A linear economy is a concept used to describe traditional economic models and economic systems that follow a straightforward approach to production and consumption. However, because of growing concerns over the welfare of the environment and the sustainability of modern human society, including the distress due to the ongoing climate emergency, several scholars and critics have promoted the switch to a circular economic model.
Characteristics of a Linear Economy
The linear economic model is generally characterized by economic activities that follow a take-make-dispose or take-make-consume-throw away pattern that transpire both at the macroeconomic and microeconomic levels.
Absence of Feedback
Unlike a circular economy, a notable characteristic of a linear economy, as the name implies, is that it lacks a feedback loop. Businesses across different industries and sectors participate in the economy through production with the utmost goal of making a profit by distributing and selling their goods or services to the end-users.
The role of these end-users is confined to consumption. The entire product journey is linear because it ends with the consumption and disposal by the consumers. The producers would proceed to create, distribute, and sell goods and services further using raw materials or other production inputs extracted from the natural world.
Mass Consumer Culture
Consumerism or mass consumerism is a theory that economic benefits are attainable through the progressive consumption of products. In other words, increasing consumption in the market is always a desirable goal and the wellbeing of an individual depends fundamentally on obtaining consumer goods and material possession.
Economies and businesses following a linear economic model would excessively produce goods while focusing on strategies and tactics to make the public attracted to these products. Some societies end up preoccupied with the acquisition of these products and individuals would end up purchasing both essential and non-essential goods excessively.
Generation of Wastes
Wastes are materials discarded after the completion of a process. In production, wastes include substances or byproducts that are expended after being deemed unusable to the current and future production processes. Within the consumption process, wastes include all products that are discarded due to either deficiencies or their outmoded state.
The generation of excessive wastes is another characteristic of a linear economic model because of a limited-use mindset, as well as the propensity toward and further promotion of excessive consumption. Resources are extracted while goods are designed and produced with disposal in mind or limited consideration about the possibilities for recycling or upcycling.
Criticisms of Linear Economy
The circular economic model is a direct criticism of linear economy. Relevant concepts such as upcycling, regenerative design, natural capitalism, and Cradle to Cradle provide additional foundational arguments against a linear economic model. These arguments or criticisms revolve around two major concerns: environmental welfare and sustainability.
Harmful to the Environment
A linear economic model damages the environment in numerous ways. For starters, mass production for mass consumption requires the extraction of natural resources. Consumer electronic devices, for instance, require mining rare-earth materials, while the production of automotive vehicles depends on the supply of steel and other metals.
Running an entire modern economy takes a toll on the environment because of the current dependence on fossil fuels as a primary source of energy. There is a consensus in the scientific community that the burning of oil, gas, and coal for power production has contributed significantly to greenhouse gas emissions that have resulted in human-induced global warming and the ongoing climate emergency.
Plastics are prevalent in mass consumer culture. For example, the marketability of fast-moving consumer goods and the need for packaging materials have continuously increased the demand for plastics. Their prevalence has resulted in a phenomenon called plastic pollution and the persistency of microplastics in the environment.
An Unsustainable Model
Remember that a linear economy follows a straightforward approach to production and consumption that involves extracting raw materials from the natural environment, processing them to produce market-ready products or final goods, marketing these goods for consumption, and disposing of these goods or whatever derivatives after the end of their product lifecycle.
The problem with the aforementioned pattern of production and consumption is that it considers final goods as disposable materials without acknowledging that they are created from finite natural resources. The disposal of these final goods would be followed by the extraction of raw materials and other inputs from the natural environment.
Hence, one of the major criticisms of the linear economy is its unsustainability. Nature cannot sustain the mass consumer culture because of the simplest reason that natural resources are limited. There is an obvious disconnect between mass production for mass consumption and the limited supply of natural resources.
Furthermore, because of the damage this model does to the environment, it affects not only the supply of raw materials but also the health and welfare of human communities. An unsustainable economic model fundamentally means achieving short-term economic gains at the cost of future and long-term economic gains and the overall welfare of the next generations.
FURTHER READINGS AND REFERENCES
- Boulding, K. E. 1966. The Economics of the Coming Spaceship Earth. Available via PDF
- Ellen MacArthur Foundation. n.d. “What is the Circular Economy.” Ellen MacArthur Foundation. Available online
- European Academies’ Science Advisory Council. 2015. Circular Economy: A Commentary from the Perspectives of the Natural and Social Sciences. European Academies’ Science Advisory Council. Available via PDF
- Geissdoerfer, M., Pieroni, M. P. P., Pigosso, D. C. A., and Soufani, K. 2020. “Circular Business Models: A Review.” Journal of Cleaner Production. 277: 123741. DOI: 1016/j.jclepro.2020.123741
- Geyer, R., Jambeck, J. R., and Law, K. L. 2017. “Production, Use, and Fate of all Plastics Ever Made.” Science Advances. 3(7): e1700782. DOI: 1126/sciadv.1700782
- Hawkens, P., Lovins A., and Lovins, L. H. 2000. Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution. U.S. Green Building Council. ISBN: 978-0316353007
- Huitema, R. with Toia, P. and Cavazzini, A. 2020. Draft Report on the New Circular Economy Action Plan. European Parliament. Available via PDF
- Kaza, S., Yao, L., Lisa, C., Bhada-Tata, P., Van Woerden, F. 2018. What a Waste 2.0: A Global Snapshot of Solid Waste Management to 2050. World Bank. Available online
- Kneese, A. 1988. “The Economics of Natural Resources.” Development Review. 14: 281-309. DOI: 2307/2808100
- Korhonen, J., Honkasalo, A., and Seppälä, J. 2018. “Circular Economy: The Concept and its Limitations.” Ecological Economics. 143: 37-46. DOI: 1016/j.ecolecon.2017.06.041