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The limits of circles

In these times of often cited ‘economic crisis’, we are continuously encouraged by our political leaders to do everything in our power to create economic growth. The main metric still used to measure whether we are achieving this is – an increase in – GDP (Gross Domestic Product), a highly simplistic and misleading metric. The way that ordinary people are stimulated to contribute to his is to buy stuff: consume ourselves out of the misery.

More consumption = more economic output = an increase in GDP. Hail. First consume – with which money might we ask, but that’s a whole different story – and then worry about the effects of a giant heap of waste later.

The circular economy and my problems with it

Alternatives exist, most notably the concept of the Circular Economy. At first sight a good and thoughtful principle: stop the linear model and turn it into a circular one, where resources don’t end up as waste. But good concepts need critical reviews as well. So here’s the devil’s advocate view: a problem I myself experience with this concept mostly has to do with the inadvertent mind-set that could be created by the terminology.

Just like I have problems with ‘balance’ (implying striving for a static world) and ‘out of the box’ (implying there is still a box to seriously consider), ‘circular’ for me has as a first connotation “ending up where you started”. One of the problems of all these terms is that they sound very sensible and realistic. However, such sentiments are seldom a good starting point for a vibrant and creative forward looking attitude. It also implies still a 2-dimensional way to act, although one could claim that the third dimension is time.

My alternative

Still, I would like to encourage better 3 (or actually 4) dimensional thinking by introducing the metaphor of the upward spiral. With each ‘full circle’ you don’t end up where you started, you end up in a better situation. In terms of metrics, this means we don’t necessarily have to abandon GDP entirely. Flawed as it is, economists may be too hard pressed to let their baby go just yet. Instead, it is complemented by other metrics. Take your pick: Health, Happiness, Reduction of environmental degradation, reduction of extracted resources etc. Instead of focusing on increase of GDP, the other numbers need to improve as well to be able to assess real progress.

So, an increased GDP because we all spend much more time in hospitals and buying medicines: no more! An increased GDP with the amount of extracted resources also increasing: no dice, no progress. Each iteration, each action, each policy measure needs to take into account the necessity of ‘scoring’ on multiple dimensions. Perhaps we can even start to acknowledge progress (i.e., multi dimensional growth) if GDP is not increasing, but many of the other things we measure are. Check this blog for a very similar call (and there are many more). Act like we are living in a 3D world, but look at it with your own eyes, not through the fancy glasses.

Get in line to improve the world, but avoid the traffic jam

The good intentions of the protagonists of a circular economy deserve more inspiring metaphors and terminology. We have to move forward, in a smart way, in a creative way and guided by the ambition to generate a multi dimensional improvement with everything we do, not just to end up where we started. By thinking in spirals instead of circles the whole concept of a ‘Circular Economy’ will be improved as well. This is necessary because we have won very little if all resources just are brought back to where they entered the economy, but no one’s life has been improved, and we’re all stuck in the traffic jam caused by this massive transport. It is not that difficult to design a solution in a way in line with my spiral metaphor. But I will not spoil everything just yet by disclosing that here.

p.s. for more information on the Circular economy you can start here. It actually clarifies that beyond its name, it could contain several of the aspects as promoted above. For attempts to shed the GDP-paradigm, check for example this link, and this one.

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