The Earth is round: how an earth scientist ended up going circular

This article was originally written in November 2017 for the lustrum of the Earth Science programme at the University of Amsterdam, the study association GAOS, and the alumni-association Lulofs. In November 2017, GAOS celebrated her 25th birthday. This coincided with the 75th anniversary of the Department of Earth Sciences at the UvA (now part of the IBED) and the 25th anniversary of its fieldwork and research campaign in Luxembourg.

"You're a what?" most say when I tell them I'm an earth scientist. "It's a broad science," I say with undying enthusiasm, "you know, just the study of the entire Earth." Sometimes, I wish I was exaggerating. But according to the University of Amsterdam (UvA), to understand a system as complex as our Earth it requires scientists to mine knowledge from all the other disciplines, even beyond the natural sciences.

We're a fun, yet small bunch, us earth scientists. In my starting year, there was just 18 of us, starry-eyed bird- and bunny-loving tree-huggers. What you've heard is true: on occasion, we lick rocks (every seasoned earth scientist knows it's a surefire way to identify them). More frequently, though, we show up at bars with our mountaineering boots still on, a Hansel and Gretel-like trail of mud still dawdling from that day's fieldwork excursion. It is on these occasions some earth scientists can feel a little lost in the city. Unless, of course, they find themselves in the Lost City of the Atlantic, in which case they've died and gone to heaven.

I was one of the few who felt fascinated by the city, rather than overcome by the strong impulse to escape and run away from it all to lick rocks on a mountain (may still consider returning once we've fixed our cities). When we took Dr. Parson's biogeochemical flows class and learned about the global nitrogen and phosphorus cycle all I could think about was pee. No, not because I had to go, but because of the vast amounts of the nutrients in our urine. Could we extract this locally and reduce phosphate-mining in foreign countries? My mind would wander until I heard, "exam" and I snapped back to realize I had missed half of the lecture.

The same daydreams were rampant when Dr. Rijsdijk was teaching us about island biogeography. The field originated in Darwin’s time to explain how species diversify as they disperse across islands. I was drawn in by the story of Darwin’s finches, perhaps the most famous example of species diversification, where finches on different islands had evolved different beaks to account for differing food availability. And drifted out again as I thought about how islands represented in a very visual way the uniqueness of isolated geographies and their ability to catalyze profound changes.

In the last year of my Masters, I started at Metabolic, an Amsterdam-based consultancy that uses systems thinking to tackle global sustainability challenges. Now, two years later and as a full-time consultant, my daydreams are coming true. In my role, I get to apply the principles of the circular economy on a tangible scale, and undoubtedly, with the same unwitting passion, now answer the question, "the circular what now?". The circular economy arose from the exponential growth in our population and the accompanying resource demands which are putting pressure on the planet like never before. We have, for the first time in our history, begun to cross the safe boundaries within which the world operates. These boundaries include climate change, biodiversity loss, land use and the availability of essential chemicals. Protecting these boundaries is essential for our survival. The circular economy is an economic model for addressing human needs and fairly distributing resources without undermining the functioning of the biosphere or crossing any planetary boundaries. Essentially it promotes cycling resources in closed loops, without losing integrity, energy or producing waste. There's a reason our GAOS sweaters say, "earth scientist is not a career, it's a post apocalyptic survival skill.”

I chose to study earth sciences because I wanted to understand how the Earth functions. At the UvA, I got what I asked for, and more. Yet, the more I learned, the more overwhelmed I felt about the massive challenges that are facing each and every one of us. Focusing on circular and nature-based urban development at Metabolic, I've been able to zoom in on something I feel so ardent about you can barely call it a job.

Circular EconomyNadine