Industrial Ecology-Only Needed in the North?

By Buen, Jorund | International Journal of Economic Development, April 2001 | Go to article overview

Industrial Ecology-Only Needed in the North?


Buen, Jorund, International Journal of Economic Development


Abstract

The predominant focus within Industrial Ecology research and industrial practice has almost exclusively been on the industrialised North. This paper first seeks explanations for this. Then, an analytical framework for conditions influencing industrial-ecological innovation capacity in countries in the South is presented and discussed. Next, several developments are pointed to that may possibly lead away from the Northern bias within industrial-ecological research and practice. This is followed by arguments for why industrial-ecological principles may advantageously be employed in the South to a larger extent than what is currently the case, and how this may contribute to the further development of industrial ecology as a discipline. Finally, future research challenges within this subfield of industrial ecology will be discussed.

1. Introduction

Research and industrial practice within industrial ecology today still focuses much more on the industrialised North than the developing South (1, 2). It is also far more concerned with our responsibility towards future generations than of today's problems of global distributive justice. This article will first attempt to explain why this is so. Then, a number of developments will be pointed to that may further increase the focus on the South within industrial-ecological research and practice. This is followed by arguments for why industrial-ecological principles may advantageously be employed in the South to a larger extent than now, and how this can contribute to the further development of industrial ecology as a discipline. Finally, future research challenges within the field of industrial ecology in a North-South perspective will be discussed.

The article thus points to the fact that it is still a considerable distance between the potential for a holistic approach to environmental problems embodied in industrial-ecological principles, and industrial ecological research and practice today. However, this should be regarded as a challenge to the discipline of industrial ecology, rather than a capitulation to an impossible task (3). Indeed, there is evidence that the discipline is already taking the challenge seriously (see Ch. 2 below).

2. Industrial ecology and the countries in the South

There is still disagreement both among researchers and industry representatives about what principles and practices are actually included in industrial ecology. While most researchers and practitioners would agree that the unit of analysis is material and energy flows, views differ widely as to (den Hond 2000):

1) whether industrial ecology should restrict itself to describing these material and energy flows, or engage in analysing the systems for managing them, or even suggest improvements to these systems; and

2) what the system boundaries should be (regardless of whether a limited or extensive approach is chosen under point 1).

Because industrial ecology is a new concept, the discipline is so far a collection of very different terms and strategies with different scope, rather than a clearly defined and unitary theory specifying clear strategies for its industrial implementation (O'Rourke et al. 1996). It is possible to carve out a set of fundamental characteristics of industrial ecology (see below). However, this does not prevent different actors from claiming that everything from incremental improvements in existing (environmentally harmful) products in a limited geographic area, to radical change in the global industrial system in an environmentally friendly direction, fall within industrial ecology.

This article rests on a broad interpretation of industrial ecology, which includes both physical, biological, chemical, organisational and institutional aspects of material and energy flows, as well as the flows' transboundary character. Focusing only on material and energy flows within a strictly defined and limited ecosystem is very useful; however, such an approach needs to be accompanied by studies acknowledging the global character of many material and energy flows, and the distributive aspects of these. …

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