Monday, September 1, 2014

Industrial Ecology and Theology

We are just getting started in the new semester in my MS in Sustainability Studies program, and I'm taking SUS 529 - Industrial Ecology.

One of the definitions or models of industrial ecology is the notion that industrial/manufacturing processes should mimic that of natural processes. In the natural world, there is little, if any, waste, with the waste or remains of one life becoming the basic fuel of another organism. Organic matter (even our human body) decomposes, providing nutrients for plants, and carrion for scavengers. We exhale carbon dioxide, which plants "inhale" and produce, through photosynthesis, oxygen, which we then inhale. There is a nitrogen cycle and a water cycle, in addition to the oxygen cycle.

On Ash Wednesday, we are reminded of this "circle of life," in the words "From dust you were formed, to dust you shall return." Physical and chemical processes, bordering on the supernatural (especially photosynthesis), are part of a creation that, at the end of sixth day, the Creator described as "very good." It would follow logically that such a very good creation, using such very good processes, would be the very model of how we should design our own processes to extract raw materials, process them, manufacture useful tools and items, and dispose of them. The goal would be to transform byproducts of the process, and the end of life of the item itself, into the beginning of a new cycle, rather than throwing that stuff "away."

Yet very few of our manufacturing and industrial processes consider even where "away" is, and even fewer consider that many of these waste byproducts are indeed useful as inputs in other processes. Perhaps it is seen as too costly or too much trouble to recover these waste byproducts, and transform them into a suitable input for other processes. Perhaps we fail at connecting the dots, because we fail to communicate or fail to establish the framework within which to connect those dots. Or perhaps we just don't really care, as the circle of life extends beyond our individual, and our generational, interest.

Anyway, this is going to be fun!