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Can modern technology resolve our ecological concerns?


A recent paper by Crelis Rammelt and Phillip Crisp entitled A systems and thermodynamics perspective on technology in the circular economy [1] has debunked the ideas of ecomodernism and related ideas such as industrial ecology and the circular economy, which aim to allow economies to keep growing indefinitely. These attempts to address environmental sustainability rely on the potential of technology to fully solve the ecological impacts resulting from expanding economic production and consumption. The authors think that environmental engineering has something very useful to offer, but will fail in the long run if the social and economic forces that increase production and consumption are not also adequately addressed.

According to the authors:

“ Environmental engineering has so far failed to bring about the level of absolute decoupling that is required to sustain the current economic system. The present expectations of dematerialisation, recycling and loop-closing should be tempered by the fact that these engineering principles have been around for a very long time and that their environmental gains have been overwhelmed by economic growth.

“Several practices and concepts with strong engineering content nevertheless promise an absolute reduction in the environmental impacts of production and consumption systems in growth-based economies. For several reasons, this is a false promise.”

It is also pointed out by the authors that advocates of environmental engineering often ignore or underestimate the reality that energy cannot be cycled, with con- sequences for energy inflows and heat waste outflows. They also emphasise that thermodynamic considerations are not generally receiving sufficient attention in the cradle-to-cradle and industrial ecology literature:

“Within a growth economy, the adoption of these engineering practices and concepts might slow down the growth of throughput. At best, this merely delays the time it takes to reach the boundaries of the biophysical envelope. At the worst, the resource and energy savings generate profits that are reinvested in growth, which doesn’t delay, but speeds up depletion and pollution. The field of system dynamics may help to mentally reconcile these seemingly conflicting dynamics. Different feedback loops might dominate and drive (parts of) the system in different directions at different times.

“An appreciation of biophysical limits and thermodynamics should be much more prominent in the fields of economics and engineering. Their insights tell us that there are limits imposed on the quantity of non-renewable resources, the pace of regeneration of renewables, how much emissions nature can neutralise, how quickly wastes can be absorbed, how often materials can be recycled, and so on.

“…. this brings up important questions about social and economic equity. As we cannot increase the size of the pie indefinitely, there are ethical and political concerns about its persistent and worsening lopsided distribution. “

The authors conclude by emphasising that global economies must be greatly remodelled, notwithstanding a common belief that engineering progress can allow business as usual. An obvious example being “clean coal”. But even genuine technological progress cannot close material cycles or energy cycles. Within bounds, technological progress might be able to maximise the durability of stocks by minimising throughput, however they will be merely kicking the can down the road unless the social and economic forces driving up production and consumption are addressed.

1. real-world economics review, issue no. 68; A systems and thermodynamics perspective on technology in the circular economy by Crelis Rammelt & Phillip Crisp

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