"A Question of Context"


David Hawk and Hanne Siikavirta


Industrial ecology can provide a viable platform for inquiry into industrial operations, economic processes, and even the human proclivities for irrational relations to their contexts filled with systems of living order. Impediments confront any who take this avenue of inquiry. One important one is the counterintuitive nature of the complexity encountered therein. Industrial ecology, as complexity stimulated by concepts without context, can easily stimulate the same pattern of behavior as that which keeps us from seeing the longterm harm of our short-term behaviors. In this way industrial ecology would simply join the other phenomena that are part of the problem we repeatedly set out to study. There are signs that this may already be occurring.

Industrial ecology problems seem to lie at the junction between two worlds. This is the location where humanly motivated actions, to achieve results, encounter the longer-term consequences of their behavior returning to meet them; i.e., we meet our actions from the past in the contexts of our future. To illustrate this we make a distinction between results and consequences. Results are what we purposefully hope to achieve, and organize directed actions to do so. Consequences are the unintended results, or second-order results, that emerge after our intentions are realized. We propose that environmental problems are mostly from the world of consequences, or second order results, and that we lack means to identify and manage consequences. Unless industrial ecology develops sufficiently innovative methods so that they can manage consequences it is doomed to be more of the problem than with the solution.

The strengths, and weaknesses, of industrial ecology begin with it being a conceptual contradiction. Its major attraction point, and perhaps its strength, is the dynamism that the joint packaging of industrial and ecological traditions allows. This demands and hopefully enhances a search for a third way out from the obvious contradiction between the artificial and the natural. The discouragement, and perhaps major weakness, comes from the fact that the two worlds have learned how to be natural enemies. As such efforts to relate them fail. To date there is no scientific approach to inquiry in this joint domain that illustrates any worthy success. The activities to date have been based more on belief than knowledge.

The contradictory nature of industrial and ecological traditions may in fact not be as much of an impediment as it seems. Past contradictions have often provided the energy source for truly great science. Contradictions have long been a great motivator to the great scientists. If so, the adjacency of these opposites and the omnipresent concern to do something to improve things may well be sufficient to encourage a coherent study of linkages between technology-based, human activities and the natural systems that provide them with context.

Industrial ecology thus could provide a very promising doorway through which we can see alternative processes of economic development. At a minimum, by looking through the doorway we come to appreciation the need for alternatives to current policy and science. Another weakness, which may be more profound, is that the area of study is seen as depressing. It tends to attract depressed people with less than innovative ideas. Perhaps something can be done to attract people that are more fun with more stimulating ideas.

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David Hawk and Hanne Siikavirta, "OA Question of Context", Proceedings of the Helsinki Symposium on Industrial Ecology and Material Flows at the University of Jyväskylä, School of Business and Economics, August 30 - September 3, 2000.

[click here for the Helsinki Symposium on Industrial Ecology and Material Flows ]


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