Futuribles Journal n° 365

Économie, emploi - Ressources naturelles, énergie, environnement

The Decoupling of Growth from Raw Materials Consumption.From the Circular Economy to the Functionality-based Economy: the Virtues and Limits of Recycling


François Grosse’s article concerns a fundamental question: the need to decouple economic growth from the growth of raw materials needs. Without this decoupling, given the growth of the world’s population and the legitimate aspirations of emerging nations to the level of development of the industrialized countries, there is a danger that global resources will quickly run out.
Drawing on the case of iron, Grosse shows, for example, that if steel production continued throughout the twenty-first century at the same exponentially increasing pace as it did in the twentieth, as much steel would be produced in a hundred years as we previously produced in a thousand. And, in 270 years’ time, we would be extracting ten thousand times more ore each year than we do today. And the same goes — though admittedly to varying degrees — for all raw materials: lead, copper, lithium, zinc etc., which shows the unsustainable character of the current growth model.
It is, therefore, urgent to detach economic growth from such a frantic consumption of natural resources. It is generally believed that one of the ways to do this is to resort to recycling. But we must be careful, says François Grosse, not to confuse the apparent and real rates of recycling, the latter depending on the consumption of raw materials and the time they remain within the economy and, hence, on the effective volume of materials available for such recycling.
Reasoning this way, it is clear that recycling alone (and what is termed the “circular economy”, which maximizes strategies of reduction, re-use and recycling in order to reduce resource consumption and pollutant release per unit of product) cannot be the solution. We have to go much further actually to avoid a rapid exhaustion of resources. We have, in fact, to achieve two successive decouplings. First, we must fundamentally decouple economic development from the total consumption of (new or recycled) raw materials; second, we must effect a complementary decoupling that enables recycling to take place.
To arrive at such an outcome, we have very greatly to reduce the quantity of raw material per unit of product; we must not content ourselves with the circular economy, but direct our efforts resolutely towards achieving a functionality-based economy, which should enable us to optimize product use and hence to satisfy needs as well as we do now, while producing less.

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