Ian Kiernan’s passing this week marked the end of the beginning of an important period in the environmental movement. While the current Government continues to support non-renewable energy policies and last week’s barely mentioned IPCC report described a fast-approaching environmental catastrophe it is easy to lose hope. There is however a new approach to sustainability and it was Kiernan’s movement 30 years ago that started it.
As a yachtsman competing in the 1986/1987 BOC Challenge solo round-the-world yacht race, Kiernan was one of the very first people to observe the sheer amount of plastic in our oceans. On his return to terra firma, he leapt into action organizing the inaugural “Clean Up Sydney Harbour Day” on January 8, 1989. 40,000 volunteers collected 5,000 tons of rubbish that day. That event graduated into the first “Clean Up Australia Day” on January 21,1990. Since then, more than 7 million Australians have volunteered to do their bit. The movement went global with the first “Clean Up the World Day” in 1993. Last year it was estimated that a 120 nations participated with approximately 35 million volunteers globally.
We shall deeply miss Kiernan’s drive and vision. We should however be comforted to know that another solo round-the-world sailor, Ellen MacArthur is ready to pick up the baton and continue on.
Just like Kiernan, British-born MacArthur competed in a solo circumnavigation of the globe in 2005. She in fact broke the world record for the fastest lap around the world. As Kiernan did before her, she observed the extraordinary amount of plastic in the ocean and like Kiernan, decided to do something about it. In 2010, MacArthur quit sailing and established the Ellen MacArthur Foundation focusing on the transition to a regenerative, “Circular Economy”.
The Circular Economy is a distinct move away from the current and doomed “Take – Make – Waste” linear model. In the Linear Economy, raw materials are extracted from the earth, used to make products that are then consumed and ultimately put into landfill for hundreds of years. Unlike any other living creature, human beings are the only species to create “waste”. And we have “managed” that waste mostly by putting it in holes in the ground.
As Kiernan and MacArthur discovered, some waste never makes it to landfill. Richard Attenborough’s 2017 documentary Blue Planet 2 declared that every year 8 million tons of plastic waste ends up in oceans. Furthermore by 2050 there will be more plastic in the ocean than sea life.
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation describes the Circular Economy as follows:
“Looking beyond the current take-make-dispose extractive industrial model, a circular economy aims to redefine growth, focusing on positive society-wide benefits. 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:
· Design out waste and pollution
· Keep products and materials in use
· Regenerate natural systems
Companies small and large from around the globe have joined the Ellen MacArthur Foundation along with the European Union and Universities to collaboratively lead the transition to a Circular Economy.
While we may not all be able to do a solo circumnavigation of the globe to really see the scale of the problem, 30 years ago thanks to Kiernan we saw the beginning of the issue and a community-lead solution. With MacArthur today a broader group of actors from across the globe are taking the next step in making the world a better place.