Would Industrial Ecology Exist without Sustainability in the Background?


  • John R. Ehrenfeld

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    1. Executive director of the International Society for Industrial Ecology and co-editor of the Journal of Industrial Ecology
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International Society for Industrial Ecology, 24 Percy Road, Lexington, MA 02421 USA john.Ehrenfeld@alum.mit.edu


Industrial ecology rests historically—even in a short lifetime of 15 years or so—on the metaphorical power of natural ecosystems. Its evolution parallels the rise of concerns over unsustainability, that is, the threats to our world's ability to support human life the emergence of sustainability as a normative goal on a global scale. This article examines the relationships between industrial ecology and sustainability and argues that, in its historical relationship to classical ecology models, the field lacks power to address the full range of goals of sustainability, however defined. The classical ecosystem analogy omits aspects of human social and cultural life central to sustainability. But by moving beyond this model to more recent ecosystem models based on complexity theory, the field can expand its purview to address sustainability more broadly and powerfully. Complexity models of living systems can also ground alternative normative models for sustainability as an emergent property rather than the output of a mechanistic economic model for society's workings.