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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

Technical progress and reductionism

The first issue that it is important to reflect on is the underlying reason why the application of scientific knowledge to solve problems - the traditional view of technology - must inevitably create other problems in the process. The ultimate reason is the adoption of reductionist views and values in traditional science. This becomes clear if we consider carefully the proposition that before any deliberate action may be taken, it must be shown that the expected consequences will be good for the universe the ultimate precautionary principle. Now, this would appear to outlaw any action at all, since one could not even define what "good" meant for the universe, let alone prove that good would follow from an action. But, if the "universe" is too large a sphere of evaluation, what is the right one? How do we justify our actions? What are the values that drive "improvements" in technology?

The answer is that we reduce the "system" we are considering until it can be interpreted as a mechanism. It has inputs, outputs, and some working parts. Within this narrow view, simple values can then be brought to bear on the problem. The mechanism can be said to "do something," that is, to transform inputs into outputs. We can then judge whether by some modification this "job" could be done more quickly, more cheaply, with less labour, less skill, fewer raw materials, etc. And so, technological progress leads to local, partial improvements of the system, based on narrow values and the roles and job descriptions of people within that system.

But, of course, the comfort obtained through wearing mental blinkers may be quite false. This is because only a small part of the whole system has been considered, and an individual with a particular role has used his own values to justify his action. In general the costs of any such action will necessarily be pushed out beyond whatever boundary marked the actor's concern. Inevitably, there will as a consequence be changes to and impacts on whatever was not included in the actor's evaluation, though it is in reality connected to his system. These could either be viewed as "unintended consequences" of his actions, or, perhaps more correctly, as "part of their consequences," and ones which follow naturally from his limited frame of reference.

In other words, many environmental problems are simply a necessary consequence of the myopic vision inherent in the roles that our system has allowed to evolve. That this has happened is, of course, partly due to their apparent short-term "effectiveness." Our system has evolved value systems and processes that not only degrade the environment but make it difficult for actors to do otherwise.

Such a laissez-faire attitude might possibly be justified if it could be shown that the continual improvement of the subsystems of a system would lead necessarily to an improvement of the whole system. This is the view put forward by Adam Smith, and clung to by most classical and neoclassical economists, whereby the separate pursuit of wealth by individuals is said to result in gain for the whole through the working of the "invisible hand." However, as we begin better to understand the behaviour and evolution of complex systems, this seems incredibly naive, or at best overoptimistic. It is just part of the ideology underlying Western economic thinking, and is, in reality, a myth.

However, such ideas are deeply rooted in the scientific rationality that has driven our thinking over the last few centuries. This is based on the view that understanding is arrived at by the study of how a particular set of mechanisms functions. And this merely requires analysis, which goes deeper and deeper into the underlying components of the system, creating disciplines and domains of expertise as it goes. Not only is reductionism the basis of traditional science, but it is also the basis of scientific credibility.

But if we are to deal successfully with the real world, the problem remains: What is the explanation of a particular system? Why is it as it is? And this is not at all the same question as: "How does it function?" The two questions only converge for isolated systems, or for systems that have reached an equilibrium with their environments. Prediction for such systems was remarkable, and this traditional scientific knowledge was used in the development of machines which characterized this new and powerful thing called technology.

But living systems are open to flows of energy, matter, and information. Living cells, organisms, people, populations, cities, and socio-economic and socio-technical systems are all open. That is why, as a metaphor, the "industrial metabolism" is more appropriate than the industrial machine.

The material realization and maintenance of such systems requires flows of energy and matter across the boundaries of whatever set of variables it is proposed to consider. Thus, the reductionist view which sees explanation in terms of functional mechanism is an incomplete description from which change, adaptation, and evolution are necessarily excluded. The initial (unnatural) interpretation of sustainable development, based on this false analogy, has been that of seeking a state of "maximum sustainable yield" for an exploited natural system, as if it were a "machine" that could be pushed to the limit, neglecting the adaptive responses that such evolved systems will have, and discounting the future according to the dictate of current interest rates.

In order to understand better the concept of sustainability, we must first show clearly the shortcomings of the mechanical vision characteristic of traditional science. Then, based on the manner in which evolutionary systems structure and organize themselves in nature, we can establish a new conceptual framework for the discussion.