Dialogue: Ernie Lowe

Dear David,

John Steiner sent me your Living Economy article and then encouraged me to send you my critique of it. Your analysis of the suicide economy is quite compelling. You describe bluntly and directly what the old model is about (and I know that this comes from your earlier experience of working in it.) I have felt that your books and articles building the case against the present rapacious model are excellent resources. The first part of the Living Economy piece is one of the best brief summaries of the critique I've seen.

But then I was quite disappointed by your attempt to use the ecological metaphor to chart a transition to a living economy. I initially become an industrial ecologist because of the attractiveness of the metaphor. But I soon found that too many people were using it in a shallow way, little informed by current ecological understanding.

I'm afraid I see your paper in that class. Many ecologists that I know tell industrial ecologists to just draw on their work to understand the issues of carrying capacity and the limits on human systems. (John Harte at UCB is one good example.) They say, we still understand relatively little about the dynamics of ecosystems. Trying to use that understanding as a basis for modeling complex human systems is an error. The three stages of ecosystem succession model was developed in research on temperate forests and ecologists now see that in actuality succession in all ecosystems is a far more complex and less linear process.

The metaphor seems to have led you to a logical error in this article. At one point you describe the pioneer species as being a response to some level of disaster. Doesn't that suggest that the present rolling disaster we're experiencing on Earth is setting the stage for a new wave of pioneer "species" rather than favoring the species of a mature living economy?

Human systems are natural systems with the emergent quality of self-conciousness and, hopefully, another level of capacity for adaptation. We can probably best learn from ecosystems how to create a living economy by using models of ecosystem dynamics side-by-side with models of human systems. For instance, develop a system model of the resource recovery industry and its technologies in parallel with models of the detritovore and decomposer subsystems of various ecosystems. Learn from them as independent complex systems and let the ecosystem dynamics inspire new thoughts about the design of resource recovery, not necessarily imitation. This seems a much more profound approach than cherry-picking isolated principles like, "the waste of one organism becomes the food of another."

(A valuable paper on the metaphor is at this web site: http://capita.wustl.edu/CAPITA/CapitaReports/Metaphors/unbook.html. More that I've written on the ecosystem metaphor follows my signature below. I'm also attaching a forward I wrote for a University of Florida proceedings of conference using the ecological metaphor to good effect. also,  )

I read the Living Economies piece while watching the shit come down in Genoa on tv and the web. Somehow your paper's vision of the transition seemed to need grounding in the tenacious of the suicide economy and the deep destruction that it continues to inflict on environmental, social, political, and economic systems. The suicide economy just bought a US president and an Italian premier and the latter, if not the former, seems to be creating a fascist regime. Damn it, we can't live our way into a living economy in that context!

I wish I could suggest what a realistic vision of the transition should look like. Strangely enough, I live some significant portion of my life in the emerging living economy and society. I am blessed with work that enables me to help very good people to create solutions that are stepping stones into a new economy, mostly in developing countries. But many days I feel overwhelmed by the sheer power of the old and its determination to grab short-term gain at the expense of all of us.

There is one other important dynamic in our present world that cuts across the path to a living economy. This week I got word I'll be working on a project in Sri Lanka. Then the next day the Tamil Tigers shelled and invaded the airport. On the weekend the opposition party's demonstrations in the streets were met with heavy police violence. Ethnic and religious hatred and violence are sapping creative living energies in country after country, including the US.

You are one of the leading thinkers/actors who are trying to articulate a humane, environmentally sustainable, and economically feasible vision of the global economy. So I've taken the time to critique your article, hoping that we can find a way through some of the dilemmas I put forward.

Thanks for your continuing and very important work on behalf of us all. 

Ernest Lowe

"The Law doth punish man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the common,
But lets the greater felon loose
Who steals the common from the goose"
-- Anti-enclosure saying, 18th Century England


Industrial Ecosystems

One popular theme of industrial ecology is that design of industrial systems can, to some extent, be modeled upon ecosystems. In 1989 Robert Frosch and Nicholas Gallopolous (at that time General Motors research executives) recommended that ". . . the traditional model of industrial activity-in which individual manufacturing processes take in raw materials and generate products to be sold plus waste to be disposed of-should be transformed into a more integrated model: an industrial ecosystem. In such a system the consumption of energy and materials is optimized, waste generation is minimized and the effluents of one process . . . serve as the raw material for another process." (Frosch and Gallopoulos 1989)

While there is potentially great value in this approach of designing by analogy to natural systems, most of the efforts have been naive and full of cliches. Relatively few industrial ecologists have written of "industrial ecosystems" with much insight into how ecosystems actually function. We hear too often that the waste of one organism becomes the food for another and little more. Fortunately a major effort to apply the ecological metaphor resulted in a conference in 2000 sponsored by the University of Florida, School of Construction. In this meeting ecologists, industrial ecologists, architects, and construction researchers worked to understand the systems of building design and construction as analogues to ecosystems. The book resulting from this conference, Construction Ecology, (Kibert 2001) is a valuable resource for developers, architects, planners, and building contractors working on eco-park projects. (Chapter 8 has more information on this publication.)

Ecosystems in nature demonstrate many strategies beyond consumption of "waste" that are relevant to industry and to designers. For instance:

  • The sole source of power for ecosystems is solar energy. 
  • Concentrated toxic materials are generated and used locally. 
  • Efficiency and productivity are in dynamic balance with resiliency. Emphasis on the first two qualities over the third creates brittle systems, likely to crash.
  • Ecosystems remain resilient in the face of change through high bio-diversity of species, organized in complex webs of relationships. The many relationships are maintained through self-organizing processes, not top-down control.
  • In an ecosystem, each individual in a species acts independently, yet its activity patterns cooperatively mesh with the patterns of other species. Cooperation and competition are interlinked and held in balance.

Industrial ecologists propose that sustainable industrial systems will better reflect such strategies. They will more closely resemble an ecosystem than a machine or even a computer, the dominant metaphors that have guided design in the last century. This suggests that designers of eco-industrial parks (and their individual plants) could increase the viability and resilience, as well as the efficiency, of their projects by seeing them as industrial ecosystems.

This analogic approach of industrial ecology may be most useful when practiced in terms of ecosystem dynamics and interactions. Rather than simply drawing isolated principles from ecology, designers can model ecosystems to create more effective complex industrial systems.

Ecosystems are tested viable systems, evolved over millennia. They have great resilience in the face of challenges. Insights into how they maintain viability could help create and improve industrial systems in both financial and environmental terms.

The process would involve a dialogue between industrial system designers (at the appropriate level) and an ecosystem researcher, comparing notes . . . laying out models side by side . . . asking "how does nature handle this issue we're stuck with in our Bangalore operation?" For instance, in planning a resource recovery EIP (see Chapter 6) a developer could recruit an interdisciplinary team including ecologists expert on decomposition, civil and ecological engineers, entrepreneurs in resource recovery, policy-makers, and business managers. They would model the total pattern of 'recycling' in one or more specific ecosystems while building a model of recycling in industrial and consumer systems. Typical questions in the inquiry would be:

  • What do the ecosystem dynamics in natural decomposition suggest for integration of recycling technologies into a more unified system?
  • What are the principle strategies for breaking down and reusing materials in natural systems that could inspire new processes for recycling society's wastes?
  • What are major energy expenditures in natural decomposition processes? How do they balance between different parts of the process? What does this suggest about the energy requirements of resource recovery parks?
  • How do the specific roles of organisms and interactions among them suggest new technical innovations and their interrelations? Are there promising specific biological processes not now utilized in recycling and treatment?
  • How are the processes of decomposition integrated with the productive processes in ecosystems? What implications does this have for industrial systems of production and consumption?


Foreword to Construction Ecology

Citation: Kibert, Charles J., Sendzimir, Jan, and Guy, G. Bradley Editors. Construction Ecology and Metabolism: Nature as a Model for the Built Environment. Spon Ltd. London, UK. See University of Florida, School of Construction web site for ordering information:http://www.bcn.ufl.edu

 My first direct experience of the need for adding significantly to the built environment was in the 60s when I interviewed farm workers in their shanty-towns in California. Often a dozen family members would be crowded into a two or three room tarpaper shack with corrugated iron roof and no running water. Then in 1997-8 my perception of this challenge became much more acute when I visited townships like Alexandra and the Cape Flats in South Africa. For families there to be able to afford housing sufficient to their very deep needs, they also needed work places and training facilities—further additions to the built environment.

In the Philippines in 1999 I saw another version of this situation in the strip residential and commercial developments strung out between a freeway and factory walls. Ironically, people from these poverty-stricken neighborhoods would dress up in their finest to visit Glorietta Mall or MegaMall and enjoy the fantastic luxury of air conditioning. The multiplicity of such malls, filled with global identity shops like Pierre Cardin and fast food chains like Pizza Hut, are another indicator of a huge increase in construction activity, even in developing countries. 

China plans 20 new towns a year in the West to accommodate the hundreds of thousands of farm families unable to compete with global prices when this country enters the World Trade Organization. The large cities in the East could not withstand even more migration into their overcrowded neighborhoods.

This escalating demand for built space makes dramatically clear that we cannot afford to continue designing and building our homes, commercial centers, industrial and public facilities in the old unsustainable models. Chapter 1 in this volume gives detailed evidence of the enormous environmental costs of construction, operation, and deconstruction of our buildings. While we have many success stories in green design, like the Herman Miller Phoenix Designs plant in Michigan, we must go beyond incremental and fragmented improvements in design and construction of the built environment. The disciplines of design and construction must go to a basic level of rethinking to achieve the level of change the challenges of sustainability demands. This publication is a powerful beginning of that process.

Construction Ecology is a breakthrough in two fields of research and application—the design and construction of our built environment and the relatively new discipline of industrial ecology. The buildings in which we live and work and the infrastructure that supports our lives demand an amazing share of the natural resources we humans consume. As populations continue to grow and expectations rise, it is essential that we learn to design and build with a much higher level of efficiency and a much lower level of pollution and waste.

Industrial ecology has emerged in the last fifteen years as a systems approach to design, development, and operation of human systems, both public and private. It aims to create the transition to a sustainable world in which our economic activities respect the limits of global and local carrying capacity. The Rinker School of Construction conference that was the source of this book is a very significant effort to use the concepts and methods of industrial ecology to begin charting the path to sustainable design and construction.

One of the most attractive concepts industrial ecologists have suggested is that we can learn how to design human systems from the dynamics of ecosystem behavior. While there is potentially great value in this approach, most of the efforts before this book have been naive and full of cliches. Relatively few industrial ecologists have written of “industrial ecosystems” with much insight into how ecosystems actually function. We hear repeatedly that the waste of one organism becomes the food for another and little more.

Construction Ecology, and the conference that produced it, is the first large scale attempt to learn about major human energy and materials flows by comparing them to the dynamics of natural systems. Ecologists, industrial ecologists, architects, construction researchers, and representatives of building products manufacturing have used the ecological metaphor in a profound way that other industry and academic clusters could learn from.

Ecosystems in nature demonstrate many strategies beyond consumption of life’s by-products (what we still call “waste”) that are relevant to design and construction. For instance:

§         The sole source of power for ecosystems is solar energy.

§         Concentrated toxic materials are generated and used locally.

§         Efficiency and productivity are in dynamic balance with resiliency. Emphasis on the first two qualities over the third creates brittle systems, likely to crash.

§         Ecosystems remain resilient in the face of change through high bio-diversity of species, organized in complex webs of relationships. The many relationships are maintained through self-organizing processes, not top-down control.

§         In an ecosystem, each individual in a species acts independently, yet its activity patterns cooperatively mesh with the patterns of other species. Cooperation and competition are interlinked and held in balance.

By exploring the implications of these and other ecological principles for design and construction the authors of the papers in Construction Ecology have created a context for the holistic rethinking required for a sustainable approach to the built environment.

As an industrial ecologist, I am pleased to see that we can apply the basic strategy of the ecological metaphor with real depth, not just as a cliche. As someone who’s career focuses on supporting developing countries in their often daunting task of housing their poor and giving them employment to rise out of poverty, I feel that this volume may help them achieve these goals while preserving their environments.


Ernest Lowe is Chief Scientist of RPP International’s Sustainable Development Divison and Director of this company’s Indigo Development Center. He is one of the creators of the eco-industrial park concept and has worked with eco-park projects in the US, South Africa, Philippines, and Thailand. He is author of Discovering Industrial Ecology (Battelle Press 1997) and the Eco-Industrial Park Handbook (prepared initially for US-EPA in 1995). He has recently updated and revised the Handbook for use in Asian developing countries under contract with the Asian Development Bank. In 1999 he presented a paper on Sustainable NewTowns in the Rinker Eminent Lecture Series, which appears in Charles Kibert’s Reshaping the Built Environment.

Ernest Lowe voice: 510 530-6521  fax: 510-530-7498
Indigo Development
26 Blachford Ct.
Oakland CA 94611 
Indigo is an industrial ecology R & D center within RPP International

For comments on this commentary see: [Tom Atlee on Lowe Korten on Lowe] Sahtouris on Lowe]

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