Policy Legends: New MAGIC Publication Takes Critical Look at the Circular Economy

08 May 2020
Post-normal science
Circular economy
Policy legend
Sustainability
Tragedy of change

With the world’s attention focussed on Covid-19, issues that were in the forefront of public concern just a few months ago seem to have magically disappeared. "When can we return to normal?" is the question that many are asking. But even if we could return to normal, should we?         

Mario Giampietro and Silvio Funtowicz, based on years of accumulated trans-disciplinary knowledge and the insights of Post-Normal Science, and building on the experience and results of the EU Horizon 2020 project MAGIC, argue that the pre-Covid situation was an unsustainable caricature of normality. A normality in which climate and ecosystems disruptions, biodiversity loss, unattainable sustainability goals, growing socio-economic inequalities, and increasingly weak democratic institutions called for urgent systemic change.

As the Italian politician and philosopher Antonio Gramsci argued almost a century ago, when the old is dying and the new cannot yet emerge, the in-between becomes increasingly pathological. The escape from reality into the mythical world of fantasy is represented by Giampietro and Funtowicz, using the example of the circular economy, as a policy goal in the institutional and public debate over sustainability.

Recognising the importance of recycling, they argue that although rhetorically powerful, the circular economy concept has almost no empirical content; they illustrate this lack of scientific underpinning referring to a wide variety of fields of knowledge, including biology, ecology, anthropology, non-equilibrium thermodynamics, energetics and bioeconomics.

The grand plans currently promoted to return to normality with a green recovery imply doing more of the same but faster, further relying on the economy of promises of techno-scientific silver bullets. This choice carries the risk of ignoring the real hazards of betraying the historical popular struggles to increase civil freedoms and socio-economic fairness.

Giampietro and Funtowicz conclude claiming that there is an opportunity to face the tragedy of change by engaging immediately in socially robust and rigorous assessment processes of policy-relevant knowledge claims, focussing on quality as fitness for purpose. These will include an evaluation not only of the ‘science’ but also of the political feasibility, viability, and desirability of proposed policies to move to a post-growth caring economy.

Giampietro M & Funtowicz SO (2020), 'From elite folk science to the policy legend of the circular economy', Environmental Science & Policy, vol. 109, pp 64-72. DOI: 10.1016/j.envsci.2020.04.012.