These examples seem to be leading us towards the possibility that all material emissions are potentially hazardous in the environment. In this case, should we not apply the precautionary principle to all material emissions? Should we be aiming for industrial systems which are completely 'closed' in material terms? In other words, should we be aiming for a human economy in which no material wastes ever leave the system?
The danger now seems to be that we are moving towards an unrealistic vision of what environmental management is to mean. Such a requirement is much stronger than anything imposed by nature. No natural ecosystem has 100 per cent internal material closure except the planet as a whole. In fact, younger ecosystems tend to recycle fewer materials than more mature ecosystems. More mature ecosystems may recycle more than half of the materials they use.11 But this recycling is always less than 100 per cent. For the rest, the ecosystem relies on the global material cycles which are powered by the sun. This complex system of materials reuse is carefully regulated by the availability of solar energy. But nowhere in this careful scheme of things is there any suggestion of complete internal materials cycling.
The suggestion of complete materials closure of the industrial system also seems hopelessly demanding from an economic point of view. What is less obvious is that it is actually impossible from a thermodynamic point of view. As we have seen, thermodynamics characterises any material transformation as being dissipative of both energy and materials. The only way we could reverse the dissipation of materials from human activities would be by using vast amounts of energy which in their turn could only be obtained from material resources. We could come close to closing a particular material cycle if we supplied sufficient high-quality energy to the task. But supplying this energy is itself a thermodynamic process, unavoidably dissipating more materials and more energy. So thermodynamics makes it quite plain that we cannot simply stop dissipating materials into the environment from human activities. And it is clear that we would gain absolutely nothing from the suggestion that the economy should strive for zero emissions of all materials. The concept of a 'no-waste economy' is just an illusion. No such thing can exist.
On the other hand, no natural ecosystem actually achieves zero emissions either, and it is clear that many such systems have survived for very long periods of history. So perhaps we can learn something about environmental management from nature herself. Perhaps we can devise a new concept of environmental management which attempts to make the industrial economy more like a natural ecosystem.
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