History's Lessons:

A Critical Assessment of the Desrochers Papers


Address correspondence to:
Prof. Frank Boons
Erasmus University Rotterdam
Public Administration
Room: M8-28
P.O. Box 1738
3000 DR Rotterdam, The Netherlands


A major claim of the work of Desrochers is that students of industrial ecology can learn a great deal from historical evidence on industrial practices regarding waste recovery. In this article, I argue that this requires that such evidence should be put into its institutional context, to prevent overly simple conclusions and naive policy prescriptions. In the first part of the article, I argue that the work of Desrochers suffers from a narrowly economic focus on interfirm recovery as well as a selective use of sources. The modern definition of industrial ecology requires that such recycling contributes to the reduction of ecological impact. Additional material from Desrochers's sources, as well as recent historical research on the meatpacking industry, shows that industrial practice in the 19th century does not support the claim that the market mechanism by itself is sufficient to promote such practices.

In the second part of the article, I offer a perspective in which structural, cultural, and political factors are used to assess historical evidence of industrial ecology. This allows a more nuanced understanding of the development of industry's dealing with waste in the 19th century and helps to understand the complexity of promoting interfirm recycling in the present.