The Belgium Ecosystem

In 1983, a collective work called 'L'Ecosysteme Belgique. Essai d'├ęcologie industrielle' was published in Brussels by the Centre de recherche et d'information socio-politiques (CRISP), an independent research center associated with progressive circles in Belgium (Billen et al. 1983). The book summarizes the thinking of half-a-dozen intellectuals linked to the left-wing socialist movement. Inspired by The Limits to Growth (Meadows et al. 1972), and especially by the 'Letter' of Sicco Mansholt (Common Market Commissioner), this small group sought to fill a gap that persisted in standard, including left-wing, economic thinking. The small group comprised six people from different fields (biologists, chemists, economists and so on), who accomplished this work outside of their everyday occupations. Their idea was to produce an overview of the Belgian economy on the basis of industrial production statistics, but to express these in terms of materials and energy flows rather than the traditional, abstract monetary units. The basic principles of industrial ecology are clearly expressed in this work as follows:

To include industrial activity in the field of an ecological analysis, you have to consider the relations of a factory with the factories producing the raw materials that it consumes, with the distribution channels it depends on to sell its products, with the consumers who use them ... In sum, you have to define industrial society as an ecosystem made up of the whole of its means of production, and distribution and consumption networks, as well as the reserves of raw material and energy that it uses and the waste it produces ... A description in terms of circulation of materials or energy produces a view of economic activity in its physical reality and shows how society manages its natural resources. (Billen et al., 1983, pp. 19, 21)

The group studied six main streams from this angle: iron, glass, plastic, lead, wood and paper, and food produce. One of the main findings was the so-called 'disconnection' between two stages of a stream. This means that 'two sectors in the same stream, which could be complementary and develop in close interaction with each other, are oriented in quantitatively/qualitatively divergent directions' (ibid., p. 31). For instance, 80 per cent of the net output of steel in Belgium is intended for export owing to the opening of European borders. Under the authority of the European Community of Coal and Steel (ECCS), the Belgian steel industry thus developed rapidly, without any relationship with the development of the metal-production sector. The opening of outside markets encouraged an excessive growth of a heavy steel industry aimed mainly at the export market, to the detriment of its specializing in more elaborate technological products. As a result, the steel industry was completely disconnected from the metal-construction sector, an unlinking that has made the Belgian steel industry very dependent on exports for selling a rather commonplace product, as a consequence of which it is vulnerable to competition on the world market while providing an inadequate response to domestic needs.

Another very significant example is that of the unlinking of farming and breeding (ibid., p.67). In the traditional pattern, there was a certain balance between farming and breeding in a mixed farming concern: the by-products and waste of mixed farming were used to feed the livestock. The animal density remained low, and animal excrements (liquid and solid manure) constituted the basis for soil amendments, sometimes supplemented with mineral fertilizer. The 'modernization' of agribusiness has destroyed this pattern. Livestock, which has become much more important, is fattened with industrial feed made out of imported raw materials.

Breeding has thus progressively cut itself off from farming activities as far as food resources are concerned. The same is true of animal excrement: the considerable mass of excrement can no longer be completely used up because it far surpasses the manuring capacity of the farmland. In both cases (breeding and farming), the by-products have outstripped their natural outlets, and have become waste, with disposal problems. The authors reached the conclusion that the general features of the way the Belgian industrial system works (that is, opening, specialization and sectoral unlinking), attest to the internationalization of the Belgian economy, and result in three main forms of dysfunction (ibid., p.89):

1. The economic opening of the Belgian system leads to the ecological opening of the materials cycles. Consumption residues, which could constitute a resource, are increasingly considered as waste, the disposal of which is a problem.

2. Operation of this economic system requires large energy expenditure. On this point, the analysis of the Brussels group particularly highlights the fact that the increase in primary energy comes less from the increase in end consumption than from a certain type of organization of the energy chain itself, as well as of the industrial system as a whole.

3. The structure of the circulation of materials in the industrial system generates pollution. For example, the present organization of the food chain causes the degradation of surface water.

The Belgian group also developed some interesting ideas on the subject of waste, by underscoring the fact that the notions of 'raw materials' and 'waste' only mean something from the point of view of a system where the circulation of materials is open. Contrary to the current assumption, in which the waste problem is seen as being due to an increase in production and consumption, 'our consumption of raw materials and our production of waste constitute a consequence of the structure of the circulation of raw materials in our industrial system'. As for the recycling of waste, we have to realize that 'the main difficulties are found not at the collection, or even at the sorting stage, but upstream of collection, that is, in the real possibilities of waste disposal in the current structure of our production system' (ibid., p.91).

According to Francine Toussaint, main instigator of the project and a trade engineer currently working for the Brussels administration, the expression 'industrial ecology' seems to have come up on its own, spontaneously, without having been read or heard elsewhere.

Even though the work summarized the basic ideas of industrial ecology with remarkable clarity, its reception was extremely reserved. 'We really had the feeling that we were a voice preaching in the desert,' Toussaint recalls. Eventually, the group of friends branched off in different directions, each pursuing their career, and despite its interest and originality, the 'Belgium Ecosystem' was soon forgotten. However, the book had not gone totally unnoticed. For example, in Sweden at Lund University, Stefan Anderberg, one of the pioneers of regional material flow studies, refers to it in a 1989 publication (Anderberg et al. 1989). Ultimately, the interest in the work of the Belgian team was revived at the end of the 1990s, when one member of the group, Gilles Billen, a microbiologist, introduced the industrial ecology approach in a major environmental research program on the River Seine Basin (Billen 2000).

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