On the spontaneous circularity of market economies. A critical re-assessment.


The “circular economy” (CE) is described as a break with the polluting “take, make, waste” traditional market economy model. In contrast, the CE aims to maximize the utility of scarce resources by constantly re-using and regenerating them in a cyclical pattern, manufacturing more durable products, and benefitting from the potential offered by the sharing and services economy. Its widespread adoption is deemed critical to achieve more sustainable forms of development, especially in light of the forecasted doubling in the production and consumption of resources in the coming decades.

Yet, much historical evidence suggests that the CE describes a widespread phenomenon as ancient as market economies, such as when humans developed new uses for the non-edible portions of their livestock and crops (e.g., manure, fuel, production materials for countless objects). Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, many industrialists, engineers, technicians, entrepreneurs, and managers similarly strived for, and actually largely achieved, system-wide levels of economic circularity. The phenomenon was described and analyzed in some depth by a cadre of writers in France, Germany, the United States, and the United Kingdom from the middle of the nineteenth century onward. Of particular interest is a significant exhibit on the topic displayed at the Bethnal Green Branch of the South Kensington Museum (now the Victoria and Albert Museum) in London from 1875 to 1928. Its creator, the technical and trade journalist Peter Lund Simmonds, credited circularity to traditional market incentives:

As competition becomes sharper, manufacturers have to look more closely to those items which may make the slight difference between profit and loss, and convert useless products into those possessed of commercial value (Bethnal Green Branch Museum, 1875: 4)

Our presentation will briefly describe some of the available historical evidence and suggest that a reassessment of the key foundation of the circular economy discourse is long overdue.

The Recorded Music Market and its Environmental Impact.

Dario Sebastian Pavon Diaz

Recorded music is one of the most consumed non-essential goods on a worldwide scale, but not many people know where do the songs they listen to on a daily basis come from and how exactly is their consumption possible, especially in today’s era of music streaming services. Physical music requires mass production of vinyls, CDs, or cassettes, while digital music requires heavy usage of data centers, resulting in both formats using high amounts of energy and resources while also causing GHG emissions and waste. Changes in the production and consumption of recorded music are necessary for the market to be considered sustainable, especially in present times, taking into consideration that digital music reaches new heights of consumption each year while physical music is currently having a renaissance after twenty years of constant decrease of its consumption year after year. In this research we analyze the way the recorded music market operates, how the production of physical music works, and what the usage of data centers for digital music means for the environment, all of it taking into account the total amount of recorded music consumption worldwide; we also explore different methods physical music production companies have implemented with the goal of making their products be considered sustainable; finally, we search for new ideas that haven’t been put into action for physical music production and overall recorded music consumption that could lead the recorded music market in a path towards sustainability.

Non-market food Practices do things markets don’t: On the production and distribution of food that’s not for sale in Northern New England.

Sam Bliss

Researchers often portray food charity as a regrettable Band-Aid and food self-provisioning as a coping mechanism for the poor or a hobby for the well-off. Yet people produce and distribute food that is not for sale for many reasons, including because these non-market practices serve functions in society that markets cannot imitate: nourishment for the moneyless, production that is enjoyable, rescuing edible-but-not-sellable food, and resilient more-than-human relationships. Whereas markets send food toward money rather than hunger and coerce farmers to prioritize financial viability, non-market food practices mend holes in the social fabric torn by the commodification of everyday life.

The ecological-economic possibilities of a non-rapid energy transition.

Dario Sebastian Pavon Diaz

John Mulrow   Additional Authors: Kendrick Hardaway; Miriam Stevens, Thomas Maani

With signs and symptoms of climate change continuing to worsen, it is widely accepted that A) our economic systems must shift away from carbon-emitting sources of energy and B) this transition must be rapid. In 2022, the US Congress passed two major spending bills aimed at facilitating such a transition through the expansion of renewable energy and electric vehicle charging infrastructure. While plenty of studies show that a rapid energy transition is both physically possible and environmentally justified, the speed of this transition is rarely examined for its secondary economic effects. Based on previous studies we have shown that the higher the speed of the transition, the greater the extractive capacity (materials per unit time) would be needed. We are thus motivated to ask: What are the ecological possibilities of a non-rapid transition?

We first establish a method for defining and measuring the extraction rates required to enable a rapid transition of vehicle fueling and electricity generation/transmission infrastructure. Here, we build on our existing work forecasting EV infrastructure scale-up requirements. Then we pair this information with existing data on material intensities and established knowledge about the useful life of various critical material extraction facilities, providing an estimate of the total resource extraction enabled by the transition. We build a probabilistic model of the total material footprint enabled by the energy transition, meant as a proof of concept regarding the importance of the energy infrastructure transition rate. 

Accepting a rapid transition may lead to an unsustainable level of demand lock-in, compared to a slower one. It could also lead to further delays in taking united, global-scale policy action to set and enforce resource demand limits. These second-order effects alone represent reasons to be skeptical, not about the need for energy transition, but about its rapidity.