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Policy implications of the industrial metabolism perspective

It may seem odd to suggest that a mere viewpoint - in contradistinction to empirical analysis - may have policy implications. But it is perfectly possible. In fact, there are two implications that come to mind. Both will recur more than once in the papers that follow. First, the industrial metabolism perspective is essentially "holistic" in that the whole range of interactions between energy, materials, and the environment are considered together, at least in principle. The second major implication, which follows from the first, is that from this holistic perspective it is much easier to see that narrowly conceived or short-run (myopic) "quick-fix" policies are very far from the global optimum. In fact, from the larger perspective, many such policies can be positively harmful.

The best way to explain the virtues of a holistic view is by contrasting it with narrower perspectives. Consider the problem of waste disposal. It is a consequence of the law of conservation of mass that the total quantity of materials extracted from the environment will ultimately return thence as some sort of waste residuals or "garbo-junk" (Ayres and Kneese, 1969, 1989). Yet environmental protection policy has systematically ignored this fundamental reality by imposing regulations on emissions by medium. Typically, one legislative act mandates a bureaucracy that formulates and enforces a set of regulations dealing with emissions by "point sources" only to the air. Another legislative act creates a bureaucracy that deals only with waterborne emissions, again by "point sources." And so forth.

Not surprisingly, one of the things that happened as a result was that some air pollution (e.g. fly ash and SOx from fossil fuel combustion) was eliminated by converting it to another form of waste, such as a sludge to be disposed of on land. Similarly, some forms of waterborne wastes are captured and converted to sludges for land disposal (or, even, for incineration). Air and water pollution were reduced, but largely by resorting to land disposal. But landfills also cause water pollution (leachate), and air pollution, owing to anaerobic decay processes.

In short, narrowly conceived environmental policies over the past 20 years and more have largely shifted waste emissions from one form (and medium) to another, without significantly reducing the totals. In some cases, policy has encouraged changes that merely dilute the waste stream without touching its volume at all. The use of high stacks for coal-burning power plants, and the building of longer sewage pipes to carry wastes further offshore, exemplify this approach.

To be sure, these shifts may have been beneficial in the aggregate. But the costs have been quite high, and it is only too obvious that the state of the environment "in the large" is still deteriorating rapidly. One is tempted to think that a more holistic approach, from the beginning, might have achieved considerably more at considerably less cost.

In fact, there is a tendency for sub-optimal choices to get "locked in" by widespread adoption. Large investments in so-called "clean coal" technology would surely extend the use of coal as a fuel - an eventuality highly desired by the energy establishment - but would also guarantee that larger cumulative quantities of sulphur, fly ash (with associated toxic heavy metals), and carbon dioxide would be produced. The adoption of catalytic convertors for automotive engine exhaust is another case in point. This technology is surely not the final answer, particularly since it is not effective in older vehicles. Yet it has deferred the day when internal combustion engines will eventually be replaced by some inherently cleaner automotive propulsion technology. By the time that day comes, the world's automotive fleet will be two or three times bigger than it might have been otherwise, and the cost of substitution will be many times greater.

The implication of all these points for policy makers, of course, is that the traditional governmental division of responsibility into a great number of independent bureaucratic fiefdoms is dangerously faulty. But the way out of this organizational impasse is far from clear. Topdown central planning has failed miserably, and is unlikely to be tried again. On the other hand, pure "market" solutions to environmental problems are limited in cases where there is no convenient mechanism for valuation of environmental resource assets (such as beautiful scenery) or functions (such as the UV protection afforded by the stratospheric ozone layer). This is primarily a problem of indivisibility. Indivisibility means that there is no possibility of subdividing the attribute into "parcels" suitable for physical exchange. In some cases this problem can be finessed by creating exchangeable "rights" or "permits," but the creation of a market for such instruments depends on other factors, including the existence of an effective mechanism for allocating such rights, limiting their number, and preventing poaching or illicit use of the resource.

Needless to say, the policy problems have economic and sociopolitical ramifications well beyond the scope of this book. However, as the Chinese proverb has it, the longest journey begins with a single step.


Ayres, Robert V. 1988. "Self Organization in Biology and Economics." International Journal on the Unity of the Sciences 1, no. 3.

Ayres, Robert U., and Allan V. Kneese. 1969. "Production, Consumption and Externalities." American Economic Review 59, no. 3: 282-296.

- 1989. 'Externalities: Economics and Thermodynamics." In: F. Archibugi and P. Nijkamp, eds., Economy and Ecology: Towards Sustainable Development. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Georgescu-Roegen, Nicholas. 1971. The Entropy Law and the Economic Process. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Nriagu, J. O. 1990. "Global Metal Pollution." Environment 32, no. 7: 7-32.

Rogner, Hans-Holger. 1987. "Energy in the World: The Present Situation and Future Options." In: Proceedings of the 17th International Congress of Refrigeration August 24-28, 1987.

2. Ecosystem and the biosphere: Metaphors for human-incluced material flows

Rudolf B. Husar


Long-term sustainable human development requires an understanding of the interaction between human activities and natural processes (Clark and Munn, 1986). Displacement of materials by industrial and agricultural activities causes the most severe human stress on the natural system. Hence, the understanding of human-induced material flows and comparison of those to natural flows is a major step toward the design of sustainable development schemes.

A major component in the understanding of human-induced material flow is the identification of the key players and driving forces involved, i.e. the building of a conceptual model. Initially, such a model does not need to be predictive; it is sufficient for it to have explanatory power for the existing human-nature interactions. In formulating and explaining such conceptual models, it is helpful to use known existing systems as a guide, and by applying metaphors and analogies to transfer existing knowledge and concepts to the new system under consideration. Natural systems have demonstrated their capacity for sustained development and provide a rich choice of desirable metaphors for the description of human activities.

Industrial metabolism is a powerful metaphor for the illumination of the processes that mobilize and control the flow of materials and energy through industrial activities. As in nature, industrial "organisms" consume "food" for the maintenance of their functions and cause the exhalation of waste products (see chapter 1 of this volume). The industrial metabolism metaphor has the organism as its main biological entity, and industrial organizations as its human analogues. These are proper entities for the study of the internal workings of metabolism within these organisms. However, both the causes and the consequences of metabolism lie beyond the confines of an organism. These depend on the external world, which includes other organisms as well as the physico-chemical environment.

This chapter builds on the strength of the industrial metabolism metaphor and discusses the possible applicability of the ecosystem and the biosphere as extended biological analogues for human activities. The goal here is to offer multiple, complementary points of view to describe, by means of analogues, the same topic: the human-induced mobilization of materials. Hopefully, this will contribute to the illumination of this fascinating, multifaceted, and important process.


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