Analysis |

The New Order: Who Needs to Do What to Save Earth

We overdraw on the planet’s resources every day but there are ways forward, if we have the vision to see them, and the courage to take them

Yosef Gotlieb
Yosef Gotlieb
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Glass bottles are forever, practically
Trash on a beach: Glass bottles are forever, practically Credit: SPENCER PLATT - AFP
Yosef Gotlieb
Yosef Gotlieb

With climate change no longer theoretical but abundantly evident, clarity about the way forward and who needs to do what is urgently needed. Building societal resilience to the perilous impacts of the entwined climate and biodiversity crisis requires a division of labor that involves us all.

Governments, national and local, must mark red lines, redirect investments, and prioritize resources to ensure mitigation, which entails limiting and ultimately eliminating the drivers of climate. These must include curtailing fossil fuel use, ecosystem loss and the degradation of natural resources.

But due to the damage already incurred and because emissions continue to break records, communities everywhere will have to adapt to rising heat, volatile weather, rising sea level and resource scarcity, which are now inevitable, though their intensity will depend on what we do in the near run.

Adaptation necessitates a new type of economy, one that can sustain our generation and future ones. The new economic order must prudently conserve our natural wealth and respect the delicate ecological balances that support life. It will emphasize values that stress meeting basic needs, food, water, shelter, for all while forgoing rapacious consumption.

Natural disasters from 31 October - 2 November 2021Credit: YouTube

Roads leading forward do exist – if we act in time. The contours of a new sustainable order are taking shape. Efforts by researchers, entrepreneurs and decision-makers bring much-needed hope at a time when storms, fires, heatwaves, floods, food and water shortages and other threats spawned by global warming loom ever larger.

Small will be beautiful

Large business concerns committed to safeguarding the global commons will have a place in a sustainable economy. But the dominant players in the new economy will likely be small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMSEs).

The World Bank estimates that SMSEs from kiosks to municipal utilities to farms represent about 90% of business and 40% of employment worldwide. They generate up to 70% of jobs in emerging countries. The numbers are even higher when the informal sector (the shadow economy) is taken into account.

An OECD report notes that SMSEs are markedly innovative and do more with less resources and are less risk-averse than big businesses. They are are often locally-based, making use of human and natural resources within proximity, and tend to operate with a low carbon footprint.

Not all small- and medium-sized enterprises are committed to sustainability, but those that are, are helping to pave the way to create a new economy, one that would replace the fossil-fuel powered, take-make-waste linear system that has resulted in the crisis we face today.

Startups and small concerns are showing themselves to be groundbreaking They are also richly diverse, employing technologies ranging from enhanced traditional methods to state-of-the-art approaches. Some are rooted in distant rural communities while others are situated on city roofs where urban farms and energy collectors have been installed. Still others are found in abandoned warehouses where start-ups that began in university labs and experimental plots are upscaling solutions that provide a cleaner, healthier or more efficient product.

Circularity: Nature’s Way

The key to sustainability is circularity. The future sustainable economy must focus on conserving resources through use and reuse in order to extend their value for all stakeholders, including future generations.

Market economics preferred to mine new fonts of resources rather than reuse those already extracted — and thereby felled countless forests, befouled coastal zones, drained wetlands and degraded essential ecosystems in the process – practices that preordained today’s planetary crisis. The circular economy promotes a more rational approach to resource use.

Nature is inherently circular, based on feedback loops, food chains and trophic cascades that optimize energy and recycles inputs. The circular economy will emulate the natural model. It will entail using less virgin resources while maximizing the utility of those already mined or harvested, recovering basic inputs from the waste stream, reusing and repairing products, recycling materials, reconditioning equipment, and using byproducts in downstream processes and for renewable energy.

Glass, for instance, termed a “hidden gem” in a carbon neutral future, does not degrade over time, yet is a major component of landfills in our throw-away economy. New technologies enable it to be recycled using relatively low energy inputs and its reuse would result both in job creation while reducing the heavy costs of sand extraction and plastics use.

Discards at a glass plant in Yeruham, IsraelCredit: Ofer Vaknin

Lowering consumption is a corollary of circularity. It entails limiting our collective carbon footprint by focusing on needs and not wants, limiting single-use products, and eschewing fads such as “fast fashion” and made-to-break commodities.

A circular economy would reduce landfills and lessen the need for controlled incineration, ocean dumping and open-air burning, these being the strategies that we use today to terminate our discards. Instead, what has long been thought of as “trash” is now being viewed as a valuable and bountiful resource that can be utilized without further extracting more of the planet’s limited resources and incurring the environmental disruption these processes entail.

Circularity will also engender enormous employment and economic opportunities. They will require extensive human resources, trained and retooled.

What is the circular economy?Credit: YouTube

Waste not today, want not tomorrow

Another key to sustainability is adopting an outlook based on the greater good. One notable example of collective ethos and mutual aid is OLIO, an app that has spread internationally to reduce food waste through food sharing. Started by two women who met while attending Stanford University’s MBA program, OLIO’s founders aim to upend the situation where some 30% to 40% of the global food supply is thrown out, while hundreds of millions of people in poor and rich countries alike suffer from food insecurity and malnutrition.

These The OLIO innovators looked at the environmental as well as social impacts of food waste (forest and habitat loss, massive water use, methane and other GHG emissions produced by crop cultivation, meat production food and decomposition in landfills) and decided to do something about it.

Their app has had an outsized impact. Five million users in nearly sixty countries have shared 31 million portions of food which, when translated into ecological economy terms, offsets the emissions of 150 million car-kilometers. Listings offering or requesting donations are posted using the app and can be retrieved from neighboring households and food service providers like restaurants, caterers and institutions with surplus food.

OLIO reports that its app and support system are carbon-negative, offsetting the emissions generated by the cellular technology they deploy.

The collaborative mindset advocated by OLIO represents a worldview that is essential for the transition to a sustainable order. They are anchored in respect – for our natural environment, our communities, ourselves and our descendants – in economic relationships. This values set is based in building connections and finding happiness not in how much we have, but in our personal and mutual welfare.

Existing scholarship and new research show that the ties between sustainable mindset and lifestyle, on the one hand, and health and well-being on the other are significant.

Out with the slash-and-burn

Restoring the centrality of nature to economic considerations is often decried by defenders of the old order as utopian or retrogressive. However, Tthe innovators that are leading the way to a sustainable economy based on circularity are definitely not, however, quite the opposite of Luddites. Rather, they often create cutting-edge technologies that are the product of state-of-the-art science and are at the vanguard of a new modernity – one that will be more wisely conceivedthat will be more judicious than the slash-and-burn attack economics that preceded it.

Food waste in Brooklyn, slated for methane productionCredit: Stephen Groves / AP

All of this will require new knowledge, processes and technologies including designing out waste from our economic systems by extending the utility of materials well beyond their initial use, and creating products from biomaterials and other sustainable sources. This will necessitate creation of new jobs needed for a smart economy and the careful stewardship of natural resources.

The Platform for Accelerating the Circular Economy has articulated action plans for circularity in electronics, food, capital equipment as well as textiles. Other groups are doing the same concerning textiles, building, infrastructure, forestry, agriculture and other economic branches.

Building blocks in creating sustainable communities include food banks, vehicle sharing, community gardens, bikeways, green infrastructure, buyers’ groups for renewable energy, equipment exchange centers, repair hubs, credit unions and more. A sustainable order will require a new entrepreneurship, but not in the mold of those that characterized the last century which decimated family farms, shops and independent businesses and replaced them with chain stores, fast-food franchises and real estate tracts developed by tycoons engaged in empire-building. Sustainable enterprises will seek to generate and conserve value for all stakeholders — innovators, employees, suppliers, communities and future generations.

Such entities, paving stones to a sustainable modernity are already being put in place, as will be described in a forthcoming article.

This article is part of a series by Dr. Yosef Gotlieb describing the origins of climate change and the planetary crisis, its economic roots, new approaches for dealing with these threats, and initiatives to build a sustainable new order.

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