By now, most environmentalists have come across the term circular economy. It’s sexy, it’s cool, and it makes us feel like we can have our cake and eat it too—as long as the cake is made of sustainably grown ingredients, cooked and transported with renewable energy, and any leftover cake is composted to enable the making of future cakes.
But advocates of the circular economy rarely grapple with a central truth: the circular economy depends on a significant and sustained period of economic degrowth. Instead they tend to focus on innovations that deliver efficiencies and unlock new economic opportunities.
But the global data reveal this isn’t enough. According to the ecological footprint, we’re using the resources of 1.6 planets. This is undermining Earth’s systems and the ability of humans (and countless other species) to survive and thrive. To get back within planetary limits, we will need to shrink the global economy by at least 37 percent–and realistically by more if we expect to start healing the decades’ worth of damage our overconsumption has wreaked on the planet.
Degrowth acknowledges this, but circular economy advocates and designers tend to ignore or deny this reality. But shrinking material and energy demand is a prerequisite for a circular economy that functions within Earth’s limits.
There are at least three reasons for this. First, if production levels rise as a result of circular innovations, environmental savings are negated by new production–a phenomenon called the rebound effect. Second, the circular economy’s increased reliance on bio-based materials would utilize already overtaxed agricultural and ecological capacity. Third, energy is never free. Even renewable energy brings with it significant ecological impacts. Until we right-size the global economy, we’re going to need a prolonged period of degrowth.
Thus if the circular economy is serious about making human civilization truly sustainable, it needs to marry degrowth.
Do you take this concept to be an equal partner?
By marrying these two concepts, we get a better understanding of both the journey and the destination. Degrowth is a process not an end. The circular economy—at a much smaller throughput—is the destination. As our economy shrinks, revolution after revolution, we spiral down and eventually reach the goal—a smaller and circular economy. Visualizing this, one could call the marriage of these two concepts the “Spiral Economy.”
This reframing helps to communicate both parts: it gives legitimacy to the circular economy and moves degrowth from a culturally-taboo term to a far more positive one. A spiral, after all, is how a circle gets smaller without breaking. And the term Spiral Economy sounds constructive and intriguing. With the spiral found throughout nature, it evokes beauty and has a universal appeal; it’s been part of cultures for more than 10,000 years with ancient spirals being found in stoneworks around the world.
The spiral also suggests the relative focus needed. At our current point at the very outside of the spiral, we need to prioritize degrowth over circular design—because we have so far to go. But as we spiral in (shrinking our footprint to under ‘one planet’), then we can start shifting the emphasis from degrowth to the redesign necessary for a circular economy.
Obviously, both need to be done simultaneously, but with limited resources, government policies should prioritize curbing growth first and foremost: shortening the work week; enabling more people to lead sufficiency lifestyles in the informal, or what Juliet Schor calls the plenitude economy; and providing the basic public goods (such as public transit, libraries, and even the humble drinking fountain) that discourage more ecologically-costly private consumption. These are good places to start.
As we reduce overall consumption, we’ll need to reinvest some of the resource savings into circularizing the goods essential to one-planet living. It doesn’t make sense to focus efforts on mass producing circularly-designed cars or disposable water bottles. These simply have to go. Instead, let’s improve the circularity of truly sustainable technologies, such as the bicycle.
Naturally, this union between degrowth and the circular economy is not a permanent one. The goal is not to degrow forever, just until we reach a sustainable relationship with Earth. After that, this marriage can be amicably dissolved. But for the foreseeable future, the circular economy will benefit from hitching up with the practical partner of degrowth, and degrowth will benefit by having an attractive concept like the circular economy at its side.