Separating the wheat from the chaff

For my first post-welcome post, I’d like to offer comments on a few significant quotes from stuff I’ve read. This might help to sharpen the contrast between the circular growth economy I do not advocate and the perma-circular economy I do advocate.

One of the main think tanks spearheading a totally mainstream approach to generalized cyclical metabolisms is the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, located in the UK. They publish lavish documents in full color and count many of the world’s largest industrial and financial multinationals among their members. And, unsurprisingly, they promise a decoupling of economic growth from environmental damage. In a document entitled “Project Overview”, which is part of a broader series entitled Circularity Indicators: An Approach to Measuring Circularity (Ellen MacArthur Foundation, May 2015, available here), they submit the following:

“A circular economy is a global economic model that aims to decouple economic growth and development from the consumption of finite resources. Increasingly, companies see tremendous opportunity in this model … In contrast to the linear model, a pattern of resource deployment that is circular by design allows further growth without the need for more resources.”

“Further growth” within a “global economic model”: at least the aim is clear. It is to further macro-level economic growth through micro-level techno-fixes. The problem is that we aren’t told whether the decoupling will be absolute or only relative. In other words, as “economic growth and development” continue unabated, will the “consumption of finite resources” actually decrease in absolute terms — that is, with each percent of additional world growth there will be, say, a 0.1 or a 0.5 or a 0.75 or a 1.5% decrease in global resource consumption? Or will it merely increase less quickly — that is, with each percent of additional world growth there will be, say, a 0.5 or a 0.75% increase in global resource consumption? The former is a pipe dream not borne out by any data; the latter is nothing but a way of saying that the unsustainability of our global growth model will make itself felt slightly later than under a business-as-usual scenario. Will the circular growth economy actually repair and regenerate the biosphere even as economic growth is maintained and even boosted? Or will it merely degrade it more slowly, allow industrial economies to grow a little longer before critical resource ceilings and boundaries start being crossed? Can a circular growth economy extend the logic of the present economic system into an indefinite future, or can it merely win us a few decades or years?

In the first case, we wouldn’t need to worry about growth at all. Indeed, we would need to encourage it through massive recourse to circular-economy technologies and processes. This is clearly what today’s industry and finance has in mind. And it is obviously what sells with businesses that want to do well by doing good — and, in the process, make more money by securing their assets and partially insulating themselves from resource scarcity and resource price fluctuations. A mainstream business circularity consultant, Michael Braungart, author (with William McDounough) of the bestselling book Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things (North Point Press, 2002), has clearly stated the underlying philosophy:

“The growth of nature (and of children) is usually perceived as beautiful and healthy. Industrial growth, on the other hand, has been called into question by environmentalists and others concerned about the rapacious use of resources and the disintegration of culture and environment. … The perceived conflict between nature and industry [makes] it look as if the values of one system must be sacrificed to the other. But unquestioningly there are things we all want to grow, and things we don’t want to grow. … The key is not to make human industries and systems smaller … but to design them to get bigger and better in a way that replenishes, restores, and nourishes the rest of the world. Thus the ”right things” for manufacturers and industrialists to do are those that lead to good growth – more niches, health, nourishment, diversity, intelligence, and abundance …”

The key expression here is “good growth”. This is, supposedly, the kind of economic growth that will — through the promised miracle of absolute decoupling, which we have yet to witness in any shape or form for any prolonged stretch of time — “replenish, restore, and nourish” the biosphere. I truly wish this were more than the false promise that it is. Because if generalized recycling, reusing, remanufacturing and repairing — the “4 Rs” of the circular economy — really were sufficient to solve all macro-level resource problems (as opposed to merely micro-level issues of resource efficiency in one isolated product or of partial symbiosis between a small handful of plants inside an isolated industry park), we could truly promise every present and future inhabitant of the planet the same level of material well-being that the average North American or European is enjoying at the moment.

But the plain truth — scientifically speaking — seems to be the opposite. Even as organizations such as the Ellen MacArthur Foundation are promoting circularity and successfully leading major businesses to “convert” from linear to circular micro-metabolisms, the world economy’s macro-metabolism keeps gobbling up more and more resources and producing more and more waste, at a rhythm that outpaces by far any efforts at ground-level efficiency. Applying the 4 Rs better and better turns out to be ineffective as long as we apply them within a runaway growth economy where efficiency gains are squandered through increases in production volumes. Global resource consumption  keeps growing even as individual businesses are becoming more resource efficient. The 4 Rs amount to the formula, “Reduce resource use per unit produced and sold”. This is the challenge engineers are taking up — mostly successfully — all over the world, in a myriad of industrial sectors that pay them very good salaries to do so. Alas, this appears to make little sense unless it’s accompanied and strictly constrained by another, less industry-friendly formula: “Reduce the total number of units produced and sold”. This is surely an annoying fact, but one we need to own up to if we want to promote a genuinely circular economy — a perma-circular economy.

No one has put this more forcefully than one of the world’s — if not the world’s — foremost scholarly expert on material flows. I’m speaking of Vaclav Smil, professor emeritus at the University of Manitoba at Winnipeg (Canada) and the author or a huge body of meticulous research work on the metabolic foundations of our modern world. Smil is no tree hugger. He defends the American way of life, and more generally the modern economy, as something liberating and valuable. Nevertheless, as a scientist, he is obligated to state the obvious: recycling and resource efficiency will be useless without a drastic reduction in overall production and consumption. This is how he puts it in his book Making the Modern World: Materials and Dematerialization (Wiley, 2013):

“… it will be exceedingly difficult to restructure the modern high-energy industrial and post-industrial civilization on the basis of non-fossil – that is, overwhelmingly renewable – fuels and flows. … how far we will advance into a post-fossil future in three or four decades will not be determined only by the commitment to innovation but also by our willingness to moderate our energy expectations and to have our energy uses following a more sensible direction, one that would combine reduced demand with a difficult, but eventually rewarding, quest for a civilization powered by renewable energy flows. …

… in the long run even the most efficient production processes, the least wasteful ways of design and manufacturing, and (for those materials that can be recycled) the highest practical rates of recycling may not be enough to negate the rising demand for materials … in order to reconcile our wants with the preservation of the biosphere’s integrity we will have to make deliberate choices that will help us to reduce absolute levels of material consumption, and thereby redefine the very notion of modern societies.”

Please note: “even the most efficient production processes, the least wasteful ways of design and manufacturing, and (for those materials that can be recycled) the highest practical rates of recycling may not be enough to negate the rising demand for materials”, so that “we will have to make deliberate choices that will help us to reduce absolute levels of material consumption, and thereby redefine the very notion of modern societies.” True, Smil remains careful enough to use the verb “may” — leaving the ever so small window open to the possibility of some amazing technological advance that could vindicate the for now vacuous claims of the circular growth economy advocates — but the way he frames the issue as one of civilization is striking. If, as he states, we need to “redefine the very notion of modern societies”, I claim that perma-circularity is the way to go.

In a perma-circular economy, we fully embrace the 4 Rs of mainstream circular economy principles: Repair, Recycle, Reuse, Remanufacture — but we frame them by the 5th R of Reduce because that’s what is called for by the persistent macro-level overshoot of our economies, which although more and more efficient at the micro level fall prey to their own built-in tendency to transform resource and energy savings per unit produced into more units produced and more resources and energy consumed. Never mind that through a mainstream circular economy of the MacArthur Foundation type we could postpone ecological ruptures by a few years or decades. This would only delay the moment of reckoning; what we need to do is reverse the present trend of ecosystem depletion and damage to the biosphere — and this will not be achieved merely with the 4 Rs of resource efficiency. Redefining the very notion of modern societies calls for much more than techno-fixes, as brilliant as they might appear; it requires Smart Reduction strategies (let’s call them SRSs), which imply deeper changes in our civilization than we’ve had to engineer in a long while. But there are resources for this, and there are people already working hard on that frontier.

Perma-circularity is about those changes, those resources, and those people.

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This blog post is published under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND license. This allows you to download the text and share it with others as long as you credit me, but you can’t change it in any way or use it commercially. For more information, go to https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/

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