The Circular Economy: Re-Starting Meme Wars
“Almost got me with a weaponised meme.” – The Quantum Thief
Memes are information that is copied from person to person by imitation. They are replicators subject to heredity, variation and selection, and they compete for space in our minds and cultures, shaping human nature as they go. We humans are meme machines; selective imitators, who spend our lives copying memes.
Dr Susan Blackmore.
The last 30 years of debate around resource use and economic growth reveals fairly obvious fault lines between the stories we tell ourselves and share to answer the question ‘which way out for a linear economy?’
This question is entangled – as it must be – with complex debates around population, consumption, inequality, ecological limits, materials use, technology, energy supply and demand, finance and carbon dioxide emissions.
There’s probably a few more, but let’s make a start by looking at some characterisations of the debate, the underlying ideas and their tenacity. The meme wars are on! 
The first fault line, is between those who think that business as usual will resolve the resource questions at hand and those that do not. It will do so, according to Franz Radermacher and others, including Thomas Piketty, by impoverishing the middle classes as the inequality gap continues to increase low or no growth, stagnating wages and even a possible debt and deflationary cycle take hold to cut demand for products and services as discretionary spending falls. This hypothesis , sometimes called the ‘fortress economy’ is not of course a great outcome on the social and broader economic front but it is a fix for resources and perhaps carbon emissions. Worryingly, the system conditions to generate this outcome are already firmly in place. Once upon a time, some middle class radicals associated ‘doing with less’ as a form of voluntary temperance amongst consumers in the wealthy nations. Instead, in the ‘fortress economy’ scenario, it would become mandatory.
The meme is ‘this is how the world works, it’s inevitable, it’s tough, it’s about winners and losers. Where do I need to be to win?’
Stepping over that troubling fault line, there are two more to negotiate. The first is between those who assume that the mathematics behind economic growth is inexorable. Just pick a number, 1%, 2% or 3% per annum and treat it to compound growth for a few decades, reveal how many planets’ worth of production is required and the answer is always ‘too many’. Given that the relative decoupling of resource use from growth has not led to absolute decoupling all that remains – reasonably they allege – is to accept economic contraction, especially in the West , which will allow more resources for the rest and a more frugal, but high quality existence all round.
Degrowth is one term for this contraction, and its meme is perhaps: “The only way is local and in communities that are in harmony with nature”.
This is picked up by those seeking equality and social justice, a revival of local action, increasing self sufficiency, practical skills and grassroots democracy. It’s very much “We the People”, reinvented for the pioneers of a 21st century post-carbon economy. The probability that degrowth would take down the entire debt laden financial system is only one of the criticisms.
Not that this is necessarily an issue for the meme because it often assumes that the world must be rebuilt anyway. Another criticism is that politically it doesn’t garner votes anywhere. George Monbiot once noted : “Our problem is that no one ever rioted for austerity”. For all that, this meme has a vibrant and active constituency.
Across this line are those who say that increasingly resource efficiency will lead to both economic growth and decoupling. This is the mainstream eco-efficiency view (circa 1992 onwards) and relies on technological fixes and resource substitution, especially the idea of swapping goods for services, extending product life, better recycling and so on and so forth. It has entered the mainstream and is able to override the more awkward facts because it’s the main candidate for a progressive, optimistic meme. Change is possible, it says.
The circular economy? This can be mistaken for a version of this techno-utopian meme, as it is assuredly mainstream and technologically focused, or so it seems. In reality, it takes its place one faultline further on. It says that we need to go beyond mere resource efficiency, because the payoff from relying on efficiency is inadequate. A different worldview, a different “framework for thinking” should inform our economics. The Enlightenment 1, “mechanistic” basis employed thus far is simply too disconnected from how real world systems work. Unrealistic and unfit for purpose never stopped an embedded meme from reproducing of course. A full take down on the troubles of economics and its assumptions can be found in Dirk Helbing and Alan Kirman’s work or in Meme Wars. For now, lets just look at efficiency and its discontents.
Efficiency – doing more with less – tends to increase scale, standardization, lower costs and therefore prices. It uses these increases in productivity (especially labour productivity) to secure or maintain profits and it often reduces waste per unit. So what’s not to like? It is one sided. It assumes that spending released to increasingly productive workers and through lower prices will be spent on new products or services. These will, in turn have their own environmental and social impacts of course – but will at least soak up the additional unemployment, which often follows from labour productivity gains. It is also assumed that profits will be reinvested in the productive economy. That’s the technofix meme operating to say ‘all will be well – it’s a positive cycle around growth’ but increasingly this is no longer the case.
“The circular economy says that we need to go beyond mere resource efficiency, because the payoff from relying on efficiency is inadequate. A different worldview, a different “framework for thinking” should inform our economics.”
Resource efficiency is still overwhelmingly based on a throughput assumption, despite being moderated. In Braungart’s terms, it’s only “doing less harm”. Unhappily the “doing less harm per unit of output” does not allow decoupling in the sum because of various rebound effects and rising overall consumption. It carries other downsides too. Since the 1980s the happy process whereby spending is released creating new employment has increasingly fallen away in the developed nations, since the returns to wages parted company with productivity at that time (revealing over production which was largely bridged by easy credit until 2008). The phenomenon of “jobless growth” has taken its place alongside stagnant or falling real wages. It is actually becoming a global phenomenon as this extract from the New Indian Times laments:
“In organised industries, the jobs have shifted from regular to contract work resulting in casualisation of labour. Manufacturing shed five million jobs, while services employed only 3.5 million workers during this period.
Forty percent of the graduating students from engineering colleges in the country run the risk of being unemployed. Others will take jobs well below their technical qualifications in a market where there are few jobs for India’s overflowing technical talent pool.
Between 2005 and 2010, only one million jobs were created for almost 60 million new entrants to the labour market.”
No malevolent presence is needed to create such an astonishing statistic – it’s the system. Efficiency as Peter Drucker wrote is “doing things right”, but effectiveness is doing the right thing. Effectiveness is required and it’s a system’s aware approach; a context matters approach; an inclusive approach. All of these things make up effectiveness.
The circular economy seeks to create and enhance effective flows by making them feedback rich and to maintain, rebuild and regenerate capital (natural, social and economic) by setting system conditions which will enable this “circularity”. Broadly, this means an endless transformation of materials (designing out waste and making resources more available), swapping the use of energy stocks (fossil fuels) for energy income (renewables) by stimulating markets to act rationally (based on full disclosure of costs), and by attending to the opportunity for communities to benefit not just from lowered costs, but from increased opportunities for creating income. It is no longer possible to divide the consumer against the producer, given that they are often the very same person.
Gunter Pauli, an entrepreneur and innovator with long experience in business and author of a circular economy guide called “the Blue Economy” states :
“Thus the first and foremost rule of the game that needs to be changed is the shift from ‘ever lower costs’ to ‘ever higher generation of value’ with what is locally available.”
Innovation and enterprise is crucial. From consumer to prosumer, one who is also a producer perhaps. It is as much about access to resources and since waste = food in a circular economy, there should be more of this to go around. This access will include credit for productive investment and a rational taxation system, which discourages the use of non renewables and encourages the use of renewables, of which the most salient and important by far is human potential. The active citizen is an important economic character. Active citizens are economically franchised. Disenfranchised citizens eventually reach for their pitchforks.
In this way there is the possibility of subsuming efficiency within an economy, which is enabled towards effectiveness, but it is not a “local is best” meme either. It is about large, medium and small, the whole economic body thriving, a vibrant system means vibrant at all scales. We know this because an economy is a complex adaptive system. An effective circular economy is one where diversity is celebrated, since we know now that this is a key to both creativity and resilience.
The thought leaders of the circular economy do share a systems perspective (William McDonough, Michael Braungart, Janine Benyus, Thomas Graedel, Paul Hawken, Gunter Pauli) and apply insights from living systems. It would be hard not to as circularity implies feedback and dynamic coherence. Everything that systems theory explores, after all, is based on relationships and their consequences.
In the meme “wars”, reasonable is never enough and assumptions about what is “obvious” should not be made. Here is an example:
Braungart’s famous “everything is food” analogy of the cherry tree is often misinterpreted. He uses a cherry tree in blossom to illustrate the idea that a surfeit of blossom is not a problem – it is not wasteful, because it is food. The tree is adorned with blossom, the route from an abundance of blossom to maintaining and reproducing a healthy tree is not a direct and closed loop (tree/soil/tree), but one where blossom is food for the whole system, via a myriad of animals, plants and fungi and out of which the tree receives nourishment (and is eventually replaced by the fruits of its activity). It’s also partly an open system, because it requires sunlight to operate, and energy surplus to make it all happen. Too often circularity is thought to be a pipe-flow analogy: the firm recovers its “stuff” and remakes it and again and again in perpetual flow. Nothing leaks. Designing waste out is not the same as stopping waste from leaking and it’s not the same as zero waste. Zero “waste” can become zero food! Tight feedback loops rarely happen (or work) in reality, rather an industrial ecosystem is in play. It is system enabled or disabled. We are back to effectiveness.
“Too often circularity is thought to be a pipe-flow analogy: the firm recovers its “stuff” and remakes it and again and again in perpetual flow.”
Circularity is wonderfully leaky. Leaks can be turned into nutrients – sources of building income and prosperity. In contrast, a “tight” non-leaky flow speaks of control and exclusivity and eventually perhaps the extension of a rentier capitalism where access to material assets is “toll-boothed.” Materials, products and services might join real estate and intellectual property as “scarce”. In contrast the energy within the meme around circularity is abundance and low cost access, by design or intention.
The original notion of economic growth is crude and predicated on throughput. Better measures of prosperity will eventually prevail but even in conventional terms, the transformation of waste into food and the designing out of waste releases a wealth of opportunities and resources, and what if they are used in a way which is part of a restorative cycle? We won’t swap fossil fuels for renewables, barrel for barrel, Gw for Gw. It will depend on better, integrated systems for mobility, better utilization of buildings and business models, which reveal the benefits of access over ownership, of the cascading of materials and of economies of scope not scale. These different elements working together will systemically work to lower the threshold for renewables. The restoration of natural and social capital will also increase outputs compared against the present day’s phenomenal underuse of human potential and degraded soils, fisheries and forests.
Perhaps this narrative helps answer a challenge offered by David Orr years ago that we know what we are against, but not what we are for.
Let the meme wars continue, invigorated!
1. I am using the ‘meme as a prism for understanding certain aspects of contemporary culture without embracing the whole set of implications and meanings ascribed to it over the years.’ Limor Shifman http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/store/10.1111/jcc4.12013/asset/jcc412013.pdf;jsessionid=878A8AFA4775DD6A8C385EA7E8EEB596.f04t02?v=1&t=i7lklsrd&s=c2bbfcb883c68d44e38fdb47e68fbcd478697301