yields
Optimising resource yields should be next on the agenda. Here, we’re talking about ‘circulating products, components, and materials at the highest utility at all times in both technical and biological cycles’. Seeing as those tools, clothes and equipment that the contestants brought in with them need to last for a year, skills in repair will come in handy to ensure continued use. Hopefully someone browsed the 21,000 guides on iFixit before setting off for the Highlands, as the self-proclaimed ‘free repair guide for everything’ contains years of information on how users can extend the life and performance of their products; from furniture and clothing to building materials.
And with a very finite supply, the sharing and redistribution of this equipment among the community will be essential. Toronto’s Tool Library and Sharing Depot offer a working example of how local infrastructure can optimise the use of everyday products. If we’re really hypothesising about building a civilisation, as opposed to just a long camping trip, at some point the manufacturing of new stuff will come into play. Unlike the equipment already in use, this should be designed with the future use in mind. That means considering intensive use, repair, remanufacturing or material recirculation at the design phase. For this, an open source approach or the modularity and flexibility of something like Nascent Objects could be key.
Principle 3: Foster system effectiveness
Starting a new life on 600 acres of Scottish highland provides the opportunity to factor in a third crucial principle: system effectiveness. Today’s economy doesn’t account for externalities, such as land use, air, water and noise pollution, release of toxic substances and climate change. Given the chance, an economic system that reduced damage to human utility, and considered these negative impacts throughout the supply chain could support regenerative and restorative practices. In other words, if prices revealed the full costs, we could see a paradigm shift in our relationship with energy and resources. With a fixed timeline of one year, the contestants aren’t incentivised to take this long-term perspective. In fact, one telling exchange shows the group satisfaction with the here and now, rather than what’s around the corner. Yet they are missing a golden opportunity, as accounting for externalities when designing a system could pave the way to greater and enduring prosperity and long-term resilience.
Factoring in externalities in our current economy – retrospectively – is an enormous challenge, and early research on the circular economy noted that today’s system ‘has had difficulties in correcting itself’, because ‘fiscal regimes and accounting rules that govern it allowed for a broad range of indirect costs to remain unaccounted for—the so-called ‘externalities’. Despite this, some forward-looking businesses have grasped the importance, such as Kering Group’s Environmental Profit and Loss, which CEO François-Henri Pinault says is vital in building ‘robust and resilient businesses that deliver financial, social and environmental value’, and the work of the organisation Trucost.
Maybe it’s ambitious and idealistic to think that a contestants on a national reality TV programme would be thinking along these lines. After all, the circular economy has only really started gaining momentum over the past five years. On the evidence in the series opener, we’ll get more tantrums and squabbles than discussion of economic systems. But in the opening few minutes, the narrator alludes to the fact that one of the motivations for Eden was that the despair and frustration of our world today invite this question of ‘what if we could start again’? Despair, frustration and disruption with the linear economy are also triggering the exploration of a circular alternative. Growing environmental degradation and related constraints, regulatory trends, volatility and supply risks, as well as unpredictable changes in digital technology and consumption patterns have highlighted to many that a linear, throughput model is no longer fit for purpose.
Eden isn’t an ideal petri dish for the development of an economy that is regenerative and restorative by design. The ‘blank slate’ approach luxury isn’t a luxury we have when catalysing a shift in today’s economy, and it leads naturally to a backwards looking mindset; a yearning for ‘simpler times’. In reality, we’re dealing with inertia in the current economic system, with incentives and frameworks creating a ‘linear lock-in’ that can stifle incremental change. Far from hindering the enthusiasm for an alternative vision however, the real pioneers of today are beginning to believe in a set of principles for a resilient, prosperous circular economy.