The laws of thermodynamics govern the universe. Of all our scientific theories, thermodynamics is the least likely to change as we learn more. In other words, thermodynamics is the bedrock of science.
As a consequence, any “sustainable” solution to our overshoot predicament must first be checked to confirm that it does not conflict with the laws of thermodynamics. Unfortunately, most solutions promoted today, like renewable energy, recycling, and a circular economy, do conflict with thermodynamics and therefore are not useful strategies.
We must reduce our population and our consumption. And we will, one way or the other.
Here is a nice essay on the thermodynamics of a circular economy by Paul Mobbs.
Just because renewable energy is ‘renewable’, it doesn’t mean the machines we require to harvest that energy are freed from the finite limits of the Earth’s resources.
There are grand schemes to power the world using renewable energy. The difficulty is that no one has bothered to check to see if the resources are available to produce that energy. Recent research suggests that the resources required to produce that level of capacity cannot currently be supplied.
The crunch point is that while there might be enough indium, gallium, neodymium and other rare metals to manufacture wind turbines or PV panels for the worlds half-a-billion or so affluent consumers (i.e., the people most likely to be reading this), there is not enough to give everyone on the planet that same level of energy consumption – we’d run out long before then.
The ‘circular economy’ is, I my opinion, a ruse to make affluent consumers feel that they can keep consuming without the need to change their habits. Nothing could be further from the truth, and the central reason for that is the necessity for energy to power economic activity.
While the ‘circular economy’ concept admittedly has the right ideas, it detracts from the most important aspects of our ecological crisis today – it is consumption that is the issue, not the simply the use of resources. Though the principle could be made to work for a relatively small proportion of the human population, it could never be a mainstream solution for the whole world because of its reliance on renewable energy technologies to make it function – and the over-riding resource limitations on harvesting renewable energy.
In order to reconcile the circular economy with the Second Law we have to apply not only changes to the way we use materials, but how we consume them. Moreover, that implies such a large reduction in resource use by the most affluent, developed consumers, that in no way does the image of the circular economy, portrayed by its proponents, match up to the reality of making it work for the majority of the world’s population.
In the absence of a proposal that meets both the global energy and resource limitations on the human system, including the limits on renewable energy production, the current portrayal of the ‘circular economy’ is not a viable option. Practically then, it is nothing more than a salve for the conscience of affluent consumers who, deep down, are conscious enough to realize that their life of luxury will soon be over as the related ecological and economic crises bite further up the income scale.