Industrial Ecology as a Cultural Phenomenon: On Objectivity as a Normative Position


Centre for Studies in Sustainable Development and Management (ESM) Erasmus University Rotterdam Postbus 1738, 3000 DR Rotterdam.


Taking a recent column by Braden Allenby in this journal as a starting point, we argue the need for researchers in the field of industrial ecology to reflect upon its normative aspects. We argue that the field will advance through an explicit discourse on such issues as epistemological positions, the inherent normative nature of using metaphors, and the way in which the field of study relates to the field of practice.

In “Culture and Industrial Ecology,” Allenby raises, and begins to address, some critical questions that define the field of industrial ecology. We suggest that his arguments dismiss too lightly issues that are central to this developing field. The purpose of this reply is to open up for further discussion what industrial ecology is, and what it is not.

We begin by summarizing Allenby's line of reasoning. We explore his arguments around the notion of objectivity and the questions he raises about the relationship among objective science, normative positions, opinions, and fads. While Allenby makes a strong plea for industrial ecology to maintain objectivity and avoid normative positions, we contend that any positions on what should or should not be included in a field of study carry normative intent. Although science might seek to be objective in its method, scientists are rarely free of such normative positions. These positions need to be explicit and open to debate. Also, Allenby's position implies that industrial ecology as a field of study should be separated from industrial ecology as a field of practice. We argue that the interrelation of these fields provides important advantages.

Our main concern is that Allenby's position forestalls discussion on important issues at the heart of the field of study. We examine some key issues around the concept of objectivity and propose an agenda for research on the cultural and ideological aspects of industrial ecology.