§0. Abstract: A massive amount of paper is in circulation in policy-making, policy-talking and policy-commenting circles, and have circumvented the genuine aspects of the circular economy critique with a circular logic that circles out the starting point of the debate while transforming the entire conversation into a neoliberal circus.
§1. Trailer: Everyone is talking about it. All governments have plans about it. Civil society is producing pamphlets about it. Therefore, it must exist.
Circular economy has become the canned response to all possible critiques to waste, pollution, resource depletion, deforestation, consumerism and extractivism.
It’s like a teenager’s understanding of psychoanalysis: we just needed to discover this one word, and now all our problems will be solved.
§2. Topological argument: The fact is that “circular economy” is everywhere: there are government plans on it, municipal governments are putting up poster about it, the European Commission has an “action plan” on it. It’s mainstream policy discourse of the day.
The point of “circular economy” is to oppose the “linear” logic of the production line, focusing on reusing, up-cycling and recycling materials, utilizing the same resources for several times or approaching what was previously considered “wasted” as materials to transform into goods.
The idea behind is that waste is an extractivist concept in which a resource is seen only as the desired end product and therefore whatever else that comes up during the process is considered useless. As an alternative, circular economy sees value in all objects and claims that there is (or should be) use for everything.
In a society abstracted from all its societal aspects (socioeconomic structures, power relations, culture, history), it would be an interesting concept. In capitalism, it’s a joke.
As a matter of fact, if you really read the policy texts with attention, if you genuinely focus on what the authors are telling us, if you look close enough, this circular economy starts looking more and more linear.
Which brings me to my doctoral thesis on differential topology.
At a graduate level mathematics course, you can prove in one week’s time that a circle and a line are topologically equivalent when you look close enough (locally homeomorphic). (This is true in all dimensions.)
The mainstream circular economy discourse looks at objects and sees value to extract, resources to exploit. So does mainstream linear economy. The mainstream circular economy draws arrows with a single well-defined starting point and a single well-defined end point. So does mainstream linear economy. The closer you get, the more linear the circular economy becomes.
§3. Topological argument in reverse: Looking through economics and management textbooks, we can see that the capitalists see their economy as circular.
Commodities are transformed into money transformed into commodities transformed into money. They even make the point of the fact that you can start with money or with commodities and the result would be the same.
In fact, they see it as an upward spiral. It’s a circular economy that makes us all ascend.
§4. You may object that I am missing the point by looking too close at the process. But then again, if it were just a matter of perspective, then everything is circular, isn’t it? One day the sun appeared, some other day it will disappear. Once upon a time humans evolved into being, later on they will go extinct: all nice and circular.
§5. Analytical argument: The critique to the “linear” model of production was not that things should not be linear. The critique is that nothing is ever linear. The line is misleading.
When you draw
A → B , you mean an object A became object B. But it’s not as magical as this dry arrow would make you think it is.
In real life, for this to happen, more than one object enters, more than one object leaves, someone adds in energy, and some energy is lost in the way.
A few comments on this new drawing:
Energy1 is sometimes heat (when you melt metals), sometimes labor force, sometimes kinetic energy. Energy2 is sometimes just the inefficiency of your machinery, but perhaps it’s the main objective: when you burn coal, you don’t aim at ash production but to get the energy out.
Many times, B2 is a side-produce or waste.
Sometimes the initial product remains virtually untouched. For instance, when you use a tool, at the end of the work the tools is virtually equal to its initial state.
It can be proven that these new diagrams above are not topologically equivalent to a line (left as an exercise for the reader).
The point here is that all the arrows should be replaced with something like this diagram above, both in linear economy and in circular economy drawings.
§6. Political economy: Although shape and size are important, what matters is how it works.
In capitalism, all these “lines” exist because they produce surplus-value and profit. In capitalism, the end results B1 and B2 only make sense as commodities that have market value.
In order to maximize profit, capitalism runs this operation over and over and over and over1, to extract the most value out of it. Whether you draw a line or a circle, the volume of the operation and the speed of the operation is what matters at the end of the day.
is qualitatively different than
A → B.
In the language of §5, this means more energy, more products, more labor exploited, and more waste.
§7. Micro-economics: Let’s now stop interpreting these drawings as if they were single chemical reactions: the supply chains involve various actors focusing on different parts of the chain.
You can draw is in linear or circular form. The point here is that each capitalist takes care of one of the steps, and therefore aims at maximizing the value of that step.
The neoliberal “circular economy” documents (such as the European Commission’s Circular Economy Plan) look at the whole chain and try to add more lines by giving incentives for a business that would transform F1 into B1, for instance. That business would be interested in having as much F1 as possible, independent of where it comes from.
Some examples of this process:
Someone invented “biomass” as a fuel to burn in power plants. Many thought these plants would be able to use organic waste, for instance municipal waste or the wood collected when forests are cleaned to reduce fire risks. It did happen that way for a little while. Then this business demanded more biomass. The market responded by clearing up forests to create tree plantations, just to sell their products to the power plants.2
Perhaps better and more familiar examples are the glass and paper industry. Technologies to recycle glass and paper existed for decades. (In fact, glass recycling exists for as long as glass exists.) The recycling industry is competitive, wide-spread, efficient and is growing exponentially. Yet we keep on producing more glass garbage and more paper garbage than ever.
These things happen not because something is linear or circular. It’s because profit maximization has nothing to do with real life considerations.
§8. Money circulation: In fact, you can take out products altogether. We live in a highly financialized economy. Shares produce expectations produce credits produce shares. Nothing is produced, energy is used. Completely circular economy.
You may even try chipping in a sensation of products. Follow me in this: There is an entrepreneur in China who registers a factory that produces cellphone accessories. With this, the entrepreneur then registers as a producer in an online shopping platform. He advertises a power bank. As there are no intermediaries (buyers are ordering directly from the factory), the prices are extremely low. I order one power bank. The expected time of arrival is one month. I pay. The entrepreneur receives the money. He invests the money in another business. – Are you paying attention? Thanks. – There is no power bank. In fact, the item on sale is a box for a power bank you would assemble in your house. In one month, the box arrives. I am frustrated. I contact the customer support service. They apologize and inform me that they will refund me in less than two weeks’ time. I send the product back. The producer returns the money.3 The circle is complete. (In some cases, no product ever arrives, the producer apologizes and returns my money. Less sophisticated circular economy…) None of this is fiction. This exact story happens tens of thousands of times daily. Welcome to circular economy capitalism.
§9. Nothing new in the western front: What’s worse is that none of this news for anyone who was paying attention. Even mid-19th century political economists were expecting a recycling economy as the costs of extracting raw materials would eventually surpass the costs of transforming already extracted materials. As we are reaching this threshold in several industries at once, the circular economy concept is becoming mainstream.
It just means that capitalism would apply its extractivist logic to the by-products and gradually to its operations as a whole.
§10. The punch line: The root cause of environmental degradation or climate chaos or consumerism is not that we were looking at production from the wrong angle. The root cause is that we are looking at production with the wrong filters: the profit-maximization motive. Changing lines into circles or circles into lines are won’t solve our problems as long as we have those filters on.
The critical voices must stop lining up behind the neoliberal discourse the goal of which is to sell us eyeliners without touching the lenses we have one (a fine line to pay attention to). The bottom line is that we need to underline that capitalist mode of production is out of line on the path for a sustainable future. It’s time to draw the red lines of a livable planet.
1 and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over
2 Just so you get an idea: Portugal’s medium-term biomass production plans will imply buying wood from other countries.
3 The producer eventually gets blacklisted and opens up a different account.