The U.S. is a consumption-based society whose economic health is dependent on spending and consumption of goods, or products, and services. The impact of our consumption, though, is felt globally. This is most obvious when considered from the perspective of the lifecycle of a product, from extraction of the raw resources required for it, to its production and distribution, and, finally, its consumption and disposal. The consequences of each step are both positive (e.g., personal, local, or national wealth) and negative (e.g., habitat destruction, environmental pollution, or human health). Consumption is essential to our economy, but our consumption and ultimately disposal of our consumed products, from food to clothing to electronics, is not sustainable. How will we provide for the consumptive needs of a growing global population if we continue to rely on raw resources that are non-renewable or we indiscriminately use or overuse renewable resources? Creating a circular economy is a wicked problem, that is, a complex societal challenge that is impossible to fully solve. Making a circular economy sustainable and making certain it works well for everyone is even more wicked. In this module, students will explore the the way complex problems like a circular economy intertwine natural systems with human activities that provide for our physical health and economic well-being.

Goals of the Module

Students are introduced to the multi‐faceted nature of wicked problems by exploring the impacts of a linear economy on society and the environment, as compared to a "circular economy," which attempts to "replace the 'end‐of‐life' concept with reducing, alternatively reusing, recycling, and recovering materials in production/distribution and consumption processes..." (Kirchherr et al. 2017, pp. 224–225). The student learning outcomes, however, are much broader and transferable to other sustainability challenges, with focus on how all complex problems disproportionately impact stakeholders, including underrepresented groups and the environment.

After completing the module, students will be able to:

  1. Identify ways in which currently linear aspects of our economic system shape your own behaviors and norms;
  2. Explain a sustainable "circular economy" from systems perspective;
  3. Identify how human and natural systems may affect each other in a circular economy; and
  4. Evaluate the implications on the environment and on social, health, and economic equity of a linear and a circular economy.

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