"In the transformation towards a sustainable circular economy, it's crucial to give a voice not only to the experts but to all who cannot speak for themselves."
That's according to May Thorseth, Professor of Philosophy at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim, Norway.
She believes this should include "people who are less well off, future generations, animals, and the rest of nature. Besides the technical solutions, we need to widen our view and broaden our communication on ethical questions.”
The Norwegian University participates in European projects such as NEXTGEN and ULTIMATE, which focus on a specific niche in the circular economy system: the role of water.
Moral, cognitive and pragmatic reasons for involvement
ULTIMATE focuses on 'smart industrial symbiosis' and has nine European demonstration sites for new technologies. It also shows how these technologies can achieve on an economic and environmental scale, and stakeholders and civilians are actively involved.
May Thorseth and the project partners conducted interesting research in the demo sites in Spain and the UK. People were asked about their beliefs and morals to contribute to a change toward a circular economy. What do people think in the first place?
It revealed that there are different reasons why people want to be involved, including moral, cognitive, and pragmatic reasons. The moral reasons have to do with values and beliefs people have, the cognitive with the comprehension of the matter. Finally, the pragmatic reasons talk about self-interest.
What is good for the environment is not always the best for the people. Sustainability has three different dimensions: social, environmental, and economical.
"Of course, it's easier if you live in abundance in a stable democracy to be willing to get involved in a sustainable circular economy," Thorseth adds. "If you are a fisherman in China and your village is wiped away, you will not have the possibility to look at flooding on a global scale because first, you need a home and food for your family."
Ensuring responsible research
These ethical dilemmas should be considered when looking at ways to achieve a sustainable circular economy. Europe's Green Deal and its projects have a mission on this ethical subject. How can we create a Circular Economy where all are heard?
In many of the EU's H2020 projects, Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) is compulsory. RRI implies that researchers, citizens, policymakers, business and third sector organisations work together throughout the research and innovation process to align better the process and its outcome with the values, needs and expectations of society.
Furthermore, changing towards a sustainable circular economy has different perspectives on a local, national and global scale for countries, companies and broader audiences. "It is not just a matter of technological solutions," adds Thorseth.
"There's a tendency to reduce our problems now to something that we should leave to the experts. To leave it to the experts would be a way to say: that those with technological or other competencies should solve the problems. But some problems are not technical, such as our consumption patterns. We need to have a clear view on several different perspectives of what is right and what is good."
The real challenge? Upscaling
Thorseth believes one of the biggest challenges lies in connecting different stakeholder groups.
"The real challenge is how to bring the outcomes of the projects out to a broader scientific field and a broader public," she adds.
"We need to educate people, raise awareness and share the knowledge of smart solutions and involve all stakeholders. Nudging towards autonomous decision-making can help people speak out. An autonomous action expresses positive freedom, something all people can love. We must make this concrete to recognise the moral obligation to deal with the circular economy. To contribute to making more people look in the right direction. And in doing so, we must make all voices be heard, also the voices of those who cannot speak for themselves, such as future generations, animals, and the rest of nature.