Transformative and Incremental Change

Once some degree of normative content in the field is acknowledged, it is easy to entertain a related question of goals: is the environmental improvement that is sought large, transformative and discontinuous or is it incremental and continuous with current practice and infrastructure? Much of the conceptual discussion in industrial ecology looks to transformative change through the development and/or implementation of radically innovative technology, changes in consumption patterns, or new organizational arrangements. This type of transformative change can range from shifts to a hydrogen (Marchetti 1989) or carbohydrate economy (Morris and Ahmed 1992), factor 4 or factor 10 reductions in materials throughput (Weizs├Ącker et al. 1997), a shift to the use of services in lieu of products (Stahel 1994; Mont 2000) or new political-economic structures. At the same time, much of the practical work in ecodesign and life cycle management aims at more modest changes in product design protocols, materials choice, inter-firm relationships or environmental policy. Still other analyses assert that current arrangements meet the test of industrial ecology, employing the practices characteristic of the field, and need no significant improvement (Linden 1994). Yet the tension between transformative and incremental change may be overdrawn to the extent that, in many circumstances, the two paths are not mutually exclusive: the more modest changes can be pursued while the more ambitious ones are debated, refined and implemented. To the extent that such tensions do exist, they frequently reflect differing assessments of the severity of the current environmental situation as well as ideological differences about the degree to which market economies and current political institutions can and do achieve environmental goals.

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