Dust to dust or… making wealth from waste

John Davis is a big man in my life. I am not sure he ever retired as such, but in his nineties he writes me letters from the South Coast of England with his plans and analysis – all in line with work he started with Fritz Schumacher, the author of Small is Beautiful, in the 1970s. 

John was Chair of the New Economics Foundation, and a wonderful guide, when I worked there in the 1990s.

John’s latest letter to me was prompted by the partnership and programme we have started on community economic development, working with support from the Department for Communities and Local Government.

“The aim and purpose of community economic development”, he writes “is to enable the populations of each local community to be as self-reliant as possible in the basic necessities of life.”

One way to start, he suggests, is to “make wealth from waste” in domestic energy by reducing its cost for all. The advantage of this is that it doesn’t require investment or a change of habits. “It simply requires central heating thermostats to be set at 12 degrees C instead of the higher, comfortable level, by having the higher level only in rooms when occupied using a top-up source heater.” He calls this ‘rational central heating use’.

Domestic energy is a major part of the nation’s total building energy consumption, accounting for 40% of inland UK energy consumption and CO2 emissions. To move towards zero emissions by 2050, to meet the overall 80% CO2 reductions needed, “there will need to be community energy service supply co-operatives that can ensure that every property is fully insulated, double glazed and operating rationally on natural gas or solar voltaic cells; and purchasing energy wholesale from suppliers to be shared between householders at lower annual costs because of the savings made.

In John’s area of Purbeck, for an average family in rented accommodation, 44% of their income goes on rent, in an area that has incomes 20% below the national average. “A self-build housing co-operative is needed to help make housing affordable”, by replacing high construction costs and speculative market prices for houses and flats with low cost technology and shared ownership of land.

To make wealth from waste in food, he recommends food delivery co-ops, to cut the waste of delivery systems for supermarkets, sourcing locally where possible. In transport, what is needed are co-operative car clubs, using reconditioned cars – making wealth from the waste of scrapped cars, which he estimated to be at the level of around 1,000 for a community of 60,000. Cars are the largest single item of waste people own that can be turned into wealth. His estimate is that up to 75% of the original sale value can be recovered through reconditioning – a process that is labour intensive so that the wealth is in part circulated through wages.

John recognises the need for these to go hand in hand with system changes – including for him, a dual currency system separating out the production and use of local essentials and national currencies for non-essentials. But what he explores is not a policy agenda but a mindset change, that what we thought was waste could turn out to be tomorrow’s wealth.

And conversely, that in a carbon constrained future with the imperative to meet basic needs for all, what is wealth today could be seen tomorrow, as no more than waste.

Dust to dust, ashes to ashes, we know that circle. Perhaps, in our generation or the next, we can create a new story and a new circle, from waste to wealth.

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