Cities After…Climate Change Series: The Circular Economy - Pt. 4

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In Pt. 4 of Cities After…Summer Climate Change series, Prof. Robles-Durán talks about the most significant delusional solution to Climate change to date: The Circular Economy, an economic framework that highlights enormous business opportunities in the reuse and recycling of commodities while it claims to save the planet from ecological collapse. What seems like a win-win scenario for environmentally conscious capitalists might not be what it projects.

Transcript has been edited for clarity

Cities After… is a bi-monthly podcast about the future of cities, grounded in our daily urban struggles. It is part dystopian and part utopian. My intention is to entice your civic imagination into action, because we know that a more just and sustainable urban future is possible. This is Miguel Robles Duran, and I dare you to imagine our cities after …

This podcast is made possible by Democracy At Work.

The summer of 2022 is ending, but its effects will linger long. Europe is facing its worst drought in 500 years. Its principal rivers are almost dry. The Loire, the Rhine, the Danube, and the Po, waterways that for centuries have been essential agricultural resources and key commercial routes, are no longer able to sustain those functions. In China, a nationwide drought alert was issued as parts of the third largest river in the world, the Yangtze, have completely dried out. More than 400 million people depend on it for drinking water, and the loss of its flow has produced the most severe energy crisis in China's history, crippling its extensive network of
hydroelectric plants to less than 50 percent of its regular output at a time when there is an over-demand for electricity to cool down its factories, office towers, and of course its population. In the U.S., the Federal government announced emergency water cuts for states served
by the Colorado River. More than 40 million inhabitants from Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Ytah and Wyoming, as well as tens of millions more from Mexico, rely on its water for survival, and now it's also drying up.

Enough with droughts. What about floods? Well, about one third of Pakistan is currently
underwater, an area comparable to having all of Italy submerged. With monsoon rainfall at 10 times its usual, 33 million people have been severely affected. Over a million homes have been run down. Five thousand kilometers (roughly 3,100 miles) of roads are no longer usable. Eight hundred thousand hectares (over two million acres) of farmland have also been lost. Over eight hundred thousand heads of livestock have drowned, and over twelve hundred people have been
declared dead – a third of them children. All these in a matter of weeks.

Sadly, this summer went as predicted. Alarms have been ringing for decades – indeed,
enough time for world leaders, scientists, academics and professionals to foresee and support
the implementation of some solutions to control all this climate chaos. At the horrific phase of this summer’s environmental disasters and human toil, I will dedicate this podcast to talking about a trending delusional solution to climate change.

In past episodes,you have heard me talk about the electric car, and LEED green building certification, but have you heard of the “climate resilience toolkit?” Or how about “cradle-to-cradle design?” Or “software-as-service technologies?” I'm just mentioning a few of the fancy ideas that capital has used to convince us that they are fighting climate change for good. I will be addressing all these facts in future podcasts, but in this episode I want to delve into what I think is still the most significant trend of all in climate change solutions: the circular economy.

Even though its ideas date back to the 1960s, its popularity with national governments
and global regional economic blocs is relatively recent. Its current acclaim indeed began with the inclusion of some of its principles as a top-down national policy in China's eleventh five-year plan that came out in 2006. Still, it was until 2013 when the Ellen MacArthur Foundation together with the mega-consultancy firm, McKinsey and Company, published a report that was titled Towards the Circular Economy: Economic and Business Rationale for an Accelerated Transition. This report took the concept, and changed climate discussions by storm. From this moment on, one would find promoters of the circular economy in every significant environmental global forum, in prestigious academic conferences on the environment, and in sustainable business models from major corporations across the planet. Its sudden popularity made it a guiding principle to the United Nations’ sustainability goals, as well as environmental and urban policy worldwide, to the point that it has become inescapable. Currently, the top-most institutional supporter of this vogue has been the European Union, but many other economic regions, countries, and global corporations have expressed allegiance to its core principles.

So what are these principles? What is it that has made it so attractive and successful? First and foremost, it promises continued economic growth amidst a future plagued by material
scarcities and social and economic crisis, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. The circular economy's three main principles are eliminating waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in use, and regenerating natural systems. In short, it supposes a new economic development model of production and consumption based on recycling and renewing commodities, from resource extraction to final individual consumption. “The concept of a circular economy promises a way out,” claims the Ellen MacArthur Foundation in Volume 2 of its famous report. Let me quote a short section of its forward, which by the way was written by the CEO of Unilever:

“Here in the circular economy products do not quickly become waste but are reused to extract their maximum value before safely and productively returning to the biosphere. Most importantly for business leaders, such an economy can deliver growth. Innovative product designers and business leaders are already venturing into this space.”

So this report, together with hundreds of others that have followed, emphasizes business profitability, market growth potential, and untapped wealth as the core drivers of the circular economy, highlighting enormous business opportunities while saving the planet from ecological collapse. What seems like a win-win scenario for “environmentally conscious capitalists,” whatever they are, it concludes that:

“Again, over time the market is likely to systematically reward companies with an edge in
circular business practices, and hence dramatically lower resource requirements. With new technologies in hand, they can win by scaling up the circular economy concept. There will also be rewards in rapidly urbanizing countries, where waste streams of nutrients heat partially treated wastewater, or CO2 can be converted back into high-value biological products or energy, using much shorter and much more resilient supply chains. The time to invest in the building of a circular economy is now.”

In the new Darwinian language of these reports, the future will favor businesses that apply circular models in their production chains, this after they have over-extracted and destroyed natural resources. Now the only thing left for capitalists to do is exploit its waste and enjoy the perks of appearing to consumers as savers of the planet. Sadly, the popularity of the circular economy can be primarily attributed to this motive. There is nothing inherently wrong with the push for recycling, the reuse of commodities and the reduction of waste. These are individual and collective actions that we must all pursue. However, the profit-seeking, private corporate ownership of these activities makes me suspiciously critical of the circular economy and its principles, and obviously I am not alone in this criticism.

In the last couple of years, some criticisms of the circular economy have entered the general discourse surrounding it. Notwithstanding, the most resounding points of critique
correctly emphasize the limits of reuse and recycling, noting that its conceptual frame disregards scientific laws about the physical properties and limitations of materials, their forms of extraction, and obviously the thermodynamic constraints of waste disposal. Waste does not magically disappear, and the planet will have to suffer its consequences at some point in the circle. There is also another noted camp of criticism that argues that due to the extension, complexity, and unpredictability of global production chains, it is impossible to measure its
long-term environmental impact on regional or larger geographical scales. Therefore, any metrics used to measure the significance of the circular economy are from their point of conception flawed and deceitful.

Faced with a convoluted reality of 21st century commodity production, circular concepts can only be practically applied and measured in small parts of the manufacturing circle, which is a big contradiction since most of the elements of the circle continue to rely heavily on linear models to be productive. Apart from these two very valid lines of critique, I wish to highlight a third one, which I think is the most compelling for those committed to fighting for social and environmental justice. Before all else, the circular economy is a subset of the neoliberal economic model, meant to promote capitalist expansion through the coercive privatization of
resources that involve the sharing, leasing, reusing, repairing, refurbishing, and recycling of existing materials and products to extract as much monetary value from them for as long as possible. Advancing on neoliberal principles, the circular economy implies an even greater disregard for social equity and labor justice, as it heavily relies on high technology, automation, and artificial intelligence to optimize profit extraction – which is a venture that only corporations with ample capital resources can compete for, leaving the 99 percent out of the game. This is stated clearly in another excerpt from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation report:

“In a world of 9 or10 billion consumers with fierce competition for resources, market forces are likely to favor those models that best combine specialized knowledge and cross-sector collaboration to create the most value per unit of resource, over those models that rely on ever more resource extraction and throughput. Natural selection will likely favor the agile hybrids able to quickly combine circularity with scale, that are best adapted to a planet transformed by humanity.”

Need I say more? Sadly, yes. Rather than problematize the capitalist origins of the
environmental crisis or propose a modest shift from a growth-centric economic basis, the circular economy does precisely the opposite. It cements capitalist market expansion as the guiding principle for which the world would somehow deal with global warming and all its crises. If so, as Reverend Billy stated in the previous podcast, we are definitely all doomed to the
sixth extinction. The popularity of the circular economy gloomily reveals a world led to an annihilation, by enthusiastically blind and thirsty money hounds that will never accept or understand that the capitalist logic they champion is the very thing that is destroying all life on this planet.

I see no other way out of this but to fight every day of our lives for their substitution and the promotion of seriously radical alternatives. There is no other way out. The death-driven monsters at the leadership will never change. This is something we must all hastily accept. Since 2018, the World Economic Forum, the World Resources Institute, the Phillips Corporation, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the United Nations Environment Programme, Ikea, Alphabet, the Coca-Cola Company, McKinsey and Company, Unilever, and dozens of other global partners, as well as national and municipal governments, have been meeting to develop what they call the global Platform for Accelerating the Circular Economy, commonly referred to by its acronym PACE. Their goals are very straightforward. First, they want to foster blended-finance models for developing countries that wish to implement circular economy principles. Second, they want to design and lobby government policy and legislation that advances the circular economy, and lastly, they want to promote public-private partnerships for advancing the circular economy. Openly, this is green neoliberalism, or call it, “neoliberals pretending to fix the climate crisis” or a “New Green Neoliberal Deal” or the greatest greenwash. But all its principles chillingly mirror and advance the capitalist order that has rendered the most unequal society in modern history, together with a planet in flames.

So where is our platform for accelerating the substitution of global leaders? It is apparent that the planet does not stand a chance with them at the head. So where do we go? Well, I'm delighted to tell you that we don't have one global platform as the monsters do, but we have many, and they are on the rise in almost every urban agglomeration across the globe. You have to join them to make the resistance platform stronger. Let me put it bluntly: your life and the life of everything you love depend on you actively joining the environmental justice platform, an anti-capitalist association near you. If you are not part of one, please do a web search for one. Even if being anti-social is your thing, you can still always live stream Reverend Billy and the Earth Church. So, see you at my local “Platform for Accelerating the Substitution of Global Leaders.”

This was another episode of Cities After … Thank you for listening, and don't forget to subscribe.


Transcript by Cindy Mitlo

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