Creating a perma-culture: Innovation and enterprise for a “new normal”

Have your relatives at the dinner table been asking you lately about the difference between false and genuine circularity? If so, and if you felt your answer came up short because the blog posts I’ve been feeding you are so long, let me try to encapsulate things so you have a snappy set of replies handy next time.

(I hereby renounce long-winded posts and lengthy, convoluted sentences which, while offering me the possibility of expressing complex ideas in a suitable spatial and temporal format, make it arduous for the reader to orient his or her thoughts once the material has been set out in front of him or her – especially when it comes to entering the social or political arena where quick, simple answers have been shown by numerous studies to be the mainstay of conversations aimed at promoting important and novel concepts for societal change. Just kidding.)

A circular growth economy is an economy in which circular metabolisms are being developed and implemented, but never to the extent that the overall growth rate of the economy, or of its resource consumption, is kept below 1%.
(Even snappier: A circular growth economy puts growth before circularity. It uses circularity as a tool for promoting growth.)

A perma-circular economy is an economy in which the constant monitoring of aggregate growth so that it is less than 1% – and the corresponding shift in institutions, mentalities, and lifestyles – is considered to be part and parcel of the development and implementation of circular metabolisms.
(Snappier still: A perma-circular economy puts circularity before growth. It only allows as much growth as won’t jeopardize circularity, which means possibly no growth at all.)

The confusing aspect is that both models rely, on the face of it, on the same notion of “circularity” to address and solve today’s sustainability challenges. But whereas a circular growth economy does this in essentially self-defeating way, a perma-circular economy tackles growth-related unsustainability at the root – namely, in the rebound effects that are constantly being stoked and exploited for the benefit of business profitability.

Economizing on resources in order to economize on unit costs so as to be able to out-compete others by growing (relative) market shares and (absolute) market size – all within a culture where consumers keep getting encouraged to purchase more units (whether of goods or of the services they provide) – is not perma-circularity. It’s facade circularity, if you wish – a perhaps well-meaning, but ultimately self-contradictory, attempt by business to have their (growing) cake and eat it too. The whole-economy perspective, which is the one we need to be looking at, is fundamentally different from the single-business perspective, which is the one most “circular economy” pundits want us to look at. This is a crucial difference in levels and perspectives. What looks fine at the level of one business, or of one industry park, may look less fine at the level of the whole economy if the growth-generating rebound effects — which we have up to now cherished and identified as the main “benefits of innovation” — are not kept under check. These rebound effects explain the (+) sign in the picture below: If circularity is used as business tool to boost cost effectiveness and profits, the whole economy will end up drawing more and more material inputs into its otherwise well-working circular metabolism. If we want that metabolism to be perma-circular, it has to contain mechanisms and institutions that reduce aggregate growth (by interrupting and deactivating rebound effects) in order to reduce incoming material flows. This other perspective is represented by the (-) sign in the picture.


The main message of this picture is this: The quality of our circular metabolisms may be fantastic at the level of single businesses (we may be doing great at recycling and reusing materials in sophisticated ways), and still we may be doing very poorly from the perspective of the whole economy if, due to unchecked economic growth, we use our wonderful circular economy to generate more and more incoming material and energy flows.

Take the case of the car industry. An entirely recyclable model of automobile (which remains a pipe dream, anyway, for all practical purposes) that you want to sell to more and more people, hoping they buy two or three of them instead of just one, is not a sustainable solution. (Even for a company such as Tesla, sustainability isn’t the main aim, but sales volume and profitability is. The shareholders are seeing to that. So basically, Tesla are content with giving each car buyer — and themselves — a good conscience, but they mainly want the total number of car buyers to be virtually unbounded. My buying a Tesla and every human being on the planet buying one, too, should — in this deluded portrait of future mobility — have no influence on how many kilometers you can drive with yours, or how many Teslas you can own. Okay. Rebound effects galore. Carry on…)

Mind you, the same kind of self-defeating dynamic can prevail in the public domain. Take the case of city planning. We may put a lot of effort – and rhetoric – into promoting “regenerative” cities with “circular” metabolisms, but if we don’t keep city growth and its main drivers – population growth and economic growth – under check, that “circle” is just going to gobble more and more incoming resources. It will also recycle more of them, but we’ll need to find alternative uses for them and we’ll, in addition, have on our hands a recycling industry that needs us to recycle more and more (and therefore to keep extracting more and more resources and materials) so that it, too, can grow, employ more people, find more profitable outlets for its recycled materials, and so on. Such a circular growth model looks nice – and at the individual, micro-level it produces some fine ideas spearheaded by fine, enthusiastic individuals – but ultimately it only serves to delay the crucial question: When do we start capping aggregate material flows (including those we need to feed our technological advances towards better circularity…) and maintaining the economy on a path hovering around the one-planet-footprint mark? In other words, when do we start moving towards a perma-circular model?

It really is the crucial question. I don’t think there’s a more crucial question around these days when it comes to thinking about how to make our affluent lifestyles less poisonous for the planet. Certainly, our moral responsibility in the wealthy parts of the world is not to refuse to reduce our ecological footprint, as the Swiss just did on September 25, 2016 by rejecting the “Green Economy” initiative. Nor does our moral responsibility consist in simply encouraging all other parts of the world to aspire to a footprint similar to ours. We need to simply show the rest of the world that we, the most affluent, have at long last become able to do what they, too, need to do in the future: to solve our many pressing social and economic problems – unemployment, poverty, meaninglessness, etc. – without relying on economic growth.

For instance, if the United States of America still wish — as both current presidential candidates constantly broadcast — to be “the greatest country in the world” and to embody “freedom and justice” on the international stage, they should now put all their energies into ushering in a perma-circular America – not into spinning the wheel of the dream of perpetual growth one more (and last?) time and plunging headlong into fracking, intensifying world trade, traveling to Mars and to asteroids to mine new minerals and fossil fuels, and so on. This is plain insanity – but it’s a way of seeing the world that’s all the harder to give up for having locked us all into a rat race we’re finding it incredibly difficult to give up.

One part of the difficulty is that (as has been argued, for example, by Thomas Princen in his wonderful book The Logic of Sufficiency) most of us have been socialized into making “more of everything, and all of it faster” the root source of our lives’ meaning. I know I have. The other part of the difficulty is that even those of us who have finally been able to break away, at the personal level, from the “work-and-spend cycle” (as Juliet Schor calls it in her equally wonderful book The Overspent American) still need the overall system in which they live their more frugal and downshifting lives to be a growth system – because money circulation, health care, pensions, and many other aspects of our social safety nets today depend on growth and fall into a deep depression when growth stalls.

In a growth-dependent economy, the quest for sustainable – “one-planet” – lifestyles is very important. The pioneers who engage in them are showing us the way towards a culture of permanence – a perma-culture in the broad sense. However, at the same time, academics such as myself feel a duty to work on the macro-side of the equation: to work with civil society as well as with politicians towards post-growth, one-planet metabolisms at the national and international levels, thinking up new programs and institutions, new mechanisms of money creation, new income redistribution schemes, new business models, and so on – so that, collectively, we can support and encourage more and more citizens into adopting the lifestyles which, up to now, only a handful of pioneers have been practicing.

It’s a long-haul enterprise. We need innovation, and we need entrepreneurship – but not in the conventional, business-school sense; we need innovative citizens and entrepreneurial civil-society collectives. “Innovation” and “enterprise” are words that need to be wrested  from the business elite who believe they own them and can single-handedly define their content. There are many entrepreneurs out there that aren’t conventional business people. They’re not only doing “social business,” but innovating along cultural, relational, deeper-running dimensions we need in order to usher in perma-circularity. I meet such people every week when I go give talks in citizens’ forums or at organic grape-harvesting festivals. In the MA program in which I’m participating at the University of Lausanne, we have a course on the tools and practices of sustainability where we give them the floor to tell our students the gripping stories of their entrepreneurial past and present. They are, in ways still hardly recognizable as business by circular growth economy pundits and self-decreed “industrial ecologists,” creating a new normal that will sooner rather than later have to become mainstream. High-, medium- and low-tech will mix, adapting to the strict requirements of a balanced planetary budget. Mainstream businesses will follow – at least those that will be able to adapt quickly enough to the new normal of one-planet living and one-planet governance. Some corporations will adapt to perma-circular principles, perhaps shrink substantially and mutate pretty radically, but do fine; we need them in order to keep manufacturing essential things old and new, in essentially new ways. The others will, as has always been the case throughout history, end up fading and vanishing, no matter how solid they seem to us now in their marble, glass, and steel headquarter.

“Innovation” and “enterprise” don’t mean the same thing at all epochs in all cultures; and they’re about to mutate once again as perma-circularity becomes the only game worth playing.


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