Circular, green or degrowth economies?

Circular, green or degrowth economies?

The question of what economies might look like in the future is the subject of intense critique and speculation. We have identified three main concepts which inform OxChain; circular, green and degrowth visions. These broad positions are contested and debated, and do not necessarily share either diagnosis or remedy for the problems with contemporary capitalism.

In brief, the circular economy vision claims that increasing the adoption of measures like resource efficiency, reuse, recycling and zero waste can close the loops of our current linear production and consumption pathways, and result in cleaner production, healthier ecosystems and reduced social inequality. This position seeks to regulate and limit economic growth, and introduce manufacturing and supply efficiencies. For more information on the circular economy, see this useful review paper, this discussion of manufacturing, and Zero Waste Scotland.

The circular economy position can find common ground with contemporary discourses of the green economy. Green economy advocates claim that that the root cause of issues of underdevelopment and ecological degradation is the “gross misallocation of capital” (UNEP 2011: 14), and seeks to reform capitalism through incentivizing projects, schemes and companies which are perceived to be green. In contrast to the circular economy which seeks regulation and efficiency, the green economy is highly neoliberal in that it believes that the market will automatically respond to incentives which value ecologically sustainable modes of production more highly than polluting or ecologically degrading ones. For a critique of this position, see this paper by Stewart Davidson and this recent special edition of the Journal of Political Ecology.

These two broad visions offer distinct perspectives on what policy makers, companies and individuals should do to improve capitalism. But, they share the same basic commitment that there can be ‘win-win’ outcomes across economic development and the environment.

In contrast, there is a further position which claims that the ownership and management of resources, and the power structures behind global economies need to be fundamentally changed. This view suggests that circular and green visions, however well-meaning, are panaceas which are unable to deal with the serious social and ecological problems facing our current model. Such scholars claim that capitalism in its current form is inherently problematic and crisis-prone, relying on ecological degradation and economic inequality to create new opportunities. If this is true, approaches which seek to promote capitalist growth will be unable to substantively address crises. One example of an alternative paradigm in this radical tradition is degrowth, which has gained significant momentum in recent years. You can read more about degrowth here, here, here and here. The OxChain project questions how the addition of new technologies might shape and change these difficult debates.