Industrial Ecology: Paradigm Shift or Emerging Discipline?


By Katie Branagh, Adam Feldman, Margaret Hartwell, Dean Martucci and David Tausheck
Is Industrial Ecology a paradigm shift with normative potential to be applied to policy, strategy and technology or is it an emerging discipline, in its own right, as the “science” of sustainability? Industrial Ecology has been defined as “a systems-based, multidisciplinary discourse that seeks to understand emergent behavior of complex integrated human/natural systems” (Allenby, B., 2006) but some argue that the terms together, industrial and ecology, hold an inherent paradox.

In John Ehrenfeld’s article from American Behavioral Scientist entitled, Industrial Ecology: Paradigm or Normal Science, he proposes this dualistic query as a structure for discerning this paradox and asserts that Industrial Ecology has value in both concept and practice. It is not an either/or, but rather a both/and. He reinforces that Industrial Ecology offers the potential to include both modernity and sustainability, as suggested by the meanings of both “industrial” and “ecology.”

The power of Industrial Ecology is that as a science it offers a practical door to lasting paradigm shift. We enter through the analytic and descriptive, via the metaphorical and normative, to achieve transformation of the paradigm.

Ehrenfeld states four principles that define industrial design in the context of a sustainable business
(Ehrenfeld, J., 2000, p. 240):
1. closed material loops,
2. energy used in a thermodynamically efficient manner,
3. maintenance of balance of the system’s metabolism and elimination of materials that upset the system,
4. and dematerialized processes & products; delivering function with fewer materials.

Via these principles, the possibility exists of shifting design goals toward the three features of the ecological metaphor— community, connectedness, cooperation (Ehrenfeld, J., 2000, p.238).

While Ehrenfeld recognizes that community, connectedness, and cooperation are perfectly natural (ecological), he also discusses how they are radically at odds with how ‘modern humanity’ actually comports itself. He expands on that by pointing out that indigenous populations—who come closest to practicing these 3Cs—are as endangered by modernity as many ‘natural’ species are. He seems to suggest we have an awful lot of paradigm shifting to do. This begs the question of how much of the paradigm shift relies upon the expectation that humans will act rationally — which is far from a reasonable assumption to make. Is he offering the science of Industrial Ecology as a side door to shift to a more fundamental way of being that will yield true sustainability?

The value of the assessment of the “both/and” possibility of Industrial Ecology is based on the belief that the world as we know it is at an inflection point. “The condition of frustration or anxiety sets the stage for the possibility of paradigmatic transformation” (Ehrenfeld, J., 2000, p. 235). As our systems collapse around us and the fear of the unknown tightens its grip, some to cling to the insanity of continuing to act in the same manner but expecting the outcome to be different. In The Fifth Discipline, Peter Senge acknowledges this additional layer of increasing complexity, “Perhaps for the first time in history, humankind has the capacity …to accelerate change far faster than anyone’s ability to keep pace. Certainly, the scale of complexity is without precedent” (Senge, P., 1990, p. 69). The conditions are rich for the possibility that we can let go of the limiting beliefs and unsustainable behaviors that have gotten us where we are. The emerging field of Industrial Ecology (in spite of its working title not being commensurate with the magnitude of the discipline) is one of the most hopeful and powerful beacons toward an integrated, ethical, responsible world with an increased capacity for complexity and a manifest ability to “flourish on the Earth forever.” (Ehrenfeld, J., 2000, p. 232).

Allenby, B. (2006). The ontologies of industrial ecology? Progress in Industrial Ecology, an International Journal, 3(1):28-40.
Ehrenfeld, John. (2000). Industrial Ecology: Paradigm or Normal Science? American Behavioral Scientist. 44(2): 229-244, 2000.
Senge, P.M. (1990) The Fifth Discipline, New York: Doubleday.

Katie Branagh, Adam Feldman, Margaret Hartwell, Dean Martucci and David Tausheck are a team of MBA candidates in Sustainable Management at the Presidio Graduate School in San Francisco, CA. They recently completed a carbon footprint analysis for a sustainable seafood broker.

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