The Circular Economy and The Access Economy

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infographic 'Disownership is the New Normal'

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What happens to resource efficiency, recycling and waste management in a world where disownership is becoming the new normal?

As much as it may seem that the nuts and bolts of resource and waste management is about sorting machinery, storage, bins and collection systems, it is really ultimately about people.

We know that if people are to use resources mindfully, to manage them well, and to both demand and correctly use appropriate end of life systems, then we need to design systems that they are easy and convenient to use.

There are two ‘muscles’ that can be flexed in relation to resource and waste management – the Circular Economy muscle, and the Access Economy muscle. A lot of muscle-building effort has gone into the former, and the latter is a muscle we’ve only just discovered we can build.

circular economy biological loop - make, consume, enrich; technical loop - make, use return

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The Circular Economy is a concept and model which has been around for some time now, but is increasingly gaining traction – the UK’s leading waste & recycling organisation, WRAP UK have recently rebranded themselves as ‘Circular Economy and Resource Efficiency Experts’.

The Circular Economy seeks to shift activity from a linear to a circular model by making better use of materials, by keeping materials in circulation through reuse and recycling, industrial symbiosis and other efforts to divert material from landfill.

It displaces some demand for new materials, but does not address the rate at which materials enter the circle, as evidenced by total material demand continuing to grow faster than recycling rates improve.

It is vital to maintain a focus on bending the Linear Economy (‘take-make-waste’) into a Circular Economy, but it is not enough.

There is an entire, parallel area of territory yet to be explored, which I will call The Access Economy (aka Sharing Economy, Collaborative Economy) – or being able to access what we need by better using what we already have.

image of a drill - caption 'I do not need a drill - I need a hole in the wall'

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The Access Economy seeks to minimise the demand for materials, and is as – if not more – significant than The Circular Economy. There are also overlaps between the two eg. reuse could be considered Circular and Access.

The rapidly-gaining momentum of the collaborative (aka sharing) economy holds huge potential for addressing how we consume resources, and ways it could result in less waste.

The Access Economy is focused not on managing material at end-of-life, of better managing ‘waste’. It is focused on designing systems that facilitate more efficient, cost effective and in many case, community-enhancing ways of enabling people to meet their needs by tapping what is already available and leveraging idle assets (be they stuff, time, space, skills).

This means looking at the design of our living systems – how we grow food and prepare it; how we clothe and transport ourselves; how we meet our daily needs. We need to look at how we can solve the pain points of people’s lives – cost of living, time poverty –in a way that also delivers on environmental objectives.

The systems for The Access Economy are different from those for The Circular Economy – and significantly they may be more appealing to people who don’t see themselves as ‘green’, or really care about recycling. 

Successfully meeting sustainability challenges means we need to stop focusing on ‘reducing’ and ‘managing’ energy, emissions, water, waste and everything else (which are symptoms, outcomes of how people live) and start looking our systems through a lens of design (not just physical design) and social innovation.

Ultimately, environmental organisations and programs are not really about ‘environment’ at all – they are social innovation, because they set out to create new patterns of behaviour among human beings in order to lessen our impacts on the ecological systems which sustain all life. And social innovation is a design process.

We are now far from the traditional, familiar territory of the Circular Economy, but into an exciting new realm we have scarcely begun to explore that is fast gathering momentum around the world.

What would we be capable of if we combined the existing strength of the Circular Economy with the emerging juggernaut of the Access Economy?

Further references:

Circular Economy – Ellen Macarthur Foundation – a series of articles about the circular economy model, its principles, related schools of thought, and an overview of circular economy news from around the world.

Shareable – an award-winning nonprofit news, action and connection hub for the sharing transformation.

OuiShare – a global community empowering citizens, public institutions and companies to build a society based on collaboration, openness and sharing.

Collaborative Consumption – comprehensive online resource for collaborative consumption worldwide and network for the global community, curating news, content, events, jobs, studies and resources from key media outlets and industry blogs, as well as original content.

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The Corrosive Effects of Green Puritanism

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cover of Hwang Dae-Kwon's book 'A Weed Letter'

One of the greatest things about the sustainability movement is the feeling of collaborating on a shared purpose for the common good, whether it’s engaging in action on climate change or getting involved in your local community garden.

As with any other movement, or group or coalition of groups, there can be friction or difference, which is not surprising. This is what helps test and hone ideas, and forge connection and understanding, within and beyond the movement.

But every now and then, there are things I see or read about that drive me crazy.

During the Economics of Happiness conference in Byron Bay in March this year, I experienced a truly cringe-worthy moment.

One of the invited guest speakers at the event was South Korea’s Hwang Dae-Kwon, an author, farmer and eco-activist.

In 1985, he was arrested by the military government, tortured for sixty days until he confessed to being a spy, and was then placed in solitary confinement for the next 13 years as a political prisoner.

On his release aged 43, he wrote the best-selling A Weed Letter, which described how observing weeds and plants while in jail helped maintain his mental and spiritual health, and awakened an ecological consciousness within him.

Here is his talk ‘Know Your Body for Reconnecting to Nature‘ from The Economics of Happiness conference (17 mins):

In question time after his talk, one audience member came to the microphone and asked Hwang Dae-Kwon that question greenies just LOVE to ask:

How many trees he had planted to compensate for the printing of his book?

Hwang Dae-Kwon smiled and replied that it was a fair point and that he should look at taking steps to redress the ecological footprint of his book.

I just wanted to crawl under my seat in embarrassment.

Intellectually, I understand that books require paper and trees and have an impact, regardless of what is printed on them by whom.

In the context of the speaker and his subject, it seemed a churlish question that diminished the contribution of a man who had survived conditions most of us cannot imagine and yet emerged with valuable learnings to share with others.

This is why people who don’t identify as part of the green movement dislike the green movement.

As people discover more about sustainability, or have been living sustainably for years, they are naturally proud of their efforts. Social norms are an effective way of getting people to adopt sustainable behaviours, as is some level of friendly competition.

But when this pride turns pathological, becoming the new form of ‘green one upmanship’, it is off-putting to people who may only just be developing their awareness or making changes.

‘Mine’s Greener Than Yours’ is just ‘Keeping Up With the Joneses, Mark II’.

Then just recently, Post Growth’s current Indiegogo campaign was featured on the Permaculture News, where one commenter felt the need to point out that it was ‘…a very positive and empowering article, which is completely invalidated by the second to last paragraph where it asks for donations.’

Post Growth has been sustained by a voluntary team for three years, around and in lieu of full time work and study (including myself taking a year’s leave without pay in 2011, using up long service leave to help launch it). It has run international events and initiatives, built alliances with other groups, a social media platform and subscriber list approaching 15,000 in total, and achieved widespread coverage for its work on a budget of next to nothing. Now ready to launch an idea to the world, the crowdfunding campaign seeks to effectively pre-sell copies of the book – which will require thousands of hours of work – in exchange for a pledge (not a donation). And we still have to defend what we’re doing from people who either haven’t thought it through enough, or are just looking for a way to find fault?

Please! Don’t we have enough to direct our energies to with the changes we are all pushing for without having to grapple with this kind of thing undermining our motivation and co-operation?

And the incident that wanted to make me tip the bucket on this kind of behaviour: I was horrified at some of the responses to Transition Towns Founder Rob Hopkins’s decision to fly to the US and help strengthen the Transition movement there (Hopkins had made a public commitment not to fly years ago, after seeing Al Gore’s documentary ‘An Inconvenient Truth’).

In his May 2013 announcement in this post, ‘Why I’m Marking Passing 400ppm By Getting Back on An Aeroplane’, Hopkins said:

I recently watched the film ‘Chasing Ice’, and it had, if anything, a more visceral impact than ‘An Inconvenient Truth’. My resolution at the end of watching it, re-enforced by the recent passing, for the first time, of 400 ppm of C02 in the atmosphere, was that it was time to get back on a plane, and I want to use this post to tell you why.

When I was born, the atmospheric concentration of CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere was 325.36 ppm. When I watched ‘An Inconvenient Truth’, it was 380.18 parts per million (ppm). On the day Transition Network was formally established we had reached 386.40 ppm. When I sat down to watch ‘Chasing Ice’ it was 395.55 ppm.

In spite of all the efforts of the green movement, Transition initiatives, a slew of international conferences and meaningless agreements, the rise has continued inexorably. I know anecdotally that my giving up flying has inspired quite a few people to do the same, but has it had any impact at all on the rising levels of emissions? Clearly not. But has it been the right thing, thus far, to have done? Absolutely.

Responses on the piece ranged from supportive to disappointed, but also included personal attacks on Hopkins:

  • I think this is a sad day for Transition. As an initiator of a young initiative in the US. I see this as highly unhelpful. The ends never justify the means…Seeing a movement leader cave on a strong and patternable gesture (not flying) will only add to cynicsm and apathy. It’s comparable to seeing Mr. Gore flying about in that movie. “Do as I say, not as I do.”
  • Why should the general public take any notice at all of your green advice, when you can’t even take it yourself?
  • I see no difference between you and Al Gore…lots of drivel about how you want us to live….but when it comes to your own behaviour you can always find a reason why your circumstances are ‘special’ or ‘different’ or earth-saving’
  • How do you spell ‘hypocrite’ in your language?

Hey, here’s a word for you to spell:

sanc·ti·mo·ni·ous – adj. affecting piety or making a display of holiness; making a show of being morally better than others

It is not Rob Hopkins’s business whether someone decides to emulate his decision not to fly and then feels ‘let down’ or somehow betrayed by him changing that. It’s up to each person to make informed decisions that work for them, in their specific family, work and personal circumstances.

As for whether Hopkins’s circumstances are somehow ‘different’ or ‘special’, well actually – THEY ARE.

It was Rob Hopkins, not Joe or Jill Bloggs, who got off his backside, founded the Transition movement and took on the demands of leadership.

It is Rob Hopkins who has the currency of attention he can spend in service of a greater good – and even if he does fly occasionally in order to do that, I doubt we will see him clocking up the frequent flyer points.

As one supportive comment on Hopkins’s piece noted (a view I heartily agree with):

I don’t think “too bad the world fried, but at least I didn’t fly so it wasn’t my fault” is the sort of thing that anybody’s grandchildren would very much want to hear. On the other hand, “look at the wonderful local economies and ecosystems we managed to build, so when we pulled the plug on the global fossil-fuel binge, most people were still OK” is the sort of thing that they would probably respect.

Let’s get it in perspective — for every greeny who agonises over whether to fly or not, there are a thousand people who don’t give it a second thought.

I agree that we need to hold each other to account, and that if you set yourself up as a ‘voice’ on a particular issue, you need to make an effort to live according to the values you espouse.

But I do not agree with holding anyone to a rigid standard that the rest of society is not being held to, because they have dared to speak out. It is ‘disgreenimation’!

Upset about paper consumption? Take on the purveyors of junk mail, not the author of a book on ecological consciousness. Annoyed about people asking for money? Put your energy into getting some accountability out of Wall Street, not a group working to change the structures of business and economics. Ticked off about flying? Take on a celebrity famous for being famous, not the guy who might fly once a year whose work has already sparked so many energy descent movements around the world.

Like most people in industrialised societies, activists too are living in the context of a plethora of existing systems that conspire to work against desired social and environmental objectives.

So let’s leave out the Green Puritanism. It’s the blame game in disguise, it’s corrosive within the movement and it’s repulsive to those who aren’t already engaged.

No less than the head of communications for Greenpeace’s Save the Arctic CampaignJames Turner, made the same call in a recent op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, ‘The Climate Change Guilt Trip’.

Most of us are just doing the best we can, even if we can’t do it all right now.

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Second Nature – Becoming Unconsciously Sustainable

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human brain - left half grey cubicle farm, right half colourful image of people in nature

The sustainability and environment movement has long wrung its hands, imploring the world that if only we could live sustainably – mindfully and consciously – we could halt and reverse many of the adverse impacts of un-sustainability.

But I wonder whether becoming ‘consciously sustainable’ may not be the ultimate desired state.

This is just a thought I’ve had for a while – and I recognise that there are a lot of nuances to this within and between cultures and over time, yet I think its a fair, broad brush overview of humanity’s journey.

Once upon a time, we were:

Unconsciously Sustainable

For thousands of years, before human beings were ‘big’ in terms of our numbers, technology and population, we could have been considered as ‘living sustainably’, that is, living within the biological limits of nature.

We might not have been trying to be ‘sustainable’, in fact the very notion of ‘sustainability’ wouldn’t have even been a consideration.

But our impacts were limited, our collective footprint was well within nature’s capacity, and nature’s resources were plentiful. Where there was competition for resources, it would have been localised.

By default, we were unconsciously sustainable. There are small populations of human beings around the world who still live this way.

Then we became:

Unconsciously Unsustainable

It’s difficult to pinpoint when human beings first shifted into becoming unconsciously unsustainable – some would say the onset of the Industrial Revolution, some would argue at the time agriculture was invented.

Was it in the post World War II years with the rise of consumer societies in many parts of the world?

Was it only when we moved into overshoot and became ‘too big’ for the Earth, or was it when we adopted social and technological changes that put us on that trajectory?

At some stage, we transitioned from being sustainable to unsustainable, without realising it.

Many people remain in the phase of being unconsciously unsustainable.

Now we are:

Consciously Unsustainable

It’s also hard to pinpoint where we first became conscious of living unsustainably – when the impacts of pollution from the Industrial Revolution began to be evident? At the start of the 20th century when the nature conservation movement arose? In the mid 20th century with the rise of the environment movement?

Clues lie throughout history where ‘pushback’ can be found – such as the protecting of nature in parks, and the passing of key pieces of legislation such as clean air and water acts.

In any case, we are now more aware than ever of impacts associated with how we live, from climate change and biodiversity (species) loss, to water quality and availability, to overconsumption, sprawl and how all of this affects our health and wellbeing.

Many people are now conscious that, as a species, we are living unsustainably.

A colleague has suggested there is a subspecies of people who are in denial about being unsustainable – but I’m not sure if they fit into unconsciously unsustainable or consciously unsustainable!

So now we’re working towards becoming:

Consciously Sustainable

In a world where unsustainable has become the default way of living, some people have found or chosen ways of living more sustainably than others. Where people have a very small footprint through no choice, this may not be sustainable if their quality of life is adversely impacted eg. being unable to access healthy food or education.

As I noted in Time for Sustainability, asking people to ‘live sustainably’ requires them to make a conscious effort to do something different within existing system conditions. Yet the capacity for the human brain to make millions of decisions each day is limited, and so the brain has adapted with heuristics, which are ‘…mental short cuts to ease the cognitive load of making a decision’.

human being looking down into a maze

In short, habit and defaulting to the status quo is easier than the effort required to change behaviour, and habit will generally take precedence over the time and energy needed to blaze new neural pathways.

My concern is – can we expect the vast majority of people to become ‘consciously sustainable’?

What if we could design the world that produces so much ‘unsustainable’ as the default, to instead produce the ‘sustainable’?

Unconsciously Sustainable

Rather than becoming ‘consciously sustainable’, I would argue that the ultimate goal is to come full circle – that we must make choices and design things so that we can’t help but live sustainably, without having to think too much about it.

Living sustainably in a world that has been designed to make it hard to live that way can be a struggle. There’s a lot of extra work and time involved in developing awareness about a plethora of issues, making decisions and pondering the trade offs.

This involves a high level of ecological literacy to begin with, and an understanding of complex systems (how things are connected and impact on each other) rather than a focus on single issues (which can result in adverse, unintended consequences).

Even equipped with this capability, it’s all too likely that you will end up trying to untangle a morass of information, or end up down a technical cul-de-sac wishing someone had written a life cycle analysis where none exists, as I have discovered many times in my work.

How are these things going to translate into people’s everyday lives eg. purchasing decisions in a supermarket, where the buyer is a busy parent trying to pick the most affordable healthy food choices for the family on the whirlwind trip home from work? Labeling systems are one answer in this context, however what happens when labeling systems for different issues clash – should you buy local, or organic? Is an imported product from a water abundant country better or worse than a locally grown product in a water scarce country?

Even for the aware, informed and committed, working out the best choice for every life decision in relation to a range of criteria including but not limited to sustainability, this complexity is exhausting and often overwhelming.

Do we seriously expect people who are less open to, or engaged with sustainability to grapple with it?

We need to make unconsciously sustainable the ‘default’ once more.

This is very much an abstract, philosophical musing, and a clump of thought clay that I have been shaping in my brain – please feel free to critique and reshape.

In researching this piece, I found only one other reference to this idea, Stages in Sustainability Maturity, although the context was that of business and organisational DNA, not humanity as a whole.

What do you think? Is it preferable that we are consciously sustainable, or unconsciously sustainable?

Have you seen other examples of this thinking?

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Time for Sustainability

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time spiral

When we think of ‘sustainability’ we don’t tend to think immediately of the relationship between humanity and our conception of time, yet the very idea inherent in sustainability is to ‘sustain’ – to organise how human beings live in such a way that we sustain ourselves and the planet over a long term time frame.

Sustainability debates often focus on the physical limits to growth – the non-negotiable biological limits of the closed system called planet Earth.

But there is another non-negotiable limiting factor that shapes our existence.


It is a great leveller. No matter who you are, or how much money you have, we all have the same number of hours in the day.

While it is true that how we are able to harness those hours as a resource in part depends on our ability to command, or be offered, resources to meet our needs, there is still a limit – constrained by biology – to what we can all do, regardless of our skills, social capital or bank balance.

Our cultural norms influence how we use time – and in turn, how we use this limited resource influences our culture, our health and wellbeing, and our impacts on the Earth.

How Culture Shapes Time

busy American city street with Thoreau's quote: 'It is not enough to be busy; so are the ants. The question is: what are we busy about?'

In our cult of speed, media messages and social norms influence us to equate ‘fast’ with ‘good’ and ‘desirable’.

Fast is sexy. Fast is savvy. Time is money. Get up to speed. Multi-tasking is seen to be a sign of efficiency and busy-ness, a demonstration of one’s importance.

In contrast, to be ‘slow’ carries negative connotations of being dull-witted or backward.

Yet could it be that the pace and complexity of 24-7 consumer societies is not savvy at all, and is in fact what is creating psychological and physical stress? Could it be that it is actually the cult of speed which is dull-witted and backward, burdening our adrenal glands with a constant flow of fight-or-flight stressors and stimuli?

In his 1970 book Future Shock, Alvin Toffler noted that:

…the acceleration of change…shortens the duration of many situations (which) hastens their passage through the experiential channel…while we tend to focus on only one situation at a time, the increased rate at which situations flow past us vastly complicates the entire structure of life, multiplying the number of roles we must play and the number of choices we are forced to make. This, in turn, accounts for the choking sense of complexity about contemporary life.

Moreover, the speeded-up flow-through of situations demands much more work from the complex focusing mechanisms by which we shift our attention from one situation to another. There is more switching back and forth, less time for extended, peaceful attention to one problem or situation at a time. This is what lies behind the vague feeling noted earlier that ‘Things are moving faster.’ They are. Around us. And through us.

Since the 1970s, things have sped up in ways that were unthinkable then.

In March 2012, the New Scientist reported that a multi-billion dollar submarine fibre optic cable link extending 15,600km would be built between London and Tokyo via the Arctic Ocean (now accessible due to the convenient retreat of sea ice!). This cable would cut the ‘friction’ between the two cities from 230 milliseconds to 168 milliseconds, and the article noted that ‘reduced transmission time will be a boon for high-frequency traders who will gain crucial milliseconds on each automated trade‘! No doubt this will facilitate more of the consumption that creates the greenhouse emissions that melts the sea ice – The Circle of Life, hakuna matata.

In recent years, the Slow Movement has sought to counter the societal obsession with speed, and the association of ‘faster’ with ‘better’. The Slow Food initiative is perhaps the best known example, rejecting the production-line model of mass produced, homogenised fast food in favour of local, traditional, diverse food cultures that reconnect people with their sources of food and encourage the enjoyment of food as a social experience.

One of the most compelling challenges to our short-term perception of time fuelled by a culture of fast is The Long Now Foundation in California. The Foundation, which expresses its dates in five digits (eg. 02013), seeks to stretch out how we perceive ‘now’:

…Steady but gradual environmental degradation escapes our notice. The slow, inexorable pace of ecological and climatic cycles and lag times bear no relation to the hasty cycles and lag times of human attention, decision, and action. We can’t slow down all of human behavior, and shouldn’t, but we might slow down parts.

‘Now’ is the period in which people feel they live and act and have responsibility. For most of us, ‘now’ is about a week, sometimes a year. For some traditional tribes in the American northeast and Australia, ‘now’ is seven generations back and forward (350 years).

Just as the Earth photographs gave us a sense of ‘the big here’, we need things which give people a sense of ‘the long now’…

One of the Foundation’s  initiatives is The Clock of the Long Now, which is currently being built in Texas, USA. The clock will be designed so that the ‘century hand’ advances once every 100 years, and the cuckoo comes out on the millennium!

prototype of clock of the long now

Prototype of the Clock of the Long Now

Hamstrung by a political economy that trades off the future for present gains, and where the nanosecond horizons of global finance and three-to-four year election cycles hamper any serious long-term planning, the Clock and other projects of The Long Now seek to jolt us out of our short-term complacency. They invite us to think about how we can reinvent the world so that short-termism does not undermine our ability to sustain our civilisation, and the planetary systems which support it.

How Stuff Steals Time

‘The more things you get, the more you want
Just trading one for the other
Working so hard to make it easy, got to turn this thing around…’

Right Now, Van Halen

In contemporary western society, our pace of life seems generally faster than that of any previous generation in history, even though the number of hours in the day has not changed.

Part of the reason that consumer societies seem both increasingly fast-paced and time-poor is because a political economy reliant on economic growth demands rapid and constant consumption in order to perpetuate itself.

Wuppertal Institute founder Wolfgang Sachs and German Green MP Richard Loske eloquently captured this conundrum in their paper ‘Sustainable Germany’:

Beyond a certain number, things steal time…(they) must be chosen, bought, set up, used, experienced, maintained, tidied away, dusted, repaired, stored, and disposed of. They unavoidably gnaw away at the most restricted of all resources: time. The number of possibilities has exploded in affluent societies, but the day…continues to have only 24 hours. Shortage of time is the nemesis, the revenge, of affluence.

High levels of consumption not only require a lot of money (or debt), and nature’s resources, but also a lot of time, as expressed in the phrase ‘joy-to-stuff’ ratio – that is, the time a person has to enjoy life versus the time a person spends accumulating and managing material goods.

Toffler predicted that the increasing explosion of choice could, past a certain point, become more of a burden than an expression of freedom.

We are, in fact, racing toward ‘overchoice’—the point at which the advantages of diversity and individualization are cancelled by the complexity of the buyer’s decision-making process.

The time-theft of stuff does not begin once we own it – it begins with the time we must exchange for our labour to earn money to buy it, or to go into debt for it.

This infographic, How The Things You Own End Up Owning You, reveals the time its creator had to work to maintain ownership of his stuff by plotting his personal financial metrics on a calendar:

calendar with first two weeks marked 'townhouse - mortgage owns me', three days 'car owns me', etc with utilities, food, transport - leaving three days out of the month for 'me' in discretionary income

Click for higher res image

How many of us have ‘stuff’ that we never or rarely use taking up space in the spare room, garage, cluttering our living spaces – or worse, which we are paying to store elsewhere?

People are increasingly become aware of this and embracing a culture of ‘voluntary simplicity’ in order to step off of the work-spend treadmill.

The emerging collaborative consumption and sharing economy movements, which allow people to leverage value from or share their un(der) utilised assets, could help reduce the demand for resources and associated greenhouse emissions, save households money, and clear or minimise clutter in hundreds of thousands of homes.

And if you could make money hiring out your spare space or equipment, or save it by borrowing or renting stuff belonging to others at low cost, it could mean freeing up time needed for paid work.

How Space Shapes Time

clock where the numbers have fallen off and the words 'whatever I'm late anyways...'

‘City life is closing in on me
The way things go, thirty years,
Bus timetable’ll be my elegy
Up at seven every working day
Pay comes in, pay goes out
It’s a week-by-week charade…’

One Long Day, Cold Chisel 

Before the Industrial era, work was much more intimately bound up with home life. Although the nature of some occupations necessitated them being sited at a distance from settlements and towns, on the whole, people lived where they worked.

With the Industrial Revolution came the rise of factories, of jobs separated from home life, of a much wider range of actual or potentially dangerous or unpleasant industries, it became necessary to invent ‘zoning’, physically separating ‘work’ from ‘home’ – and thus, the commute was born. One of the main reasons for public transit was to move large numbers of (mostly) men from home to work and back. Our cities developed in patterns that enabled access to transit networks, until the car allowed urban development to scatter anywhere.

In low density, car-dependent cities – where it is often difficult and expensive to service communities with frequent, convenient public transport – citizens have become locked into high-energy and time consuming patterns of living and work. The energy requirements of car dependency and urban sprawl are well documented, and there is also the potential risk in costs to households (with the VAMPIRE Index – Vulnerability Assessment for Mortgage, Petroleum and Inflation Risks and Expenses – identifying the relative degree of socio-economic stress in suburbs in several Australian cities), and consequently more time spent earning money in order to get to work!

tired and resigned looking youth in suit, tie dishevelled - caption 'buys a car to get to work, goes to work to pay for car'

Even so, people will absorb the gradual increase in fuel costs, in car parking fees, or continue to do so as long as they possibly can, because they are trading them off for convenience and saving time.

Calls for more car parking and measures to relieve congestion seem to make short term sense, however they only help perpetuate the situation and create a more complex set of issues to resolve down the track, because traffic is a self-fulfilling prophecy – the more roads that are built, the more traffic fills them. The more traffic flows freely and moves faster, the easier and more convenient it is to drive, the more people will drive, leaving transit less patronised and opening it up to justification for cutting services and funding, creating a vicious circle of making transit even less convenient and appealing.

The design of our urban space shapes, and is shaped by, the influence of technologies on time. At an average walking speed of 5-8km an hour, a pedestrian city can only be 5-8km wide before it passes an optimal point of how far people are prepared to travel on foot and starts to become dysfunctional. Similarly, a transit based city with an average train speed of 30km/h can extend to 30km wide, and a car dependent city with an average speed of 50km can grow to 50km across before it passes its optimal point.

Italian physicist  Cesare Marchetti developed an interesting measure, known as ‘Marchetti’s Constant’, which states that despite changing urban forms and methods of transport, people will adjust their lives (including the relative locations of where they work and live) so that the average travel time stays constant. When cities become more than one hour wide, when it takes more than an hour to get to work, human beings appear to hit a psychological barrier, ‘Marchetti’s Wall’, their limit to tolerance for travel time within a city.

In his book Reclaiming our Cities & Towns, placemaker and designer David Engwicht challenged the transport engineering approach to planning and city design by asking himself ‘for what purpose do human beings build and maintain cities?’

Cities are an invention to maximise exchange (goods, culture, friendship, knowledge) and to minimise travel. The role of transport is to maximise exchange.

This is a critical distinction Engwicht makes, which flies in the face of engineering-based approaches to planning and urban design that have held sway for decades – the role of transport is not to maximise mobility, it is to maximise access to exchange.

Roads, carparks and other requirements of cars lock up large amounts of land that would otherwise be used for the purposes cities are made. If we prioritise ‘movement’ space over ‘exchange’ space, we are undermining the very reason for cities’ existence.

One of the key ideas of the ecological city movement is ‘access by proximity’ – succinctly expressed by Ecocity Builders founder Richard Register who notes that ‘the fastest way to get from A to B is to build B next to A’.

If we are to address a myriad of challenges from household and business fuel costs in a post-peak oil era, to the dispersion of places people need and want to access and the theft of time by commutes, we will need to move from a mindset of urban sprawl to one of urban shrink.

Designing cities for people, not cars, along with relocalisation efforts and flexibleinnovative work practices in an era of digital connectivity – from co-working to location-independent modes of organisation – could help us reclaim time (and energy and money) wasted in commuting.

How Haste Makes Waste

wall date calendar which shreds pages as the days go by

Our sense of what is ‘normal’ and our spatial arrangements in cities – such as length of commute, separation of  work from home – in large part determines how we experience time, which in turn influences our daily choices.

In her book Time Bomb, Barbara Pocock, Director of the Centre for Work + Life at the University of South Australia, notes that:

Time is a resource that makes change possible and without it, new ways of living are crowded out – decisions to reassess behaviour and do things differently require an investment of time and thought.

Asking people to ‘live sustainably’ requires them to make a conscious effort to do something different within existing system conditions. And where habit takes precedence over considered approach, sustaining a constant, conscious effort is difficult for people who are often expending most of their decision making capacity just trying to make it through the daily routine of work, school, commutes and getting the evening meal together.

Time pressures are therefore more likely to result in the use of energy intensive appliances like clothes dryers instead of line drying; of driving rather than cycling or using transit. Pocock notes:

Convenient, time saving energy consumption is common, even if it contradicts pro-environmental attitudes or incurs financial costs.

Changing behaviour takes time – energy and water use are shaped by home, work, community circumstances and demands these create on time, and convenience and comfort are also influences on behaviour.

When it comes to not wasting energy, water or materials, Pocock says, ‘time is at the heart of our adaptive capacity’.

At the macro level, technological developments have allowed us to access resources at faster rates – and technologies are not only chainsaws and drills, but also phenomena like instantaneous communication and ease of currency conversion (and submarine fibre optic cables), which lessens ‘friction’ in the system and facilitates faster access to resources, fuelling hyperconsumption.

How Hurry Hurts Our Health

‘Life in the fast lane 
Surely make you lose your mind 
Life in the fast lane, everything all the time…’

The Eagles 

Living fast can affect our personal well-being – the pace of life not only saps us of time and energy to sustain ourselves and our relationships with others, but it can have serious physical and mental consequences. For example, there is a direct correlation between the volume and type food we consume, long hours of sedentary work and lifestyles which impacts on available time to exercise (which has now become a separate activity we have to schedule time for), and concerns with levels of obesity in our society.

Along with becoming ‘hooked on speed’, we’ve created a world of industrial time which, while necessary for so many aspects of modern life, often clashes with the natural time and rhythms of nature and our bodies. Most of us have to artificially manage when and how we get up – meet ‘Clocky’, a wheel-mounted alarm clock that leaps off your bedside table if you hit the ‘snooze’ button, and scurries off to different parts of the room until you get up to silence it:

wheel-mounted digital clock

Ironically, it is an almost-ten second film, Late For Work, which best expresses the toxic mix of industrial time + speed:

From fast food to overwork and overscheduled lives, ‘hurry sickness’ contributes to a range of stress-related illnesses, from adrenal exhaustion and lowered immunity; from increased obesity to heart disease; from impatience with loved ones and strangers alike to debilitating mental health problems.

The Western Australian government’s Office of Road Safety grasped this connection when they initiated ‘Enjoy the Ride’, an innovative campaign that diverges from preaching the ‘shalt nots’ of speeding, and instead links the issue to the wider cultural context, and how speed affects different areas of our lives:

In his book Growth Fetish, Clive Hamilton noted that research into the incidence of modern day psychological and mental health problems such as anxiety, stress and depression has unearthed a range of predisposing factors. These include being unemployed, impoverished or living in a dysfunctional family, along with broader social changes such as geographic mobility, urbanisation, changes in family structure.

But the foremost factor and common denominator is social isolation.

Consumption promotes the definition of individual identity and focuses our attention on what we are doing to maximise our consumption and generating the income to sustain it. While people are busy concentrating on the pursuit of individual lifestyles, there is a corresponding retreat from involvement in civic and community life, and a weakening of the social cohesion that has been part of life for centuries.

quote by Vandana Shiva from The Economics of Happiness movie - lonely people have never been happy people

Although we are more materially well off than at any previous time in history, we are, on the whole, less satisfied and experiencing higher levels of anxiety and other impacts on our wellbeing.

And our fa(u)stian relationship with time is threatening the ability of our bodies, minds and spirits to keep doing what we need and love to do.

How Time Poverty Erodes Families and Communities

‘And the cat’s in the cradle and the silver spoon
Little boy blue and the man on the moon
When you comin’ home son?
I don’t know when, but we’ll get together then son
You know we’ll have a good time then

I’ve long since retired, my son’s moved away…
I called him up just the other day
I said, “I’d like to see you if you don’t mind”
He said, “I’d love to, Dad, if I can find the time…’

Cat’s In The Cradle, Harry Chapin

The more time we are at work, or getting to and from work, the less time there is available to be split between a variety of possible needs and desires, from caring responsibilities (be it for children, elders or animals); the self-care that ensures our wellbeing by allowing time for exercise and for organising, preparing and eating food that nourishes us; leisure, hobbies and enjoyment, or simply rest.

Research by The Australia Institute in 2009 found that each year Australians work more than two billion hours of unpaid overtime, worth the equivalent of $72 billion or six per cent of GDP. Australia has morphed from being the ‘Land of the Long Weekend‘ to a society where we have created a reality TV show that encourages people to take their annual leave.

There’s very clear evidence we’re working longer hours and we’re spending more time travelling to and from work, which means less time for leisure activities, friends and family.

Dawn O’Neil, CEO of Lifeline Australia

This ‘speed trap’ persists, even though as Slow writer, speaker and activist Carl Honoré expresses it, people are yearning to ‘reconnect with their inner tortoise’.

Honoré, author of In Praise of Slow and The Slow Fix, describes us as being ‘marinated in the culture of speed’ – he traces his own epiphany to when he caught himself speed-reading bed time stories to his son, skipping pages, and reading portions of paragraphs:

My life had become an endless race against the clock. I was always in a hurry, scrambling to save a minute here, a few seconds there. My wake-up call came when I found myself toying with the idea of buying a collection of One-Minute Bedtime Stories: Snow White in 60 seconds. Suddenly it hit me: my rushaholism has got so out of hand that I’m even willing to speed up those precious moments with my children at the end of the day. There has to be a better way, I thought, because living in fast forward is not really living at all. That’s why I began investigating the possibility of slowing down.

One of his funniest and most bizarre examples of what he calls ‘road runner culture’ was when he stumbled across ‘speed yoga’!

But time poverty not only threatens our health and that of our connections with people we care about, it undermines the wider community fabric.

Robert Putnam, prominent US social researcher and author of Bowling Alone, has identified three features of American society (many of which translate to other countries) that have significantly contributed to a decline in both formal membership and levels of participation in organisations, and informal social interaction, especially with neighbours:

  • time pressures, which are partly or largely associated with working longer hours and longer commutes
  • urban sprawl, which is a product of car dependence (also related to time pressures of commuting; an hour commute each way is two hours’ less time for other activities each day)
  • extensive television viewing, which keeps people indoors, siphons time away from other activities and promotes consumption through exposure to advertising

If, as the prominent urbanist Jane Jacobs noted, ‘sidewalk contacts are the small change from which a city’s wealth of public life may grow’, and all the things we are doing are conspiring against this spontaneous exchange, then it is less surprising that people feel less of a sense of community than they once did.

In our urgent rush to get “there,” we are going everywhere but being nowhere

Kevin Cashman, author of The Pause Principle

Compare this with the ‘Civetta’ (Little Owl) contrada I visited in the car-free town centre of Siena, Italy (apologies for the blurry photo – I took it without a flash so as not to be intrusive), where the residents eat shared meals in the street in the summer. It’s part of the culture, but the design and shaping of space absolutely influences what choices people can make and how they interact. It is interesting to note how many people love to visit small European towns which grew up without the influence of the car to immerse themselves in human-scale urban landscapes.


Compounding the atomisation of consumer societies is the commodification of a range of goods and services – we now have to pay for things that used to occur as a transaction of trust and friendship, from how we entertain ourselves to how we care for children. Often these commodities – such as child care and fast food – are bought because people are time-pressed from working longer hours and have longer commutes to and from work.

In a profound departure from the integrated community life, spontaneous social contact and support of extended family, friends and neighbours that has characterised human lifestyles thorough the generations, more affluent societies have begun leading lives that are increasingly privatised, segregated, time impoverished and disconnected.

Creating a healthy, resilient community means having time and energy to be a citizen, not just a consumer.

Along with Honoré, there are many other thinkers, academics, researchers and activists challenging the relationship of time to the pace of life, working hours, and work life balance, including John de Graaf, who founded the Take Back Your Time initiative in the US and Juliet Schor, Professor of Sociology at Boston College and author of Plenitude: The New Economics of True Wealth.

In a comical irony, one can only wish the Slow Movement would hurry up!

Time As a Pain Point 

watch where all times are screened out except a window called 'present' (which shows the current time), in between 'past' and 'future' on the watch face

‘It’s just another Manic Monday
Wish it was Sunday
‘Cause that’s my fun day
My I-don’t-have-to-run day…’

The Bangles

I believe that time and time pressures – work-life balance and fractured connections with family and friends – is a key ‘pain point’ of life today for many people.

You can Google a plethora of results on this, or you can simply ask the next five people you see if they feel they have enough time in the day, if they ever feel time-pressured, and note what the response is.

If we are going to make sustainability more immediately relevant in people’s lives, we need to consider using frames that sit at the nexus of what they are craving, and where it connects to sustainability.

If environment/sustainability framing isn’t working as well, or not working for many people, would a better approach be to show how it relates to the pain point of time?

Here is one of my favourite stories to illustrate this approach:

With time being a key factor in everything from waste and energy use, to working long hours to pay for consumption, to physical and mental lifestyle diseases, maybe it is time to ask:

What if we framed ‘sustainability’ as a way to free up people’s time, reduce stress, and improve their work-life balance?

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Design is the New Green

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young child in a forest touching a web of energy, green light

Image credit: ‘Contact’ by Ira Ratry

Climate change. Biodiversity loss. Poverty. Hyperconsumption. Lifestyle diseases.

These are wicked problems – those that are complex, and for which there are no simple answers, or no easy-to-implement solutions, or no known process to address them. And sometimes all three.

They are also symptoms.

Symptoms are clues that a system has been designed in such a way that it is not delivering the desired results (or that it has been designed to work to benefit particular interests). They are the manifestations of an underlying field of energy and intent.

Another way to think of ‘symptoms’ is as the logical consequences of a set of system conditions – for example, if you make energy-dense high calorie foods easily and cheaply available to a population that is car-dependent and in sedentary work, they are very likely to become overweight or obese.

Sometimes, symptoms are unintended consequences of a course of action. One of the most illustrative examples of attempting to fix symptoms with ‘solutions’ instead of taking a systems approach is the tale of ‘Operation Cat Drop’, cited in Amory Lovins, L Hunter Lovins and Paul Hawken’s book, Natural Capitalism:

Sometimes single-problem, single-solution approaches do work, but often optimizing one element in isolation pessimizes the entire system…

Consider what happened in Borneo in the 1950s. Many Dayak villagers had malaria, and the World Health Organization had a solution that was simple and direct. Spraying DDT seemed to work: mosquitoes died, and malaria declined. But then an expanding web of side effects (‘consequences you didn’t think of,’ quips biologist Garrett Hardin, ‘the existence of which you will deny as long as possible’) started to appear. The roofs of people’s houses began to collapse, because the DDT had killed tiny parasitic wasps that had previously controlled thatch-eating caterpillars.

The colonial government issued sheet-metal replacement roofs, but people could not sleep when tropical rains turned the tin roofs into drums. Meanwhile, the DDT-poisoned bugs were being eaten by geckos, which were eaten by cats. The DDT invisibly built up in the food chain and began to kill the cats. Without the cats, the rats multiplied.

The World Health Organization, threatened by potential outbreaks of typhus and sylvatic plague, which it had itself created, was obliged to parachute fourteen thousand live cats into Borneo. Thus occurred Operation Cat Drop, one of the odder missions of the British Royal Air Force.

Sometimes, it can be reasonably predicted that a course of action will generate undesirable symptoms, but even so, decisions are made with the acceptance that certain outcomes will happen.

Ideally, we’d be able to attend to the short term concern of symptom management and also put some effort into preventative measures. Yet frequently, investment in prevention is traded off in favour of cure – ‘fixing’ the problem after the damage is done.

Symptoms absorb time, attention and money, often so it can be shown that something is being seen to be done, while the underlying causes go unaddressed, and continue to perpetuate the problem.

In a recent post on The Daly News, conservation biologist turned steady state political economist, Brian Czech, drew the comparison between environmental journalism and the doctors in terms of their attention being focused on symptoms:

Environmental journalists are like doctors. Doctors run from patient to patient, harried, dealing with symptoms more than causes. They’re too busy dispensing pills to talk about holistic health. It’s an approach that makes money for the health industry but isn’t so great for public health.

Environmental journalists run from issue to issue, harried, dealing with environmental impacts more than causes. They’re too busy dispensing stories to talk about context. It’s an approach that makes money for the media but isn’t so great for environmental protection…

Similarly, we have a society — a readership — that considers economic growth the top priority. This unhealthy obsession has led to all kinds of problems: biodiversity loss, climate change, and ocean acidification to name a few. Yet the reader is just not making the connection. Growing GDP seems like the answer to all problems, not the cause.

Yet in the same week, in the wake of Hurricane Sandy’s devastating impact on the east coast of North and Central America, the connection between climate change and economic growth was cited by a somewhat surprising source – Businessweek:

In his book The Conundrum, David Owen, a staff writer at the New Yorker, contends that as long as the West places high and unquestioning value on economic growth and consumer gratification—with China and the rest of the developing world right behind—we will continue to burn the fossil fuels whose emissions trap heat in the atmosphere.

Wicked problems like climate change will not be effectively addressed while we continue to focus on the symptoms – perhaps our biggest challenge is the shift in mindset needed to understand that the things ordinarily listed as being a ’cause’ of climate change (burning fossil fuels, destruction of forests, industrial agriculture etc) are, in fact, symptoms.

Now, it’s certainly easier to keep describing the problems, and what can be done to ‘fight them’, and it’s harder and messier to have to change the complex systems that are producing them.

But we cannot resolve our intractable social and environmental problems by focusing on the problems themselves.

A system is a big black box
Of which we can’t unlock the locks,
And all we can find out about
Is what goes in and what comes out.

Perceiving input-output pairs,
Related by parameters,
Permits us, sometimes, to relate
An input, output and a state.

If this relation’s good and stable
Then to predict we may be able,
But if this fails us — heaven forbid!
We’ll be compelled to force the lid!

Kenneth Boulding, in ‘Thinking In Systems: A Primer’, by Donella Meadows

Successfully meeting sustainability challenges means we need to stop focusing on ‘reducing’ and ‘managing’ energy, emissions, water, waste and everything else (which are outcomes of how people live) and start looking our systems through a lens of design (not just physical design) and social innovation.

pic of black box with 'opening the black box' in white lettering written on it

Ultimately, environmental organisations and programs are not really about ‘environment’ at all – they are social innovation, because they set out to create new patterns of behaviour among human beings in order to lessen our impacts on the ecological systems which sustain all life. And social innovation is a design process.

This approach might also help reach those groups for whom the the ‘green’ or ‘environmental’ frame is no longer working or for whom environmental or sustainability messages have never resonated, because design focuses on how to make life better rather than offering up a laundry list of problems to be ‘fixed’.

If we ‘open the black box’ and design systems and environments that enable us to live collaboratively, share more and consume less, we might just find that the trend lines start to reverse, and we won’t need to tackle ‘obesity’ or ‘waste’ or ‘saving water’ or ‘greenhouse emissions’ or ‘social breakdown’.

If we want to address symptoms, then we need to design new systems.

Design is the new ‘green’!

green background with schematic chalk drawing by hand in white, linking three people with a light bulb in the centre

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