Working Paper No. 2 published! On the Empty Promises of Growth within the Bioeconomy

Eversberg, Dennis and Jana Holz. 2020. Empty Promises of Growth: The Bioeconomy and Its Multiple Reality Checks


In this paper, we want to make two arguments. Firstly, we observe that the current trend in official policy concepts and strategies of the bioeconomy is toward a moderation of the promises of economic growth that it has been associated with since the beginning of this millennium. We argue that this process of moderation is at least partly due to the effects of a series of ‘reality checks’ that the different existing strands of research on the bioeconomy have (willingly or unwillingly) subjected the promises to, forcing governments to move away from obviously unrealistic visions and adopt more humble ones. We identify four such reality checks, coming from research on (a) bioeconomy discourses and strategies, (b) actors and
interests in the political economy of the bioeconomy, and (c) the economic and biophysical materialities that make up ‘the bioeconomy’. Secondly, we propose that a fourth, sociological reality check is currently being mounted, exposing the social implausibility and democratic illegitimacy of the bioeconomy’s promissory visions. Using survey data from Germany
to develop a provisional analysis of the tensions and conflicts within the population that disagreements about the bioeconomy are embedded in, we suggest putting the bioeconomy in its proper political place as part of the larger societal challenge, rather than promise, of achieving a post-fossil transformation of modern societies.

Our Working Papers

Lilian Pungas: Online Contribution to Oil Shale and Dacha-Gardening in Estonia on 26 November 2020

“Eco-sufficient activities under high-voltage lines and alongside of oil shale mines in Estonia”

Our research colleague Lilian Pungas speaks about oil shale extraction and dacha-gardening in Eastern Estonia.

When? Thursday, 26 November 2020, 1.15 pm.
Moderation: Christina Plank (IPW | Universität Wien)
Where? Online


Estonia is the only member state within the EU, that is for decades consistently mining out oil shale and, thereby, has one of the highest per capita carbon footprint in Europe. Oil shale – for Estonia that means security of supply and a reduction of risks resulting from a dependency on the big neighbour Russia. Paradoxically, oil shale is extracted in Eastern Estonia, where the majority of the Russian-speaking population lives. This group was already in the 1990s disproportionatly suffering from unemployment and poverty. Now, they fear the closing of some mines because of rising carbon-pricing.

In the 1990s, the Russian-speaking population faced their existential fears by cultivating their own food in the so-called ‘dachas’. Till this day, dachas play an enormously important role and illustrates an example, how one can live sustainable and eco-suffiently despite of the manifold contradicitions in the region.

In interviews with the local population additional topics were touched upon: the impacts of the Corona-pandemic on the activities in the dachas, gender issues in the gardening, human-nature relations as well as alienation and eudaimonia.

The contribution of Lilian Pungas is part of the IPW Lectures, an international lecture series by the Department of Political Science, University of Vienna.

Dennis Eversberg at the research colloquium of Prof. Lessenich (LMU München) on 24 November 2020

“Tension is mounting!? Social-ecological mentalities in Germany on the eve of »Fridays for Future« – with this title of his contribution, Dennis Eversberg takes part in the Research Colloquium on Social Analysis and Social Criticism at the Ludwig.Maximilians-Universität Munich.

For some time, the climate seems to be heating up not only biophysically but also socio-politically the athmosphere is getting tense. While some poeple demonstrate on the streets, in the forests and in coal mines in order to demand a fast move from fossilism to global justice, other people discovered the denial of the anthropogenic climate crisis and the resistance to the energy transition as a political field of mobiling for authoritarian-nationalist ideologies. Is the socio-ecological conflict in Germany polarising? Based on a secondary analysis of the survey “Environmental Consciousness in Germany 2018”, the lecture maps the “landscape” of social-ecological mentalities in this country shortly before the recent upswing of the climate movement and analyzes the dynamics of the conflict within the population at that time.

When? 24 November 2020, 6-8 pm.
Where? online via zoom

The research colloquium is organised by Prof. Dr. Stephan Lessenich (Chair of Social Developments and Structures) in cooperation with the Munich Institute for Social and Sustainability Research as well as the Institute for Sociology. Lehrstuhl Soziale Entwicklungen und Strukturen, LMU München) in Kooperation mit der Münchner Projektgruppe für Sozialforschung e.V. und dem Institut für Soziologie.

Online now: Video-Contributions of Prof. Mario Giampietro and Prof. Daniela Thrän to Bioeconomy, Growth and Sustainibility

Two highlights of our workshop “It’s the Bioeconomy, stupid! The future of growth and the promise of the bioeconomy” held on the 7th and 8th of October 2020 were the contributions of Mario Giampietro (Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona) and Daniela Thrän (Helmholtz Center for Environmental Research GmbH, 2012 to 2019 member of the German Bioeconomy Council). More information on the workshop (programme and other contributions)

The videos of their contributions are available clicking the links in the titles:

Mario Giampietro, ICREA Research Professor, Institute of Environmental Science and Technology (ICTA) at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona: “The policy legend of the circular bioeconomy: A biophysical view of the sustainability predicament”, online lecture, October 7th, 2020. Moderation: Anne Tittor

Daniela Thrän, UFZ Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research Leipzig, 2012-2019 member of the German Bioeconomy Council: “Bioeconomy’s Contribution to Economic Growth”, online keynote speech, October 8th, 2020. Moderation: Dennis Eversberg.

The two speakers took opposing positions:

As the title suggests, Mario Giampietro was skeptical of the idea of ​​a circular economy as an essential element of a sustainable bioeconomy. From a bio-physical perspective, he analyzed the inputs and outputs in a bioeconomy that – as an energy and material processing system – is embedded in natural processes. To his opinion, a complete circular economy is not possible. A bioeconomy also requires a lot of energy (which today is mostly obtained from fossil resources) and there are always waste products that cannot be reprocessed. Furthermore, to operate the global economy with biomass, the available land on earth is far from sufficient. Conflicts over land are inevitable and have been carried out with violence for a long time in South America, for example. His lecture made it clear once again that technology, including biotechnology, cannot solve environmental problems if questions of social injustice and the unequal distribution of power are not asked at the same time.

Daniela Thrän, on the other hand, took a cautiously optimistic perspective. In her contribution, she outlined the achievements already accomplished (e.g. genome editing) and the potential for increasing productivity (more food from the same country) that improved biotechnology enables. In addition, she emphasized that in the German public and the bioeconomy debate, the topic of sustainability plays a much bigger role today than it did a few years ago. For example, the effects of steadily increasing production are also being critically discussed in the Bioeconomy Council. Her contribution stimulated a discussion about the benefits of technological gains in efficiency, if they were repeatedly “eaten up” by rebound effects and ultimately led to higher raw material and energy consumption. As Daniela Thrän explained, the problem of rebound effects in biotechnologically oriented research is considered to be the biggest question yet to be solved. However, it has not yet been part of concrete political measures. Also because many political measures relating to the bioeconomy are controversially discussed, Daniela Thrän advocates the support and processing of these negotiation processes through social science research.

Martin Fritz contributed to the series of lectures “climate crisis vs. sage of economy”

The Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung and Fridays for Future Erfurt are organising the series of lectures “Climate Crisis vs. Sage of Economy”.

In this connection Martin Fritz was invited to held a presentation to “Social and Ecological Economy. Concepts and Varieties of Degrowth” on 17th of September 2020 in Erfurt, and to discuss the topic with Matus Volkmann (Fridays for Future Erfurt) as well as Andres Friedrichmeier (Lesekreis Erfurt).

You can see the video on youtube here

Dennis Eversbergs’ Article “The Renegotiation of our relations to nature”

  • The transformation to a bio-based way of production and life strongly depends on mentalities – perceptions, attitudes and expectations – of diverse social groups within society.
  • The nature relations of modern Western societies are shaped by the permanent and nearly unlimited availibility of fossil energy resources and raw materials (coal, oil, gas).
  • In future bio-based economies also mentalities will be in flux. This will bring conflicts. Socio-ecological research in mentalities can contribute to a better understanding of these conflicts.

These are the main statements of Dennis Eversberg’s article about „the renegotiation of our relations to nature“. The article gives an insight on the main ideas and questions of the research project flumen and is published at the website of the Science Year 2020/21-Bioeconomy. You can read his contribution on in German language here

The Science Year 2020/21-Bioeconomy is an initiative of the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research. The idea is to present the public latest research questions and projects on bioeconomy and to give the public the opportunity to experience potential solutions that have already emerged from research.

Online lecture and discussion: The policy legend of the circular bioeconomy: A biophysical view of the sustainability predicament

Date: Wednesday, October 7, 2020 from 6:00 pm to 8:00 pm

Organiser: BMBF junior research group “Mentalities in flux: imaginaries and social structure in modern circular bio-based societies” at the Institute for Sociology (Friedrich-Schiller University, Jena, Germany)

Speaker: Mario Giampietro (Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona)

Registration (webinar with zoom):

Circular bioeconomy, at a first glance, appears like a magic bullet for a future economic development. Especially policy makers from the EU create a vision and a promise of a circular bioeconomy that would enable sustainable development, a green economy, economic growth and social welfare altogether. This, of course, sounds great and provokes hopes of overcoming the climate crisis and scarcity of resources and, at the same time, going on with economic growth. But: is this realistic? If we think about an economy that is based on renewable biological resources coming from animals, plants and microorganisms and assume that economies should grow as they did before, we have to put the question how sustainable this would be. What are the limits of the economic use of available biological resources? An often-used argument for solving this dilemma is the development of technological solutions and the circular economy, in which waste and side-products will find their way back to economic use and by that reducing the demand on biological resources.

Is that concept scientifically solid? Are we dealing with a dangerous form of sociotechnical imaginary? What exactly does circular bioeconomy for different stakeholders mean? Are policy makers ignoring fundamental assumptions from non-economic sciences that are crucial for the feasibility of a sustainable economic development? How realistic is a sustainable development under a circular and bio-based economy?  And, how would the concept of a circular bioeconomy have to change, if sustainability would serve as a rule for decisions?

Mario Giampietro from the Institute of Environmental Science and Technology at the UAB (Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona) will held a lecture and go into these questions. He will give us an insight on the (biophysical) scientific views and assumption that are connected to the concepts of circular economy, bioeconomy and the growth-paradigm. He will explain why to his opinion, the promise of the circular bioeconomy is a legend and why it could lead to unrealistic hopes and expectations, mismanaged investments and irresponsible future-programs. The audience will have the possibility to discuss various questions with Giampietro and the other participants.

The lecture is part of our workshop It’s the (bio)economy, stupid!
The future of growth and the promise of the bioeconomy

Working Paper No.1 published online

The junior research group flumen has published its first issue of the working papers series online. See here for downloading.

Eversberg, Dennis (2020): Bioeconomy as a starting point of polarising social conflicts? The distribution of socio-ecological mentalities within the German population 2018 and possible supporting and resistance potentials towards bio-based transformations.

Using the data from the “Study on Environmental Awareness 2018 ” by the Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety (BMU) and the German Environment Agency (UBA), this paper develops a typology of eleven different patterns of socio-ecological attitudes or mentalities in the German population and asks to what extent the transformations of economy and society towards a post- fossil model, which is currently being discussed under the heading of bioeconomy, are becoming the subject of increasing tensions or conflicts between social groups with different mentalities. In a first step, six different dimensions of socio-ecological attitudes are identified with the help of a factor analysis, before eleven different types of attitude patterns are distinguished from one another and described in their various variants by comparing the results of three different cluster analyzes based on these factors. Using indices for the cultural and economic capital endowment of the interviewees, these attitude patterns are then put in relation to each other in their respective ideal-typical locations in the social space according to Bourdieu and their mutual relationships are examined. This results in the overall picture of a roughly tripartite division of the population into an eco-social camp, which comprises around a third of the population and actively supports far-reaching ideas of a post-fossil transformation not only of the economy, but also of the prevailing way of life, a liberal, growth-oriented camp of around 40 %, which adheres to ideas of economic growth and increasing prosperity and has so far not been ready to accept such transformations if they threaten to call these goals into question, as well as an authoritarian-fossilist camp that in fact aspires to a return to outdated economic and social models of the 20th century that will be impossible on a bio-based basis. The (still) rather latent conflict constellation between these three camps on the “eve” of the Fridays for Future protests is outlined. Finally, the question is raised which ideas of a bioeconomic transformation from the point of view of the various mentalities and camps find support, but also to which increasing polarizations they could lead to.

Dennis Eversberg took part in the 40th Congress of the German Sociological Association

The 40th Congress of the German Sociological Association (DGS) was held under the topic “Societies under Tension” from the 14th to the 24th of September 2020 online.

In the session „The Sociological Measurement of the Ecological Crisis“ on September 16th, Dennis Eversberg has given the contribution „Voltage detector: To a Relational Analysis of Social-Ecological Transformation Conflicts“.

The session and Dennis Eversberg’s presentation you find here:

Furthermore, he has taken part in the discussion „Post-growth projects in the field of tension between collective and individual contexts of meaning“.

The Congress ›Societies under Tension‹ focused on societal tensions, conflicts, diagnoses of the re-ordering of societies and the corresponding challenges for sociology as a social science.

See more at the website of the Congress