Consuming ecological passions

Journal of Industrial Ecology
December 4, 1998

A journal devoted to the role of industry "in reducing environmental burdens throughout the product life cycle" is very welcome indeed. The use of the word "ecology" in the title is intended to demonstrate the importance of the natural world as a supplier of models for efficient use of resources, materials and energy, and the journal contains some excellent best-practice examples of where this has been achieved, for example, the Kalundborg industrial ecosystem in Denmark.

In its first year of publication (1997), articles have appeared on lead and electric vehicles, life-cycle assessment, chlorine flows and the environment, ICI, Motorola, the industrial ecology of paper and wood and environmental labelling.

The content of these articles puts the journal firmly in the area of products, product design and the management of the industrial production system in a market-based economy and within a system of voluntary relationships between industry, government and the environment.

The really interesting question, and one not addressed in the journal to date, is the extent to which this model of management intervention can make a contribution to resolving global environmental and social problems.

The journal has carved out for itself an important but very narrow technical niche in the very large global debate about production and consumption, environmental capacity, the situation in developing countries, and the sustainability of an industrial production system based on economic growth without end. The discussion in the journal about chlorine flows and lead acid batteries is very interesting indeed, but it lacks an awareness of why we need to use chlorine in manufacturing processes and products and why lead acid batteries in "environmentally friendly" vehicles are a better option than walking, cycling, public transport or having the shopping delivered. In both cases the agenda is being driven by a commitment to production with a low level of awareness of the potential for substitution and the potential for less travel.

This low level of awareness extends to the global scale. We know that the demands on raw material and energy in the developed world are unsustainable. We also know that this is a deeply unpopular view among United States-based corporations and the fossil-fuel industry.

These demands cannot continue to grow indefinitely and they cannot be extrapolated to include the populations of India and Africa. A higher recycling rate in Europe or a reduction in chlorine use in the United States will be swamped in global terms by the 26 per cent per annum increase in car ownership in India. US rates of material use, energy consumption, car driving and flying are the highest in the world, and they are also the main reason why the United States is so intransigent in negotiations in Rio de Janeiro, Kyoto and Buenos Aires to bring about a reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions. This journal has more than 30 Americans among its editors and on its editorial board, and it has not made the links, which are very ecological, between industry, production, consumption and global warming.

The missing link in the ecology of industrial production advanced by this journal is consumption. Industrial producers are in the business of stimulating consumption, and to be successful they must continually reinvent and redefine the nature of production and consumption. This is why we have disposable cameras, disposable contact lenses and small items of electrical equipment that are impossible to repair. This is why we have cars built to increasingly impressive environmental standards in terms of recycling and emissions in production, but still based on the idea that cars are status symbols, to be changed frequently and permitted to consume lots of fossil fuel.

In the next wave of producer-determined consumption we will have genetically modified crops and foods in spite of the evidence that public concern about these products is very high.

In the public perception, there is a huge irony in the fact that some of the best examples of corporate environmental strategy are produced by companies such as Monsanto, British Airways and ICI. Their commitment to environmental management is real but is unrelated to the fundamentally damaging nature of their operations on the local and global environment. They, like this journal, have not understood ecology.

John Whitelegg is professor in the school of the built environment, Liverpool John Moores University.

Journal of Industrial Ecology: (four times a year)

Editor - Reid Liset, David Allen, Valerie Thomas, Bruce Guile and John Ehrenfeld
Publisher - MIT Press
Price - $30.00 (student)$40.00 (indiv.)$105.00 (instit.)

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