The last core circular economy principle is perhaps the most essential: regenerate nature. The modern industrial economy has done a number on nature. Most of the materials we use - biological and technical - are lost after use while the land where they’re grown and stored is depleted. We’ve deforested vast swaths of rainforest, removed huge chunks of topsoil from the world’s fertile regions, and increased ocean acidification, to name just a few examples of our ecological damage.
In just a few hundred years, we’ve exacted a terrible toll on our collective home. But this was a choice that stands in stark contrast to the billions of years long before humans ever walked the Earth in which natural systems were completely in balance. Before us, waste didn’t exist. Waste is a purely human invention; we brought it into this world, and we can choose to take it out.
The best place to start is in the way we produce food, which is an unsustainable mess. We use far too much fertilizer, freshwater, and fossil fuel to feed eight billion mouths. The global food system is a major source of pollution and a massive threat to human and ecosystem health.
Of course, it doesn’t have to be this way. Circularity can turn the food system from a drain on our natural systems into a regenerative asset - for us and for nature. Regenerative farming practices put soil health front and center, foregoing the synthetic inputs that sadly dominate the global economy in lieu of natural alternatives that restore soil health and help soil absorb rather than release carbon. Healthy soils bring a host of benefits, from improved water purification and retention to higher food yields to biodiversity support.
In Connecticut, a fast-growing company called Greenwave replicates and scales regenerative ocean farms that produce shellfish and seaweeds in a nature-positive way. Greenwave’s innovative 3D lattices of ropes and baskets are suspended just below the ocean surface, allowing different species to grow at different depths. The ocean contains enough nutrients to support healthy growth, and regenerative ocean farms like Greenwave’s can even absorb excess nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus that cause algal eutrophication and create large dead zones like the infamous one in the Gulf of Mexico.
These farms replicate natural oceanic habitats by supporting layers of biodiversity at different depths and providing essential ecosystem services like absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Shellfish and seaweed are particularly beneficial, reducing ocean acidification, absorbing storm surge energy and thereby protecting coastal areas, and supporting other marine species while providing healthy food for humans.
The World Economic Forum is especially bullish on seaweed’s potential to unlock economic value while healing nature, estimating that farming seaweed in just 0.1% of the world’s oceans could create tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions, of jobs over the coming decades. Many of these jobs would likely be in economically depressed areas that will also bear the brunt of the climate crisis.
As opposed to the wasteful and inefficient monocultural farms that dominate the world, regenerative farming looks and acts a lot more like where we get our food from in the first place: nature. It supports healthy soil and healthy and diverse populations of all the living things we depend on, from tiny microbes in the soil to the birds and bees that pollinate our favorite crops.
This is the circular economy at its finest, a shining example of how we can support ourselves economically while maintaining natural balance and keeping our ecosystems healthy. A circular economy requires less land, allowing more land to be returned to nature via rewilding.
We can apply this model to the other main engine of the global economy - our energy system - by transitioning to renewable energy. Fossil fuels are harmful in oh-so-many ways, but even if they weren’t so harmful, their supply is finite. Irrespective of the climate crisis, we must power our civilization with renewable energy, chiefly from the sun (which directly provides solar energy and indirectly produces wind energy).
With renewable energy sourced from infrastructure that’s designed to be reused, we can create as much energy as we need forever with minimal impact on nature. We can say goodbye to barren mountaintops torn apart to mine coal and thousands of holes drilled around the world to extract oil.