The non-circular economy : pain allocated far away

Suppose you eat a orange from a well known brand like Jaffa from Israel, you might expect there is nothing to worry about, oranges grow by nature, each year a new yield arrives, so its a “renewable resource”. Its part of a circular process, a closed cycle, and every year new oranges grow. You suppose. However, the situation is somewhat different: oranges grow in Israel, but not naturally: only because of heavy irrigation.* Now Israel is not a water rich country so its pumped up from underground aquifers, century old water reservoirs. [1] The aquifer in this case however is mainly under the West Bank, which is (was..?) Palestinian area. The aquifer is drained, and Palestinians, who are not allowed to extract water directly from the aquifer, only by open wells, see the water level going down until the well dries up. In other words, if you eat a jaffa orange , a Palestinian might have no drinking water. Besides, the aquifer is not replenished , or not fast enough, and will dry up in future. A perfect example of how resource cycles work, and their effects being invisible to us in daily life. It seems all right, as if part of a closed loop proces, but its an open end process, shifting burdens. .

Suppose you want to decorate your house with a carpet, and go out to find a woolen carpet form the middle east. You checked there is no child labor involved. You buy the carpet, as a bonus somebody has an income you suppose, and what can be wrong with sheep wool, Nothing anyway? Wrong. Sheep produce very little wool, That is, you need huge areas of land for sheep, resulting in only about 25 kg of wool per hectare per year. But that’s not even the main point, since the sheep might also produce milk and cheese, or be food itself at a certain moment. But grazing has devastating effects on the landscape in for instance Afghanistan and Iraq, and water is dammed for processing the wool: grazing and water ‘depletion’ together causing large scale desertification.[2] Sand storms are the result, and already dozens of villages have been lost, which are now covered under the sand. As Lester Brown writes in his book ‘Plan B’: If you have dust on you car , somewhere in the world food production is in danger… Besides: wool for insulation for instance, might work perfect as insulator, but is not a good idea , due to the very low harvests. ( same for cork by the way) .

Its nearly impossible to know this all , and you are not to blame directly, but this again is a example of an open end, with the burden somewhere you would not expect when buying a carpet. Its impossible to prove , but it seems these impacts at least contributes to the turmoil in these countries.

Water is at the hart of both examples, and its no wonder wars caused by water scarcity are already predicted, following the current oil conflicts.

The two examples are still from a simple process, with a straight forward product. You can imagine how the chain of actions will work with more complex products, compiled of many parts from all regions of the world . The burden is shifted towards the end of the chain, invisible for the man in the street that buys a product. Rivers running dry, fertile soil lost, deforestation , its all out of sight for nearly all of us here in Western Europe.

As what happens in China: Using bricks for building construction is forbidden in China’s northern region. The quantity of bricks required is huge, and the cost in fertile land and soil to produce these is too much. So bricks were abandoned. Do you know why the Chinese started building with bricks in the first place, some 150 years ago? They ran out of wood and forests; wood was cut in such huge quantities for construction and other purposes that it became scarce… history repeats, and we shift from one depleting strategy to another.

The climate in Northern China has become so dry, the river that used to flow through Beijing no longer has any water; all the river water is used upstream. The Chinese use rockets to try to make it rain , its called cloud seeding. And we are not talking a rocket now and then, that’s several rockets a day spread over the country. And the program will be increased soon, with many more installations and air planes, to increase rain over a area twice the size of France…[3]

But its by far not enough. A huge aqueduct has now been constructed to transport water thousands of kilometres from the wetter south to the north. A huge investment in concrete, with accompanying CO2 emissions. [4] The water problem replaced by a concrete (resources) and CO2 problem. At the same time the Gobi Desert is growing. An attempt is being made to halt its growth with a green wall, a band of trees planted on the borders of the desert. Which requires irrigation… and the project will be ongoing for the next 50 years…

The Gobi Desert is just one of many examples of desertification. The Sahara Desert in Africa is growing too, and a similar greenbelt of trees over thousands of kilometers is planned. The Colorado River in North America barely reaches the ocean now and will cease doing so at all if construction and water demands in the desert continue to increase. There are already many rivers never reaching the ocean again, and the amount is growing. [5]

Currently more then 50 % of people live in cities, all depending on resources from far away. We depend on products from China and other parts of the world. We are part of an urban organism, a parasitic “orbanism” , working with ‘ open cycles’ . Take Sand. It the second most consumed resource after water. And you might think, what can be wrong about sand? But the point is, not all the sand is the same. And sand for island creation, or in (concrete) construction, needs a particular grain size and shape. And this is what we are running short of. Useful Sand, as Denis Delestrac has shown recently in a prize winning documentary, is becoming very scarce, and causing big problems.[6] Its illegally harvested from beaches: someone predicted that by the end of this century you could not lie on beaches any more during your holiday, all the sand has gone into infrastructure and buildings ( into beach-resorts without beaches…). [7]

But the most striking is that for instance to accommodate Singapore’s growing construction ambitions large amounts of sand are pumped up in specific areas in the Indonesian archipelago, and traded illegally. Next the oceans currents level out the sand holes in the sea bed, causing neighboring islands to loose their foundation due to erosion. Some islands have already disappeared completely, the sand has been pulled into the ocean . The success of places like Singapore and the Arab emirates with their enormous hunger for construction activities destroys nature and living areas in other places. While a city as Singapore claims to be one of the most Sustainable in the world… but in fact relying on resources stolen from others) .

If you create new islands in front of the cost line in the united Arab emirates, you will loose an island somewhere else. Literally. That is the balancing act we are trapped in.

In fact you could say, that beaches are stolen: new beaches are created, while the original beaches on remote islands disappear, robbing these people from potential income. And now these people from the threatened islands are probably refugees, and working in illegal sand mining…. .(or immigrating to your country) Construction sand is consumed in a rate far greater as what nature can replenish, via erosion and similar global processes. Which counts for most resources, and so even for sand!

Just like we want to sustain our energy supply and our buildings : not by reducing demand, but applying new technologies that create a deficit somewhere else: from depleting fossil fuels to ever faster depleting material resources and stocks. Despite many attempts to reduce our consumption pattern, also in building, all strategies have shown marginal results, and usually are overtaken by new trends and rebound effects. Houses might perform better, or constructed with less resources, but the equipment and decoration grows, as well as the size of the houses increased and has outpaced the initial performance improvements.

A recent example of open cycles in the built environment is the attempt to be smart, like in smart cities. Amsterdam introduced, as part of a smart city program, a App so that people can find empty parking places in the city, It guides you to that place. That sounds smart, and handy, but citizens in Amsterdam don’t like this: their city is already overcrowded with tourists and this would even attract more people. But apart from that, this app should also add to sustainabiity, reducing people driving around to find parking places. Smart and sustainable technology. But apps require data, and data require datacentres. These kinds of apps increase the data flows, which leads to building new data centers. One of these was build in the province of Groningen, NL, by Google. At around the same time the local energy company was building a new off shore windpark, meant to provide 60.000 households with renewable energy, and decrease fossil fuels demand. By the time the google data centre was ready , as well as the windpark completed, it turns out Google has contracted all the energy from that windpark, to supply its data centre with “100% green energy”. So what in fact has happened here? Smart and sustainable intended data use, has led to huge new construction, and the need for extra windparks. No single kWh was saved, only huge materials invested in extra demand and supply. This is the modern open cycle approach, while all parties in the chain claim ( and think) to be green… .

Interfering in the cycle and using resource stock at a speed beyond natural replenishment, depletes the stock . We don’t stop there, to re-balance the system, but find us another stock , and another stock, and technology, to continue chasing our dreams of infinite growth in everything. We keep dreaming, as along as it lasts.

* 1 orange of 100 gr requires 50 ltr water: per tree with around 50 kilo, that makes 25.000 ltr.




[4] aquaduct:


[6] and [7] Sand Wars, by Denis Delestrac

TED talk Delestrac:

full documentary, (in German):