The concept of bioeconomy is not entirely new. The mathematician, statistician and economist, Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen used the term bioeconomy already in the 1970s and 1980s to refer to a radical ecological perspective on economics. Described by fellow academics as “a man who lived well ahead of his time”, Georgescu-Roegen is widely acknowledged as a paradigm founder in economics, his work being seminal in establishing the field of ecological economics and the de-growth movement. His ideas about bioeconomy have been picked up by scientists and policy makers alike. Yet in recent years, the bioeconomy has also become a buzzword used by public institutions to trumpet a supposed current economic and ecological transition. In a recent article in the journal of Ecological Economics, a group of researchers analyzed these different institutional narratives. They see the new interpretations of bioeconomy as an attempt of semantic hijacking of Georgescu-Roegen’s original concept. In this blog post, one of the authors of this article – Nicolas BEFORT- shares some interesting insights about Georgescu-Roegen’s bioeconomy interpretation, how this has morphed in current bioeconomy strategies, and the underlying risks that this hijacked narrative poses.
Bioeconomy back then
Nicholas Gerogrescu-Roegen (NGR) is not the first one to use the bioeconomy concept. The term “bio-economics” was coined in the 1920s by Russian biologist Baranoff to describe fishery economics. To be more precise, NGR transformed the bioeconomy concept. When NGR used the term “bioeconomics” he was involved in the controversy following the first report to the Club of Rome, siding with Dennis Meadows, and openly criticizing mainstream economics for its obsessive pursuit of growth. Hence, NGR’s view of bioeconomy is both broader and has a deeper meaning. For him, bioeconomics refers to the struggle for survival of the human species. He considers that humanity needs to maintain the matter and energy flows required for the operations of the technical objects that surround him.
In his view, since the advent of the “thermo-industrial revolution”, humanity has become increasingly reliant on fossil sources. Yet while this transition has released tremendous amounts of energy and has catapulted humanity into the modern age, it has led us facing serious ecological limits through the depletion of fossil resources and the disruption of our biosphere.
In the long run, according to NGR, another transition will be unavoidable. He even spoke of a possible “New Wood Age”. But, he warned that humanity should exercise caution by saving finite stocks of fossil resources as much as possible, using them to meet only the most urgent needs. Hence, NGR introduced the concept of “de-growth”. He advocated for a “minimal bioeconomic program” thought the implementation of agriculture, the fight against waste, and believed consumers should strive for “sufficiency”.
Whereas the bioeconomy maybe a new sector in the view of the EU biomass-based definition, NGR defined it as a transition process. It is quite clear in different EU policy documents that the bioeconomy is key for sustaining green growth. One could claim that the existing sustainability concerns appearing in the EU bioeconomy discourse are to some extent influenced by NGR’s ideas about ecological economics and bioeconomy. However, this raises two important questions about how bioeconomy is “done” nowadays. First, industry players highlight already existing business models. These are not necessarily new, at best they strive to consolidate business ecosystems around themselves. Second, it is not clear how these technological projects are evaluated. Nicolas BEFORT recommends the MUSIASEM methodology (developed by Mario Giampietro and his team) for determining what a sustainable bioeconomy model could be, given the existing socio-economic configurations. It could also help the different EU Member States to determine strong sustainability criteria for the EU Bioeconomy.
Green-Growth Vs De-Growth
NGR is credited by the de-growth movement for being one of the main theoretical inspiration of the movement. However, the current mainstream bioeconomy discourse builds on ecological modernization and is very much growth oriented. Does this focus on growth contradict NGR’s original intentions with bioeconomy?
Both policy documents and most academic literature nowadays present the bioeconomy as a techno-economic fix targeted at growth. Yet the issue of using a new type of input (biomass) actually raises multiple questions related to the transformation of the existing production process.
Currently, there are two strategies for substituting fossil, oil-based products. One way is through “drop-in strategies”. This means that an oil-based polyethylene is substituted by a bio-based polyethylene. The second strategy is to use the existing functionalities of the biomass (resistance, light weight, etc.) to produce different bio-based products and eventually substitute fossil-based products.
Both these strategies have their flaws according to Nicolas BEFORT. In the drop-in case, engineers try to deconstruct the biomass into carbon atoms, to reform it into platform molecules. This is the same method of producing chemicals in the petrochemical-based economy. Developing such processes means trying to reproduce the existing system. This has several consequences. First, from a sustainability point of view, polyethylene becomes a pollutant and can easily accumulate in the ocean and cause as much damage as its oil-based counterpart. Second, biomass is more complex than oil, and it requires much more energy and water to produce the same product.
Hence, perhaps the biggest mistake of the bio-based approach is that it tries to copy the logic and technological setup of the petrochemical industry.
The way forward
Nicolas BEFORT thinks there are three important challenges to think about when it comes to bioeconomy:
- First, we need a credible monitoring system of the bioeconomy in order to be able to determine what is going on behind institutional narratives.
- Second, we need to determine what we expect, as a society, from the the bioeconomy. Finding an answer to this question will not be easy, but would provide us with guiding principles for public policies. The question we should ask ourselves is following: is the bioeconomy simply a way to have a new range of products, that could be sustainable, but would only participate to companies’ diversification strategies, or is the bioeconomy a lever for transition?
- Lastly, we also need to think about the availability of biomass, which is far more limited than oil. Hence, the third challenge is related to the forest and agricultural sectors, and more specifically, with sustainable biomass production.
Now, almost 40 years after NGR’s original ideas about bioeconomics we have come full circle. The threats of climate change, resource depletion and environmental degradation are looming larger than ever. It has become clear that our current growth-oriented economic paradigm is not sustainable in the long run. As NGR would have argued, preserving the same growth-oriented rational speaks against the main purpose of bioeconomy. We need a radically different approach to how we interact with our environment. The whole economic model, from production, energy- and material consumption, to waste has to be rethought. It is not enough to have a supposedly (greener) economy that simply mimics the same socio-technical, growth-focused paradigm of the fossil-fuel age. The bioeconomy has to be truly innovative, circular, and rooted in sufficiency.
Nicolas received his PhD in Economic Sciences from University of Reims Champagne Ardenne. His research investigates the emergence and structure of the bioeconomy. He develops research on the organisation modes of the biorefineries, on transition to the Bioeconomy policies and on resource management in the transition to sustainability. Nicolas is professor of economics in the Finance Department (Campus Reims), and a member of the Industrial BioEconomy Chair, where he is in charge of the academic development of the Chair.