Welcome to the End of the Circle – Limits of Circular Economy Models for Design

Paper form Dustin Jessen and Christoph Tochtrop

Abstract: The circle is a ubiquitous metaphor in the current scientific and political debate on possible strategies for coping with the changes brought by the so-called "Anthropocene". Terms such as "recycling", "upcycling", "downcycling", "life cycle" or "circular economy" all refer to the same geometric shape, which in turn can be found in numerous diagrams illustrating the respective design approaches and political strategies. But how does the circle shape the way we think and act as designers? Is it an appropriate metaphor to guide us to feasible actions, or is its degree of simplification too far removed from reality? In this article we look at the circular economy as a designed model, and question the circle as a communication tool for the cultural project of sustainability. As the circle may carry the risk of an oversimplified, unattainable, even disillusioning ideal, we discuss various alternative images and forms for their potential to become metaphors of alternative models. The hole, the plate, the pasture, the wheel, the mill wheel, the hamster wheel, the vortex, the double helix, the spider web and the rhizome - as metaphors, they each open up different perspectives and approaches to reality, they each construct different relationships and dependencies between nature and culture. The aim of this article is less about postulating the end of the circle as a metaphor in the sustainability debate, as it is about to fathom the circle's ends as a metaphorical tool. In other words, when does the metaphor of the circle become too abstract? As designers we can say that falling in love with a form right at the beginning of a design process can be rather limiting, as hardly any alternatives will be considered, and all further decisions are subordinated to achieving the desired shape. Therefore, we would like to emphasise the contingency of the circular economy as a model. We would like to welcome the thought that the circle has an "end".

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