Resources and Products in Industrial Systems

The industrial system and the natural system were long seen as separate although overlapping domains. Economists, for example, used to treat resources as 'free gifts of nature' and therefore exogenous to their concerns, limiting the designation of so-called factor inputs to built capital and labor. (Many still do, contrasting the built environment with the natural environment.) It was a contribution of industrial ecology to treat the industrial system as a subsystem of the natural system (see Figure 2a).

As industrial ecology now broadens its concerns to include consumption as well as production, this simple diagram is being reconsidered because of the importance

(a) Traditional perspective

Industrial ecology perspective

Natural system

Natural (biophysical) Cultural (symbolic)

Natural (biophysical) Cultural (symbolic)

Social-ecological system

Figure 2 (a) Conceptual framework of industrial ecology. (b) Social-ecological systems as overlap of a natural and a cultural sphere of causation. (a) Modified from Chertow M and Portlock M (2002) Developing Industrial Ecosystems: Approaches, Cases, and Tools. New Haven, CT: Yale University. (b) Reproduced from Haberl H, Fischer-Kowalski M, Krausmann F, Weisz H, and Winiwarter V (2004) Progress towards sustainability? What the conceptual framework of material and energy flow accounting (MEFA) can offer. Land Use Policy 21: 199-213, with permission from Elsevier.

Social-ecological system

Figure 2 (a) Conceptual framework of industrial ecology. (b) Social-ecological systems as overlap of a natural and a cultural sphere of causation. (a) Modified from Chertow M and Portlock M (2002) Developing Industrial Ecosystems: Approaches, Cases, and Tools. New Haven, CT: Yale University. (b) Reproduced from Haberl H, Fischer-Kowalski M, Krausmann F, Weisz H, and Winiwarter V (2004) Progress towards sustainability? What the conceptual framework of material and energy flow accounting (MEFA) can offer. Land Use Policy 21: 199-213, with permission from Elsevier.

of human motives and human agency to the decisionmaking process. The built environment is part of the biophysical structure of the social-ecological system and subject to the laws of nature (see Figure 2b), but the cultural sphere is better understood using the concepts and methods of the social sciences.

In the earliest societies, the built environment was insignificant. Humans in hunter-gatherer societies, like all other species, primarily take what nature makes available. They are not likely to severely overexploit a local ecosystem; when resources become scarce, they move on. However, even before the advent of agriculture, humans began to modify their local environments for the purpose of increasing its productivity (for humans) through the use of fire. With the transition from hunter-gatherer to settled agriculture, farming and herding societies greatly extended the modification and control of the natural system to overcome natural supply constraints and produce more ofwhat humans desired. This control allowed for the possibility of individuals or groups producing more of agricultural and other goods than they required and thus making some of their production available for trade. With the development of trade and of markets, agricultural and other types of output were converted into products: goods (or services) exchanged for something else of value.

A second and related historical transition is the explosive growth ofhuman requirements, the average ofwhat is considered standard in a given society and the related changes in human consumption patterns. Early human requirements differed little from those of other social mammals were closely related to physical survival, and were met by the output of nature. In modern times humans are unique among species in the volume, variety, and sources of their material requirements. Consumer demand in affluent societies is met by an extensive array ofproducts - the goods and services output by the industrial system. Humans are not alone in producing products, but no other species even approaches the scale ofhuman production. The modern built environment reflects the prevalence ofthese human products.

While the flow of mass and energy in 'natural' ecosystems is largely dictated by the consumption of resources to supply energy and nutrients to sustain life, many, ifnot most, products of modern industry have little to do with directly providing energy and nutrients, and a substantial number have little to do with that function even indirectly. The extent to which industrial systems are dedicated to producing such products contrasts them to the rest of the natural system. Industrial ecology is concerned with a unique feature of these industrial systems: the unprecedented degree to which the appropriation of resources - materials and energy - for the fabrication ofproducts is not bounded by the metabolic constraints of the biological world, both in the quantity of those flows and in the variety of materials involved.

One could say that humans in a modern consumer society have developed extended metabolic needs, where consumer goods and services play a role similar to the need for proteins and carbohydrates in nature. To have toast in the morning requires not only bread but also a toaster and thus electric power as well. This concept of humans having extended needs is hardly new. Rousseau saw industrialization as creating a set of artificial (as opposed to natural) needs, and Marx made the distinction between human and inhuman needs. The material and energy requirements of the modern industrial system serve the extended needs of human consumers. The concept of distinct industrial metabolisms, reflecting the material realities of specific societies, and attempts to quantify them, is an active research area in industrial ecology.

Since the majority of industrial products do not satisfy biological metabolic requirements, they need not be composed of organic material. The relaxing of this constraint, coupled with the specialized functions ofmany products, leads to the development and use ofa wide range ofnovel, often exotic, materials designed specifically to improve product function. In some cases the development of new products is made possible only by the development of new materials, which in turn often requires the development of new industrial processes. As a result the global ecosystem must cope with stocks and flows of materials that have undesirable properties such as toxicity or nonbiodegradability.

Most of these complex materials cannot be recycled easily, in contrast to the relatively narrow range of naturally occurring materials, which are readily recycled.

Within the realm ofpersonal transportation, for example, the goal of making automobiles lighter in order to reduce fuel consumption has led to the substitution of a variety of high-technology materials in the place of steel, itselfan exotic material when compared to the wood from which earlier forms of personal transportation such as wagons were constructed. Use of these materials impedes the recycling of automobiles due to the increased difficulty of separation and remanufacture. In many cases the performance ofthe product is dependent on its containing materials that are nonbiodegradable. These products are more likely to be toxic, require large quantities of energy for their production, and have long residence times in the environment, problems that are aggravated by the great quantities in which they are produced.

These materials and products are the output ofwhat is often a multistage production process carried out within the industrial system. Just as the diet of a carnivore depends on the consumption of plants by herbivores, the end-product purchased by the consumer requires many indirect as well as direct inputs. Large volumes of consumer products, requiring diverse resources and intermediate inputs as they do, make it necessary to build what are often large-scale production facilities. The material and energy resources required for this part of the built environment, like other private and public buildings and infrastructure, must be counted among the extended metabolic needs of human consumers. Describing and analyzing the total requirements of consumers in a modern industrial economy ultimately rests on accounting for all of the indirect inputs. To do this industrial ecologists often make use of economic models, especially those with a joint focus on material stocks and flows as well as production technologies and consumption patterns.

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