The Industrial Ecology of Emerging Technologies


  • Despite early calls for a life-cycle approach to nanotechnology development, proactive management of emerging risks, and the greening of the production infrastructure, little has happened as the normal wheels of technological progress grind forward, propelled by the promise of the next nano initial public offering (IPO).

Address correspondence to:
Prof. Brad Allenby
Ira A. Fulton School of Engineering
Arizona State University
P.O. Box 9309
Tempe, AZ 85287-9309

On July 16, 1945, in an obscure section of New Mexico desert, the White Sands Trinity test site, the first nuclear weapon was tested, and the physicist Robert Oppenheimer famously recalled the words of Vishnu, in the Bhagavad-Gita: “Now I am become Death, destroyer of worlds.” Originally spoken by a God in the Gita, the words now were spoken by a human being, in recognition of the fact that the ability to destroy worlds was no longer the province of the divine. Rather, as nuclear weapons proliferated and the Cold War intensified, it became the province of the RAND Corporation and the American and Soviet defense establishments; divine reason was replaced by policies such as mutually assured destruction. As Stewart Brand put it in his first Whole Earth Catalog in 1968, “We are as gods and might as well get good at it” (p. 1).

Most of us have forgotten, but each Whole Earth Catalog began with a section aimed at the would-be gods, titled Understanding Whole Systems, highlighting the work of people such as Buckminster Fuller, Christopher Alexander, Peter Drucker, and Howard Odum—and the back cover carried the reminder “We can't put it together. It is together.”

Forty years have passed, and we are no better at understanding whole systems. And even while we flailed around, entangled in our own ideologies and wistful fantasies, accelerating technology systems continue to decouple from social and institutional regulation (Allenby 2007). There is not just a role here for industrial ecology but an ethical mandate to contribute to the development of rational and responsible responses to these challenges; the question is whether we can accept it.

To begin with, it is important to understand that technology is not a matter of widgets or even their software; rather, technology is a profoundly cultural phenomenon (Bijker et al. 1997). This is something that Brand and his cronies understood and that we have since forgotten, as American environmentalism increasingly fought technology rather than developing the ability to shape it for its purpose (Kirk 2007).

Moreover, there are certain foundational technologies that support waves of economic, cultural, and associated technological change—such examples include textiles in the early Industrial Revolution, steam engine and rail technologies, heavy engineering and electricity, automobiles and the petroleum age, and information and communications technologies (Freeman and Louca 2001). The railroad, for example, did not just radically restructure economic activity from the purely local to the national scale, thus enabling trusts and leaps in economic growth. As many historians of technological change have pointed out, it also created modern rationalized time from the fragmented local times that previously existed. And it called forth the need for national communication networks to match the scale of the railroad systems that needed coordination, and thus coevolved the telegraph. Railroad firms, with their unprecedented requirements for capital, created modern financial instruments and markets, and the complexity of their operations gave birth to division of labor at the managerial level and the growth of corporate specialties: financial, legal, and human resources departments.

To some extent, the complexity of such foundational technology systems plays to the strengths of industrial ecology, in that the systems-based and transdisciplinary premises of the field provide a more comprehensive framework within which they can be understood. But, at the same time, the weaknesses of industrial ecology in the face of such complexity are also apparent. To the extent that industrial ecology is understood as a set of core methodologies, such as material flow analysis, energy analysis, and life cycle assessment, it is correspondingly decoupled from the larger cultural context and inadequate in contemplating the integrated complexity of technology systems (Boons and Roome 2000; Ehrenfeld 2007). To the extent that industrial ecology continues to implicitly reflect and be limited by its emergence from environmental science and policy, it will be unduly limited and partial in its ability to address questions of technological evolution. To the extent that the value of industrial ecology is understood as arising from its role in supporting environmental and sustainability agendas, it will tend to oversimplify the implications of technological change.

The difficulty industrial ecology faces in grappling with foundational technology systems is particularly problematic in light of several major observations regarding modern technology generally (Allenby 2007). Perhaps most important, it is always necessary to remember that technological change is not an isolated event but represents movements toward new, locally stable, earth systems states that integrate natural, environmental, cultural, theological, institutional, financial, managerial, technological, built, and human dimensions and even construct our sense of time. In doing so, technological change also necessarily plays an opposite and substantial role in destabilizing existing patterns and creating conditions leading to the evolution of new ones.

These concerns are magnified because current patterns and rates of technological evolution are unprecedented. Previous technology clusters revolved around one or perhaps two evolving technologies—say, rails and steam, or automobiles and petroleum. The NBRIC constellation of nanotechnology, biotechnology, robotics, information and communication technology (ICT), and cognitive science, however, combines evolution within specific foundational technology systems with accelerating and integrated evolution across the technology frontier as a whole. In fact, NBRIC marks a culmination of sorts of traditional technological evolution, for it lays the groundwork for the complete integration of the human and the technological. The earth, biology, and, indeed, even the human itself become design spaces and, in doing so, render contingent virtually all of what we have taken to be fixed. This is not the traditional stuff of industrial ecology, but then, it is not the traditional stuff of any other field, either, and ignoring it for that reason may be unwise.

It is likely that technological evolution in an age of globalization will be difficult, if not impossible, to stop; whether and how it might be moderated or steered in more environmentally benign directions becomes an important research question (perhaps for industrial ecologists). In this regard, nanotechnology represents an interesting test case. Despite early calls for a life-cycle approach to nanotechnology development, proactive management of emerging risks, and the greening of the production infrastructure, little has happened as the normal wheels of technological progress grind forward, propelled by the promise of the next nano initial public offering (IPO).

Part of the problem is what Princeton historian Ed Tenner once called the “tendency of advanced technologies to promote self-deception (Tenner 2001).” The chance of such self-deception increases exponentially in the case of so-called “national prestige technologies,” such as nanotech, that are turned into surrogate indicators of national technological leadership in the global economy. When we wrap the national flag around any technology in a global race to the top, we can quickly kill the kind of analysis that is critical to the early warning and avoidance of future social and environmental problems and systems failures. This increases the possibility that the nano future may be a “brown” one rather than a “green” one. As the industrial ecology community was waiting for data on nanotechnology to analyze, key decisions about research and development priorities were already being made, priorities that started the political gyroscope and set the course of technological development for the next 20 years. In our view, it is all too likely that industrial ecology may have missed the off-ramp to a green nanotech future about 5 years ago, and it would take some hard maneuvering to get back on course (maneuvering largely avoided by the United States and other governments eager to cash in on the nanotech promise). In the end, it may be the U.S. Congress that provides some course correction and support for the type of research that the industrial ecology community can deliver on. As legislators in both the House and Senate prepare to reauthorize the 21st Century Nanotechnology R&D Act, they are considering measures to support green nanotech, ranging from an X-prize to funding for dedicated research centers. But it will take millions of dollars to effectively mobilize the industrial ecology community and create the next generation of researchers and practitioners. What this experience with nanotechnology says about how industrial ecology, and society, will manage the next big technological revolution—perhaps synthetic biology—is not promising.

In sum, the challenges posed by today's emerging technologies are unique, destabilizing, and far more profound than usually recognized. Industrial ecology, with its emphasis on systems-based approaches and on considering social and environmental dimensions of technology, as well as the industrial and economic, is in a position to contribute substantially to our understanding of these phenomenon. But it must become more sophisticated, especially in regard to social sciences and institutional behavior and constraints; more culturally embedded; more politically savvy; and more forwardlooking.

About the Authors

Braden R. Allenby is Lincoln Professor of Engineering and Ethics, Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and Professor of Law at Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona. David Rejeski is the director of the Foresight and Governance Project and of the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC.