This chapter places the circular economy in a broader analysis of two grand narratives that have competed for political attention since the final decades of the twentieth century: the “Bios” narrative of technoscience, innovation and growth and the “Geos” narrative of limits to growth. The circular economy can be seen as yet another attempt within the Bios narrative to meet a concern raised in the Geos narrative and the system sciences that inform it. In that translation from Geos to Bios, however, the original concerns are lost out of sight. Hence, the circular economy may be a success even if biodiversity is lost, wilderness is lost, biophysical funds are compromised, and the climate is changing for worse.
From the Geos perspective, the failure might be explained in terms of power differentials between the industry and finance lobbies representing the Bios on one hand, and the NGOs that speak for Geos on the other. We argue that the problem runs deeper and is connected to an asymmetry between Bios and Geos with respect to what actions they can suggest and legitimise. Geos is a narrative of “Stop!” while Bios is a narrative of “Go!”, continue and accelerate. Geos says “Stop somehow and do something else”, but it does not say what. For instance, calls for cutting climate emissions may sound concrete but are not in themselves actionable. “Cut” as in cutting emissions means “do something in order to induce a change that ultimately result in 50% lower emissions”.
Antonio Gramsci famously wrote: “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum morbid phenomena of the most varied kind come to pass”. The chapter ends with a discussion of the circular economy as a possibly morbid phenomenon. The old that is dying is the current economic system characterised by accelerating throughput and destruction of funds in the biosphere. There are limits to growth, and humanity is approaching them. The new that apparently cannot be born yet, is a type of human civilisation that manages to live in less tension with the rest of the biosphere. The Geos narrative offers glimpses of the new but it does not say what to do. Something is done, but unfortunately it does not retain the original purpose because it is appropriated and conditioned by a different meta-narrative, follows a different institutional logic and is legitimised by a different order of worth. The European Union, originally a trade union for coal and steel, hence appears as an ancien régime that seems readier to sacrifice long-term environmental sustainability than the prospects of economic growth and an affluent capitalist economy.