Distinguishing between "harmful" and "harmless" characteristics of socio-economic metabolism with its natural environment
There exists a variety of conceptions to distinguish between what is good (or at least harmless) and what is bad (harmful) for the environment. These conceptions vary according to scientific discipline and according to political (or ethical) understanding of man-nature relationships.
This variety of conceptions can be ordered into four basic paradigms:
Each of them is guided by a specific reference concept, and each of them is able to catch important aspects of the possible meaning of the "damage" society causes to its natural environment. The paradigms are not mutually exclusive in the sense that one specific aspect of environmental damage might not occur in more than one of them. But they cannot be reduced upon one another, nor can they be merged into one single "grand paradigm." Each has its own specific structure of reasoning, its own scientific and political tradition, and its own audience. But all four paradigms taken together permit a complete scanning of what might be meant when people talk about the socioeconomic system "causing environmental damage" (fig. 1).
Let us illustrate the functioning of the four paradigms for a special case: the damage caused by car traffic.
1. In the poison paradigm, the main argument would be: Car traffic causes about 60 per cent of the toxic gaseous emissions to the atmosphere (CO, NOX, CXHy). Thus limiting volumes for the exhaust should be issued. Catalytic converters are a good solution, since they reduce toxic emissions by 80 per cent or more.
2. In the natural balance paradigm, it would be said that car traffic contributes about 15 per cent to the destabilization of the earth's climate, and also severely affects several ecosystems. Catalytic converters would not do, since they cannot reduce CO2, but maybe electric or solar cars could.
3. In the entropy paradigm, it would be argued that car traffic requires about 50 per cent of the end-consumption of liquid fossil fuels. Thus we need a technological innovation towards solar cars, for example, while catalytic converters are relatively irrelevant or even counterproductive, since they require platinum, a very rare resource.
4. In the conviviality paradigm, attention would be drawn to car traffic as a major cause of unintentional and useless animal killing (insects, birds, rodents, amphibious animals, etc.). One would also draw attention to the road system reducing the living space of many species to areas too small for a decent life and exposing them to all kinds of disturbances. Solar cars wouldn't help.
We think that an information system on the environmental impacts of the socio-economic system should refer to all these four paradigms and should present evidence concerning the central set of variables in each of them. It should not deprive any one line of reasoning of its possible empirical basis, or favour one over the other. Political discussion and the political decision-making process would then have to weigh arguments and to solve existing contradictions.
This recommendation can also be supported by considering the epistemological qualities of the four paradigms (fig. 2). Regarding the horizontal dimension, the poison paradigm and the entropy paradigm are more closely related to established ways of analytical thinking in chemical and physical dimensions, whereas the natural balance paradigm and the conviviality paradigm present holistic views referring to living systems. These two are more difficult to relate to analytical systems such as (economic) national accounting - but holistic approaches may be the way of the future. The vertical dimension, specific v. general, and at the same time risk-oriented v. well-beingoriented, also has implications for the possible acceptability of the paradigms. For the time being it is easier to argue for political measures against specific risks than for ones in favour of long-term wellbeing. But this (we hope) may change within the next few decades, and an information system that is being created now should be open to such changes.
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