On the 15 of May 2020 the Second Utrecht Degrowth Symposium: From Circular Economy to Circular Society was held online. The event had over 1500 registrations from various sectors including academia, NGOs, public sector, private companies. Some of the key discussion topics included the current challenges of the circular economy concept and the need to go beyond market-based circular solutions. This demonstrated the necessity to think of fair and regenerative circular society rather than simply an eco-efficient circular economy.

By Martin Calisto Friant, Laura van Oers, Olga Koretskaya and Sanli Faez

The event included interventions by Dr. Sanli Faez (Utrecht University), Martin Calisto Friant (Utrecht University), Dr. Kersty Hobson (Cardiff University), Ilektra Kouloumpi (Circle Economy), Joey Hodde (De Ceuvel), Dr. Socrates Schoutens (Waag), Martine Postma (Repair Café), and Professor Ernst Worrel (Utrecht University). By combining speakers from the public and private sector, the symposium allowed for inspiring and innovative discussions on what a degrowing circular society can look like and how it can be achieved in practice. The event was organized by members of Ontgroei (the Dutch Degrowth Platform) and obtained funding from Utrecht University’s Circular Economy and Society Hub.

The symposium challenged the assumption that a circular future could be compatible with continued economic growth. Indeed, planetary boundaries and inevitable global resource limits force us to reconsider the current system’s addiction to growth and requires us to imagine a degrowing circular society. As we have already overshot our planetary limits, degrowth is not only socially desirable (to create a new convivial world beyond individualism, utilitarianism, materialism, ethnocentrism and anthropocentrism) but also necessary for the very survival of humans and other beings.

The symposium discussed practical solutions and perspectives such as Amsterdam’s doughnut model used as a tool for its policies on the circular economy. This allowed for a discussion on how to build sustainable circular cities, where both natural and human ecosystems can thrive. Other solutions were also presented such as cooperative housing models and repair cafés.

The debate also asked how to transfer circular solutions to the Global South. While some technology transfer, economic resources and technical knowledge should be shared, there are a large variety of solutions in the Global South, which must be acknowledged instead of forcing Western values. The Global North could, in fact, learn a lot from the diversity of perspectives from the Global South such as Buen Vivir, Radical Pluralism, Ecological Swaraj etc.

The event warns to critically examine the limits and potentials of circularity and the need to combine circular solutions with degrowth principles regarding ecological limits, social equity and plural democracy. As Prof. Ernst Worrel argues, leaders must stop ‘behaving like ostriches’ i.e. sticking their head in the sand to ignore reality. Infinite growth on a finite planet cannot continue, especially now that we have already surpassed the ecological limits of the earth. We must start de-growing in a fair, planned and redistributive manner, or face a socio-ecological collapse of unfathomable proportions.

Below we present to you summaries of all talks and the panel discussion.

Talk 1/4: From a circular economy to a circular society: historical origins and evolution of the circularity debate

Martin Calisto Friant, Utrecht University

Martin Calisto Friant is a PhD Candidate, the Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development, Utrecht University. Martin has an interdisciplinary academic background on international development studies, political ecology and urban planning from McGill University, University of Melbourne, and University College London. He has over seven years of professional experience in areas related to sustainability, working on several projects in Africa, Europe, Oceania and the Americas.

Martin’s presentation introduced the circular economy concept and its many related concepts in a historical perspective. He first discussed the current interpretation, expectations and main challenges of the circular economy concept. While the idea is viewed as a cure to many of the socio-ecological problems of the 21st century (e.g. resources scarcity, climate change, unemployment etc.), it still faces major obstacles to deliver on those expectations. In fact, it fails to build a holistic approach to the social and political implications of a circular future and thereby does not address issues of redistribution of power, wealth, knowledge and technology. Moreover, it often assumes that economic growth can be decoupled from environmental degradation despite the mounting evidence proving the contrary. The above issues mean that current circular economy discourses are often vague, depoliticized and uncontroversial forms of “greenwashing” used deliberately by states and corporations in order to appeal to a wide range of actors.

Martin’s research finds that, when looking at the circular economy from a broad historical perspective, one can see that the concept is actually much older. Moreover, the concept has many interrelated concepts and ideas from the Global North and south alike such as Doughnut Economics, Buen Vivir, Gandhian Economics, Degrowth and Steady-State Economics. Many of those concepts deal with the lack of social perspective and systemic validity of current circular economy approaches. Overall, the plurality of CE-related visions through history can be distinguished in two broad sets of discourses: circular economy and circular society discourses. A Circular Society defines discourses with a vision of circularity where not only resources are circulated in sustainable loops, but also wealth, knowledge, technology and power is circulated throughout society in fundamentally democratic and redistributive manners. Circular economy discourses, in contrast to this, focus on sustainably circulating resources alone.

You can also access the paper on which the above presentation was based through the following link.

Talk 2/4: Diversifying and de-growing the circular economy: Radical social transformation in a resource-scarce world

Dr Kersty Hobson, Cardiff University

Dr Kersty Hobson is a Senior Lecturer in Human Geography, School of Geography and Planning, Cardiff University, United Kingdom. She has held academic positions at the University of Birmingham, Australian National University, and the University of Oxford, where her research has examined household sustainability practices; environmental non-governmental organizations;; as well as climate change governance and public deliberation.

Dr. Hobson emphasized that the circular economy (CE) project is at a considerable risk not only from failing but also doing more environmental damage than it intends to. The risk is there because the mainstream CE discourse is based on a very simplistic understanding of consumer/citizen behaviour and the processes of social change.

Consumers have two roles in the CE:

1) to use goods and services that are already more sustainable without necessarily changing what we consume and why.  Companies do the work for us in terms of, for example, reduced amount of packaging, while consumers just carry on with usual behaviour.

2) to incrementally change the ‘how’ of consumption by engaging with the sharing and renting economy.

The former is problematic due to the assumption that the market automatically solves the issues. Empirical evidence shows a different picture: we’ve already had 20-30 years of eco labeling, sustainable consumption interventions that haven’t brought any substantial outcomes.

Dr. Hobson focused more on the latter role of the consumer. According to her, the sharing economy doesn’t really provide people with a choice as sharing practices are heavily entangled with the growth-driven capitalist system. Airbnb hosts, for instance, usually have few assets that they can commodify and make money from. “It’s more of a lifeline than anything else”, says Dr. Hobson. What is more, in the mainstream CE discourse, we don’t ask what are the costs of sharing and renting practices – financial, but also labour and opportunity costs. Who bears these costs the most and in what way? It is very hard to find any information about rebound and knock-off effects.

Dr. Hobson argues that the central problem of CE is that it holds to well-worn assumptions of consumer sovereignty and that of sharing is automatically leading to environmental and social good. CE doesn’t really question these assumptions, even though the evidence is not there.

Can the CE project bring the transformative change needed to address climate emergency? Dr. Hobson concludes that we will keep on failing to have much of an impact until norms and expectations around consumptions become part of the debate and until topics such as demand reduction and non-monetary values receive much more attention.

Talk 3/4: Policies for a thriving city within the planetary boundaries

Ilektra Kouloumpi, Circle Economy

Ilektra Kouloumpi is a Senior Cities Strategist, Circle Economy, The Netherlands. Ilektra has worked in the Netherlands, Germany, Belgium, Portugal, Brazil, and Greece. At Circle Economy, she has made it her mission to advance the transition towards low-carbon and circular cities. Currently, she leads the Thriving Cities Initiative pilot programme, taking cities on a journey to become socially just and environmental safe places within planetary boundaries.

Ilektra introduced the activities of the Thriving Cities team she leads at Circle Economy. The Thriving Cities Initiative is a collaborative programme developed in partnership with Kate Raworth's team (Doughnut Economics Action Lab), C40 Cities network, and Biomimicry 3.8 aiming to help cities to thrive, or else become socially just and environmentally safe places. The programme takes the global concept of the Doughnut and downscales it to the city level, making it a practical tool for transformative action. The pilot projects have taken place in Amsterdam, Philadelphia, and Portland.

At the core of each programme stands the very 21st century question: “How can our city be a home for thriving people in a thriving place, while respecting the wellbeing of all people and the health of the whole planet?”

Ilektra started her talk with mentioning the new questions, as well as new perceptions that the Covid-19 pandemic has brought with itself in such a short time and has become a major element in encouraging cities and communities to take a deeper look at these questions.

In the projects, Ilektra and her team have designed a series of workshops and co-creation activities for mayors and city governments, together with diverse stakeholders and change-makers, to embrace new ways of thinking, governance and collaboration, and foster community-led action. Cities participating in the Thriving Cities Initiative collectively develop and embrace a vision for a thriving city that appreciates what makes the city unique, while understanding its global influence and responsibility.

Talk 4/4: Reflections on degrowth and circularity

Professor Ernst Worrel, Utrecht University

Ernst Worrell is Professor of Energy, Resources & Technological Change at the Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development, Utrecht University. He is an internationally recognized expert on eco-efficiency and is author of four IPCC (The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) reports, including Coordinating Lead Author for the Industry Chapter of the Fourth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2007, making him a Laureate of the Nobel Prize for Peace 2007.

Professor Ernst Worrell’s talk takes us through a reality check regarding our planet’s resources and the capacity of our current system (capitalism) to bring about sustainable change. He first reminds us that we have to think beyond economics in order to build a sustainable future, and that is why talking of a circular society as opposed to a circular economy is key. Therefore, seeking to think about life in a broader sense and placing other indicators than GDP is key to a sustainable circular future. In fact, GDP growth has so far benefited the richest people on Earth (90% of GDP growth has gone to the top 1%). Yet if we could simply redistribute the large amounts of wealth in the current system, then we would not need to grow. As Ernst, argues. perhaps GDP should be called “Good Distribution Practice” instead of “Gross Domestic Product”, and it would be a measure of how much we redistribute.

Words also matter: we talk of sustainability as People, Profit, Planet, but do we need to discuss Profit in a real sustainable society? We should instead talk of People, Planet, Prosperity. Thereby it would not be OK to pollute the atmosphere with cars and trucks in order to make a profit, nor to leave radioactive waste for future generations to deal with.

Ernst rightly argues that we are running our economy as a ‘pyramid scheme’, where all gains go to the top and growth is pursued beyond any rational considerations. We are now already facing major shortages of key minerals and resources. As Ernst argues, society, therefore, seems to be in denial, like an ostrich sticking its head in the sand to ignore reality.

Ernst thus reminds us that we can face this crisis without further economic growth and instead by creating an ecological economy of care, social cohesion and conviviality. We have to rethink what is important in our society and choose our words and our goals wisely when discussing alternative futures.

Panel discussion. Enabling a circular society in practice: opportunities and barriers

Moderators: Laura van Oers, Utrecht University and Olga Koretskaya, Erasmus University

In the second half of the symposium we invited three inspiring speakers from the Netherlands to showcase that a circular society is not only possible, but already here!

Our first panelist, Martine Postma, founder and director of the Repair Café International Foundation, presented how the repair cafe became a worldwide movement since 2009 allowing consumers to experience the joy of repairing their own products. Indeed, many consumers still buy new products to replace their broken ones, often because they lack the right skills, spare parts or tools to repair them. This has also resulted in repair lessons for primary school children. Martine: “We believe that in a circular society, repair skills should be part of everyone’s basic skill set”.

Our second panelist, Joey Hodde, talked us through his journey of founding the Ceuvel on a heavily polluted old ship-wharf in the North of Amsterdam. Creative solutions (read: repurposed house boats) allowed the founders of the Ceuvel to start a unique cafe and self-declared “ city playground for innovation, experimentation and creativity”. Motivated by circularity, the founders of the Ceuvel have mapped all re-usable waste streams - even those that come from the toilet. At the moment, Joey is co-founder and board member of housing cooperative, ‘de Warren’, an innovative initiative that promises environmentally and socially sustainable living in Amsterdam. Evading speculation on the competitive housing market in Amsterdam was the main driver for founding de Warren. Joey describes the unique owning structure: “as you co-own the building, rents will not be raised and houses cannot be sold”.

Finally, Socrates Schouten, author of the book “de Circulaire Economie” introduced the Waag, institution for society and technology where he works on the intersection of democratisation, digitalisation and sustainability. He asks how should we frame the circular society? Socrates: “the current circular discourse is weighing heavily on technology and I believe we should have a more social discussion”.

In answering the question of what kind of fundamental values and/or assumptions we need to rethink and what we can learn from their initiatives in this regard, Martine reminds us that we should do away with the idea that everything is possible for everyone, at any time. “We need to accept that there are limitations - we cannot always buy new products”. Luckily the Repair cafe shows that there is also not a need for this. To quote Martine “our ‘throwing-away-society’ might not make you happy, repairing on the other hand will make you happy by learning something about a product (how it works, how you can restore it and how it functions), and repairing it with your own hands”. Shouldn’t we organise society around those things that give us joy and privilege those priorities that are relevant to secure well-being for all? Joey shares that in both of his initiatives, the group of founders started reasoning from a different paradigm. “It is now more and more accepted that we are facing an existential crisis: this was the basis from which we departed, resulting in qualitative different outcomes”.

Of course it might be challenging when they need to find compromises between the values that inspire their work and the environment they operate in (in terms of regulation, consumer practices, market rules and growth imperatives). Olga (one of the symposium organizers) therefore asks “do you have to conform to the capitalist system, or do you find opportunities to stretch and conform the system?”. Without infinite time and money, compromises need to be made, but according to Joey what matters is how you prioritise those compromises. “What will you stand for?” More practically, Joey has learned from experience that while sometimes it might be possible to “work around the system” at other times you have to “struggle through the mud and be the example others can point to and benefit from at a later stage”. Or, as Martine adds, sometimes persistence is key: “at the Repair cafe we keep on inspiring people and eventually hope for the change to take place”.

Finally, Olga posits the ‘question that had to be asked’: the corona crisis has shown the flaws of our globalised economy, what should we change in post-corona Netherlands? Socrates shares his thoughts on a “too intensely connected” world and locally embedded practices. As a final note, Socrates points to the ‘ice-berg model’, illustrating that while we might see the top of the iceberg, we often ignore what is below the water surface. Socrates apptly exemplifies that while we often see and understand the instrumental layer of technology in the circular economy (top of the iceberg i.e. ‘we can use technology to optimise waste streams’) we should also dare to ask the more fundamental underlying questions such as what energy and labour inputs do they require and what are the values that drive these technologies?

Organizers of the Symposium (alphabetic order):

Dr. ir. Sanli Faez, an Assistant Professor of Physics at Utrecht University

Dr. Giuseppe Feola, an Associate Professor of Social Change for Sustainability at Utrecht University

Martin Calisto Fiant, a PhD researcher at Utrecht University

Olga Koretskaya, a PhD researcher at Erasmus University Rotterdam

Laura van Oers, a PhD researcher at Utrecht University

The symposium is supported by The Towards a Circular Economy and Society hub of Pathways to Sustainability.