Tucked away in a remote stretch of the Pacific Ocean, Easter Island is one of the most isolated places on the planet. The island is as far away from other land masses as Curaçao is from Texas or Iceland is from Texel. For centuries, the lives of Easter Islanders played out entirely on that 164 km² piece of rock. But by the year 1722, the Easter Islanders and their culture had all but disappeared. A ‘great ecological disaster’ is one of the most common explanations we have for the largely vanished population. In this hypothesis, a link is made between the loss of forest cover on the island and the decline of civilisation. If this were true, I wonder what Easter Islanders might say about the impending ecological crisis we are all facing today.
As the story goes, Easter Island once consisted of one large forest, but the trees were cut down so that crops could be grown. This led to a growing population, but also to a drop in ground fertility, and the need for more land. Trees and bushes were also cut down for the construction of canoes, for firewood, for building houses, and for wood and rope. Rope was heavily used because it was necessary to transport and set up the statues, for which the island is still known today. When there were no more trees, and therefore no more canoes, the possibilities of fishing were limited. This chain reaction and the depletion of the island’s most important resources may have resulted in the collapse of the economy and civilisation.
Easter Island ca. 1914, via Wikimedia Commons.
Although strongly nuanced by other writers such as Rutger Bregman (Correspondent, November 6, 2017), this ecological history of Easter Island has been presented by various authors, including historian Clive Ponting and biologist Jared Diamond, as a cautionary example for the entire population of the planet Earth. Because Easter Island is isolated in the ocean just as the Earth is in the universe; a universe in itself.
HOW A DIFFERENT SCALE CAN PROVIDE NEW INSIGHTS
Ellen MacArthur also experienced a ‘universe in itself’ when she sailed solo around the world in 2005. Her boat was her world and her survival depended on the limited provisions, fuel, and other products she could take on board. At the time, she realised that our global economy is not so different — it is also completely dependent on the finite resources the world has and that we mine, use, and destroy. She returned from her solo trip with new insights into how the world works: as a place of interrelated cycles and finite resources, where the decisions we make today affect what remains for tomorrow. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which she established a few years later, was the first and largest foundation dedicated to developing and promoting the concept of a circular economy: A framework for systemic solutions that addresses global challenges such as climate change, loss of biodiversity, waste, and pollution. A framework based on three principles that are driven by design: eliminating waste and pollution, circulating products and materials (at their highest value), and regenerating nature.
The world is a place of interrelated cycles and finite resources, where the decisions we make today affect what remains for tomorrow.
CIRCULARITY IN THE CARIBBEAN
A few years after Ellen MacArthur sailed around the world, I sailed from Curaçao, where I was born and raised, to the Aves Islands and Los Roques. And then from Nevis, via Antigua, Guadeloupe, and Dominica to Martinique. I witnessed first hand how these islands, each with its own culture; influenced by the English or French colonisers, face similar challenges. Poverty, disproportionate capital distribution, natural disasters, and vulnerable infrastructure, to name a few. Above all that, the islands in the Caribbean are much less isolated than Easter Island, but equally dependent on foreign resources. Our Caribbean islands have become accustomed to relying heavily on importing goods and services. They also generate relatively large amounts of waste, partly due to the increasing number of tourists. Due to the high costs of doing so on an island scale, only a negligible amount of this waste is being remanufactured or recycled.
Value of products imported by Aruba from all countries in 2000 and 2020. Source: World integrated Trade Solution by The World Bank. For more context browse through import and export numbers on https://wits.worldbank.org
But, islands also lend themselves well to researching and implementing circular strategies. Not only does the clear boundary of islands make it easier to map and streamline resource flows, but the limited availability of resources on small islands also justifies better management of these inputs and outputs. This is well illustrated by the Panorama Paquetá research project on the small island in the Guanabara bay of Rio de Janeiro.
A MODEL FOR PAQUETÁ
Guanabara Bay, the second largest bay in Brazil, is situated between the ocean and the impressive mountainous shoreline of Rio de Janeiro. The vast bay is dotted with 130 islands, with Paquetá located approximately in the middle. It takes more than two hours by ferry to get to the island from the city center. With his project on Paquetá, Lodewijk Luken studied the different in- and outflows of energy, water and materials, and proposed changes needed to make these flows more efficient or even close the cycles.
The Panorama Paquetá project demonstrates how the concept of the circular economy can be applied in the built environment of an island, using a hyper-local and pragmatic approach to achieve social and economic progress. The changes proposed by Luken to make Paquetá a ‘circular island’ include the use of a small-scale biodigester to process household waste, the organisation of a ‘sustainability market’ to promote the reuse of products, the generation of energy from renewable sources, and the increase of biodiversity by facilitating plant and animal growth. These initiatives are integrated into a beach pool designed by Luken that cleans and utilises polluted bay water, with special attention given to the spatial integration and social embedding of the pool building in its context. The architectural expression of the pool building refers to Paquetá’s characteristic waterfront pavilions that have great historical significance to the place. At the same time, new economic opportunities and jobs are created through the recovery of resources and the new touristic value of the place.
The Panorama Paquetá project demonstrates how the concept of the circular economy can be applied in the built environment of an island, using a hyper-local and pragmatic approach to achieve social and economic progress.
Unique to the Panorama Paquetá project is the extent to which the community is involved in the development of the plans. Participation of the community is crucial for achieving successful systemic changes. The Panorama Paquetá project is supported by other research concerning circularity on islands, conducted by the Metabolism of Islands Organization, which supports island economies in achieving resource security and self-reliance through the creation, gathering, and curating of knowledge around island metabolism. They make this information accessible through one central platform. They also foster a community of stakeholders that collaborates on developing solutions and helping policy makers and practitioners to tackle their challenges regarding circularity on islands.
Analysis of resource flows on Paquetá island and a sketch of the Panorama Paquetá beach pool, all by Lodewijk Luken.
SMALL ISLANDS AS TRAILBLAZERS
Easter Island, Ellen MacArthur’s sailboat, and Paquetá can all be seen as microcosms with limited resources, high dependency, and clear boundaries. The history of Easter Island possibly serves as a cautionary example for the entire population of the planet Earth, highlighting the dangers of overusing and mismanaging finite resources. The insights gained from Ellen MacArthur’s solo sail around the world provided us with a framework for sustainable resource management. And the Panorama Paquetá project demonstrates the potential for a circular economy on small islands when implementing practical, social, and scalable circular strategies.
Easter Island, Ellen MacArthur’s sailboat, and Paquetá can all be seen as microcosms with limited resources, high dependency, and clear boundaries.
Looking at the global challenges we face, such as climate change, loss of biodiversity, waste and pollution, and then examining them on a smaller scale, can give us valuable insights and a clearer understanding of the issues. The Paquetá project is a good example of how creative minds can provide more clarity on complex situations by visualising what is already happening, but also by communicating how a radical rethink could look like. Islands’ clear boundaries and unique characteristics make them ideal models for exploring circular economy strategies.
In my opinion, local creative communities should take on the challenge to help foster a culture of innovation and experimentation, driving the development of new and more efficient solutions for, for example, resource management. Designers can play a crucial role in bringing stakeholders together within complex situations by facilitating communication, identifying common goals, and by using design thinking methods to help stakeholders from different sectors and backgrounds collaborate and co-create solutions. The Caribbean islands have the opportunity to be trailblazers in the adoption of a circular economy model. An opportunity we cannot deny. By focusing on participation, systemic change, and social innovation, Caribbean island states can move towards greater resource security and self-reliance.
About the author
Cleo de Brabander devotes her energy to making people re-value the things we use and consume in daily life through design. After working at Studio Droog on a series of collaborations including the Van Gogh Museum and the Rijksmuseum, she founded her own design studio and went on to lead the Designing Perspectives Foundation which initiates social design projects such as 100 Opheto. Cleo is also one of the winners of the WDCD Clean Energy Challenge (2018), and is serving on the Selection Committee for this year’s Make it Circular Challenge.
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