Graedel Prize papers building bridges

The Journal of Industrial Ecology (JIE) awards two annual prizes for best papers. One prize is for a junior author and one for a senior author. The goal of the prizes is to recognize and promote high quality scholarship in industrial ecology.  A Best Paper Prize Committee has been established to administer the prize and evaluate nominated papers.

Duchin, F., S. Levine, and A. Stromman, 2016. “Sustainable Use of Global Resources: Combining Multiregional Input-Output Analysis with a World Trade Model for Evaluating Scenarios. Part 1: Conceptualization,” Journal of Industrial Ecology, 20(4): 775-782 and Duchin, F. and S. Levine, Part 2: Implementation, 20(4): 783-791.   

 Faye Duchin

July 12, 2017

After a recent dinner at a Chinese restaurant, I opened my fortune cookie to find this advice: “Think long term.”  I had to smile because that is precisely the motivating idea behind the sustainable development research program my colleagues and I have been working on in recent years.  In this note I reflect on the nature of the challenge and on “conceptual bridges” to strengthen multidisciplinary collaboration.

 Environmental sustainability involves preserving the natural resources and ecosystem services that sustain life on the planet.  Economic development can relieve extreme poverty and reduce gaping inequalities.  We need long-term strategies where these two objectives reinforce each other by satisfying human needs while radically reducing pressures on the environment.

 A growing number of researchers identify with both input-output economics and industrial ecology.  This reality presents the opportunity to undertake a bold research agenda using the distinctive capabilities of both fields to address our common concerns.  The input-output framework provides a representation of economic structure, and industrial ecology is rich in content expertise about technologies and material stocks and flows.  Conceptual bridges are ideas that connect the two bodies of research in new ways that can broaden the scope of collaboration.

 All members of the family of input-output models have two distinctive qualities.   First, they are based in theory to achieve a succinct representation with transparent logic.  Second, they are applied to highly structured databases that possess substantial empirical content.   Both model development and database extension are ongoing processes, driven by the questions being addressed.   The objective is to integrate top-down economic theorizing with bottom-up, real-world specificity.

The current generation of environmentally extended, multi-regional input-output (MRIO) databases reflects collaboration between the two communities.   Several on-going projects are moving beyond accounting sources in money values to mixed-unit databases.  Additional kinds of data are also needed, namely alternative technologies rather than only average ones, and stocks as well as flows of both resources and built capital.  Steve Levine and I have developed a new, substantially generalized approach to assure the consistency and economic viability of such databases. 

 For the most part, the input-output models used by industrial ecologists -- as well as by most input-output economists -- have been limited to the simplest mathematical form of (I - A)x = y, whether representing a single economy or a multiregional economic system.  Most of the empirical studies analyze only databases for past years.  Such studies provide insight into the historical sources of present challenges and can monitor the changes over time of different variables or indicators.   Ultimately, however, what we need is to utilize such insights to evaluate alternative options for the future. 

 It is a substantial challenge to formulate strategic scenarios about future livelihoods, technological systems, institutional structures and cultural attitudes -- which may represent sharp departures from those of the past.   It is evident that there will be significant new infrastructure projects in the coming decades, with long lead times and long lifetimes, providing in particular electrification, water treatment, and transport in all parts of the world.   Many are likely to be centralized mega-projects, funded by private equity, and constructed by transnational corporations.  However, a realistic vision for sustainable development will also need decentralized and distributed systems that are under local governance, generate local jobs and incomes, and favor locally sourced, preferably renewable, resources.   Industrial ecology could be an important source of such design concepts and their systematic, quantitative representation.

 Our pair of papers honored by the Graedel Prize attempts to build bridges among the contributions of technologists, data developers, and modelers and between techniques to analyze the past and those to evaluate scenarios about the future.  It is our conviction that reinforcing the links among these practices can deepen strategic collaborations that insist on joining sustainability with development, a goal that is sorely needed to provide stability in the 21st century.


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