The three levels of the perma-circularity project

Please don’t get me wrong. I’m not — I repeat: not — saying that repairing, re-using, re-manufacturing, and recycling are useless in and of themselves. If I were saying that, I would be going against my own deepest convictions as I see them embodied in the everyday practices of some of the people I admire most: the ecovillage dwellers who joyfully move towards a sufficiency mindset and remain within it, the permaculture geniuses who create tomorrow’s food, mobility and lodging utopias and implement them today, the “zero-waste” downshifters who devote their energy and creativity to living without treading heavily on the soil and the water, the voluntary simplicity advocates who patiently seek better, cleaner ways of consuming — and, yes, the industrial and agronomic engineers who spend all their efforts dealing with waste reduction and devising cleaner production solutions. What I am saying is that this just is isn’t enough — and I confess I haven’t yet found a very good way to get that message across without sounding discouraging or cynical. (I once presented François Grosse’s critique of recycling in a growth economy to an audience of Swiss recycling professionals, and instead of being in any way glib about demystifying their daily activities I felt a deep unease at sending a scientifically sound but emotionally difficult message to people who are earnestly working to solve our unsustainability problems while not seeing that the macro-context of economic growth makes their efforts dubious at best.)

So let me say here, very clearly, that the circular economy, even the unsustainable mainstream one I criticize, is going fundamentally in the right direction. However, if that right direction is ever going to give way to a right path towards a genuinely sustainable economy, what needs to be put fundamentally into question is the persistent belief in — and blindness to the impasses of — systematic quantitative economic growth as a necessary background condition for a “well-functioning” economy. I know this is very tricky; more than that, it’s scary for all of us. One of the things I want to do in this blog is understand the deeper roots, within our culture and our psyche, of what Juliet Schor has called “physophilia” — our immoderate “love of growth” which is also (for reasons linked partly to how we protect and value financial capital, and partly to how our banking system creates the money we use) a downright collective addiction to growth.

There’s no need to be moralizing or accusing about this. We’re all in this together because, many centuries ago, the technological and economic conditions were created by nations and empires to start accumulating vast amounts of material wealth in a minority of hands and coffers. (I recently read, and loved, Barry Lopez’s short book called The Rediscovery of North America [Vintage, 1992], in which he traces the growth- and wealth-loving culture of the American north back to the brutal Spanish conquest of central and south America in search of gold and of an earthly paradise.) All of us in the so-called “developed” West are today coming out of that long, troubled history. We’re gradually taking stock and gaining some modicum of lucidity about the roots of our unsustainable state. Still, we seem to be attached to the idea that any civilization that doesn’t keep growing will stagnate and crumble. As a result, we’re afraid at the idea of a “flat circular” economy that would (a) produce only what can rightfully and equally be made available to all human beings on Earth and (b) reproduce and maintain that level of morally justifiable per capita wealth year in and year out without ever adding any more per capita wealth at all to anyone’s rightful “wealth quota”. As a consequence, anyone who — like myself and almost everyone I know and love — lives on way more than their rightful wealth quota, and gets so used to it that living on less becomes almost unimaginable, is contributing to erecting a powerful systemic obstacle to the perma-circular economy.

Still, whether we like it or not, this is the economy we will need sooner or later — and probably sooner rather than later. We need to supplement the four classical Rs with the fifth R of “reduce”, and we need this to occur joyfully and playfully. That’s why ecovillagers, permaculturists, downshifters, and “appropriate technology” engineering geeks who fully embrace that fifth R are such crucial members of our societies today. They are showing us under what conditions and with what compromises this transition to perma-circularity can and will be feasible — and in that sense, these “alternative” actors are performing the role of social pioneers and are literally doing applied research on our behalf. In fact, the countercultures of the 1960s and 70s had (for all their foibles and imperfections) already pretty much foreseen and pioneered some of these current movements, as I hope to argue in a later post (but you can already go see and download my article on this topic by clicking here).

What questions do we need to ask to ascertain how far we’ve already gotten down the road towards perma-circularity, or to determine how far we’ve still got to travel? What would the guiding principles of such a perma-circular economy be? There isn’t any established and stabilized criterion for this yet, but I’d like to end this post with a suggestion for a three-level indicator of a perma-circular economy, which I worked out with my Lausanne colleague Dominique Bourg and which we’re now in the process of recasting with contributions by our French friends from the industry, François Grosse and Romain Ferrari. Our basic idea is that, in order to evaluate the degree to which an economy has moved in the direction of perma-circularity, just looking at micro-level progress in circular metabolisms and industrial symbioses in vastly insufficient. We need to ask at least two broader questions about the more general macroeconomic and cultural context within which “micro-circularity” efforts by businesses are being carried out. So we basically need to put together three families of indicators:

Level (-1): Micro- and meso-circularity
Quantitative indicators measuring the extent to which individual production entities and production sectors have progressed towards efficiency, recycling, performance economy, etc. This is the domain of what today’s mainstream “circular economy” attempts to offer. It will, however, be strongly constrained and made less “high tech” and techno-optimistic than it is today when the two next levels (0) and (+1) are considered.

Level (0): Macro-level stationarity
Quantitative indicators measuring the degree of stationarity of the economy as a whole. This entails asking several questions that need to be answered simultaneously. How close are we to reducing the growth rate of non-renewable resource demand towards the maximum threshold of 1% or 0.5%? How fast are we moving towards recycling rates of more than 75 or 80%, residency times of non-renewable raw materials of less than 10 or even 5 years, and high rates of utilization of renewable resources? And equally important, to what extent are we able to do this within a context of socially equitable, compassionate slowing-down of macroeconomic growth?

Level (+1): Culture of sufficiency
Qualitative indicators measuring to what degree our mentalities have evolved towards frugality — even assuming progress at levels (0) and (-1) isn’t yet very perceptible. This is, of course, the crucial linchpin of the whole perma-circularity notion. It’s where the fifth R of “reduce” can and will take root in the very culture it needs in order to become the cornerstone of a new culture. Progress towards a perma-circular economy will be all the more significant at the micro, meso and macro levels if the culture shifts at the meta level: If our collective, deeply ingrained (but not immutable) love of growth isn’t replaced by an equally collective and equally ingrained love of moderation and self-limitation, all we’ll end up with is a time-buying growth economy parading under a false pretense of “circularity”. 

We are — I am, each of us is — in deep need of listening to, meeting with, and living among agents of cultural change who have already embraced this lifestyle shift. They already exist, and there are more and more of them. They might look a bit scruffy, live in the less-than-posh parts of our towns and cities, and not fit into the image of the mainstream “business case” for the cradle-to-cradle or upcycling growth economy. They’re far from perfect, but they’re usually more laid-back and joyful than the average recycler or industrial engineer because they don’t use the 4 Rs just to keep the economy growing. They’ve seen that the fifth R can be the basis for a new, more joyful way of living, exchanging, producing, and consuming. They’ve decided that natural, human, and cultural capital is more important to nurture and protect than financial and technological capital — but that’s precisely why they’re the ones who are probably showing us a more realistic way into the future.

These three levels of the perma-circularity project aren’t separate from one another. I repeat, at the risk of belaboring the point: There’s nothing at all wrong with the 4 Rs. Simply, once level (0) and, even more so, level (+1) of the perma-circularity project are internalized and become widespread, even level (-1) won’t look at all the same as it does now. We’ll still have engineers and circularity geeks, but they’ll probably be inspired more by Ernst Schumacher’s “intermediate technologies” or Patrick Geddes’ “neotechnic” age than by the high-tech “industrial symbioses” of the Kalundborg type or by the space-age conquer-and-exploit ambitions of Moon or Mars “terraforming” enthusiasts. They’ll most likely be thinking much more along the lines of the simple but elegant low-tech solutions of the New Alchemy Institute (see the wonderful book From Eco-Cities to Living Machines by Nancy and John Todd [North Atlantic Books, 1993]) or of the John T. Lyle Center for Regenerative Studies (see than of the clunkier, mammoth high-tech “cradle-to-cradle” proposals of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and its large corporate  members. (OK, there go my chances of every getting a research grant from that otherwise impressive and progressive institution… Oh well.)

I’ve met some of those future perma-circularity engineers and geeks, I’ve taught them in engineering school, and I’ve seen in their eyes the yearning for a new technological world stripped of the illusory trappings of the circular growth economy. They’re still a minority, and they still less sure-footed than their mainstream counterparts who can sell their services to level (-1) employers without any care for levels (0) and (+1). But that minority is growing. It has to grow — which, by the way, shows you that growth isn’t all bad; it just depends in the service of what macro- and meta-project it’s put. And this is where the scientific and political struggle for the hearts and minds of our younger generation needs to take place.

Let’s please take levels (0) and, even more so, level (1+) seriously. Luckily, we’ve already started to do so thanks to the unsung everyday heroes and heroines who are living out the promises of a genuinely perma-circular way of life.


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