|Eco-restructuring: Implications for sustainable development (UNU, 1998, 417 pages)|
|Part II: Restructuring sectors and the sectoral balance of the economy|
|8. Global eco-restructuring and technological change in the twenty-first century|
Visions about social and material conditions in the distant future are naturally surrounded by a great deal of uncertainty. One reason is that future outcomes depend on public and private decisions among alternatives that could have rather different long-term consequences. This paper describes some of the major, emerging directions of change that are likely to be important in the global economy of the twenty-first century. It attempts to situate within this context the kinds of choices that we face, including those surrounding technological changes that can be stimulated by eco-restructuring, and emphasizes the special role of environmental considerations in conditioning our decisions. The paper also illustrates the contribution of economic analysis in evaluating trade-offs among alternative choices on the regional and global levels.
Over the past few decades the globalization of the world's societies has become a physical reality and one that has relatively quickly become apparent to the general public. The two principal reasons for globalization are attributable to technological advances. Through modern telecommunications, people in all but the most remote locations are exposed instantaneously to the world's crisis situations and familiarized with the day-to-day realities in far-away places; and modern transportation has made it possible to travel, and to trade and shift investments, among distant locations more quickly and more extensively than ever before.
The other major stimulus to global thinking was the ability to view the whole planet from space and to measure and anticipate the possible effects of human activities not only on the water, the soil, and the minerals buried in it but especially on the quintessential global commons, the atmosphere. The desire to "save the planet" reflects a concern that is not just environmental but specifically global.
Eco-restructuring (also called Industrial Metabolism or Industrial Ecology) is an attempt to promote social well-being by designing and implementing technologies in a way that disrupts the bio-geochemical systems of the planet as little as possible. Eco-restructuring is undoubtedly influencing the design considerations and the content of engineering for the twenty-first century, but it is not yet evident what forms this influence will take and how extensive the changes will be.
Economics provides a powerful conceptual framework for describing the world system in terms of the interdependence of human activities and decisions. An economic modelling framework can be used to analyse and evaluate alternative, more or less detailed stories - or scenarios - about the future, based, in part, on alternative initiatives that originate in eco-restructuring. A framework capable of playing this role needs to go beyond the concepts of equilibrium and marginal changes that still dominate economists' thinking and practices today. The framework needs to be guided by a broad conception of economic theory that describes the material structure, as well as the social structure, of the global economy. Scenarios need to be capable of reflecting substantive policy options related to major potential structural changes, and the challenges related to them. The overall structure has to be sufficiently integrated to capture the inter dependencies that characterize this complex and dynamically changing system. I have written in other places about such a conceptual economic framework (see Duchin 1992, 1994, and forthcoming; Duchin and Lange 1994).
l shall first explore the growth of the world population and world economy in the twenty-first century, and then describe some of the major elements of environmental transformation. Projections about the likely future use of primary materials demonstrate the use of an economic model for the systematic assessment of the implications of various assumptions. I take up the production, use, and disposal of a specific material, plastics; and identify the major decisions that will have to be made regarding plastics, in order to demonstrate the kinds of challenges facing eco-restructuring.