Industrial ecology--only needed in the north?

Author:Buen, Jorund


The predominant focus within Industrial Ecology research and industrial practice has almost exclusively been on the industrialised North. This paper first seeks explanations for this. Then, an analytical framework for conditions influencing industrial-ecological innovation capacity in countries in the South is presented and discussed. Next, several developments are pointed to that may possibly lead away from the Northern bias within industrial-ecological research and practice. This is followed by arguments for why industrial-ecological principles may advantageously be employed in the South to a larger extent than what is currently the case, and how this may contribute to the further development of industrial ecology as a discipline. Finally, future research challenges within this subfield of industrial ecology will be discussed.

  1. Introduction

    Research and industrial practice within industrial ecology today still focuses much more on the industrialised North than the developing South (1, 2). It is also far more concerned with our responsibility towards future generations than of today's problems of global distributive justice. This article will first attempt to explain why this is so. Then, a number of developments will be pointed to that may further increase the focus on the South within industrial-ecological research and practice. This is followed by arguments for why industrial-ecological principles may advantageously be employed in the South to a larger extent than now, and how this can contribute to the further development of industrial ecology as a discipline. Finally, future research challenges within the field of industrial ecology in a North-South perspective will be discussed.

    The article thus points to the fact that it is still a considerable distance between the potential for a holistic approach to environmental problems embodied in industrial-ecological principles, and industrial ecological research and practice today. However, this should be regarded as a challenge to the discipline of industrial ecology, rather than a capitulation to an impossible task (3). Indeed, there is evidence that the discipline is already taking the challenge seriously (see Ch. 2 below).

  2. Industrial ecology and the countries in the South

    There is still disagreement both among researchers and industry representatives about what principles and practices are actually included in industrial ecology. While most researchers and practitioners would agree that the unit of analysis is material and energy flows, views differ widely as to (den Hond 2000):

    1) whether industrial ecology should restrict itself to describing these material and energy flows, or engage in analysing the systems for managing them, or even suggest improvements to these systems; and

    2) what the system boundaries should be (regardless of whether a limited or extensive approach is chosen under point 1).

    Because industrial ecology is a new concept, the discipline is so far a collection of very different terms and strategies with different scope, rather than a clearly defined and unitary theory specifying clear strategies for its industrial implementation (O'Rourke et al. 1996). It is possible to carve out a set of fundamental characteristics of industrial ecology (see below). However, this does not prevent different actors from claiming that everything from incremental improvements in existing (environmentally harmful) products in a limited geographic area, to radical change in the global industrial system in an environmentally friendly direction, fall within industrial ecology.

    This article rests on a broad interpretation of industrial ecology, which includes both physical, biological, chemical, organisational and institutional aspects of material and energy flows, as well as the flows' transboundary character. Focusing only on material and energy flows within a strictly defined and limited ecosystem is very useful; however, such an approach needs to be accompanied by studies acknowledging the global character of many material and energy flows, and the distributive aspects of these.

    In the first textbook in industrial ecology, Graedel and Allenby (1995) describe industrial ecology as "the science of sustainable development", a view shared by many of the pioneers within the field (4). Graedel and Allenby have also proved the most cited definition of industrial ecology, which clearly shows that a holistic approach to energy and environmental questions forms part of the fundament for industrial ecology (Graedel and Allenby 1995, my emphases):

    "Industrial ecology is the means by which humanity can deliberately and rationally approach and maintain a desirable carrying capacity, given continued economic, cultural and technological evolution. The concept requires that an industrial system he viewed not in isolation from its surroundung systems, but in concert with them. It is a systems view in which one seeks to optimize the total materials cycle from virgin material, to finished material, to component, to product, to obsolete product, and to ultimate disposal. Factors to be optimized include resources, energy, and capital."

    Sustainable development is based on both the principle of distributive justice today, and the principle of intergenerational equity. Indeed, in their pioneering article on industrial ecology in Scientific American, Frosch and Gallopoulos (1989: 106) state that "[a]n ideal industrial ecosystem may never be attained in practice, but both manufacturers and consumers must change their habits to approach it more closely if the industrialized world is to maintain its standard of living--and the developing nations are to raise theirs to a similar level --without adversely affecting the environment." However, within industrial ecology, the notions of equity and justice are absent--and it is by no means certain that these ever will be present (5). As mentioned above, industrial ecology seeks inspiration from natural ecosystems. Contrary to what is the case in social systems, concepts like equity and justice are absent in ecosystems. However, the fact that industrial ecology does not focus on equity and justice does not render developments in the South irrelevant for industrial ecology.

    Industrial-ecological research and practice today have much in common with ecological modernisation, which is a generic term for descriptions and analyses of established government and economic actors response to pressure for action in environmental matters (6). Within ecological modernisation, environmental challenges are regarded as possibilities, not symptoms of a crisis. It is deemed possible to decouple economic growth from environmental degradation, by developing and employing more environmentally friendly technological and economic means. In this way, it becomes possible to reach economic growth goals and solve environmental problems simultaneously (Cohen 1997: 109, Pepper 1999). Such solutions are sought through co-operation between relevant actors rather than radical institutional change.

    There is clearly a potential for more fundamental processes of change in industrial ecology principles than what is the case with ecological modernisation. Ehrenfeld (1997) emphasises connectedness, community and co-operation as central concepts in industrial ecology. In many ways, today's societal system, with a fragmented and reductionist bureaucracy, and emphasis on individualism and competition, is the very opposite of these concepts (7). Furthermore, the use of concepts within industrial ecology research is to a much larger extent than ecological modernisation influenced by conditions characterising natural ecosystems.

    In a contribution regarded as essential within the industrial-ecological research community, Ehrenfeld (1994) claims that what he calls the industrial ecology paradigm is based on the following fundamental elements:

  3. The globe is a closed ecological system. Development of the character and scale of today is not compatible with long-term ecological survival. The goal is therefore regarded to be to optimise material cycles --both in terms of capital-, energy- and resource use--from raw material via processed material and product to waste product. Design for the environment is also central in this regard. Such an optimisation is also believed to lead to increased competitive power.

  4. Human society and the ecosystem have been developed in a close relationship with each other. Nature has intrinsic value, visualised through economic activity, and human beings therefore have an ethical and moral responsibility towards nature.

  5. Sustainahility means that human and natural capital is maintained intact independently of each other. In other words, industrial ecology often operates with a "strong" definition of sustainability. A "weaker" definition would only require that the sum of human and natural capital is kept intact.

  6. Policy. Economic activity based on services, not goods, is given priority. Quality of life is emphasised rather than living standards. Taking technological realism as a point of departure, the precautionary principle, including a conscious product policy and life-cycle assessment, should be employed to meet uncertainty.

    As shown in point 1 above, the central idea of industrial ecology research is that industrial activity should mimic the natural ecosystem as much as possible. The linkage between the company and its role in a local "ecosystem" within the framework of a closed global ecosystem is at the core of most industrial ecology thinking (8).

    Several contributions within the field of industrial ecology discuss how much the technology's environmental effectiveness needs to improve in order to maintain environmental quality in an area given that other factors contributing to total environmental damage increase --the so-called Factor X problem (Jansen 1994, Brattebo 1996, von Weiszacker et al. 1997, Allenby 1999: 22-33)...

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