By Dr Robin Branson PhD, MBA, BSc. (Hons) Director, Australian Industrial Ecology Network

IN the modern world of advanced economies, pretty much everything starts with some sort of mining. From time immemorial humans have used stuff dug, sucked or that oozed out of the ground. As economies develop, increasing amounts of resources are extracted from the Earth’s crust and they all have one feature in common: they are finite. Inevitably there will come a time when mining will be uneconomic, however potentially useful the material it might be. The corollary is that extraction cannot last forever. Even if that statement were not true, assuming it is would be wise.

Mining impacts the natural environment in which it occurs. The result may be permanently devastating, as at Mount Lyell in Tasmania or merely catastrophic as at Ok Tedi mine in Papua New Guinea. Not all mines cause such disaster but even with stringent environmental regulation, mining can still significantly disrupt the natural environment and antagonise local communities. The controversies around coal seam gas and fracking are cases in point.

Two salient issues emerge from these comments: the indefinite, though finite availability of raw materials and protection of the natural environment. Industrial ecology (IE) addresses these and related issues.

The field is very diverse; it is liberally sprinkled with definitions and explanations but at its core, IE is the study of human relationships with the natural environment from the perspective of industry and the practice of its findings. The mining industry impacts most economies, not to mention the natural environments. It is reasonable to suggest, therefore, that IE is relevant to mining.

This article is the first of several about Mining Industrial Ecology (MIE). It gives a synopsis of IE covering the principles which guide its development; the concepts used to help researchers understand the real world; the tools and strategies deployed in practice. Future articles will address specific topics. Let’s start with the proposition that human existence ultimately depends on sustainability of the species.


The overarching aim of IE is the sustainability of developed and developing human societies. Theoretical IE is concerned with developing concepts and techniques for analysis to help understand the myriad interactions between humans and the environment. It is axiomatic that for human existence to be sustainable, human activities must be compatible with environmental sustainability. If we wipe out the other species on which we depend for survival or destroy their habitat or render unviable the natural resources, which support our way of life, then our species will not be sustainable.

Sustainable development is the route to achieving sustainability, essentially by bringing about changes in behaviour. It represents the practical aims of IE and is, perhaps, the most crucial part of IE because sustainable development, i.e. intended change, will only occur when something is actually done in practice. Practical IE entails inter-disciplinary collaboration between different fields of interest. It relies on strategies to achieve results. It involves concepts to help understand real life situations and ‘tools’, which yield information and facilitate analysis. Above all, IE is guided by principles that are generally recognised as the bedrock of sustainability.

Principles of IE

The precautionary principle enshrines six underlying ideas:

Preventative anticipation stipulates that the effects of an action must be thoroughly assessed before it is undertaken. If action is thought to be detrimental to the environment then it should be abandoned.

The duty of care requires the proposers of change to consider all aspects of an intended action and ensure that it will not harm the environment.

Safeguarding all ecological systems is the central focus of the precautionary principle. The concept does not only prevent harm to the environment, it requires the maintenance of conditions in which ecosystems can thrive.

A corollary to this is the concept of intrinsic natural rights accorded to all species and observed accordingly.

Proportionality of response is a rather obscure aspect of the principle, construed to mean that the effort of compliance should be commensurate with the benefits achieved or the harm avoided.

Ecological damage caused in the past must be repaired or mitigated in some way.

Other major principles are inter-generational equity, which means that no generation shall affect the natural environment in any way that deprives future generations of its ‘services’. The principle of maintaining biodiversity safeguards the existence of the myriad species of all living organisms affected by humans. This principle aims at conserving habitats, which is fundamental to the existence of any species.

The Gaia principle embodies the understanding that all the Earth systems, such as climate, oceans, biological systems, cryosphere and even the lithosphere constitute a single, holistic self-regulating system in dynamic equilibrium. It holds that the existence of life influences global climate and chemistry in ways that keep the planet perpetually habitable. Stewardship is a sort of ‘catch-all’ principle, effectively requiring adherence to all the other principles.

Concepts of IE

Researchers frequently tussle with complex issues that are extremely difficult to understand. Concepts, in the form of metaphors, analogies and similar ways of thinking are used to help analyse the circumstances in real life that they represent.

The metaphor of industrial activity emulating a biological ecosystem is ubiquitous. It represents flows of materials and resources throughout an industrial system as the metabolism of nutrients and symbioses in biological ecosystems. It indicates ways industrial organisations should interact with one another and with the environment.

The concepts of Systems Theory address issues of interconnectedness, especially the operation of feed-back loops and dynamic equilibrium. The notion of complexity, involving non-linearity and probability, contribute to assessments of eventuality and risk. The notion of scale is particularly significant in IE and contributes to the concept of emergence; the perception of human impact on the natural environment at different scales.

IE in practice

Sustainable development can only progress through action. A prerequisite for IE in practice is realistic analysis, currently done with tools such as life cycle assessment and materials flow analysis. Politics and funding are hugely influential but sustainable development ultimately depends on adopting appropriate strategies to change human behaviour. Some apply at an economy-wide, or national scale, others operate on the scale of single organisations or even small groups. Prominent among large-scale strategies are: de-materialisation to reduce the quantity of materials used in an economy; de-carbonisation to reduce dependence on carbon; and conservation, the overarching strategic imperative to preserve resources generally e.g. by repeatedly reusing materials etc.

Organisational strategies include: Green Chemistry, being cleverer and more ecological in combining materials etc.; Cleaner Production, being more careful about how things are produced; and Industrial Symbiosis, arrangements between organisations to share resources and especially to use industrial waste.

The Circular Economy has gained traction recently, notably among the general populations in developed economies. Conceptually, the strategy is industrial symbiosis aimed at minimising post-consumer waste throughout an entire economy. It relies on extensive collaboration and stakeholder ‘license to operate’.

Given the very brief synopsis in this article, one might well ask: what bearing could IE have on mining? Answer - for the time being: Watch this space!

Australian IE conference in September

THE Australian Industrial Ecology Network (AIEN) will host the 6th Australian Industrial Ecology (IE) Conference from September 6-8, 2017 at the Crowne Plaza Hunter Valley in New South Wales. The theme for the conference, ‘Innovation, materials and resources in a circular economy’, aims to showcase and promote leading industrial ecology projects and to inspire innovation in Australia.

This conference series promotes the practice of industrial ecology in Australia. Each event provides a stimulating forum in which ideas and opportunities can be presented and discussed.

The Australian Industrial Ecology Conference aims to highlight industrial ecology projects being implemented and to inspire innovation in Australia. Government, industry and individuals will be able to learn, network and discuss practical outcomes and solutions for managing resources in an open forum with like-minded and interested companies and individuals.

Conference presentations are focused on practical outcomes and solutions for managing business wastes - not just talking about it but actually doing something about it and simultaneously making/saving money.

AIEN was established in November 2009 to promote and facilitate sustainable development through the application of industrial ecology. It offers a forum in which members can keep in touch, canvas issues of interest and connect with resources associated with the practice and study of IE. The network aims to provide a ‘window on the world’ of IE by relaying news, organising events and alerting people to developments in academia and in practice.

For conference details visit

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