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  Ecology
 
The Prickly Underbelly of Industrial Ecology

The term "industrial ecology" has long been recognized as an evocative analogy, suggesting the benefits of designing industrial systems to more closely resemble "natural" biological systems in their cycling of materials, energy, and waste. In some cases, there has been a failure to appreciate that the relationship between human and natural systems is one of analogy, not exact correspondence. This has led to proposals to treat industrial structures and institutions as if they were gardens or forests. Thus, while industrial ecology is a powerful way to suggest new patterns of operations, it can be counterproductive when it leads to superficial...

The Urban Game

Viewing the World Summit in Johannesburg from a safe distance, I could not help but think of Shakespeare: "full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." This is too cynical, of course, for the mere fact the summit was held is important, and that it generated so much sound and fury an indication that these issues are firmly on the global agenda, and will remain so. Any multinational firm not attempting to understand and address corporate social responsibility is indeed obsolete, and it is obvious that all governments, however unwilling, are faced with responding to the issues raised in Johannesburg. But...

Climate Change and Technological Evolution

As noted last month, communication between the technological and environmental discourses is still fairly minimal. This is unfortunate for a number of reasons, a point made yet again by a recent National Academy of Engineering workshop on technology and climate change. And opportunities for technological initiatives are being missed as parties fixate on increasingly anachronistic policy initiatives. Thus, for example, it is increasingly clear that carbon sequestration - capturing CO2 from fossil fuel power plants, liquefying it, and injecting it into deep geologic formations - is a relatively proven technology. Moreover, it can be done at acceptable economic and energetic...

Green Technology: From Oxymoron to Null Set

Last month's column raised the question of how the Internet and its postmodernist pastiche of time and place is liable to change social perceptions and mental models of environmental issues, firmly rooted in times and places. It hinted at another insight complicating environmental analysis and policy: technologies complex enough to have real environmental benefits are far too complicated to be understood - or even perceived - as a "green technology." This realization is yet another illustration of the poorly understood evolution of environmental concerns from "overhead" to "strategic." Environmental issues have gone from being treated only after the fact as...

Global Climate Change Adaptation

The political state of global climate change is tumultuous and highly polarized, and lends itself to polemic, rather than dialog, on all sides. But there is one aspect of the commentary, regardless of where it comes, that is interesting for what it reveals about our lack of understanding of the systems with which we are involved. That is the assumption that the climate-change negotiations represent the major initiative by humanity to respond to global climate change issues. This implicit assumption reflects an important truth about the way humans and their institutions - whether firms, NGOs, governments, or academia - approach...

Complex Systems and Human Freedom

Perhaps the last great project of the traditional Enlightenment was the 20th century effort by philosophers and logicians such as Russell, Whitehead, and Wittgenstein (especially in the Tractatus) to demonstrate that mathematics and language - and by extension, reality itself - could be founded with absolute certainty on explicit logical structures. As is well known, this attempt failed. The mathematician Kurt Godel demonstrated in the 1930's that arithmetic was "incomplete" - that is, it will always contain more truths than can be derived from its axioms - and Alan Turing showed that even fairly simple computer programs could be...

Environmentalism: Private or Public Morality?

Democratic systems of governance, especially those that guarantee true freedom of speech and religion, impose a substantial responsibility on citizens. As individuals, virtually all of us have our own belief systems, reflecting our heritage, our social and cultural environment, our religious traditions, and, hopefully, our reflection on what is good and true. But a democratic system requires that we limit our efforts to impose those beliefs on others. Thus, for example, in those societies where freedom of religion is a fundamental principle, such as France or the United States, believers in any particular faith are limited by the legal structure...

The Commoditization of Nature

One of the most famous lines of The Communist Manifesto is Marx and Engle's reflection on the pace of change and secularization generated by bourgeoisie capitalism: "All that is solid melts into air, and all that is holy is profaned." This is a prescient observation, especially as regards modern environmentalism, for it targets an important dynamic, the importance of which is frequently unappreciated: the commoditization of nature. "Commoditization" is a strange word. Frequently found in Marxist discourse, it means the process by which market capitalism changes things that were previously not regarded as economic goods into something with a price,...

Earth Systems Engineering

To start with the big picture, it is important to recognize the systemic meaning of the Industrial Revolution and its concomitant changes in our population levels, industrial and agricultural activities, technology systems, and culture. The result is a world in which the dynamics of major natural systems - carbon, nitrogen, hydrologic, sulfur, and heavy metal cycles; ocean and atmospheric patterns; the biosphere at every level from genetic to ecosystem - are dominated by human activity. Frequently, as in the case of invasive species, the impacts may be unintended and a result of cumulative individual decisions rather than direct engineering -...

Marx, Environment and Complexity

Some people may wonder why this column, written by an industry person, refers so often to the thoughts of Marx, which at least in recent history have formed the basis for the most profound challenge to market capitalism. The answer is easy, and explains this month's column: Marx was a brilliant thinker, and saw clearly the human costs - as well as the benefits - of the capitalist system evolving around him. We can learn a lot from where he was right or, as in this case, wrong. It is often said that every philosophic system has a nightmare potential...

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