The idea of a circular economy is certainly promising, but how to make it a reality? Robert Lilienfeld, Founder and Executive Director of the Sustainable Packaging Think Tank SPRINGlooks to scientific theory and historical parallels to try to answer that question.
Do you know why communism as a political philosophy and socialism as an economic offshoot failed?
I believe the answer is much easier to understand than the one generally discussed. Just look to the laws of thermodynamics, especially the second law, which describes what happens in enclosed environments.
Quite simply, the closed environment in which socialism operated could not produce enough value to sustain itself. The commercial sector could not generate the profits, and the citizens could not generate the tax revenue needed to pay the demands of the civil and military administrations that ran them. Additionally, communist countries like the USSR subsidized the administrations of its poorer allies (e.g., Cuba), further diminishing the ability to maintain its own economy.
Essentially, Communism was a circular system that took root because of its failure to add enough value to the resources it used and the products it created. Moreover, it could not afford to invest in the outside resources needed to provide the additional products and services needed to support the growing populations and promised living standards.
Insufficient input levels could not provide the output needed to sustain the economy and thus the social and political order. Through socialism, communism literally bankrupted itself, because fighting against increasing entropy in a closed system was futile.
By deduction, does this mean that the circular economy is simply what its detractors claim it is: another doomed socialist system?
If circularity is the ultimate goal, nature tells us the answer is probably “yes”. Think of the anthropomorphic generation of greenhouse gases in thermodynamic terms: it’s a form of entropy. Circularity can slow the accumulation of this entropy, but it will never eliminate it, because the mere existence of a circular economy will continue to generate it!
But, if circularity is part of a larger system designed to support social existence, and even growth, while helping to bring atmospheric carbon emissions down to levels close to what nature produced before the Industrial Revolution , the answer may be different.
How could we do this?
There are two keys to building circularity into long-term population growth scenarios that can sustain human life on Earth (at least for a while) in the quantity and quality generally expected.
First, circularity should be used as a buffer to reduce greenhouse gas-inducing fuels used to produce goods and services. There is nothing wrong with using hydrocarbons and carbohydrates as the backbone of the materials we need to maintain the quality of human life. From this perspective, hydrocarbon-based plastics and carbohydrate-based cellulosics are wonderful materials.
What we don’t want to do is build up entropy by breaking the carbon and hydrogen bonds in these materials to generate energy, and thus produce excess greenhouse gases as a by-product. Moreover, these hydrogen-carbon-oxygen compounds are finite resources that define both the ecologies, economies and global societies in which we live; but are also the basis of the products on which all three literally depend.
Second, we must do what communist societies did not or could not do – use energy resources that are not based on fossil fuels. Some of them are probably finite, because they are planetary resources. These include wind, hydro, geothermal and nuclear power.
But one resource, solar energy, can be considered infinite because its unfathomable power lies outside the Earth and its environmental, economic and social systems. In fact, without the sun’s energy production and the gravitational mass that produces it, our entire solar system wouldn’t exist (and won’t one day exist).
Could circularity circumvent the second law?
British astrophysicist Arthur Eddington wrote: “If someone points out to you that your favorite theory of the universe disagrees with Maxwell’s equations (concerning electromagnetism) — then too bad for Maxwell’s equations… But if your theory turns out to go against the second law of thermodynamics, I can’t give you any hope; there is nothing else to do but collapse in the deepest humiliation.”
Finally, don’t trust the assurances of those who only see what they want to see, no matter how strongly they defend their position. As Charles Darwin once said, “Ignorance breeds confidence more often than knowledge.”
thanks to SPRING colleague Dr. Behrooz Ghorishi for his review and comments.