Our best path forward is a circle
Every time I see or hear the word “degrowth,” I wince... 😬
"Anyone who believes in indefinite growth on a finite planet is either mad, or an economist." ~ Sir David Attenborough
Every time I see or hear the word “degrowth,” I wince.
It’s not because I disagree with it.
The idea that we humans should reduce our global production and consumption and create a more just and ecologically sustainable society is a no-brainer.
But still, I wince when I see or hear the word “degrowth.”
It sounds too punitive. Too limiting. It’s an accusatory finger wagging in your face and scolding, “Shrink, damn you! Diminish yourself! Make sacrifices!”
Not the most inspiring call to action, you know?
So while of course we *should* be doing more with less (and I'm guessing environmental and social factors in the near future will likely force many people to do so, whether we want to or not), I worry that trying to rally the masses around the word, “degrowth” will end up alienating most people.
“Degrowth” implies a reduction, a downgrade in the quality of one’s circumstances.
It carries a suggestion of enforced lack that goes against everything our lizard brains tell us to strive for. Because for most of humanity’s existence, we have lived with the ever-present possibility of scarcity. Of not necessarily knowing where our next meal or was coming from, or if one bad hunting or farming season would lead to another bout of starvation and suffering. Or whether we’d be able to find the work and money required to keep a roof over our heads and clothes on our backs.
So when you say we have to make do with less, I'm guessing what most people's lizard brains immediately hear is, "Suffer! Make yourself more vulnerable!" even though that's not what the concept of degrowth means at all.
Same goes for when you tell people to eat less meat. I'm guessing their subconscious knee-jerk interpretation of that is going to be, “Deprive yourself of the delicious and nutrient-rich food you need to survive!” Most people won't respond super positively to that idea – especially if they’re only a few generations separated from periods of traumatic scarcity. (Which most of the planet is.)
Ditto for when you tell people, “We have to end our addiction to ‘stuff!’”
Fair enough! Disposable products that are non-biodegradable and have intentional obsolescence built into them are a blight on the planet.
BUT there is a lot of “stuff” that we humans have come to rely on and now see as indispensable to our wellbeing. If you tell people to give up their smartphones and computers, for example, many will refuse because they need these tools to support themselves and their families. We can’t tell people to stop using products they see as essential for their survival. It’s not going to happen. Not voluntarily or quickly, at least.
(Though we CAN encourage people to stop feeling like they always need “the latest & greatest” models – and encourage companies to start making products that are more modular, durable, and easily repairable. And we should!)
As for people who advocate for decreasing the population... how exactly is THAT going to happen? Are you hoping to convince people everywhere to voluntarily ignore their biological drive to reproduce? (Or – shudder – allow governments to kill or forcibly sterilize people?)
Again, chances are it’s going to be pretty tough sell.
Besides, if the plunging birth rates in industrialized countries are any indication, it seems like the best way to slow population growth is to raise the standard of living for people in disadvantaged circumstances.
Which brings us back to the economy.
By certain metrics, it absolutely has to STOP growing if we want to avoid social and ecological collapse.
And by other metrics, it must KEEP growing and evolving in certain ways– so we can accelerate our transition to a renewable-energy world while raising people everywhere out of poverty and food insecurity so they can live healthy, productive, meaningful lives.
These two ideas might seem to cancel each out.
But there is a path forward that offers the growth required to create the infrastructure, products, and systems that will allow more people everywhere to thrive – while greatly decreasing humanity’s destructive impact on the planet.
And that path forward is circular. A loop. A journey that takes us back to where we started, every time.
A circular economy is the key to global flourishing
The “circular economy” model argues for a closed-loop system of creating the food, products, infrastructure, and materials we need to survive and thrive. Instead of advocating for linear growth that gluttonously chews up the world’s resources and spits them out as environmentally destructive waste, a circular economic model focuses on optimising resource use while minimising waste throughout the entire production lifecycle.
In a circular economy, all products, buildings, and materials are made from resources that are biodegradable, recyclable, and/or capable of being disassembled into materials that be reused or disposed of in a way that has minimal lasting impact on the environment. Everything created can easily be uncreated and transformed into something else.
Sound like a pipe dream?
We may be years away from it now, but it absolutely CAN be done. And since the possibility exists, I believe we're obligated as a species to try our best to make it happen.
That’s why I think everyone, everywhere should be talking nonstop about the circular economy – and the steps that are already being taken to bring it to fruition. At dinner parties and over beers and wine. In lineups at the grocery store and on walks around the neighbourhood and down at the beach. Not to mention every news website and channel on TV.
The good news is, a lot of people ARE already talking about it.
Here’s everything the World Economic Forum is doing and saying to help accelerate the transition to a circular economy.
Here’s the US Department of Energy holding a workshop on how to transition to a “Sustainable, Circular Economy for Plastics."
Here’s a recent UN Environmental Program report on how countries can work to end plastic pollution and develop a circular economic model.
Here’s the International Labour Organization talking about how moving to a circular economy will create millions of jobs.
Here’s Building Design + Construction magazine outlining why the construction industry has to become circular ASAP.
Here’s another UN Environmental Program releasing a report on how the global banking industry can transition to a circular model.
Here’s the American Journal of Transportation reporting on a bipartisan US Senate panel hearing calls for U.S. action on the growing demand for advanced batteries to power the transportation technologies of the future.
Here’s Vogue Business talking about the progress being made in the fashion world toward moving to a more sustainable circular model.
Here’s the Times of India talking about how the country must cut down on e-waste created by smartphone use to facilitate the country’s transition to a circular economic model.
… And these are just a few of the articles I found in about five minutes of googling.
So yes. Clearly “circular economy” is a topical and trendy term these days.
But just because people talking about it, that doesn’t mean it’s going to happen.
If you’ve been alive for more than a decade, you’ve no doubt noticed that corporations and governmental organizations have – shall we say – a long history of saying one thing and doing another.
That’s where people like us come in. If we want to create a world that works for everyone, we need to apply constant pressure on corporations, governments, organizations, and institutions to take meaningful action toward putting an end to all of the pollution, waste, and environmental devastation of our current system.
It can be done! We just need the collective intention and willpower to make it happen.
And the best way to grow that intention is to TALK about this stuff.
Let’s TALK about the circular economy and what that might look like in different industries and regions of the world.
Let’s TALK about the technological developments and solutions that are being explored right now to eliminate waste and pollution and make our way of life more sustainable.
Let’s TALK about biodegradable alternatives to plastic and how to make our electronics, vehicles, and other products more modular, repairable, and recyclable – so we can continue to use them for years and keep them out of the landfill before finally returning them to the company that created them.
And let’s TALK about how innovating startups that TRULY want to help save the world should open-source their technology so companies everywhere can collaborate and improve on each other’s works and make it possible for communities everywhere to create what they use LOCALLY while reducing the need for long, complicated, easily disruptable supply chains and eliminating corrupt and repressive monopolies once and for all.
Let’s make greed despicable again.
And if you have any different or better ideas, let’s TALK about those, too.
Because it’s only by making ideas like the circular economy a dominant topic of conversation that we will be able to grow the public support required to pressure our governments and institutions into making them a reality.
In the end, the answer won’t be to encourage people to diminish or downgrade their quality of life – but to focus on how we will improve our circumstances immeasurably when we eliminate the waste, pollution, corruption, and inequity that are the byproducts of our current system.
We CAN do it. We can!
And therefore, we should.