The Industrial Revolution is often discussed within the context of all things tangible. After all, it was an era marked by mechanization and mass production. With access to more efficient fuel sources and systems for rapidly transforming raw materials, technological advancements that were once never before possible were suddenly within reach.
Beyond the highly visible material changes underway, a more subtle, yet equally important transformation was taking shape. In turning away from the insularity of agrarian life and turning towards an industrial life, humanity embraced a far more interdependent and complex way of life that altered the structure of social, economic and technological systems.
Dr. Joseph Tainter, an American anthropologist, noticed this progression and suggests that as time pushes forward humans tend to respond to their problems with more complex solutions. This can be attributed to the convergence between people, cultures, ideas and resources--an intricate web of connection that has spurred innovation and prosperity previously unattainable.
Now, this is no ode to complexity or an affirmation of today’s institutions and their underpinnings. When looking at one of humanity’s most pressing challenges like climate change, it is evident that society will need to undergo yet another transformation, one similar -- if not greater than -- that witnessed during the Industrial Revolution. Grand overarching solutions often skew towards the complex, whether that be because of uncertainty, incomplete information, or a combination thereof. But what is there to be said about simplicity and the enduring truths that have stood the test of time?
Take, for example, the concept of the circular economy. When looking at the fine print, it is easy to become lost in the gap between where our current economy stands and where we need to be. At its core, however, there lies a rather simple, yet profound objective: to advance an economy whereby little is wasted, much is reused and life in its many forms is both protected and improved. What if I were to tell you that a working understanding of the circular economy could be gleaned from a simple walk in the woods? It is Earth Day, after all.
In North America, we are approaching peak springtime. Perhaps now, more than most times, we are reminded of nature’s genius. In near perfect coordination, bulbous plants emerge, trees push new growth and migratory animals return. The truth is, though, that nature works harmoniously year round, fulfilling its seasonal promise.
Of the many unsung geniuses, there stands the Turkey Tail mushroom, Trametes veriscolor. While is often sought out for its medicinal benefits, the Turkey Tail performs a key ecosystem function, that being decomposition. As Paul Stamets explains in his book Mycelium Running, Saprophytic mushrooms, like the Turkey Tail, are ‘the premier recyclers of the planet.’ Known to grow in a shelf-like formation on fallen hardwoods, these fungi degrade woody material into key nutrients like carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus, thereby sharing readily available nutrients and minerals with other organisms.
While the instance of the Turkey Tail may come across as a simplification of the circular economy, I would like to challenge this thought. For much of the circular economy is a reflection of the core features of nature. Key features of resource sharing, cascading systems, disassembly, and reuse have been practiced and perfected within nature and stand as our role models. The question now remains: will we listen?