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"Circular economy is just another growth model"

Hervé Corvellec

Public interest in degrowth is on the rise in these times of global warming awareness, but the idea is hardly new. We talked to professor Hervé Corvellec after the 6th International Degrowth Conference took place in Malmoe.

"Degrowth is the idea of turning economic development from growth-based into its opposite. A key aspect of today’s economic life is that we consume more than Earth allows. Degrowth advocates want to decrease the environmental footprint of economic activities to make economic life truly sustainable," explains Hervé Corvellec, Professor of Business Administration.

"That is not a new idea. It is a kind of a neo-malthusianism, but which has received a new impetus in connection with the obvious negative effects of an ever increasing production and consumption on the climate, biodiversity, oceans, and more generally the environment."

The Malmoe conference was arranged by the Institute for Degrowth (Institutet för nerväxtstudier), to which several researchers of Lund University are affiliated. Titled ”Dialogues in Turbulent Times”, the conference became a broad and well-visited event.

"Both speakers and audience were an interesting mix of activists and academics. A strong pathos was seen in many people."

One of the themes for the conference was Degrowth and Law. Speakers described how legislation could define what is allowed and what is not in a sustainable economic life. They explained how legislation could limit energy-intensive and environmentally-damaging production and consumption.

"One example is to punish planned obsolescence, the fact that things are designed to break down easily and rapidly.”

Many topics in the programme came closer to traditional environmental issues.

"Something new I learnt at the conference is the key role played in the growth ideology by the extraction industry – mines, oil and gas. We have got stuck on the idea always to extract more material from the Earth’s crust, which is being criticized by degrowth advocates. For example, Miriam Lang from Universidad Andína Simon Bolivar in Ecuador demonstrated that degrowth is not compatible with an ever increasing extraction industry. There must be less extraction, or even better, none at all.”

Hervé Corvellec has led the project From waste management to waste prevention, and recently published the project's final report.

"Waste prevention can be seen as part of a degrowth paradigm", he stresses.

Together with Richard Ek from the Department of Service Management and Service Studies, and Nils Johansson from KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Hervé Corvellec staged a 'Waste prevention planning and policies' session. Richard Ek outlined the need to imagine cities that are planned to prevent rather than to produce waste. Nils Johansson presented an article recently published together with Hervé Corvellec in Waste Management where the authors criticize current waste prevention planning at European, Swedish and local levels for being more about waste management than waste prevention.

"I held a critical presentation against circular economy where I compared it to a siren luring us into environmental plights. Circular economy is not a degrowth model but another growth model. This model is especially relevant for those companies whose business model is based on an intensive but cheap flow of materials and energy, for instance H&M and IKEA but also Renault and Google. For such companies, circular economy is a way to counteract the fact that an increased competition for raw materials will rise the price of their inputs and thus make their outputs more expensive, an evolution that would threaten their business model of cheap delivery of goods and services.”

Talking about degrowth is not received well in all quarters.

"It goes against the growth paradigm which dominate businesses strategies and economic policies, as illustrated by repeated promises made to voters of a continuous growth. But degrowth is a necessity to get human economic activities back within the carrying limits of the planet."

So how can we make it happen?

"Unfortunately, there were many 'we could, we should, we need...' but only few concrete large-scale proposals. There were some examples of local food producers and repair workshops. A returning suggestion is to introduce prohibitions and quotas. Another is to increase consumers' awareness about the need to reduce consumption. But something that was not much addressed at the conference, at least in the sessions I attended, is a decrease in the earth's population, which is surprising", concludes Hervé Corvellec.