On the circular bioeconomy and decoupling: Implications for sustainable growth

06 May 2019
Circular economy
Sustainable growth
Social-ecological systems
Metabolic pattern
Mario Giampietro

Giampietro M 2019, 'On the circular bioeconomy and decoupling: Implications for sustainable growth', Ecological Economics, vol. 162, pp. 143-156. DOI: 10.1016/j.ecolecon.2019.05.001. Available in gold open access on Zenodo


This paper explores the existing confusion around the conceptual definitions and interpretations of the term circular bioeconomy. The co-existence of diametrically opposite interpretations of the concept indicates lack of a serious discussion of its theoretical foundations. Two narratives on circular bioeconomy are explored in depth: (i) the new economic paradigm based on technological progress (the economics of technological promises) that seeks perpetual economic growth; (ii) an entropic (thermodynamic) narrative that reflects on the limits on economic growth imposed by nature. The latter narrative makes a distinction between primary, secondary and tertiary resource flows and helps to identify what can and cannot be re-circulated within the metabolic pattern of social-ecological systems. Adopting the biophysical view, it becomes clear that the industrial revolution represented a linearization of material and energy flows with the goal to overcome the low pace and density of biological transformations. The required level of productivity of production factors in contemporary developed economies (flows per hour of labor and per hectare of land use) is orders of magnitude larger than the pace and density of supply and sink capacity of natural processes. Relying on nature to ‘close the loop’ will simply slow down the economic process.


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