In a discussion on the perma-circularity blog of Christian Arnsperger, the French biophysical engineer and economist Francois Grosse strongly argues that degrowth is the wrong path:

“Nobody has the slightest hint as to how to render viable a world economy that would be structurally de-growing while ensuring social balance, individual and collective satisfaction, and peace between the large states. Even the slow-growing economy (at a less-than-1% growth rate) that results from my earlier demonstration remains an unsolved challenge, since we still don’t know how to ensure employment, innovation, useful investments, and even democracy at such a low pace of economic growth. Just think back to the social structures and the kinds of international relations that prevailed across the world before industrialization. Even recommending that we create a perfectly clean and quasi-infinite energy source – so that we could gradually replace every negative externality with energy solutions that are neutral for the biosphere – would be less irresponsible than promoting de-growth. I don’t think it’s at all realistic to bet on this, but I suggest that the science we have now is much closer even to designing such an energy source than to inventing a stable de-growth economy. We can’t live with negative growth for any length of time. De-growth as a solution is a fraud; let’s drop it.”

Instead we argues we must strive for ‘quasi-circular growth’. He explains that:

“There’s no room for doubt and no possible escape: If the consumption of raw materials grows above 1% per year, or if the global addition to stocks lies above 20% of global consumption of any material, then there is no sense in recycling. And if we don’t soon become technically capable of recycling at least 60% to 80% of all the raw materials we’re using, then let’s not get all excited about changing this industrial world of ours into a sober one: our recycling efforts won’t have much impact on the future. The only way to have an impact is to do three things at the same time: slow growth, light accumulation, and high recycling. This is what I call “Quasi-Circular Growth.”

But how to do this ?

Unfortunately, “We still have no clue about this. Actually, the issue isn’t just raw-material production and recycling; it’s not just about how to engineer one global closed loop for each raw material. Earlier, I only discussed the global flows of non-renewable raw materials, but a circular economy needs to purposefully minimize retrieval and irreversible impacts for every material and biological resource locally, globally, and sustainably, while maximizing the benefits to mankind under that constraint. It’s a systemic challenge, including loops at every scale – like in a fractal system. When looking for solutions, it’s appealing to single out individual responsibilities within the system: managers seeking profits, engineers planning obsolescence, marketeers stimulating consumers’ greed, etc. All of this is, or may be, true. But merely pointing it out won’t help.

In the end, our individual experience – at least for most of us – is that today we usually still enjoy better health technologies, larger schools for our kids, a larger house, a more powerful mobile phone, etc. As the French sociologist Jean Baudrillard wrote in his 1970 book La société de consommation, “there is no limit to the ‘needs’ of man as a social being.” Making our society sustainable begins with imagining and reflecting on how our socially constructed needs could gradually be made to fit into the biosphere; and that’s only the beginning, not the point of arrival. Let me suggest a very first step, though: What if we began by regulating the minimum amount of recycled materials inside every new product?”

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