In natural systems, physical matter flows in cycles. Nutrients from one form of life become food for another. Organisms live and die, eventually returning to the soil or the sea where the cycle starts again.

During the industrial revolution we invented a different modus operandi. Industrialised, or mechanised production, was an innovative, rational response, to an escalating population requiring sufficient quantities of food, and whose labour, in exchange for wages, allowed workers to buy goods from the new factories springing up at the time. This was the birth of the first phase of capitalism.

In simple terms it is the same system that persists today. But now we can appreciate the unanticipated consequences of its impact across several socio-economic spheres — and particularly as it pertains to the ethos of ownership and wealth in contemporary society.

1. Making & Growing

Chemical, mechanical, and electrical means are consistently applied to has become the mass production and distribution of products, as well as the cultivation of food and food-stock for farm animals. But mechanised production is linear and extractive. It generates a great deal of waste as raw materials are taken from the Earth and processed into food or used to manufacture goods.

When we finish with any product we expect to throw what is left away. But there is no such thing as away — everything we do not want, or become weary of owning, habitually ends up as refuse or waste.

While organic material like food decays quickly, most other forms of waste contain toxins and synthetic substances that decompose very slowly, continuing to contaminate and clog up the oceans and the rivers, the landfills and the sewers, for decades if not centuries.

It does not have to be like that. Biomimicry encourages the copying of complex patterns in nature — creating industrial ecosystems that are regenerative and restorative by design. Instead of creating waste in the process of using raw materials, natural systems reuse and recycle resources over and over again. If there is any waste, it is inconsequential.

This is not a new idea. After all nature itself has been doing it this way for millions of years. It is not even a novel idea in terms of industry and agriculture. With additive 3D printing, or so-called desk-top manufacturing, it is easy to fabricate products ranging from human organs to entire buildings with such precision that no surplus is left over.

Likewise using regenerative farming methods, it is possible for local farmers to eliminate the use of pesticides, fertilisers and herbicides, in the process of restoring soils, increasing yields, producing crops that are more nutritious than was previously the case with large-scale agribusiness methods, and encouraging insects and other forms of life to flourish.

A distinctly contemporary issue in this regard is the problem of electronic waste. Higher consumption rates of electrical devices, as well as shorter life-cycles driven by planned obsolescence, are contributing to a rapid buildup of electronic waste. At least 44.5 million metric tons of unwanted electronic debris — including battery-powered or plug-tethered devices such as laptops, smartphones and televisions — accumulates in waste dumps each year. By 2030, that is projected to grow to around 74.7 million tons. Electronic waste often contains plastics, hazardous materials in smartphones, such as cadmium and mercury, and refrigerant chemicals, like chlorofluorocarbons, that can leach into water catchments.

Little of this waste is recycled, although electronic debris represents a potential urban mine, containing valuable metals such as iron, copper and gold, that can be recovered. The value of this e-waste was around $57 billion in 2019, only $10 billion of which was recycled. Where are the entrepreneurs when you really need them? Hidden away in the bowels of our corporations perhaps…

2. Relating & Organising

Following the industrial revolution, the automated factory became the standard model for organising almost everything — from school classrooms, clubs and prisons to corporations. Within this template hierarchies of individuals and teams ensured that processes could be standardised and efficiency pursued at all levels of the establishment.

In the world of business this quickly led to employees being used as human resources, to be mined primarily for their manual labour and latterly for their knowledge. A totally new industry appeared out of nowhere to manage these frequently impulsive and recalcitrant resources, and to impose at least the illusion of orderliness.

When measurements were instituted, in the form of cultural climate surveys, executives began to rue the fact that no structure imposed on workers appeared ideal. Most were suboptimal in some form, while some even caused staff to become actively disengaged.

Initially the proposed band-aid was a mixture of sanctions and rewards. Metrics of every kind littered the management landscape — from goals and objectives to key performance indicators, strategic alignment, process efficiency dashboards, and retention targets.

Gradually smarter enterprises realised that organisations could do better by emulating nature — especially in terms of cycles, information flows, and aesthetics. Liquid forms of organising were adopted as a way of designing work to be more intrinsically motivating. Pointless work was eliminated, and as the workplace became more flexible, recruits were invited to contribute to the overall goals of the enterprise as they saw fit, finding ways to adapt the culture rather than being required to fit into a pre-existing mould.

Many large corporations still resist this way of organising of course. The myth of top-down control is still pervasive in organisations that assume restrictive practices are best, instruct staff to leave their individuality at the door each day, and impose a variety of controls and performance indicators on staff in a constant battle for advancement.

3. Owning & Earning

The field that most owes its credentials to arcane theories is surely economics. At its core, the idea of exchange within an economic framework is quite straightforward. But, as with industrialized production and organisational design, we managed to complicate matters by intervening in what should be a simple set of transactions.

By establishing discrete institutions to handle differing roles, introducing astute ideas like credit and debt, adding layers of complexity via tax and investment laws, and allowing the invention of impenetrable financial instruments, like derivatives and credit default swaps, for example, which few people really understand, we have managed to turn the economy into a factory-like global casino. This has trapped us in a prison where we are prevented from imagining anything better. Even the least radical ideas are pronounced contrary to the ethos of free markets, too expensive or counterproductive.

Meanwhile, instead of growing the resilience needed to provide solutions in the face of major societal shocks, like the current pandemic for example, or the massive problems we will encounter as a result of global heating, economic orthodoxy insists on skipping from controlling inflation to maintaining price stability in a myopic dance of distraction.

It is not as though innovative ideas for dealing with the new realities are impossible to find. Beginning with Sweden’s Riksbank in 1668, central banks and their monetary policy tools have been available as lenders of last resort specifically to provide financial markets with the liquidity needed in times of crisis.

Nowadays it is not hard to imagine the fiscal equivalent — state-funded employers of last resort. Imagine this as a job-guarantee program, comprising a living wage and benefits package. It would become available to anyone who wanted a job but was unable to find work in the private and government sectors, and in times of crisis. Such a device could be expected to eliminate unemployment and its associated cost burden, bolster self-esteem and mental health, and provide additional care for communities and local environments.

Likewise, a Carbon Bad Bank established by the state to acquire and reassign stranded carbon assets from large fossil fuel corporations, thus leaving them with clean balance sheets for investing in renewables and associated products, is surely another idea whose time has come.

These few examples clearly illustrate how the crisis of imagination besetting us today can be overcome. But we need to move beyond the cognitive and emotional thresholds that keep us tethered to obsolete ideas or trapped in dispensable ideological compartments.

Nature can show us better ways. Nature is complex — meaning it is abundantly resilient, and its patterns easily replicated. Our tendency to make things more complicated than they need to be can be remedied by accessing complexity, designing our most life-critical systems in cycles, waves and flows, using organising principles that are open and fluid, and thus avoiding the hierarchies and imposed artificiality of the industrial era and its practices.

Philosopher-Activist and Executive Director at Centre for the Future