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close this bookIndustrial Metabolism: Restructuring for Sustainable Development (UNU, 1994, 376 pages)
close this folderPart 1: General implications
close this folder5. Evolution, sustainability, and industrial metabolism
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentIntroduction
View the documentTechnical progress and reductionism
View the documentThe mechanical paradigm
View the documentThe evolution of ecological structure
View the documentDiscussion


Today many people realize and fear the possible impacts that past, current, and future industrial activities and technologies may have on the natural systems in which they are embedded.) Anthropogenic causes seem to be the main factor in widespread erosion and soil degradation, river, lake and oceanic pollution, the production of acid rain, and threats to groundwater quality through nitrate and pesticide leaching from farming and from the burying and dumping of toxic and radioactive wastes. The rate of extinction of numerous plant and animal species seems still to be accelerating and there is some consensus on the view that the increased levels of CO2 resulting from man's activities may be causing drastic climatic change.

And all this is occurring as a result of the kind of economic growth that has characterized the West, and which by and large is the goal of most developing countries. It seems, therefore, that some major rethinking is required if industrialization is to occur throughout the world (Clark and Munn, 1986). Somehow, we must find ways of reducing the impacts of human activities on the environment, but of still maintaining and improving the quality of life, which is, after all, the avowed principal aim of development.

This book is part of this attempted rethinking. The title, Industrial Metabolism: Restructuring for Sustainable Development, suggests the important process-based vision of industry as part of an ecological structure. Traditionally, the view has been that industry takes high-grade resources and uses energy to transform them into products for human utilization, with of course some waste and pollution going into the "environment." However, this simple, traditional view is not sustainable. In reality, not only is one man's environment another man's system, but the global environment itself is being modified by the accumulation and build-up of wastes. The only sustainable systems that we so far know of are those which nature has evolved and which we call natural ecosystems. The crux of this chapter is, therefore, an examination of the underlying organizational principle of ecological structure.

As we shall see, this is related to the workings of the evolutionary process, and from this discussion we shall establish what is meant by sustainability in natural systems, and what the lessons of this are for mankind. In particular, it will be shown why the issues of adaptability and diversity are fundamental. Another critical idea that arises concerns the basic choice between the spatial dispersion of pollutants and wastes or their concentration. Again, the comparison with natural evolution will be made and the importance of recycling stressed.

In this chapter we trace the roots of our present environmental problems to the underlying concepts of traditional science. Its basic reductionist perspective is inappropriate for understanding the emergence and evolution of living systems, and has, therefore, tended to alienate us from nature. Next, a new perspective concerning evolutionary, open systems, which provides a deeper conceptual framework than the "mechanical system" for our understanding of the human condition, is set out. This new, evolutionary view shifts our focus from that of "maximized" exploitation to that of the maintenance of adaptability and diversity, and of framing legislation and policies to this end. It also provides a new basis for decision support tools, which help to explore possible futures, including the responses of the natural and human systems affected.

The new ideas explored here also concern the manner in which collective structure and conditions are affected by individual decision-making and values, and how in turn these are fashioned by evolution. Clearly, new issues of equity and responsibility arise between the aspirations of individuals, nations, and the global community. These are, of course, perennial problems that have always been present in social systems. How should the conflict between the rights and the responsibilities of individuals be resolved? There is no simple answer to this, nor any objective basis on which to formulate one. What must be worked out is a complicated compromise between the developed and the developing nations, such that the global situation is taken into account and given sufficient importance, that the future of the planet is not sacrificed by the selfish actions of its separate parts. As set out theoretically in the Brundtland Report, sustainability must be the aim for each region. But, as we shall see, the concept of sustainability is a complex one, and will require a change not only in environmental regulations but in the underlying values of our socio-economic systems.

The problem is urgent since levels of destruction of ecosystems and the exploitation of raw materials have reached record levels, reducing the biological potential and the capacity to sustain humans over large geographical areas. Anthropogenically modified ecological systems seem increasingly vulnerable and quite clearly unsustainable, with a strong possibility that as the intensity of exploitation of the remaining raw materials and areas of fertile land increases, so in turn the destruction of these will accelerate, leading to a potentially catastrophie runaway process.

These issues pose a tremendous challenge to us all. We must find ways of achieving a high quality of life using new approaches and technologies which do not lead to the irreversible consumption or destruction of their own input factors. In short, we must move away from a "slash-and-burn"" mentality to some greater vision of "cultivation."

The issue can no longer be avoided by simply talking about the need to limit population growth in developing countries, or by hoping that market prices reflecting progressive destruction will finally lead to some miraculous, technological response. Neither can we necessarily afford to wait for absolute scientific proof of the precise chains of causality that are involved. Wisdom is not identical to science. Instead it is related to how you choose to use the limited knowledge you have, and is clearly a mixture of caution and adventure.