Climate Change

Recapturing the Value of the World’s Trash

The accumulation of human-generated waste is causing negative health and environmental impacts around the globe. Many countries are realizing they must work together to reduce waste by recovering, reusing, and remaking things—and the inspiration and technology to create such a “circular economy” already exists.

Image of garbage covering a beach in Bali

By Henrique Pacini and Carrie Snyder 

The production of goods is typically a one-way street. At the heart of our global economic system is a linear model of resource extraction, transformation, consumption, and then the end of the line—disposal. Once stuff hits the waste bin, however, collective amnesia seems to set in among creators and consumers alike. The pristine materials that create, say, a mattress or a laser printer, rarely return to the production cycle, where they could be incorporated into other products. 

We have all heard the phrase “reduce, reuse, recycle” and can imagine the changes we could make to personal consumption. Scaling these principles to a global network of industries and governments in order to create a more “circular economy” is much more challenging; but it’s a model that many nations are now taking seriously.

What Is a Circular Economy?

A circular economy challenges the prevailing linear model of creation-disposal. In its essence, circularity implies resources are kept longer in the economy, by means of better product design, durability, reuse, and recycling. It not only shifts the economy’s spotlight to the value of the waste bin, but also calls for a systemic rethinking of all steps of the value chain to ensure resource recovery. In a simplified way, a circular economy mines our own waste instead of exploiting new resources from nature. 

In a circular economy, the definition of waste includes both a physical and a virtual dimension. Physical waste can be illustrated by an old computer, used textiles, or a half-eaten fruit. Virtual—or immaterial—waste is, for example, empty spaces, unused seats, or any kind of informational barriers which stimulate more consumption when there would be an alternative way to fulfill the same need. (Just imagine someone purchasing a new power drill when her neighbor has one he never uses, or a farmer purchasing expensive chemical fertilizer while the nearby farm has plenty of organic fertilizer to spare.) For simplification, we will focus on the physical waste, which is conceptually easier to grasp.... Read more about Recapturing the Value of the World’s Trash

From Deluge to Drought: The Inescapable Role of Water in the History of South Asia

In his latest book, historian Sunil Amrith describes the ageless link between water and prosperity in South Asia and examines the new challenges of climate change.

Image of water droplets on a taxi window.

By Michelle Nicholasen

The monsoon is often referred to as India’s “finance minister,” writes Faculty Associate Sunil Amrith, because the economy of South Asia is deeply tied to the amount of rainfall the monsoon brings each year—to fill aquifers, irrigate agriculture, and drive hydroelectricity. But climate change is threatening to shift the patterns of the monsoon, making it more erratic, with the potential to destabilize livelihoods throughout the region. 

In his latest book, Unruly Waters: How Rains, Rivers, Coasts, and Seas Have Shaped Asia’s History, Amrith describes the intricate role water plays in the interconnected economic and social structures of South Asia, and tells the stories of people and institutions that have undertaken massive efforts to harness water and control its distribution. 

Q: How would you describe the summer (or Southwest) monsoon to someone who has never experienced it?

A: It feels like the world is dissolving. Both the intensity and the pervasiveness of water during those months of the year are what characterize them. And if you're in a big city like Mumbai, you are certainly in this “floating city” to some extent. 

I think one of the defining features of the monsoon climate is its period of waiting, which is culturally very resonant in South Asia. Going back to the great Indian epic poems, you have this account of waiting for the rains to come, and of course they come after the heat has built and built and built through April and May. The phrase often used is "the burst of the monsoon."... Read more about From Deluge to Drought: The Inescapable Role of Water in the History of South Asia