Industrial Ecology · Has it arrived?

By G. Venkatesh
January 2007

The Author is consulting editor for the „Minerals and Metals Review” and a freelance writer/editor for a few other magazines. He works as a Research Fellow at the Norwegian Institute of Science and Technology, in Trondheim, Norway.

It has certainly not been a case of „veni, vidi, vici” for this branch of knowledge. There have been tentative starts, delays, cautious progresses; with hope – that motivator which exists eternally in the human heart – leading the way. It is quite likely that Industrial Ecology as a field of knowledge and research in the academia may not „fire on all cylinders” as software engineering or electronics engineering did in the 1980s and 1990s all around the world.  Researchers may also find it tough to move from the „drawing board to the shop floor” as they patiently withstand scepticism from the industry and society, and attempt to „reform the non-believers” so to say. But the die has been cast and the path is being chalked out – slowly, surely and steadily.  It is not a well-trodden-upon path for sure – and thereby difficult to take - but very soon, there will be many toeing the line.

Yours sincerely was so excited by the multi-disciplinary nature of Industrial Ecology, that a full-time permanent job in the media was abandoned in favour of a mid-career „back-to-university” adventure. Two years down the line, there is tremendous satisfaction about the tough decision made at an age when one would have settled down to a career in a particular outfit, for good. And yes, the foray had all the elements of an adventure, associated with it. What was gained while navigating this supposedly „unknown terrain” – in terms of insights, knowledge, friends, networks, self-confidence and strength of purpose - can just be described as incalculable and invaluable.

Before moving on, it would be apt to provide a comprehensive definition of Industrial Ecology for the benefit of those who may be coming across this term for the first time. Robert White defined it thus - "Industrial ecology is the study of the flows of materials and energy in industrial and consumer activities, of the effect of these flows on the environment, and of the influence of economic, political, regulatory and social factors on the flow, use and transformation of resources. The objective of industrial ecology is to understand better how we can integrate environmental concerns into our economic activities. This integration, an ongoing process, is necessary if we are to address current and future environmental concerns." Readers may come across many other shorter definitions, but this by far is the most lucid and straightforward one.

As this field of study expands to take more and more eager students into its fold, and governments around the world are awakening to the pressing need for sustainable economic growth, one believes that it is just a matter of time, before industrial ecologists will start making huge contributions to the triple bottom line of industries the world over. This article is structured around views and opinions sent to the writer by students, researchers and faculty members associated with industrial ecology. With the help of what the respondents have said, the dual motive would be to introduce IE – to those who have come in late (to use cartoonist Lee Falk’s famous phrase) – and to inspire those who are already in the know but not very sure about the potential it holds.

Whenever one talks about a field of education, the primary concern these days is – Will this fetch me gainful employment? While the potential of the field of education as such may be strong, whether or not employment generation can be guaranteed would depend on the state of the economy in the country / region where one seeks employment. It further depends on the willingness of, and flexibility on the part of the job-seeker to migrate and work in foreign lands where the „pastures would be greener” for his field of specialisation. Even if he/she is willing, the countries where the „pastures are greener” need to be open to absorbing immigrants into their workforce. And, all said and done, these are never constants. The „self” may be willing, but the „State” may not be, or vice versa. But when both fall in place, the jigsaw looks promising for IE graduates. When the issue of uncertainty in the job market was posed before students of the Masters course in Industrial Ecology at the Norwegian Institute of Science and Technology (NTNU) in Trondheim, the responses were philosophical. This writer has been in the same boat and can understand perfectly the concerns of the students. One American student from a geology (and a Yale University) background, who insisted on not being named, responded thus – „I do not wish to counter the fears. I just hope that I find at least one company which would hire an IE graduate.” One believes that she surely would find not just one but many companies and would end up having to make a choice. Ryan Bright, her classmate who is also from the USA, comes from a Natural Resources Management background. He says that his personal ideologies and firm belief in IE as the best available science for promoting sustainable growth will assist him in tiding over any temporary obstacles that may arise en route to a promising career. Another classmate, Michal Gryczon, who comes from a mechanical background, while believing that his intention to pursue the Masters course in Industrial Ecology was not unconventional at all (unlike his afore-quoted American classmate who admitted that the shift from geology at Yale in the USA to industrial ecology in the NTNU in Norway could certainly be dubbed as unconventional), put it very impressively – Den tid, den sorg (Norwegian equivalent of – Will cross the bridge when I reach it).

The fact that there are three students from the USA in the 2006 batch at the NTNU speaks volumes for the magnetic appeal of Industrial Ecology and this writer is certain that it would convince many readers that it is certainly not „just plain green verbiage”.  Talking about IE at the NTNU, readers will be interested in knowing that NTNU was the first university to launch a comprehensive programme in IE. Between 1996 and 2004, NTNU has had about 130 students specializing in IE, at the MSc level. After 2004, this programme was rearranged into the present International MSc in Industrial Ecology programme, with stronger focus on recruitment of foreign students. This is a modern two-year-long programme - without tuition fee – offering two specialisations: Environmental Systems Analysis and Environmental Politics and Management. NTNU also became the first university to offer a PhD programme in IE, and is today, the coordinator of a Postgraduate School of Industrial Ecology, with several European partner universities. An international expert panel in 2004 concluded that NTNU’s is the world’s leading IE academic programme.

While Michal feels that he may even pursue a career in a developing country in the future, the geology graduate from the USA would certainly want to work „with” developing countries, though not „in” them. Well, the end result is the same in any case – contributing to sustainable development where it is needed the most. Ryan tells the writer that he would find it difficult to neglect opportunities to work in regions of the world where IE is needed the most. He speaks of a „moral commitment” and this reflects the tremendous personal motivation that has gone behind his decision to pursue higher education and thereafter a career in industrial ecology. The commitment certainly seems to have always been there, when one considers his Natural Resources Management background.

Students of IE may be taciturn, philosophical and dignified about their concerns, but then, that does not mean that industries – both public and private sector ones – could turn a blind eye / deaf ear to what they can sense but cannot see or hear. This article and this magazine for that matter, hopes to serve as the podium wherefrom concerns could be expressed. Industries know by now that it is they, who will end up benefiting more in the longer run. The Motorola operations in Malaysia [studied by Rock et al in „Impact of firm-based environmental standards on subsidiaries and their suppliers – Evidence from Motorola-Penang” in the Journal of Industrial Ecology] were dismissive of IE methods with a „No time for that” before the Reduction of Hazardous Substances directive and the Waste Electrical and Electronics Equipment directive were passed by the European Union. If choice does not dictate action, compulsion at times makes one toe the line. Whether it is by choice or compulsion, the benefits of IE will eventually grace the world. However, to use an analogy, is not it wiser to wake up before the alarm goes off, rather than be alarmed out of your sleep by it? Besides, there are worthy precedents which could be adduced as proof in support of the efficacy of IE tools in actual practice in industry and society.

Preserve of the western world?

Often, the countries in the developing world suspect the motives of the western nations when the former are coaxed by the latter to strike a balance between economic growth and resource efficiency. This is where IE could be misunderstood as „the brakes” in the vehicle of economic growth. Prof. Dr. Zengwei Yuan from the School of the Environment at the Nanjing University in eastern China counters this misconception when he informs this writer that China will keep growing at the pace at which it has been, as the central and western provinces of the country have to be developed. He adds that more and more universities in China are launching IE education programmes and these make it possible for all students – irrespective of their branch of study - to imbibe knowledge about this inter-disciplinary field. Perhaps, someday, Dr Yuan believes, IE may even become an „official” course in China considering that many academicians and policy-makers are evincing strong interest in it. The Chinese have been able to realise that economic growth is a necessity and IE can help them to make this growth more efficient. When one considers that the Chinese lead-acid battery sector for instance is 120 times less eco-efficient (both with respect to resource consumption and emissions) than its Swedish counterpart (observed by Mao et al, in „The eco-efficiency of lead in China’s lead-acid battery system” in the Journal of Industrial Ecology), the urgency of the need to incorporate IE into decision-making when it comes to economic growth and industrial development is at once comprehended. Talking of employment generation for that matter, the Chinese academician is confident that the circular economy in China will provide jobs and career opportunities for more and more people in the years to come. However, one would gather from the sidebar item which features an interview with Ms. Ulrika Lundqvist, the coordinator of the Masters IE programme at the Chalmers University of Technology (CUT) in Sweden that there may be some anxiety. But this is quite natural when one embarks on something which is novel, and is certain to get dissipated with the passage of time.

Hávard Bergsdal, an IE PhD researcher at NTNU, says, „I would prefer to think of an IE for the world, meaning that the concept and its methods and tools are universal. I think this would benefit the discussion and interaction between people interested in and working with IE all over the world. However, the implication of IE would have to take different approaches for the developed world, the developing world and those in-between.” Johan Pettersen, another PhD researcher at the NTNU, who is applying IE tools to study sustainability in the oil and gas sector, seconds Hávard with, „I think that IE as a way of thinking is a way forward for the whole world, but that the remedies that IE thinking will propose may differ depending on local premises.” That is also exactly what Dr Yuan would agree with, as he is of the opinion that Asia will certainly need to „take leaves out of the books of the West”, so to say, but the decisions will have to be tailor-made to suit the economic and societal conditions prevailing in the Orient. As Sir Martin Holdgate, the former Director-General of the Switzerland-based World Conservation Union (IUCN) puts it in an article featured elsewhere in this issue, „Any global strategy is inevitably generalized. It has to be adapted to the needs and cultures of particular communities and the capacities of the environment in specific localities a variant of the familiar statement, Think globally, act locally. Thus while a development plan demands sound technical survey and analysis, in which modern scientific methods can contribute much, the subsequent development of an action plan demands great cultural sensitivity and understanding. This in turn demands a listening ear and the development of solutions through the participation, indeed the leadership, of the people who live on the land.”

While Dr Evans Kituyi of the University of Nairobi believes that the idea of collaborations between African and EU universities for IE education would be excellent, Ramesh Ramaswamy, Director of Resource Optimisation Initiative (ROI) in Bangalore (India), thinks that the time is ripe for a Masters Programme in Industrial Ecology to be started in India. Not just that, ROI is also offering short-term project-work opportunities to students from the west desirous of learning to apply IE concepts in a developing world context. Students from Spain, France and Switzerland have benefited from this experience thus far. Suren Erkman, the co-founder of ROI however is of the view that the first step would be to integrate the IE module in the already-existing post graduate degree programmes in Environment, Business and Planning et al in India, before conceiving a Masters Programme in Industrial Ecology in collaboration with a European University.

Is the industry ready?

It is the duty of media-persons (environment journalists for instance) the world over to work closely with academicians and IE students to spread the message and convince the industry of the benedictions of IE and the value that IE graduates and researchers can add to their „triple bottomlines”. Hávard admits that there is a huge barrier in communicating what IE is, and what someone with this background can do to add value to the industry in particular and the economy in general. He sums up the prevalent outlook when he says that IE is often perceived by the industry (read bean counters) as something conceptual with few practical applications. He feels that the nomenclature itself could sometimes be confusing to someone in industry reading an applicant’s CV (this writer was once asked the reason for the „shift from engineering to biology”, when the word industrial ecology was uttered!)  Johan puts the same truth in a different way – „IE students show strengths beyond their scholarly knowledge and this is related to the cross-disciplinary nature of their studies. IE students are solution-finders, and this needs to be stressed upon and communicated to the industry in an emphatic manner. It is a well-known fact that the industry wants students who are able to see "the big picture", but then who will tell them that this is what IE really means?” Both the PhD researchers feel that there is something wrong with the name – Industrial Ecology. Perhaps, the Bard of Stafford-upon-Avon was wrong when he wrote, „A rose by any other name, smells as sweet.” Well, IE will be IE by any other name, but perhaps, another name will sound „sweeter to the industry”? Talking of names, Dr Evans Kituyi from the University of Nairobi has this to say, „I am already teaching a course at the MSc level on industrial ecology at the University of Nairobi - this is in its third year now. The course is called Advanced Industrial Chemistry owing to some problems with rechristening it as Industrial Ecology, but the content is purely IE! Under supervision presently are projects in eco-design and applications of LCM/LCA.” Sunand Sreeramachandran, an IE graduate employed at the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore however, feels that „Industrial Ecology” may be a new term, but most people in the industry are actually aware of what IE tries to say. Well, then, is it old wine in a new bottle? Old wine for sure, quite like old wisdom, as it carries a lot of value and is indispensable, but the new bottle sadly does not seem to be finding favour with the industry!

Johan refuses to generalise that the industry is not ready to hire graduates. The present scenario may be a bit abstruse, but things are certainly improving. Erkman is of the view that the industry is certainly keen on hiring individuals who are graduates in engineering, natural sciences or social sciences and are conversant with IE-related methodologies like Life Cycle Analysis, Material Flow Analysis etc – in other words, all the students pursuing or holding a Masters Degree in Industrial Ecology, irrespective of which background they are from, are potential employees! As Dr Helge Brattebo, the Head of the Department of Hydraulic and Environmental Engineering and the Industrial Ecology Programme at NTNU points out that all the 130 students who opted for the Industrial Ecology Programme are gainfully employed at the present moment. This certainly should infuse hope and good cheer into the hearts and minds of those students who may be feeling anxious or sceptical for the wrong reasons.

But, one should not take the growing popularity of IE for granted and let things happen by themselves. If one could take a cue from Adolf Hitler (may obviously not be the right person to talk about here), propaganda is definitely a must, whether it is in the initial stages of growth, or after maturity.

Wherefrom does not matter; whereto does

 There is often a misconception that industrial ecology is redundant, in the presence of environmental engineering. Suffice to say that the former is more holistic than the latter which is its subset – the largest subset if one may say so. IE integrates different specialisations together and as Johan says in the previous paragraph, helps one look at the bigger picture. Something like the captain of a cricket team harnessing the batting, bowling and fielding talents of his team-men to lead the team to victory. It thus goes without saying that there are no restrictions on the backgrounds from which aspirants of a post graduate degree in industrial ecology could come. In NTNU for one, there have been students from very diverse backgrounds – geology, aeronautical engineering, chemistry, natural resources management, business administration, economics, biology, social anthropology et al. In fact, PhD projects in the IE programme are very diverse and focus on issues ranging from sociology to political science to technology to management. But yes, some would certainly feel it is unconventional, but ultimately, is not it true that one deals with resources and energy any way, whether one is a biologist or a chemist or even an economist? IE, simply put to avoid convoluted definitions and jargon, tells one, how to improve the efficiency of utilisation of these two agents of production. Industries, no doubt, seek to do this to bring down their costs of production, do not they?

So, is there anything stopping industries from looking favourably towards IE graduates and assigning them tasks within their outfits, which would eventually improve their „triple bottomline”? If one goes by what Erkman has said, any such assumptions are illusory. There may be a seeming inertia, and that is part and parcel of human nature and thereby businesses as well. But all inertia is temporary, and at times, something which is apparent when one examines from behind a veil of anxiety. The ball has been set rolling. There may have been some tentative starts in the past, but the difficult times are bygones now. The ascent up the hill has begun, with the winds propelling IE forward, so to say. Going by what the UK’s Chancellor of the Exchequer has said in the special edition of Newsweek (December 2006 – February 2007), “Global environmental market (one could read this as IE) – clean energy, waste and water – could be worth almost US$ 700 billion by 2010; as big as the successful aerospace and pharmaceutical sectors of today.” Chins up, folks, happy days are approaching!


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