Tag Archives: sustainability


By special guest Michiel Doorn

The Circular Economy is the latest framework that has emerged in the area of “sustainability.” The framework took off about ten years ago, buoyed by the efforts of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and others and builds on Cradle to Cradle, Industrial ecology, Biomimicry and a few other concepts. Several European countries have adopted circular economy goals, as has the European Union, and even some American cities. Recently, it was embraced by the US Chamber of Commerce. This means it is either a true revolutionary breakthrough or yet another greenish bandwagon that organizations can jump on. The quick answer is, of course, both, depending on the perspective one is coming from. So let’s dig a little deeper and see if we can analyze it from a value systems perspective.

What is the Circular Economy? As one might expect, there are now numerous definitions, but sticking with aforementioned Foundation, The Circular Economy aims to redefine growth, focusing on positive society-wide benefits (Looking beyond the current take-make-waste extractive industrial model). It entails gradually decoupling economic activity from the consumption of finite resources, and designing waste out of the system. Underpinned by a transition to renewable energy sources, the circular model builds economic, natural, and social capital. It is based on three principles: 1) Design out waste and pollution, 2) Keep products and materials in use, 3) Regenerate natural systems.[1]

This is a mouthful and a lot to unpack. What is key is that the Circular Economy is based on ecological principles. In nature there is no waste as all waste becomes food for other organisms. The only source of energy for this process is sunlight. Hence, the inclusion of renewable energy in the definition. Nature is a self-regulating system and the Circular Economy tries to be like nature. This is an excellent concept; first, because we know from observation that nature has been doing really well for eons, as long as stray asteroids or humans don’t mess with it too much. And secondly, many of today’s social, economical, ecological, and other, problems are now so complex that solutions will haveto be crafted  from a systems perspective, as Donella Meadows, Peter Senge and others have been saying for years.

So, what is the opposite of and the precursor to systems thinking? Of course, linear thinking, as well as analytical thinking. the original meaning of the word analysis is to cut problems up into categories that can be dealt with separately. At this point it is helpful to take a look at how our thinking has evolved when it comes to “sustainability,” indicated in Figure 1.[2]

Figure 1 shows that sustainability thinking has evolved over time, and can be correlated to the evolution of our ability to take more complex perspectives as shown on the left.
The figure does not show how outside drivers have also grown in complexity, starting with sewage running down the streets in large cities, all the way up to today’s climate crisis and ecosystem collapse. What the figure does include is a description of potentially matching leadership styles on the right. It is important to note that we can make strategic choices (the double-sided arrow), where we may choose to apply more linear or simple solutions to particular problems, as long as we do so consciously.

Spiral Dynamics buffs will have no problem recognizing hints of the common value systems in the diagram. However, the leap in thinking from linear/categories to systems should not be mistaken for the notorious Leap to Second Tier or Yellow. The Circular Economy is not there yet and seems to be firmly embedded in Orange-Green. This explains why the Chamber of Commerce and many large companies are excited by it. There are several reasons why the Circular Economy, while being complicated to implement, is not as advanced and potent as it may seem.

First, the Circular Economy does not remotely change the eternal economical and financialgrowth model, and we can basically continue what we’ve been doing all along. Second, for large companies that make their money with extractive models that take from nature and return unusable waste to our air, water or soil, there is too much at stake to change. When we look through an ecological lens they are not so hard to spot. Third, on top of the challenges from the current economical-financial-politcal steam roller, less advanced leaders will see the Circular Economy as something that may simply help them save costs or bring new revenue. After all we make meaning from where we are at. However, as Bill McDonough says “less bad is not the same as good,” let alone regenerative.

This is probably why there are still few truly circular success stories. Using our rational minds to design out waste, close the material loops and switch to solar is not enough. We will need to develop new business models that value sharing and leasing as opposed to owning. As the butterfly diagram shows, repair, reuse, refurbish and recycle are all business models that are quite different from what manufacturers are used to today. Advanced leaders (right side of Figure 1) know this but they will still need help. A significant switch to a Circular Economy begs for multistakeholder efforts and a strong support from regulators that get it and are not beholden to the existing powers. Especially important are innovative, tailored financial models for operations and investments.

On a final note, the Circular Economy offers no methods or models to handle our massive environmental problems that already exist (plastic in oceans, fish and our drinking water, omnipresent persistent pollutants, loss of biodiversity, etc.). Yet, the Circular Economy might be the stepping stone toward a value system where context, ie. environment, is becoming fully integrated into our reality and associated leadership. The upper layers in Figure 1 offer some thoughts. There is that one little phrase tagged on at the end, of the definition: “regenerate our natural systems.” I believe we can figure out most of what’s circular, if we really decide to commit and collaborate. But for a regenerative, mutually enhancing relationship with our planet we will have to go further, and deeper. We will have to learn what it means to work with nature, listen to her, and enter into relationship with her. When we are in a relationship, we care. If we don’t care, we risk losing everything.

Michiel Doorn is a sustainability thinker who lives alternately in North Carolina and the Netherlands. He is a founding partner of Circularity Edge (www.circularityedge.com) and has worked with Spiral Dynamics for many years. He is passionate about evolving awareness and associated action through coaching and experiential learning in support of all Life. He can be reached by email: michiel.doorn@circularityedge.com 





[1]For a visual, look up Butterfly diagram: https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/circular-economy/infographic

[2]Codeveloped with Edwin Janssen, Sustainable Growth Associates.


Sustainability Practices and the MEMEnomics Framework

I was invited as a keynote speaker to the 2014 annual Sustainability Reporting Conference in Berlin Germany. This was a gathering of leading edge thinkers from all over the world representing corporations who are keen on advancing the values of a green and inclusive economy, and the agencies who report on such practices. Most of the focus was on how to define the “reporting” function on sustainability just as credit agencies focus on their credit reporting function. The difference is that credit reporting and other corporate reporting functions have been quantified and standardized for decades with clear and measurable consequences for failing to follow the standards. On the other hand, the sustainability reporting function remains in its infancy stages requiring further debate and a globally unified measure of consequences for failure to meet standards.

In the MEMEnomics Framework, the reporting function – whether it relates to credit, sustainability, or the thousands of indexes that are calculated every day – remains a value of the 4th level BLUE system. Absolutist and standardized. It is a glorified form of accounting. It matters not what you’re reporting on, unless there are real quantifiable consequences for failing to meet the standards, the endeavor will not have universal acceptance. Since most of these standards are designed to give a client a competitive edge, they have the reporting of financial capital as their primary objective, and human and natural capital a distant second. Sustainability reporting is looking to change those metrics and herein lays the challenge.

Slide2The concept of sustainability itself is a Second Tier notion, needing everyone who is contributing to the carbon footprint to raise their level of consciousness to the Planetary 7th and 8th level systems. At the corporate level, this is easier said than done, especially when 90-95% of corporate values remain in the First Tier (Levels1-6). As my friend Ralph Thurm of BSD Consulting/Germany, who organized the conference kept reminding us, we are only doing “less bad” and still have a long way to go.

Slide1After presenting the MEMEnomics Platform for Functional Capitalism in my keynote, I proposed that not all political and corporate leaders have the conscious awareness needed to voluntarily adopt sustainability measures, which meant they have to be “disrupted into adopting them”. The title of my talk was “Innovate, Disrupt, and Align”. The West must lead on the first two, forcing the rest of the planet to automatically align through sustainable means of production with greater economic benefit than the traditional conventional means.


Spiral Dynamics & Memenomics; Human Emergence Training in Austin, Texas

Dr. Don Beck and I led a two-day intensive training in Spiral Dynamics and Memenomics in Austin Texas. As many as 60 attendees were present from all over the country. The event coincided with the South by South West (SXSW) conferences and Festival.  Thanks to our sponsors Peace through Commerce, Voice & Exit, and What if it Really Works? who made it all possible. Below are some slides from my presentation that show the re-framing of economic issues through the prism of this emerging science we call values-systems. For those interested in becoming certified in Spiral Dynamics level 1  by Dr. Beck himself, we’ll be offering a 3-day long training to coincide with the launch of The Center for Human Emergence  Third Coat in Houston and the launch of my book. These events are all slated to take place September 20-24 with speaking engagements and book signings at different venues. The SDi training Level One will be on the weekend. Please check back in late July or early August for posted updates on the September schedule

The slides below are often the ones that are the most informative about the Memenomics framework and tend to solicit the most questions and comments. Many of the plotted graphs will be shared on the Memenomics website after the release of my Book: Memenomics; The Next Generation Economic System.  Please visit earlier posts if you’d like to deepen your knowledge about the history of Memenomics, Spiral Dynamics, values-systems, Dr. Don E. Beck and Professor Clare W. Graves.