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Circular vs Linear TIME – Not Just Resource Use & Circular Economy (Part 1/2)

Updated: Jul 15, 2022

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[Many people, companies, and whole countries are leaving linear resource use (take-make-waste) and moving towards a circular economy.

They’re also moving away from linear culture/lifestyle towards more sustainable, e.g. NetZero targets, renewables, Paris Agreement, more interest in climate change, plant-based diet, composting, etc.

Both movements are gaining momentum.

But can we leave our linear time?

This is part one, part two is here.]

Note: this video explores linear vs circular time too.

Do you use resources in a linear or circular way? Clothes, smartphones, furniture, water bottles…

Take-make-waste vs borrow-use-return is a common distinction between the modern, western way of life and the traditional, indigenous way of life.

The former (linear) emphasizes speed, convenience, individualism, efficiency, and instant benefits; the latter (circular) respects nature, future generations, collective benefits, and sees the bigger picture.

Both models are used with (a) resource use and (b) culture/lifestyle.

In terms of resource use, the circular economy concept is our way to move away from the linear (unsustainable) model, towards the circular (sustainable) model.

In terms of culture/lifestyle, there isn’t ONE model, but there’re many tendencies (of various strengths and degrees, depending on where you live) to move away from the linear (unsustainable) towards circular (sustainable) lifestyle, e.g. recycled fashion, EVs, renewables, interest in climate change and the environment…

But, in addition to resource use and culture/lifestyle, there is another MAJOR difference between the linear and circular models that’s NEVER been tackled…

Linear vs circular time

Linear time, that is to say, historic time as we know it is a human invention dating back to the old Hebrews (as outlined in part two). It’s unknown in archaic, traditional societies, which run on circular, cyclical time, repeating the same rituals, acts and gestures over and over, infinitely … rejecting our concept of history (where concrete events have meaning on their own, in time).

Traditional societies don’t have a concrete history as we do, they have a mythical history that is circular, it’s not a timeline.

Instead of time, they have “a circulation of sacred energy in the cosmos” (p.110).

Their acts, gestures and rituals are following a model, paradigm, or myth, which they “act out”, and repeat infinitely.

“For the traditional societies, all the important acts of life were revealed originally by gods or heroes. Men only infinitely repeat these exemplary and paradigmatic gestures”, Eliade writes in ‘Myth of the Eternal Return.’

That repetition, that infinite cyclical motion is also their way of connecting with their gods, creators, and heroes.

Concrete events, novelties, and inventions don’t have meaning. Nothing has meaning except that which corresponds to the exemplary model, myth, which is to be imitated over and over.

Traditional societies don’t need “our” linear time and timeline history because to them, no individual events have any import. People live in a “perpetual present” (Eliade’s term). Everything important was already revealed by gods and heroes, and what matters – the only thing that really matters - is to bring it back through sacrifices, rituals and acts. Each repetition is a way of connecting to that original creation.

People are transporting themselves to the mythical epoch, Eliade writes:

“Insofar as an act (or an object) acquires a certain reality through the repetition of certain paradigmatic gestures, and acquires it through that alone, there is an implicit abolition of profane time, of duration, of "history"; and he who reproduces the exemplary gesture thus finds himself transported into the mythical epoch in which its revelation took place.” (p.35)

The point is:

Nature is sustainable and circular - not just resource-wise but time-wise. Same trees drop the same leaves at the same time each season to put them on in spring. Whales go to the same warmer waters at the same time each year. Wombats hibernate at the same time in the same area each season, etc. Infinite repetition of cycles.

Traditional societies, e.g. Aboriginal, are sustainable. They only take what they need from nature, without depleting its resources, e.g. don’t overfish, don’t cut all trees, let the turtles breed.

Sure, they do this out of necessity - to survive, and by being intimately connected with nature, of which they are a part.

When we, modern people, admire nature and traditional people for their sustainability and ‘circularity’, their way of reusing and not wasting, we’re ignoring their equally important...

circular time use.

They don’t have a timeline, don’t value “progress” or concrete history, and they’re not “moving forward”. There’re no new horizons to be discovered, conquered, or mastered.

And if you are not moving forward, if you’re always in the circle…

You’re not leaving anything behind you.

Because if you were, each time you’d repeat that same circle, you’d always face what (mess) you had left behind the last time.

In contrast, we, modern people are not only linear resource-wise and culturally (although that’s slowly changing)…

We’re linear in our time use

And this forward, arrow-like “progressive” motion meant that until recently, we never encountered, never faced what we’d left behind.

Why care?

Past actions simply became history disappearing in the rear-view mirror, on our way towards the new, ever-expanding horizons.

An arrow doesn’t care what it leaves behind because it never faces what it leaves behind (unlike the circle)

It’s only now that we see the problems of this linear motion, e.g. ocean pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, soil erosion, overfishing, coral bleaching, increasing heatwaves…

These initially peripheral by-products of our linear bullet train of progress are now in our face, left, right and centre.

We’re facing a disturbing truth…

The linear motion is an illusion.

We understand, finally, that this finite planet isn’t wild west of endless frontiers and inexhaustible resources.

We’re tackling resource use. That’s why the concept of circular economy exists – to move away from the linear, unsustainable towards circular, sustainable.

People are - with great variability - changing culture/lifestyle, e.g. more interest in climate change and sustainability.

Nice but that’s where we STOP

Traditional societies, e.g. Aboriginals, are pedestalized as “truly sustainable”, and used as role models to be followed.

But traditional societies are not only circular and sustainable in terms of resource use, culture and lifestyle. They’re also circular in terms of time-use.

Nature too recreates itself in circles year after year (new leaves on trees in spring, buds and flowers, migratory birds…), it isn’t “progressive.”

The big question is…

Can we have our cake and eat it too, can we have it both ways?


Can we, modern people, become sufficiently circular and sustainable resource-wise and culturally WITHOUT tackling our linear one-way timeline?

After years of exploitation, segregation, and abuse, more and more people now admire nature and traditional societies…

But they are FULLY circular, fully sustainable, incl. time-wise.

We want to be sustainable and circular, like nature, but we’re LINEAR time-wise.

Can we change that too - along with resources and lifestyle?

This requires and deserves the same attention that we give resource use and lifestyle.

In this follow-up article, we’re exploring how the linear timeline started and if this conundrum can be resolved.

Catch you then.


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