Show me the money

Image: Flickr CC-BY 2.0

by Gwendolyn Hallsmith

Renewable energy, reparations to the descendants of former slaves and Native Americans, universal basic income, energy efficiency improvements, new transportation systems, job retraining for fossil fuel workers—the list of Green New Deal (GND) aspirations is long and expensive. Senator Bernie Sanders recently released a GND proposal estimated to cost $16 trillion. That’s 16 times the current annual U.S. defense budget, which is about $1 trillion. U.S. GDP was $20 trillion in 2018. How does the U.S. muster federal spending that requires a sum that’s 80 percent of our annual economic output? The Green New Deal requires a LOT of money, amounts that now look politically impossible. Why is money so scarce? Why is there never enough to meet our needs?

Some point to Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) as a path forward. MMT advocates say we need to stop worrying so much about deficits. The Treasury and the Federal Reserve can issue the money into existence to pay for it all. Inflation won’t be a problem because we can tax the money back out of existence if prices start to rise.

Unfortunately, for the system to work the way MMT imagines it does—that is, for the government to have the ability to simply print money into existence, for free—some critical legal changes are needed: 1) the prohibition Congress passed in 1935 ending the practice of the Treasury borrowing directly from the Fed without issuing bonds needs to be reversed, and 2) the legal requirement for money to be in the government’s account before they spend it needs to be eliminated. Otherwise the U.S. government would be required to borrow the money for the GND from the large, private banks and investors by selling government bonds, as they do now, pay the wealthiest class the added interest, and burden future generations with the astronomical costs of it all.

MMT overlooks the privileged role of the U.S. dollar in the current global economic paradigm. Recent changes in IMF reserve currency rules threaten this privilege, yet we still have monetary power that many nations do not. We could use our waning power in the world to spark a new wave of change in monetary systems and make a Global Green New Deal possible.

What monetary system changes are needed for a Green New Deal?

The monetary system conditions at the root of runaway inequality and environmental destruction are 1) private ownership, 2) debt-based issuance, 3) positive interest, 4) monoculture, and 5) monopoly. All these conditions need to change; the adverse impacts are an emergent property of a complex system, not a simple linear cause and effect relationship between one variable (like positive interest) and one impact (e.g. compulsory growth).

All the government icons and signatures on our dollar notes make us think that the U.S. government issues all the money, but this is not true.

Private Ownership. All the government icons and signatures on our dollar notes make us think that the U.S. government issues all the money, but this is not true. The Federal Reserve System is effectively owned and operated by the large private banks; the dividends they get paid for their capitalized ownership stake are guaranteed at 6% per year, right off the top of the bank’s earnings, tax free. On top of this, since the crash of 2008, the excess reserves the banks hold are also paid interest, decreasing their incentives to move that money into the normal economy with all its risks, shocks, booms, and busts.

We need to make money a public utility, not a private profit center. Strategies include the network of public banks at all levels of government outlined in the GND Congressional resolution introduced this year, and past efforts like the NEED Act and the Chicago Plan. If MMT worked as advertised, it might also be truly public money.

Debt Based Issuance. Between 90-95 percent of the money in circulation in the U.S. is issued by banks when they make loans. That’s right, private banks create money out of thin air as loans and reap the interest as profits. This means that virtually all the money we use is someone else’s debt and comes into existence with the built-in expectation that it will return a profit to its issuer in the form of positive interest. This is one of the reasons there is never enough money for all the things we need, because debt-based money tilts the scales so almost every aspect of human life must produce a return for the lenders, or it doesn’t get issued. If there were money enough to go around, no one would borrow it from the banks—they produce, control, and benefit from money’s artificial scarcity. The scarcity also comes from the fact that when all the money is debt, there is never enough to pay back all the interest.

Positive Interest. Positive interest on all the debt-based money drives the discounting/net present value calculation large investors use when they evaluate the long-term value of investments. Discounting systematically devalues the future, which undermines all the efforts we make to leave a better world for our grandchildren. One way to envision the unfortunate effect of discounting is to picture something simple, like a tree, and look at what net present value calculations do to warp the way we value it with money.[1]

Here is the tree’s physical reality. The seedling is planted, and after 10 years, we’ll assume the tree’s value has increased to $100. After 100 years, at this rate of appreciation, the grown tree would be worth $1,000. Both values are in current dollars.

Here is the same tree when viewed through the lens of net present value. The net present value of the tree after 10 years is a lot less (discounting $100 over 10 years), and looking out 100 years, it’s worth almost nothing (discounting $1000 over 100 years).

The following illustration shows how the assumed value of the tree would change dramatically if money did not come with inflationary added interest built in but rather had some kind of storage charge, or demurrage, for keeping the money idle (instead of the rewards we give the banks now for excess reserves).[2]

Money issuance needs to be a mix of debt and “grants” (for lack of a better word). Grants would not come with debt’s positive interest and could be used for public and private goods that do not promise a financial return. Education, health care, child and elder care, the arts, and democratic participation are all examples of human activity which cannot and should not be profit centers for either public or private banks.

Monoculture. Even though world currencies come in lots of flavors – Dollars, Euro, Yen, Pesos, Rubles, etc., the majority of them use the same bank debt issuance system. This creates a global monoculture of money in circulation. On a systemic level, this single type of money is as harmful as other monocultures. When the banks fail, the economy fails.

A key consideration for the Green New Deal is that creating different types of currencies could eliminate the artificial scarcity built into the money issued by banks.

Diversifying the types of money in circulation would mean adding public currencies and complementary currencies to the mix. A key consideration for the Green New Deal is that creating different types of currencies could eliminate the artificial scarcity built into the money issued by banks. We can have enough money for everything. We just need different kinds of money. There are already examples of complementary currencies which are used for food, time, care, carbon, data, and small businesses that don’t require bank money to provide a means of exchange to meet these needs. If every currency couldn’t be used to buy everything, this also reduces risks of inflation and accelerating overconsumption.

Monopoly. The laws that require all debts and taxes to be paid in a particular currency (like the Federal Reserve dollars in the U.S.) give the banks a monopoly on money issuance. We need to break the monopoly the private banks have on the money we use and accept public and complementary currencies for debts and taxes. Cryptocurrencies threaten banking monopolies but are still private currencies purchased with bank money. A truly public cryptocurrency accepted for taxes does not yet exist.

The systemic impacts of the current monetary regime have been well-documented in a report to the European Club of Rome by my late colleague, Bernard Lietaer, and others. In brief, these are 1) amplification of the boom and bust cycles, 2) short-term thinking, 3) compulsory growth, 4) concentration of wealth, and 5) devaluation of social capital. All of these exacerbate social and economic inequality, climate change, and other harmful environmental degradation. It is not sufficient to address these problems piecemeal, the solutions we propose must be socially and economically just as well as enabling a safe, healthy, and biodiverse environment. If we change the monetary system, we can transcend the values money has warped which now lead us to human extinction. We can change everything.

Gwendolyn Hallsmith is an author, musician, and activist who lives in an ecovillage she founded in Vermont. She writes and sings about sustainable communities and the new economy.


[1] This is not to say that valuing trees in money is even appropriate. They produce the air we breathe, they protect the water we drink, they offer shade and food and solace. To reduce them and the rest of nature to a dollar value is the main step that leads to economic exploitation, environmental degradation, climate change, and species extinction.

[2] Illustrations courtesy of Bernard Lietaer.

November readings

A protest in Hong Kong, November 2019.Dale De La Rey / AFP, via Haaretz


Once a month, we put together a list of stories we’ve been reading: things you might’ve missed or crucial conversations going on around the web. We focus on environmental and social justice, cities, science fiction, current events, and political theory. 

We try to include articles that have been published recently but will last, that are relatively light and inspiring, and are from corners of the web that don’t always get the light of day. This will also be a space to keep you up to date with news about what’s happening at Uneven Earth. 

Welcome to the last newsletter of the decade! That’s right, we’re taking a break in December, to recalibrate and recharge. We’ve been running our monthly reading list for almost two years now, and nearly 1,000 of you seem to find it useful, so we’re excited to continue providing you with news and analysis in 2020. See you next year!



Uneven Earth updates

The technical assistant | Link | It had been a long time since human hands had touched grain bins

Trade governance will make or break the Green New Deal | Link | How the GND could, should, must redefine “protectionism” and transform international trade  

Rethinking education for the Green New Deal | Link | Governance for an eco-centered curriculum—or not?

Down Maria | Link | There was only one prisoner left, and he would not live forever



Top 5 articles to read

Extraction Rebellion. A Green Zone of hope. 

Land reform and the Green New Deal

Climate change’s great lithium problem

A Green New Deal between whom and for what?

Indonesia deforestation: The world’s demand for palm oil is igniting a climate bomb



News you might’ve missed

Climate crisis: 11,000 scientists warn of ‘untold suffering’

New land height metric raises sea level rise risk

Heat waves and floods shattered records. Fires ravaged the Arctic and the Amazon. This was the climate crisis in 2019.

Earth nears irreversible tipping points

Coal knew, too. A newly unearthed journal from 1966 shows the coal industry, like the oil industry, was long aware of the threat of climate change. And new paper reveals rail industry was leader in climate denial efforts.

Indigenous people blocked Ecuador oil auction in growing fight to save Amazon 

WA Indigenous group’s $290 billion compensation claim could become one of world’s biggest payouts

Fearing eviction, thousands of forest dwellers protest in India

More than 1,700 activists have been killed this century defending the environment

Indigenous people pay a high price for protecting the planet 

A gathering of guardians: Indigenous monitors convene for historic knowledge exchange

Farmer depression deepens as climate warms

Climate change poses threat to children’s health worldwide 

Psychologists from 40 countries pledged to use their jobs to address climate change 




Worldwide uprisings

Welcome to the global rebellion against neoliberalism. As distinct as the protests seem, the uprisings rocking Bolivia, Lebanon, and scores of other countries all share a common theme.

From Iran to Hong Kong, the world is becoming ungovernable

This wave of global protest is being led by the children of the financial crash

Hong Kong Protests: Inside the chaos

“Rifles, machine guns, El Alto will not fall!” Dual Power in Bolivia

Debt and neoliberalism: The global roots of Chile’s crisis

A few tips on how to understand Latin American coups

More than just a “Spring”: the Arab region’s long-term revolution

Lebanon’s revolution spawns ‘direct democracy’ with citizen assemblies and people’s parliaments

Iraq is healing: The October revolution, systemic change and intergenerational trauma

Now is the time to rise up for Rojava

Indonesia protests: Land bill at center of unrest

Thousands of Romanians protest against illegal logging, attacks on forest workers

Czechs say billionaire leader must resign in mass protests

Why aren’t people in the US rising up like those elsewhere in the world?



Just think about it…

Why are rich people so mean? Call it Rich Asshole Syndrome—the tendency to distance yourself from people with whom you have a large wealth differential.

Why we are all losing sleep. With longer work hours, the rise of the gig economy and smartphone apps competing for our every waking moment, sleep has become the final frontier of consumer capitalism.

To have or not to have children in the age of climate change

Robin Wall Kimmerer on the intelligence in all kinds of life

‘Every plant and animal is useful to us’: Indigenous professor re-thinking how we deal with invasive species

After climate change apocalypse, kindness will be most important survival skill

Imagination is such an ancient ability it might precede language

Plastic has a big carbon footprint — but that isn’t the whole story

The first map of America’s food supply chain is mind-boggling

Smartphones are killing the planet faster than anyone expected

Pointless emails: they’re not just irritating – they have a massive carbon footprint

Myths of the circular economy



Where we’re at: analysis

It’s time to retire metrics like GDP. They don’t measure everything that matters

Against economics. “Any new, viable science will either have to draw on the accumulated knowledge of feminism, behavioral economics, psychology, and even anthropology to come up with theories based on how people actually behave, or once again embrace the notion of emergent levels of complexity—or, most likely, both.”

It’s not thanks to capitalism that we’re living longer, but progressive politics

The hidden cost of gold: Birth defects and brain damage 

The Native American women who fought mass sterilization

What the West doesn’t get about the climate crisis

It bears repeating: Renewables alone won’t end the climate crisis

The climate case for working less

How mindfulness privatised a social problem

The time has come to take the self out of self-care

Emergenciocracy: why demanding the “climate emergency” is risky

Geoengineering: let’s not get it back-to-front

Humanity and nature are not separate – we must see them as one to fix the climate crisis



New politics

Sowing the seeds of post-extractivism. Communities around the world are demonstrating how we can move beyond extractivism to revive cultures of care and solidarity.

Direct democracy and the passion for political participation. For a radically democratic and ecological society we need to build democratic and resilient communities capable of deepening citizen participation at all levels of public life.

Worker-owned apps are trying to fix the gig economy’s exploitation

‘Fire the bosses’: Platform co-ops set out their radical stall

Imagine a future of distributed cooperatives, or disCOs

In depth with Clark Arrington, a pioneer for cooperatives and black economic power (Part 1)

Learning to see the commons

Gig workers rising: Foodora couriers and Uber drivers organizing for justice

The climate movement needs more creative tactics

Why climate action needs to target the border industrial complex

Eco-fascists and the ugly fight for ‘our way of life’ as the environment disintegrates

Italy’s green fascists

Accelerationism: the idea inspiring white supremacist killers around the world

Primitivism and ecofascism

The Red Deal is an Indigenous climate plan that builds on the Green New Deal

All organizing is magic: Reflections on Caliban and the Witch



Food politics

For a sustainable future, we need to reconnect with what we’re eating – and each other 

Meet the activists bringing urban farms to one of America’s most deprived cities 



Cities and radical municipalism

What if… cities became car-free?

Are community land trusts a way out of the system?

Against We. What the We Company offers is commune as commodity.

Berlin renters organize to expropriate the mega-landlords

How green gentrification is compromising Seattle’s last affordable neighborhood

Who is the “public” in public transportation?

Endgame Marxism (and urbanism)

Sanders, Ocasio-Cortez unveil $172 billion ‘Green New Deal for public housing’

Under the paving stones, a vegetable garden. Joëlle Zask explores how greening citizenship – through cultivation practices – offers an opportunity for self-government which may just restore this relationship to one of perpetual regeneration rather than mutually destructive exploitation.  

If progressives don’t try to win over rural areas, guess who will



Degrowth!

Defending limits is not Malthusian

Degrowth information

The myth of green growth. “Economic growth, democracy and CO2 have always been intertwined.”

Unraveling the claims for (and against) green growth

Heaven hath limits: a review of Limits by Giorgos Kallis

10 ideas for degrowth architecture from the Oslo Architecture Triennale



Reflections on Seattle, 1999

Remembering for the future: Learning from the 1999 Seattle shutdown

Globalize liberation

Seattle 1999 and its “This Changes Everything” energy

Remembering the battle for Seattle: Organizers launch project to reflect on 20 years of lessons



Sci-fi and the near future

Cyberpunk is dead

The real-world locations of 14 sci-fi dystopias 

Cherie Dimaline and Rebecca Roanhorse are embodying Indigenous futurisms

Jeff Bezos’s vision of the future is basically Blade Runner

Space ageing: why sci-fi novels shun the badass older woman

Library Socialism: a utopian vision of a sustainable, luxuriant future of circulating abundance

Hopepunk and Solarpunk: On climate narratives that go beyond the Apocalypse

Highway to hell: the rise and fall of the car

Free BBC documentary: The worlds of Ursula K Le Guin



Nuclear energy will come back to haunt us

Climate change is breaking open America’s nuclear tomb 

In Marshall Islands, radiation threatens tradition of handing down stories by song

Germany is closing all its nuclear power plants. Now it must find a place to bury the deadly waste for 1 million years

Our children await a radioactive legacy



Resources

What is ‘ecological economics’ and why do we need to talk about it?

How to fight antisemitism

Mapping social movements and conflicts around the world

Global petrochemical map

Mary Annaïse Heglar’s list of voices of color on the climate crisis



This newsletter is put together by Anna Biren (@annacbrn), Rut Elliot Blomqvist (@RutElliotB), and Aaron Vansintjan (@a_vansi).

Want to receive this as a newsletter in your inbox? Subscribe here.

July readings

Processing of local rice by a women’s cooperative in Dioro, Mali. Photo: FAO/Michela Paganini, via GRAIN


Once a month, we put together a list of stories we’ve been reading: things you might’ve missed or crucial conversations going on around the web. We focus on environmental and social justice, cities, science fiction, current events, and political theory. 

We try to include articles that have been published recently but will last, that are relatively light and inspiring, and are from corners of the web that don’t always get the light of day. This will also be a space to keep you up to date with news about what’s happening at Uneven Earth.

We are back with a new list of readings! In July, we collected articles on Brazil under Bolsonaro, global land conflicts and the Plantationocene, agro-ecology and food politics, the fall of the discipline of economics, and activist academia. As usual, you’ll find plenty of material on new politics, radical municipalism, degrowth and the Green New Deal, and plastics and waste; and we’re featuring some good reads on utopia, sci-fi, and the apocalypse. We also launched an exciting new project we’ve been working on behind the scenes for a while: Resources for a better future, a glossary aimed at making the tools needed to build a just and ecological society accessible to people outside of academic and activist circles.

 

Uneven Earth updates

Resources for a better future. We launched a new series! We’re looking for people to write easy-to-read, clear, and opinionated entries defining some of the most important concepts in political ecology, alternative economics, and environmental justice.

Super glue | Link | ‘Fuck, he can do this every single day. Why the fuck does he have to do it? What are we going to do? There’s no point in rushing like this and trying to save him each time he gets into a dark mood’, Ivan said, looking out of the taxi window.

Redwashing capital | Link | Left tech bros are honing Marx into a capitalist tool



Top 5 articles to read

Indigenous maize: who owns the rights to Mexico’s ‘wonder’ plant?

The dark side of renewable energy

Five myths about Chernobyl, and, related: Radiation in parts of the Marshall Islands is far higher than Chernobyl, study says

101 notes on the LA Tenants Union

Food sovereignty is Africa’s only solution to climate chaos



News you might’ve missed

Why a fight to protect a volcano sacred to Native Hawaiians is our fight and Mauna Kea day 7 – crowd swells into the thousands

Hundreds of thousands demand Puerto Rico’s governor resign

Puerto Rico, the oldest colony in the world, gives the world a master class on mobilization

Why ocean acidification could make some geoengineering schemes irrelevant

Planting ‘billions of trees’ isn’t going to stop climate change

One climate crisis disaster happening every week, UN warns. Countries in the Global South must prepare now for profound impact. 

In Somalia, the climate emergency is already here. The world cannot ignore it. Increasingly severe and frequent droughts are threatening the lives of millions of Somalis.

Starvation deaths of 200 reindeer in Arctic caused by climate crisis, say researchers. Comparable death toll has been recorded only once before.

‘Protesters as terrorists’: growing number of US states turn anti-pipeline activism into a crime 



Bolsonaro’s Brazil

Bolsanaro stands by as 20,000 miners invade the Yanomami Amazon Reserve

Brazil: Amazon state’s new law enables land thieves, critics say

Amazon gold miners invade indigenous village in Brazil after its leader is killed

‘He wants to destroy us’: Bolsonaro poses gravest threat in decades, Amazon tribes say



Global land conflicts and the Plantationocene

Donna Haraway and Anna Tsing reflect on the Plantationocene

Heart of Ecuador’s Yasuni, home to uncontacted tribes, opens for oil drilling

Two groups of Cambodian villagers protest over land disputes

Cameroon’s palm oil of discontent

Report implicates Gov’t officials in massive land grabs

The World Bank lending strategy must aim to place people above profit

Central Africa’s rainforests and people suffering from the expansion of palm oil and rubber plantations

Land, environmental activist killings surge in Guatemala: report



Agro-ecology and food politics

Monica White on food justice in the past, present, future

Putting pigs in the shade: the radical farming system banking on trees

Landscape with beavers

How we can change our food systems: Integrated Food Policy

Venezuelan food houses: a last trench against US blockade

Dalit identity and food – memories of trauma on a plate

Agroecology as innovation and Agroecological and other innovative approaches for sustainable agriculture and food systems that enhance food security and nutrition

Our veggie gardens won’t feed us in a real crisis



Where we’re at: analysis

Dancing with grief

Political scenarios for climate disaster

On flooding: drowning the culture in sameness

AI applications, chips, deep tech, and geopolitics in 2019: The stakes have never been higher

The ‘giant sucking sound’ of NAFTA: Ross Perot was ridiculed as alarmist in 1992 but his warning turned out to be prescient

5 myths about global poverty



Just think about it…

The philosophy of low-tech: a conversation with Kris De Decker

The tyranny of lawns and landlords

Gardening games are blossoming in turbulent times

When ancient DNA gets politicized

‘Climate despair’ is making people give up on life

Farmers’ markets have new unwelcome guests: fascists

We should never have called it Earth

Elephants’ diets help forests to thrive… and store more carbon 



New politics

We can’t expand airports after declaring a climate emergency. Related: Seven strategies for the degrowth of aviation and To fly or not to fly? The environmental cost of air travel

Turn on, tune in, rise up

What role do cooperatives and the “solidarity economy” play in class struggle?

Ecological politics for the working class

Shifting ownership for the energy transition in the Green New Deal: a transatlantic proposal

The tactics Hong Kong protesters use to fortify the front lines

In the age of extinction, who is extreme? A response to Policy Exchange in defense of Extinction Rebellion

Remembering the Chipko movement: the women-led Indigenous stuggle



Radical municipalism

Why suburbia sucks

Cities are beginning to own up to the climate impacts of what they consume

The problem with community land trusts

Yesterday’s tomorrow today: what we can learn from past urban visions

Finding the future in radical rural America

I’m an engineer, and I’m not buying into ‘smart’ cities

Berlin buys 670 flats on Karl-Marx-Allee from private owner and The causes and consequences of Berlin’s rapid gentrification



Degrowth and the Green New Deal

Greenwashing the status quo: ‘European green deal’ falls woefully short of what’s needed

Decoupling is dead! Long live degrowth! Also see Decoupling debunked – Evidence and arguments against green growth as a sole strategy for sustainability and The decoupling delusion: rethinking growth and sustainability



Plastics and waste

The plastic industry’s fight to keep polluting the world

What you think about landfill and recycling is probably totally wrong

‘The odour of burning wakes us’: inside the Philippines’ Plastic City



Utopia, sci-fi, and the apocalypse

Optimize what? How techno-solutionism begins in the classrooms where computer science is taught

Ursula K. Le Guin’s revolutions

In Tim Maughan’s dystopian novel, the web is dead

Like mechanization, AI will make us richer. But it may not help workers.

Revolutionary dreamwork



The fall of the discipline of economics

The tragedy of the tragedy of the commons

The quiet realization of Ivan Illich’s ideas in the contemporary commons movement

The myth of the tragedy of the commons

Trickle-up economics

The fall of the economists’ empire

Eight principles of a new economics for the people of a living Earth



Activist academia

Why we need a more activist academy

What it’s like to be a woman in the academy

Why ‘open science’ is actually pretty good politics



Resources

Essential books on Marxism and ecology

Green New Deals – the degrowth perspective. A compilation of articles on the Green New Deal from a degrowth framework—many of which have been featured in this newsletter already. 

The 2019 Atlas of Utopias. A global gallery of inspiring community-led transformation in water, energy, food systems and housing.

Decolonising the economy. A new ourEconomy series focusing on the global economy and global justice.



This newsletter is put together by Anna Biren (@annacbrn), Rut Elliot Blomqvist (@RutElliotB), Joanna Pope (@DegrowthMemes), and Aaron Vansintjan (@a_vansi).

Want to receive this as a newsletter in your inbox? Subscribe here.

How circular is the circular economy?

Illustration: Diego Marmolejo.

by Kris De Decker

The circular economy has become, for many governments, institutions, companies, and environmental organisations, one of the main components of a plan to lower carbon emissions. In the circular economy, resources would be continually re-used, meaning that there would be no more mining activity or waste production. The stress is on recycling, made possible by designing products so that they can easily be taken apart.

Attention is also paid to developing an “alternative consumer culture”. In the circular economy, we would no longer own products, but would loan them. For example, a customer could pay not for lighting devices but for light, while the company remains the owner of the lighting devices and pays the electricity bill. A product thus becomes a service, which is believed to encourage businesses to improve the lifespan and recyclability of their products.

The circular economy is presented as an alternative to the “linear economy” – a term that was coined by the proponents of circularity, and which refers to the fact that industrial societies turn valuable resources into waste. However, while there’s no doubt that the current industrial model is unsustainable, the question is how different to so-called circular economy would be.

Several scientific studies (see references) describe the concept as an “idealised vision”, a “mix of various ideas from different domains”, or a “vague idea based on pseudo-scientific concepts”. There’s three main points of criticism, which we discuss below.

 

Too complex to recycle

The first dent in the credibility of the circular economy is the fact that the recycling process of modern products is far from 100% efficient. A circular economy is nothing new. In the middle ages, old clothes were turned into paper, food waste was fed to chickens or pigs, and new buildings were made from the remains of old buildings. The difference between then and now is the resources used.

Before industrialisation, almost everything was made from materials that were either decomposable – like wood, reeds, or hemp – or easy to recycle or re-use – like iron and bricks. Modern products are composed of a much wider diversity of (new) materials, which are mostly not decomposable and are also not easily recycled.

For example, a recent study of the modular Fairphone 2 – a smartphone designed to be recyclable and have a longer lifespan – shows that the use of synthetic materials, microchips, and batteries makes closing the circle impossible. Only 30% of the materials used in the Fairphone 2 can be recuperated. A study of LED lights had a similar result.

The large-scale use of synthetic materials, microchips, and batteries makes closing the circle impossible.

The more complex a product, the more steps and processes it takes to recycle. In each step of this process, resources and energy are lost. Furthermore, in the case of electronic products, the production process itself is much more resource-intensive than the extraction of the raw materials, meaning that recycling the end product can only recuperate a fraction of the input. And while some plastics are indeed being recycled, this process only produces inferior materials (“downcycling”) that enter the waste stream soon afterwards.

The low efficiency of the recycling process is, on its own, enough to take the ground from under the concept of the circular economy: the loss of resources during the recycling process always needs to be compensated with more over-extraction of the planet’s resources. Recycling processes will improve, but recycling is always a trade-off between maximum material recovery and minimum energy use. And that brings us to the next point.

 

How can you recycle energy sources?

The second dent in the credibility of the circular economy is the fact that 20% of total resources used worldwide are fossil fuels. More than 98% of that is burnt as a source of energy and can’t be re-used or recycled. At best, the excess heat from, for example, the generation of electricity, can be used to replace other heat sources.

As energy is transferred or transformed, its quality diminishes (second law of thermodynamics). For example, it’s impossible to operate one car or one power plant with the excess heat from another. Consequently, there will always be a need to mine new fossil fuels. Besides, recycling materials also requires energy, both through the recycling process and the transportation of recycled and to-be-recycled materials.

To this, the supporters of the circular economy have a response: we will shift to 100% renewable energy. But this doesn’t make the circle round: to build and maintain renewable energy plants and accompanied infrastructures, we also need resources (both energy and materials). What’s more, technology to harvest and store renewable energy relies on difficult-to-recycle materials. That’s why solar panels, wind turbines and lithium-ion batteries are not recycled, but landfilled or incinerated.

 

Input exceeds output

The third dent in the credibility of the circular economy is the biggest: the global resource use – both energetic and material – keeps increasing year by year. The use of resources grew by 1400% in the last century: from 7 gigatonnes (Gt) in 1900 to 62 Gt in 2005 and 78 Gt in 2010. That’s an average growth of about 3% per year – more than double the rate of population growth.

Growth makes a circular economy impossible, even if all raw materials were recycled and all recycling was 100% efficient. The amount of used material that can be recycled will always be smaller than the material needed for growth. To compensate for that, we have to continuously extract more resources.

 Growth makes a circular economy impossible, even if all raw materials were recycled and all recycling was 100% efficient. 

The difference between demand and supply is bigger than you might think. If we look at the whole life cycle of resources, then it becomes clear that proponents for a circular economy only focus on a very small part of the whole system, and thereby misunderstand the way it operates.

 

Accumulation of resources

A considerable segment of all resources – about a third of the total – are neither recycled, nor incinerated or dumped: they are accumulated in buildings, infrastructure, and consumer goods. In 2005, 62 Gt of resources were used globally. After subtracting energy sources (fossil fuels and biomass) and waste from the mining sector, the remaining 30 Gt were used to make material goods. Of these, 4 Gt was used to make products that last for less than one year (disposable products).

Circular-economy-diego
Illustration: Diego Marmolejo.

The other 26 Gt was accumulated in buildings, infrastructure, and consumer goods that last for more than a year. In the same year, 9 Gt of all surplus resources were disposed of, meaning that the “stocks” of material capital grew by 17 Gt in 2005. In comparison: the total waste that could be recycled in 2005 was only 13 Gt (4 Gt disposable products and 9 Gt surplus resources), of which only a third (4 Gt) can be effectively recycled.

About a third of all resources are neither recycled, nor incinerated or dumped: they are accumulated in buildings, infrastructure, and consumer goods. 

Only 9 Gt is then put in a landfill, incinerated, or dumped – and it is this 9 Gt that the circular economy focuses on. But even if that was all recycled, and if the recycling processes were 100% efficient, the circle would still not be closed: 63 Gt in raw materials and 30 Gt in material products would still be needed.

As long as we keep accumulating raw materials, the closing of the material life cycle remains an illusion, even for materials that are, in principle, recyclable. For example, recycled metals can only supply 36% of the yearly demand for new metal, even if metal has relatively high recycling capacity, at about 70%. We still use more raw materials in the system than can be made available through recycling – and so there are simply not enough recyclable raw materials to put a stop to the continuously expanding extractive economy.

 

The true face of the circular economy

A more responsible use of resources is of course an excellent idea. But to achieve that, recycling and re-use alone aren’t enough. Since 71% of all resources cannot be recycled or re-used (44% of which are energy sources and 27% of which are added to existing stocks), you can only really get better numbers by reducing total use.

A circular economy would therefore demand that we use less fossil fuels (which isn’t the same as using more renewable energy), and that we accumulate less raw materials in commodities. Most importantly, we need to make less stuff: fewer cars, fewer microchips, fewer buildings. This would result in a double profit: we would need less resources, while the supply of discarded materials available for re-use and recycling would keep growing for many years to come.

It seems unlikely that the proponents of the circular economy would accept these additional conditions. The concept of the circular economy is intended to align sustainability with economic growth – in other words, more cars, more microchips, more buildings. For example, the European Union states that the circular economy will “foster sustainable economic growth”.

Even the limited goals of the circular economy – total recycling of a fraction of resources – demands an extra condition that proponents probably won’t agree with: that everything is once again made with wood and simple metals, without using synthetic materials, semi-conductors, lithium-ion batteries or composite materials.

This article first appeared on Low-tech Magazine.

Kris De Decker is editor of Low-Tech Magazine and lives in Barcelona, Spain.

 

References:

Haas, Willi, et al. “How circular is the global economy?: An assessment of material flows, waste production, and recycling in the European Union and the world in 2005.” Journal of Industrial Ecology 19.5 (2015): 765-777.

Murray, Alan, Keith Skene, and Kathryn Haynes. “The circular economy: An interdisciplinary exploration of the concept and application in a global context.” Journal of Business Ethics 140.3 (2017): 369-380.

Gregson, Nicky, et al. “Interrogating the circular economy: the moral economy of resource recovery in the EU.” Economy and Society 44.2 (2015): 218-243.

Krausmann, Fridolin, et al. “Global socioeconomic material stocks rise 23-fold over the 20th century and require half of annual resource use.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2017): 201613773.

Korhonen, Jouni, Antero Honkasalo, and Jyri Seppälä. “Circular economy: the concept and its limitations.” Ecological economics 143 (2018): 37-46.

Fellner, Johann, et al. “Present potentials and limitations of a circular economy with respect to primary raw material demand.” Journal of Industrial Ecology 21.3 (2017): 494-496.

Reuter, Markus A., Antoinette van Schaik, and Miquel Ballester. “Limits of the Circular Economy: Fairphone Modular Design Pushing the Limits.” 2018

Reuter, M. A., and A. Van Schaik. “Product-Centric Simulation-based design for recycling: case of LED lamp recycling.” Journal of Sustainable Metallurgy 1.1 (2015): 4-28.

Reuter, Markus A., Antoinette van Schaik, and Johannes Gediga. “Simulation-based design for resource efficiency of metal production and recycling systems: Cases-copper production and recycling, e-waste (LED lamps) and nickel pig iron.” The International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment 20.5 (2015): 671-693.

We’ve been here before, haven’t we?

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by Salvador Pueyo

We are often told that we need economic growth to address social problems such as unemployment and poverty and to improve everybody’s welfare. However, if one of your sleeves is tight on you, this does not necessarily mean that you need a bigger shirt: perhaps what you need is to reshape your shirt. Indeed, this will be your sole option if you have little thread left.

Economic growth is not a realistic answer to social problems in a world with vanishing natural resources, ecological degradation and climate change. The sensible answer is a deep transformation of the economy to make it more egalitarian and better suited to people’s aspiration to satisfy their basic needs and to live a meaningful and fulfilling life, while we get rid of many economic activities that we do not really need, and contract the economy to sustainable levels, carefully and in a truly democratic way. Currently, this idea is best known with the name of degrowth (see this website or this one), and their supporters pursue it at all levels, including individual consumption choices, grassroots self-organization to experience alternative forms of collective functioning, and political action.

However, very few people in the degrowth movement are aware that we are essentially repeating a cycle of mobilization that had already taken place from the late 1970s to the early 1990s (Piulats 1984 is a good sample, in Spanish). In that period, the ideas and practices that we currently call degrowth were labelled just as green, without knowing that the environmental movement would later become dominated by other different shades of green. The movement was especially strong in West Germany, becoming a reference all over the world when its political arm, Die Grünen (the German Greens) irrupted into the Federal Parliament in 1983.

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Unfortunately, Die Grünen became split in two main factions. The fundamentalist or fundi, which we would currently call degrowther, would soon have to share the party with the self-called realists or realos, closer to what we currently call green capitalism. Fundis went under pressure after an electoral defeat in 1990 (when the Greens did not share the general enthusiasm for a quick reunification of Germany, warning of the many problems that this would cause to East Germans, and focused their campaign on the then virtually unknown issue of climate change; paraphrasing the German Railways’ slogan Everyone is talking about the weather. We don’t, their slogan was Everyone is talking about Germany; we’re talking about the weather!; e.g., Jungjohann 2013). In a party congress in 1991, the fundis were defeated and left the party (see different views of this congress here and here). The end of the German Greens of the 1980s was rounded off with the death in 1992 of its most emblematic member, the fundi Petra Kelly.

After these events, the ideas, experiences and illusions of the early Grünen were forgotten almost completely. However, their spirit has never ceased to manifest itself in lots of grassroots initiatives. And, behind this veil of amnesia, there is a hidden treasure: the political programmes of the German Greens of that times. As described in a paper that Jorge Riechmann published in Ecología Política in 1994 (if you understand Spanish, this review is a must read), there was a conscious process of programmatic elaboration. It was carried out by the assemblies and representatives of the party all over West Germany, the many social movements where they had their roots, and hundreds of experts hired with the funds obtained from the presence of the party in the institutions. They envisioned, with much detail, how Die Grünen could foster a transition toward a socially fair degrowth.

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Even though Die Grünen had already moderated some of their positions before the upheaval of the early 1990s (Blühdorn 2009), the rich programmatic document on international economic policy elaborated between 1988 and 1990 still declares that “For us it is no longer international politics in the national interest but national politics in the international interest” (p. 7) and that “we should not hide the fact that our foreign economic guidelines could bring about a noticeable reduction in our current standard of living” (p. 93). Few current radical parties would dare to go so far.

I was appalled by the amnesia surrounding the early Grünen, which I noticed in many different ways, not least by failing to find some key programmatic documents with search engines. Taking advantage of a trip to Berlin to give a talk, I visited the historical archive of Die Grünen (run by the Heinrich Böll Foundation) and I photocopied some of these documents. I put them together with some other documents in this small repository.

By studying the early programmes of Die Grünen, the degrowth movement can save much effort and leap forward in the detail and quality of its political proposals. Like the protagonist of Groundhog Day, we can also learn from that past to avoid a repetition of the same story.

This is just the beginning. I hope that this (or some other) repository will be enriched with more programmatic documents and with translations.

Salvador Pueyo is a scientist and an activist. He holds a PhD from the Dept. of Ecology of the University of Barcelona, and has worked at research institutions in several countries. He applies complexity science to macroecology, macroeconomics and global change. He is a member of Research & Degrowth.

The two images in this article were found in the document, “Gegen arbeitslosigkeit und Socialabbau: Sinnvoll arbeiten – solidarisch leben” by Die Grünen.