Introduction

The stated goal of this volume, and of the Forum that spawned it, could be expressed as: "To measure the stocks, flows, rates of use, interconnections, and potential for change of critical resources on the planet, and to arrive at a synthesis of the scientific approaches to sustainability." Most of the authors have largely focused on physical systems related to sustainability rather than on societal and cultural aspects. Presumably, these less readily quantifiable dimensions are to be left aside for some future consideration once we have established the extent of the physical stocks of energy and material that are actually and potentially available for human use on this planet. This approach, however, is a bit like trying to learn to ride a bicycle by first learning to balance, postponing mastery of the actual pedaling for some future lesson. In following this limiting prescription, the book is in danger of repeating the error made by the original authors of The Limits to Growth (Meadows et al. 1972), by assuming that a planet populated by intelligent and creative (as well as destructive) beings is a finite system. Those of us who, a quarter century ago, were attentive to the debate between the Club of Rome modelers and their critics, such as Julian Simon and Herman Kahn (1984), will recall that one of the most potent criticisms leveled against the "finitists," as we might call them, was that they did not consider the capacity of human individuals and institutions for technological and social innovation to adapt to changing circumstances, including variable climatic conditions (e.g., due to shifting weather patterns or migrating populations), and the discovery and exploitation of resources or availability of materials in response to threats and opportunities.

We do not need to share the cornucopian fantasies of some of these critics (who seem to have gone to the opposite extreme and wished away any idea of natural constraints) to recognize that the capacity for social learning and innovation is what defines most resources, shapes population profiles, and generates both production and consumption behavior. It is this capacity that actually constitutes blobs of molecules, pools of liquid, and lumps of stuff as "stocks of critical resources" in the first place. It is a key factor in determining "flows," "rates of use," and interconnections of these blobs, pools, and lumps. What we measure and how we measure it depends crucially on who is doing the measuring and why. Short of a truly cosmic catastrophe, such as a black hole or major asteroid collision, it is the human capacity for organized intelligence that will ultimately shape any "change of critical resources on the planet" and determine the sustainability, or otherwise, of human life upon it. As one commentator put it:

With rare exceptions the economic and producing power of the firm lies more in its intellectual and service capabilities than its hard assets—land, plant and equipment.. ..virtually all public and private enterprises—including most successful corporations—are becoming dominantly repositories and coordinators of intellect (Quinn 1992:14).

A feature of the sustainability discussion that is highly relevant to industrial ecology is the distinction between "weak" and "strong" sustainability. The former is the more optimistic position: it holds that sustainability is equivalent to non-decreasing total capital stock (i.e., the sum of natural capital and human-made capital). Adherents of strong sustainability take a different position, arguing that natural capital provides certain important functions for which human-made capital cannot substitute. Robert Ayres (2007) lists free oxygen, freshwater, phosphorus, and scarce but very useful heavy elements such as thallium and rhenium in this group, and argues that "those who espouse the notion of strong sustainability appear to be closer to the truth than the optimists who believe in more or less unlimited substitution potential." This chapter will not resolve this issue, but will adopt the well-supported position that if human capital is not infinitely substitutable, it is at least substitutable in a great many circumstances.

Hence, in this chapter I use the "human capital" part of the title as a point from which to explore the related concepts of institutional capacity and social capital in relation to environmental impact and resource use. The progression from human capital via institutional capacity to social capital also represents a shift in explanatory and policy focus from the attributes and capacities of individuals to the intentional and even emergent properties of social organization. Each step in this journey also represents an increasingly difficult challenge of measurement. Finally, I will introduce the Douglasian concept of cultural theory, which can be viewed as a specifi c form of social capital theory that casts light on how resources and their flows are viewed by different sorts of decision makers. I will not attempt to present a comprehensive survey article of the literatures on any of these topics. Each of these literatures is voluminous, although their relevance to the issues of measuring and managing resource stocks and flows are often underdeveloped.

Was this article helpful?

0 0

Post a comment