Industrial Ecology, Paradigm Shift or Normal Science?

John R. Ehrenfeld

Ehrenfeld discusses the idea of industrial ecology and breaks down what he sees as two fundamentally different approaches to the science:

Normal Science– This is focused on using industrial ecology to more effectively do what our economy does already- drive growth and profits through eco-efficiency. It is based on metrics and highly focused, concrete studies and principles.

Paradigm Shift– This takes broad principles from industrial ecology, such as the idea that all waste with energy content must be scavenged and used, and fundamentally restructures the economy around them. This is less concrete, and it more about finding and alleviating fundamental frustrations around which the current economic system is based.

Ehrenfeld argues that we need to focus on a paradigm shift before we can get to the normative science. He considers the current goals of industry to be fundamentally unsustainable, and thinks that we need to focus on changing those goals before we can set about the task of accomplishing them effectively.

To do this he uses a metaphor of scientific revolutions, taken from Thomas Khun. Khun proposed that scientific revolutions happen when scientific problems become fundamentally unsolvable within the current broad scientific framework. Scientists have to work fruitlessly on these problems and become frustrated and that frustration has to percolate up to the most established minds in the field in order to create a ripe environment to adopt a new paradigm. Eventually a radically new framework will be proposed which answer the original problem, and will become broadly accepted as a new paradigm.

 Ehrenfeld argues that our economy needs to go through a similar shift, and I am inclined to agree. Our economy need to become more focused on building economically powerful relationships and less focused on building economically powerful entities (be they products, people or corporations.)

Unfortunately, I don’t think that a scientific revolution is a good metaphor to describe this process. Academic politics aside, science is an institution built to pursue understanding. People become frustrated when understanding is not reached, and the culture celebrates accepting good ideas because they are good ideas.

Economies are much hairier. In economies it is much more likely that a bad idea will line up with an individual’s self interest. A paradigm shift in science may disrupt a few professorships, and that relatively small disruption can cause tremendous friction and infighting. A paradigm shift in an economy disrupts large corporations, the livelihoods of millions, and national governments with large armies. Governments are explicitly dedicated to protecting public stability, its complicated system of checks and balances is explicitly designed to make it difficult to enact disruptive changes to the status quo.

If a paradigm shift is a disruption of old ideas, how many of these old ideas are we’re talking about doing away with? If major corporations and governments are built on those ideas, do they have to go too? If so then the “resistance” that the new paradigm faces could take the form of widespread geopolitical instability, even large-scale armed conflict. Such resistance is more than we can simply squint and barrel through, as Ehrenfeld seems to suggest. We must find a happy medium which aggressively shifts to a new paradigm while keeping strategically managing the instability caused by that transition.

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