The Developing Role of Ecotoxicology in Industrial Ecology and Natural Capitalism

By Cairns, John, Jr. | Environmental Health Perspectives, August 2000 | Go to article overview

The Developing Role of Ecotoxicology in Industrial Ecology and Natural Capitalism


Cairns, John, Jr., Environmental Health Perspectives


Achieving sustainable use of the planet will require a new paradigm regarding the relationship between human society and the environment and a concomitant paradigm on the responsibility of those now living to provide a quality life for their descendants for an indefinite period of time. Both industrial ecology and natural capitalism provide useful guidelines and case histories on how these two paradigm shifts might be achieved.

The seminal publication on natural-capitalism is the book Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution, by Paul Hawken and Amory and Hunter Lovins (1). The authors believe that the traditional definition of capital as "accumulated wealth in the form of investments, factories, and equipment" is inadequate and that an economy should be based on four types of capital to function properly: a) human capital, in the form of labor, intelligence, culture, and organization; b) financial capital, consisting of cash, investments, and monetary instruments; c) manufactured capital, including infrastructure, machines, tools, and factories; and d) natural capital, consisting of resources, living systems, and ecosystem services.

Natural capitalism envisions the use of natural Systems without abusing them, which is the essence of sustainable use of the planet. I do not use the term "sustainable development" because the word "development" implies growth to most people, and infinite growth on a finite planet is an oxymoron. Sustainable use of the planet requires that the relationship between human society and natural systems be sustainable and that the close relationship between ecosystem health and human health be recognized.

Tibbs (2) believes that the view of industrial systems and ecosystems as polar opposites is archaic and that a continuum must develop from the merging of the two systems. The focus in industrial ecology is narrower than in natural capitalism, but the essential idea of the coexistence of industrial and natural ecosystems would encourage the protection and accumulation of natural capital in areas where it is now in danger or unlikely to flourish.

McNeill (3) has shown that, in the course of the twentieth century, the human race has undertaken, without intending to do so, a giant and uncontrolled experiment on Earth. Unquestionably, environmental transformations have occurred during the twentieth century on a scale and at a rate that are unprecedented in human history. Ecotoxicologists are well aware that many of the effects of human society on natural systems are nonlinear and that a multiplicity of thresholds and break points exist, most of which only become apparent after they have been crossed. However, societal decisions are usually expressed through public and private institutions, most of which tend to resist change. As a caveat, institutional stability is essential to societal stability, but the rate of change must bear some resemblance to both the temporal and spatial rates of change on the planet. Moreover, the environmental literacy of the general public and of its representatives is totally inadequate to cope with the multidimensional problems that the economic/technologic system is creating. One of the major problems has been identified by Kahn (4) and Odum (5)--the tyranny of small decisions, which individually seem insignificant but, in the aggregate, can have tremendous consequences. Environmental literacy is an extremely important issue because it is not clear how far global societies (particularly those emphasizing individualism, such as the United States) will agree to modify their personal lifestyles and expectations to conform with the measures necessary to achieve sustainability, including preservation and accumulation of natural capital. In the United States and elsewhere in the world, the conservative opinion rejects any infringements on individual rights and various levels of political sovereignty. The question of individual rights and political sovereignty has been quite evident in the discussions of such issues as global warming at the Kyoto conference and other conferences. …

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