Reframing the Trump-China "trade war" anyone?

Hello all,

The current kerfuffel about Trump’s pending tariffs on steel and aluminum makes me think, hold on - there are other angles to this story that deserve attention. I speak as a longtime recycling enthusiast and environmentalist.

It seems to me that pricing for primary resources like metals is closely related to the health of recycling markets which have the potential to move us toward a circular materials economy…

It was only a couple of months ago that China announced new stricter standards for accepting materials for recycling. This includes conventional consumer goods like paper, corrugated, metals and plastic, and China also receives a great deal of the scrap metal from our industrial sources (and sells it back to us as new products!) Here in the US our consumer recycling is widespread but participation is only so-so and due to carelessness and ignorance the materials collected have a high proportion of contamination. China, which has been processing the lion’s share of this stuff, said we have to do better or they won’t take it anymore. Fair enough, I think.

So my question for doughnutters is this: Can we reframe Trump’s tariffs as an positive incentive to (1) swear off consumption of virgin ores and (2) rebuild our own recycling industries to make goods from the stuff we’ve been wastefully casting off and shipping overseas?


Still hoping to engage someone on this topic, here’s an article to think over:

I don’t have any illusion that “recycling” as currently practiced is all-wonderful. But it does present us with many opportunities to change environmental practices and to move toward a circular materials economy. Why should my country (USA) be able to turn mountains of stuff into trash, then make only the skimpiest effort to source-separate it, and ship it all to China? This is not an entitlement I aspire to for my nation!!!

If trash seems like a less-than-fascinating topic to you, or if it seems somehow apart from the lofty sphere of economics, I respectfully suggest you’re missing out on some valuable insights into our environmental challenges. Living within the doughnut means in many cases doing more with less, respecting the resources we consume and after we have used them, sending them thoughtfully to their best and highest use. Let’s not continue to be anesthetized by the illusion that there is a place called “away” where we can stick things we don’t have time to steward properly. China can help us learn this lesson in this case.

1 Like

Hi Brian! Thanks for both of your posts on this vitally important issue. My response is essentially “I agree, but”!

China is belatedly but effectively addressing its environmental issues and doesn’t want to be a dumping ground, while the Trump administration’s tarrifs have been imposed under the belief they will increase US employment in steel and aluminium processing. Both of these policies do, of course, support the argument for better and more domestic US recycling. Here in Ireland China’s refusal to accept contaminated waste is already having positive effects on recycling policy. An easy route has been closed so policy-makers are having to deal with their own problems. And of course this can be framed to support movement towards a more circular and sustainable economy… but…

My ‘but’ is that there are many, many groups, organisations, discussion forums and other online and offline venues, networks and places to discuss such a push and framing and promotion. The recycling of steel and aluminium is just one of tens or hundreds of thousands of different ‘battlefronts’ in the vast collision between modern technological humanity and the rest of earth’s biosphere. There’s also the plastic and the bats and the soil and the frogs and the flights and the aquifers and the desert and the climate and the 70,000 different chemicals and the nitrogen… and so on. There are a million different collision points between us and our world, of which the damage and resource depletion caused by aluminium and steel production in one country is just one (or two!).

Of course, you could jump up a level. You could focus on advertising, consumer culture, modern social organisation, the market economy, media, laws, regulations, practices, standards, economic blocs, corporate power, lobbying and political influence, and so on and so on. These and many more factors make up the organisational, social and cultural context within which we all operate - a context that incentivises and even requires participation in a lot of destructive behaviour. Again, there are many thousands of groups, organisations and discussion fora devoted to these issues and factors, most of them focusing on specific countries. To use a computer analogy, if the environmental destruction is the output (along with a lot of good things!), this organisational and cultural context and framework is the operating system.

But (and here’s the real ‘but’ at last!) IMHO Doughnut Economics is different. As I see it, Doughnut Economics is part of the search for a new operating system (actually more than a search, because it has some direction too). Using one country’s imposition of tarrifs on another country to promote more recycling and more effective recycling is great, but changing laws, standards, practices and cultural perceptions on recycling is even better. And while changing the laws, standards, practices and cultural perceptions in one country is brilliant, changing them around the world is better still. And changing them not just for recycling but for all the other hundreds of thousands of collision points between us and nature would be even better.

That’s a pretty big thing to aspire to do, and if it’s not hard enough, there’s a time limit - especially on climate change but also on some other issues, both known and unknown. It may be too late already and we have, at most, a few decades before tipping points take the matter out of our hands and degrade our collective organisational capacity beyond our ability to act (current political dysfunction being a great example of this degradation). My point is that there’s a lot to do, and quickly.

Our hope (or my hope, anyways!) is not to change the behaviour that our system and culture incentivises, or to change the laws, regulations and standards that allow and promote that behaviour, or to even change the politicians that make the laws that allow and promote that behaviour. Our hope, IMHO, is to change the ideas and the perspectives of the politicians that make the laws that allow and promote that behaviour. That is what I think Doughnut Economics is and is working towards, and that is why I am here in this forum.

And so, while I wish you the very very best in your attempts to improve recycling, this is not the reason I am here. I am here to change the way the entire world thinks about economics within the next decade or so and I am looking for discussion, stimulation and collaborators in this effort. It is quixotic mission, ridiculously ambitious and most likely impossible - I know. A ‘Hail Mary Pass’ as you might call it. But from what I can see, it’s the only chance we have.

Incrementalism is vitally important, and the work and exploration in all the many areas of sustainability is the actual reality that will allow us to live good lives within environmental boundaries. But focusing on the bigger or more lofty picture is not arrogance or dismissive of any other genuine effort. IMHO - and in my experience and observations around the internet - it is both vitally, vitally necessary and woefully, chronically and ridiculously ignored and underfunded (see my comments on the farce of the Talanoa Dialogue for a great example). Of course details are important, but so are organising ideas. And ridiculously IMO, there are very view places to realistically discuss such global, universal organising ideas.


I can certainly sympathise and support you in that ambition Graham - although I am generally more aiming at how people act than how they think, for instance as here - i.o remix
I believe we can change how people use money (and end poverty) and create economies in much less than 10 years, and then work on their thinking will be much easier.
Your thoughts?

Hi Michael. I don’t seem to be doing very well at staying on topic! The topic of this thread is supposed to be US-China trade, and the other one to which you responded concerns a documentary! I’ll respond to both your comments here in an attempt to consolidate and simplify a bit!

At the end of the day I think system change involves politics, which in a democracy means votes. Whatever wierd tech-mediated AI future the technologists come up with, it’ll need rules - local, regional and global. At it’s lowest governance is conflict-resolution and the allocation of resources without violence, at it’s most mediocre it is essentially management, and it’s best it is leadership. But at the end of the day it’s politics. There are millions of ideas and perspectives out there, but only one will win a majority in parliament.

I agree with Kate and many others that we need to put purpose back in economics and stop pretending it’s a branch of physics. To me, and in practical terms, that means putting politics back in economics and thus thinking about and working within political-economics. So when I talk about paradigm change I’m really talking about political-economic paradigm change. And this has been done before by people like Karl Marx, Friedrich Hayek and others. Even Ayn Rand has had a major influence on US political-economics! I witnessed such political-economic paradigm change first-hand in China in the late 80’s, and remotely in the collapse of the USSR and other events. I don’t think the idea of a political-economic paradigm shift is woolly or unrealistic - I think it’s happened before and it’ll happen again.

Like a frantic seismologist predicting an earthquake, I too am predicting a political-economic earthquake of which Trump, Brexit and the like are just early tremors. Essentially I think technology and the hyper-globalisation it has made possible has changed and is changing the very nature of work, and the pressure on incomes is becoming unbearable for more and more people. At the same time the internet has essentially expanded the information/idea-space within which we operate to encompass the entire planet and most of us 7.5 billion. I’m sure you’re familiar with the old US hippy saying “Free your mind and your ass will follow”. Well, I think that’s sort of happening on a mass scale!

But our organisational structures and practices, and the worldview that they promote and act from, have not caught up. As the gap between essentially 19thC institutional reality and 21stC technological and informational reality continues to widen the tensions continue to grow. And I think a new political-economic idea (like Marx, Hayek, Deng Xiao Peng, etc. had) is the only thing that’s going to allievate that tension, apart from collapse.

In brief, I think we can see the outlines of that new political-economic organising idea already in the Doughnut and in concepts like LVT, carbon dividends, QE for People, a Basic Income and, of course, the commons. I also think that the days when one mad genius comes up with a flash of brilliance are over and that, for the first time (thanks to the internet), it may be possible for a group of expertise to consciously construct such an idea using evidence, best-practice and what we now know about narrative and communication. Basically I think it’s possible to do what Friedrich Hayek did with the Mont Pelerin Society (which gave us Reagan, Thatcher and Neoliberalism). But in an internet kind of way.

I’ve just glanced at your website and it’s resources (there’s a lot there!). I know and respect your background and will give it a serious look/view as soon as I can. I’m a strong supporter of Positive Money (and have attended their wonderful summer retreat!) although I think that the idea of monetary financing is more important than the details of it’s implementation. Chicago plan, sovereign money, helicopter money, MMT or whatever you’re having yourself - as long as it’s monetary financing I’ll be happy. And I think the best way is to (carefully) try and see what happens - like what’s happening with Basic Income.

I also think that guaranteed demand is at the core of currency value, and thus that government’s decision about what currency is required for tax payment is what underwrites value and trust in fiat currency. I may well be wrong, but my main point is that monetary reform or even money reform is not enough. Whatever money we use is OUR money system and should be designed and operated to benefit US… and we’re back to the commons.

Anyway, must go. I’ll have a look at your material and, if you’re interested (no pressure!) you can find out more about my thinking at or on Twitter at @graham_caswell. In particular, this piece is essentially a personal narrative but that outlines how I see all this in more detail.

Best wishes,


Graham, thanks for such an extensive response, I much appreciate your outline of your thinking and general strategy. Enjoyed reading your blogs too, hope you are as lucky with mine!

I think we’re clearly on the same sort of pages as regards ends, and equally clearly different in the means we’re pursuing. I’m happy to see all the effort and intent applied in Positive Money and the education of politicians, but doubt if I myself can usefully add much or indeed anything to that line of work, so I’ll keep my focus on what seems in my range - circular moneys as anti-rivalrous patterning systems.

The Trump-China trade war(and the international corporate economy generally) is driven with, by and for linear money, and reframing the basis of the operating system does seem an idea worth thinking. Some of my thoughts here - sustainability and money

Hi all, and thanks to Graham and Michael for your comments, but I’m feeling the need for a restart on the topic.

(Graham, perhaps your ideas about a new economic operating system deserve a new thread of their own. Your response to my postings seems to amount to, “well that’'s important and interesting but these other ideas are much more so!”)

In response to the fast and furious developments in US-China trade, I’m thinking more tactically than strategically, and tactically we can spin this story in a new way; that’s my whole point. Faced with a roadblock for our post-consumer materials, we can make it a learning experience about how we handle our material discards; rather than putting them out of sight and out of mind, we can appreciate that they could be part of a circular flow that reduces the demand on virgin materials and that creates new industries, markets, and jobs often close to home and tapping the innovative spirit of the green movement.

Just this week comes another gambit from China in response to Trump’s tariffs, and I find it interesting that our pork industry is targeted. The production of pork in the US is a textbook example of horrifyingly non-regenerative agriculture. You don’t have to look far to find the stories of cruel treatment of animals, heavy use of antibiotics which affects food quality, and mammoth manure lakes spread by firehoses onto surrounding land. This is the kind of agriculture our farm bill supports and subsidizes, and even then farmers are making only slight profit margins. The Chinese tariffs will be angering those farmers, but maybe this is the right time to invest in farming that will help the land and, given some lead time, will create new prosperity and grow crops we don’t have to export. The politics of such a move will be very complicated, but that’s mainly because agriculture is owned and controlled by titanic large corporations who sell the chemical inputs, aggregate and market the products, dictate the terms of farm financing, and write the laws that govern it all. This is a fight worth fighting across the political divides of red vs blue states, for economic self-sufficiency, public health and food safety, and to counter the tyranny of global economic trends.

The responses I’m seeing to such tariffs so far are along the lines of hurting red-state farmers, but transcending this divisive spin in my opinion can be done by moving toward regenerative agriculture.

1 Like

In hopes of getting across my original point, allow me to recommend this article I just came across…
My instinct is to seize the moment of crisis in the old economic model to forge a new one, not just fiddling about on the margins.

Anyone out there want to discuss the economic implications of recycling? My intention with this thread was to look at trade crises such as the Trump tariffs as partly being opportunities for a doughnut perspective: can we look at our material resources with an aim for a new circular economy, and as a teachable moment, rather than a zero-sum international bully game? I hope so!

Warning: my thread got derailed right away by a poster who had lots of interesting things to say but was, I believe, off topic! Let’s get it back on track!