Welcome to Permacircular Horizons

Okay — it’s not the sexiest of blog titles. Nevertheless, it says exactly what I mean, so I’ll keep it. “Permacircularity” is a concept I’ve coined with my colleague Dominique Bourg. He and I both do research at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland.

What does it mean? The expression is a composite of “permaculture” and “circular economy”. In a nutshell, I use it to designate a genuinely circular economy — one that not only insists on a generalized  cyclical metabolism of the economy, but also on a culture of permanence: a deep questioning of the principle of economic growth.

It’s not an anti-growth concept per se. It merely follows common sense: What we need is selective and provisional growth of those things that are valuable for ecological and human viability; what we don’t need is the across-the-board and unlimited increase of all things deemed valuable by those who see technological and financial capital as the primary drivers of social progress.

What we need is an entirely new form of capitalism where the word “capital” means something completely different from what it means these days — and has been meaning for close to three centuries. What we need, and what I want to investigate in this blog, is a society and a culture in which recycling and efficiency are combined with frugality and simplicity in order to usher in an economy that is not merely circular but perma-circular — an economy in which growth is no longer an obligation or an objective but only an occasional, passing tool used towards more important goals: the nurturing, protection, and regeneration of the capitals we most cherish and most urgently need in order to be human — natural, social, and cultural capital.

Many people nowadays advocate a so-called “circular economy”. It’s become sort of a buzzword. Actually a good number of those advocates are — whatever the nice names they use, such as cradle to cradle or upcycling — putting forth ideas I find hard to accept. They are ideas in which generalized cyclical metabolism is divorced from, and even used against, a culture of permanence, and is instead instrumentalized with a view to building up technological capital and multiplying financial capital. Circularity, according to these arguments, is good growth business. We can recycle and grow and  pollute and de-pollute… These “Brave New World” ideas are absurd but they are, alas, becoming more and more popular and therefore more and more of an obstacle to genuine sustainability. Let me spell them out a bit more, in order to show you right from the start what this blog does not want to promote.

Mainstream circular economy advocates want a circular growth economy in which micro-level circularities (more or less localized “industrial symbioses” that help individual businesses or clusters of businesses save on resources and costs by closing a few loops in their factory systems) are put into place in the service of macro-level linearities: We need more of everything and why shouldn’t we have it? — so the argument goes — but we’ll try to keep the increasingly negative impact of our economy on the environment as low as possible. In fact — so the mainstream “circular economy” argument continues — we’ll sell our model by promising what it can’t offer, namely a truly regenerative economic growth where higher and higher real GDP would mean (absurdly) a healthier and healthier biosphere. In more technical terms, we’ll sell what can at best be a relative decoupling between GDP and environmental deterioration by claiming we can offer — thanks to wonderful technologies — absolute decoupling. And we’ll sell it as a business case, not as a democratic project, because businesses can always profit immediately from the micro-level circularities we’ll engineer for them and lock the economic system into, even if the promise of macro-level circularity turns out — as it’s sure to turn out — untenable.

This more or less deliberate confusion of levels is what explains why businesses are so enthusiastic for the so-called “circular economy” while serious scholars of material flows — such as, for instance, François Grosse in France or Vaclav Smil in Canada (I’ll give more details about them in later posts) — explain that no amount of recycling and resource efficiency will be able to offset the increasingly damaging effects of continuous planetary economic growth.

The fiction of a painless circular economy that can allow us to continue growing as societies and as humanity is what I oppose when I use the expression “perma-circularity”. It says that while circular metabolisms are crucial, they have little positive impact if they remain a micro-level, plant-by-plant or sector-by-sector piecemeal dynamic, while at the macro level the structural elements that generate growth (and are, incidentally, supported and even advocated and lobbied for by the same businesses that purport to be “going circular”) remain in place. We need not only circularity — we need permanence, in the sense of a global management of micro-growth paths (and also of various types of non-growth paths) so that we end up with what we need: macro-level stationarity.

The multiple aspects of such a project are what this blog will endeavor to investigate. There are human issues — how we can develop permacircular lifestyles and a permacircular culture or even cosmology — and there are economic issues — how we can develop a new vision of “markets” and of “capitalism” so that we succeed in protecting and regenerating the kinds of capital that really matter for an ecologically and anthropologically viable economy: not primarily technological and financial capital but, rather, natural, social and cultural capital. This totally regenerated view of what “capital” means calls for permaculture — considered as a view of the world and not just as a method of gardening and agriculture (though it’s of course also that).

So … welcome to the economy we need … welcome to Perma-Circular Horizons … a concrete, new but also ancient, view of what it means for us humans to inhabit our planet.


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3 thoughts on “Welcome to Permacircular Horizons

  1. interesting read, and i must say that i agree with your points of view. circularity is in danger of being reclaimed by the old story of never ending growth.
    But i also have the impression that a new war is being started between believers in growth and degrowth or permanence as you call it…and this seems to me a battle which not only i have seen before but which in my perception is not going to the real source of our current and future problems.
    The real problem is indeed that we are not able to change our way of thinking, our look at the world, our world views. And than we end up by putting frugality and solidarity in opposition with growth and individualism.
    But both groups of values are drivers which we will not be able to eradicate, so the battle can go on for ages, as it had done even before biblical times.
    What we need is to go deeper towards what can unite, even if we have different worldviews (which we will always have). So it is a question of diversity and how to work with it. I am looking forward to finding this here, in stead of a battle between perceived right and wrong circularist.
    i would do one suggestion: a circular can not be constructed without a middle point. What could be that middle point in circular economy?

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