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close this bookEco-restructuring: Implications for sustainable development (UNU, 1998, 417 pages)
close this folder1. Eco-restructuring: The transition to an ecologically sustainable economy
View the document(introductory text...)
View the documentIntroduction: On sustainability
View the documentThe need for holistic systems analysis
View the documentEnvironmental threats and (un)sustainability indicators
View the documentSharpening the debate
View the documentNon-controversial issues: Population, resources, and technology
Open this folder and view contentsControversial issues: Pollution, productivity, and biospheric stability
View the documentFinding the least-cost (least-pain) path
View the documentConcluding comments
View the documentNotes
View the documentReferences

The need for holistic systems analysis

Since the early 1970s, the environmental movement has become increasingly professionalized and bureaucratized. As a consequence, largely, of the latter development, the "environment" is seen no longer in a holistic sense but in terms of a number of specific, essentially independent issues. Nowadays, the "causes" of pollution are attributed, for the most part, to narrowly defined actions (or failures to act) of equally narrowly defined "polluters." The responsibilities for abatement or clean-up are correspondingly narrow. Solid wastes, hazardous or toxic wastes, liquid wastes, and airborne wastes are likely to be allocated to different government departments, ranging from public health agencies to water/sewerage authorities, whose regulatory powers are controlled by different kinds of legislation framed in different circumstances, sometimes based on quite different regulatory philosophies. "The right hand does not know what the left hand is doing," and vice versa.

Activities of different arms of the same agency can interfere with each other. For instance, incineration can reduce the solid waste disposal problem, and even produce useful energy as a by-product, but it creates an air pollution problem. On the other hand, to reduce the emissions of particulates and sulphur oxides from power plants creates solid wastes that must be disposed of somewhere on land. There is nobody with a global view of the problem to mediate among the parochial interests. There is nobody with the responsibility or the authority to induce competing offices, departments, and bureaux to cooperate.

Yet the environment is, by its very nature, unsuited to incremental control strategies. It is equally unsuited for reductionist "bottom-up" modes of analysis. The problem is that scientific insights are now, and will continue to be, insufficient for predicting the detailed environmental consequences of any change or perturbation. To take a concrete instance, nobody can predict the exact physiological effects of ingesting any chemical from knowledge of its structure. Still less can the genetic or ecological consequences of its dispersion be predicted. This uncertainty is multiplied by the enormous number of different chemicals, materials, and mixtures simultaneously manufactured and used by man (natural and synthetic alike), not to mention the variety (type and intensity) of possible reaction modes and interaction effects.

Setting aside carcinogens and highly toxic or radioactive substances, one important environmental problem has as yet been predicted in advance from the creation or displacement of any particular material stream. This single exception was Rowland's chance recognition of the reactive potential of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) in the stratosphere, and the resulting possibility of stratospheric ozone depletion. This potential hazard, derided by chemical industry spokesmen in the 1970s as "speculative," has turned out to be real.

In speaking of the environment it is literally true that "everything depends upon everything else." A holistic "top-down" perspective is essential to identifying the most important underlying factors and relationships. It is equally important to adopt a very broad perspective for seeking and - it is hoped - finding effective global strategies to save the planet.