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date: 10 December 2022



  • Astrid SchwarzAstrid SchwarzBrandenburg University of Technology Cottbus


Ecotechnology is both broad and widespread, yet it has never been given a universally shared definition; this remains the case even in the early 21st century. Given that it is used in the natural, engineering, and social sciences, as well as in design studies, in the philosophy and history of technology and in science policy, perhaps this is not surprising. Indeed, it is virtually impossible to come up with an unambiguous definition for ecotechnology: It should be understood rather as an umbrella term that facilitates connections among different scientific fields and science policy and, in so doing, offers a robust trading zone of ideas and concepts. The term is part of a cultural and sociopolitical framework and, as such, wields explanatory power. Ecotechnology approaches argue for the design of ensembles that embed human action within an ecologically functional environment and mediating this relationship by technological means. Related terms, such as ecotechnics, ecotechniques, ecotechnologies, and eco-technology, are used similarly.

In the 1970s, “ecotechnology,” along with other terms, gave a voice to an unease and a concern with sociotechnical transformations. This eventually gave rise to the first global environmental movement expressing a comprehensive eco-cultural critique of society-environment relations. Ecotechnology was part of the language used by activists, as well as by social theorists and natural scientists working in the transdisciplinary field of applied ecology. The concept of ecotechnology helped to both establish and “smooth over” environmental matters of concern in the worlds of economics, science, and policymaking. The process of deliberation about a green modernity is still ongoing and characterizes the search for a constructive intermediation between artificial and natural systems following environmentally benign design principles.

During the 1980s, disciplinary endeavors flourished in the global academic world, lending ecotechnology more and more visibility. Some of these endeavors, such as restoration ecology and ecological engineering, were rooted in the engineering sciences, but mobilized quite different traditions, namely population biology and systems biology. To date, ecotechnology has been replaced by and large by other terms in applied ecology. Another strand of work resulted in the discipline of social ecology, which developed different focal points, most notably critical political economy and a concern with nature-culture issues in the context of cultural ecology. Finally, more recently, ecotechnology has been discussed in several branches of philosophy that offer different narratives about the epistemic and ontological transformations triggered by an “ecologization” of societies and a theoretical turn toward relationality.


  • Environmental Issues and Problems

Drawing “Eco” and “Techno” Together

Ecotechnology can be considered as a cipher to the vision of adapting human activities more skillfully to ecosystem functions. This encompasses various issues ranging from the production of ecological knowledge, through modalities of technical relations, to sociopolitical settings including different policy styles. Ecotechnology also draws together two terms frequently regarded as existing in opposite camps. The prefix “eco” comes from the Greek “οίκος‎” (oikos), meaning house, household, or dwelling place and in a wider sense family (Schwarz & Jax, 2011, p. 145). The word technology derives from the Greek “τέχνη‎” (technè), roughly translatable as having skills in craftsmanship and technology but also as artistic ability and dexterity. It has behind the Indo-European tekhn-, assumedly meaning woodwork or carpentry, and can be found in similar stem formations in many other languages (Mitcham, 1994, p. 117). It has been pointed out that technè already was an ambiguous term in Greek philosophy (Mersch, 2018, p. 5) because it can be identified with the famous figure of Prometheus, who, full of confidence in the practice and championing of technical skills, inevitably drags along his less capable brother Epimetheus, who only causes harm when dappling in technical practices—a reference, in other words, to the side effects of technology including “ecological ills” (Odum, 1972, p. 164) and environmental disasters. Bringing together “eco” and “techno,” then, seems to force being a marriage of principles that are in opposition in various ways, the first of these being the intrinsic “fraternal tension” embodied in problem-oriented technological solutions and their often-unexpected consequences; the field of ecological design is not an exception (Gross, 2010). Second, there is the tension between the natural order as it is represented in ecosystem research, with its neatly settled routines and “balanced budgets,” and the innovative force of Promethean agency.

In the following, historical snapshots are offered as a means to carve out the principal paths of this rather overloaded and overdetermined term, the intention being to shed some light on the conceptual formation of ecotechnology and its emergence from antecedent scientific and policy contexts. The present article assesses the uses …

In all the diversity described a generic vision can be identified that is a call for an appropriate conceptualization of the human habitat that is seen as an entanglement of natural, social, and technical relations and objects. Ecotechnology stands for a sociopolitically informed ideal of relating knowledge about social, material, and energy relations by following ecological principles to integrate ecosystem functions on a material basis in the environment. In this sense, one might say that a conceptual scheme of ecotechnology implicitly also lies underneath discussions about functional relationships in sustainable technologies and ecosystem services, or even urban planning, while as a concept it is mainly elaborated in disciplinary fields like ecological engineering, ecological restauration, and ecological design.

Environmental Management and Ecotechnology

The field of environmental management, including the international regulatory system, substantially changed in the 1970s. In this setting, some of the discursive and institutional activities around ecotechnology ultimately resulted in the establishment of engineering disciplines, such as environmental and ecological engineering, industrial and restoration ecology. This process of institutionalization happened in the academic sector all over the world as well as in governmental institutions and nongovernmental organizations. Ecosystem research, systems theory, and engineering issues merged with the demands of science policy and the need to resolve environmental problems caused by industrial excesses. The names of localities such as Santa Barbara (oil spill 1969), Seveso (release of dioxin 1976), Bophal (gas leak 1984), Chernobyl (radioactive plume 1986) are just a few examples of a steadily growing number of global environmental disasters caused by technological dysfunction, most of them resulting in substantial ruptures in international environmental policy and legislation (see Seveso directives in EU legislation) as well as in the initiation of national programs for research and technology development in the ecological sciences. At the same time these catastrophic events advanced transformations toward greater environmental literacy in science and society (Scholz, 2011). An increasingly successful implementation of ecotechnological practices picked up pace, while powerful instruments were developed to restore and ameliorate degraded plots of land and, eventually, to create “new natures” (Blok & Gremmen, 2016 Hughes, 2004; McHarg, 1971). Even as the field of applied ecology blossomed, however, the concept ecotechnology itself was successively replaced during the 1990s by other concepts formed around design principles (e.g., ecological design, Bergen et al., 2001; Ross et al., 2015) and ecological restoration (Berger, 1990), or else it became a synonym of ecological engineering (Mitsch & Jørgensen, 1989) and of biomanipulation (Kasprzak et al., 1993). A similar development can be observed in the field of science policy and political economy: Here, the word “ecotechnology” disappeared even before it had exerted any significant impact as a concept. Some of the central issues associated with ecotechnology during the 1970s and 1980s were included in the concept of sustainable development (Brundtland, 1987) and sustainability science, which emerged subsequently. An exception is perhaps the derivative term “ecotechnie,” which was stabilized in policymaking in the field of environment and development to the extent that it was established as an eponymous program, a joint effort between UNESCO Man and Biosphere and the Cousteau Society (UCEP), launched in 1994. Thus, in the ecological sciences the term ecotechnology began to fade away when the “undeniable successes of ecological modernisation strategies” gained a foothold (Blühdorn & Welsh, 2007, p. 194). This is at least the case for the Western scientific topology, in the Asian context ecotechnology took a different way.

The overall development of the concept can be described as a piece of transgressive boundary work that stretches over antipodal fields such as technology versus nature, artificial versus natural, and also applied versus basic research. The development of and reflection on ecotechnological principles and techniques cuts through these categories and was from the very beginning an object of interest not only for engineers and natural scientists but also for philosophers, sociologists, and, beyond the academic field, environmental activists. This is not terribly surprising, given that the word “ecology” and later also “sustainability” underwent a similar process through different scientific and sociopolitical fields. All these notions can be identified with the attempt to express an unease with the highly ambivalent process of modernization (Beck, 2010), one of the reactions was a proposal of a framework for a “politics of unsustainability” in a postecologist European era to recast well-established conditions and constellations (Blühdorn & Welsh, 2007, p. 196). An enormous body of scientific literature extending across the sciences and the humanities has been produced to express the discomfort, to say the least, with this gargantuan elephant in the room, beginning from the postwar period in the 1950s. This will be discussed later in more detail in the section about social/political ecology with its focus on the disciplinary transversal conjunctions that were rendered possible by conceptualizations of ecotechnology during a historical interim phase of about 20 years starting in the 1970s. This work intends to fill a research gap, identified around the turn of the millennium, that “the origins of the new uses of ‘green’ and ‘eco-’ in regard to technology have not been adequately addressed” (Jørgensen, 2001, p. 6393), a deficit that was pointed out in “Greening of Technology and Ecotechnology” in the International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences.

In the following, three approaches will be pursued to provide a more detailed epistemological picture and historically profound understanding of the term “ecotechnology,” the research practices associated with it, and the management policies embraced by it. To begin, the history of the concept is presented, its different conceptual uses, the main lines of demarcation from other concepts, and the orienting narratives involved. These are discussed by focusing on its development in the ecological sciences. In the section “Sociopolitical Imagineries and Agency in International Networking”, the sociopolitical and socioeconomic issues are unpacked and scrutinized in the context of the disciplinary formation of social ecology in the 1980s, which developed in parallel in different national contexts: Some of these impacts include the continued articulation of ecotechnological visions to this day. In the third section “Another Semantic Turn of Ecotechnology/Ecotechnics”, different theoretical approaches are discussed, mainly in the context of more recent philosophical uses of ecotechnics and ecotechnology, offering a number of considerations regarding the meaning and understandings of the technicity of relations between humans toward their oikos.

Buzzword, Umbrella Term, or Proper Definition?

In the 1970s, the term “ecotechnology” was in the air, emerging simultaneously in public print media and in futuristic literature in the United States. In the scientific arena ecotechnology first arose in a Japanese (Aida, 1971, cited in Aida, 1995) and in an American context (Bookchin, 1977), before spreading further in different national and disciplinary spheres. The proclamation of “ecological engineering” as a discipline in 1962 by Howard T. Odum (Odum 1962) certainly also prepared the ground for “the design of sustainable ecosystems that integrate human society with its natural environment for the benefit of both” (Mitsch, 2012, p. 6). A consolidation of the conceptual work took place with the first textbook Ecological Engineering: An Introduction to Ecotechnology in 1989 and the founding of the journal Ecological Engineering in 1993. A quantitative analysis of the use of the term has confirmed that its attractivity increased during the 1980s and peaked around the turn of the last millennium (Haddaway et al., 2018). Another bibliographical analysis has shown that ecotechnology was much less in use compared to ecological engineering or ecological services (Barot et al., 2012). The attractivity of the term seemed also limited by the fact that ecotechnology had been identified as a buzzword. To clearly delineate its deployment as a “useful concept unifying and gathering efforts around a common vision” (Haddaway et al., 2018, p. 247) a study was conducted on bibliographic databases, from which all those articles were filtered that offered explicit definitions on ecotechnology or its derivates. As a result, an evidence-based terminological toolbox was proposed, and the authors set about constructing a conceptual consensus model for their own project and suggested the following definition: “Ecotechnologies are human interventions in social-ecological systems in the form of practices and/or biological, physical and chemical processes designed to minimize harm in the environment and provide services of value to society” (Haddaway et al., 2018, p. 260). Unfortunately, the authors provide no clue in their article as to what they mean by “services of value” or what exactly is meant to be “harm in the environment.” The definition might include the building blocks identified, but the question remains what it offers beyond a balanced combination of separate elements. The conceptual context that explains the terms and their semantic environment, thus making the definition work, remains empty. It seems that the strategy to exempt definitions of ecotechnology from their suspected status of buzzword is difficult to be performed properly.

The more promising approach might be to analyze “ecotechnology” as an umbrella term because this makes clear from the beginning that it is the context that needs to be semantically taken into consideration. This ultimately helps us better understand the movements, trends, and discursive tactics of a complex term that not only represents but also gathers up meaning, wields explanatory power, and presents a dynamic and innovative potential. A term becomes an umbrella term when it has great potential to link and translate different discourses and conceptual practices. “Umbrella terms start out as a fragile proposal by means of which a variety of research areas and directions can be linked up with one other” (Rip & Voß, 2013, p. 40) and with certain societal concerns and policy issues. Accordingly, an umbrella term mediates between different arenas such as scientific research, society, and policy, each of which follows a different logic. As a mediator the umbrella term not only travels between already existing fields of science, technology, and policy but also might elicit and finally become constitutive of new epistemic and institutional formations. “Sustainability” is a good example of an umbrella term that came into being to reconcile matters of concern about the global environment and critical issues about economic growth and to overcome the array of antagonistic voices in society and also in science. The term “sustainability” became one of the most successful outcomes of the Brundtland (1987) report, which states that the “sustainability of ecosystems on which the global economy depends must be guaranteed” (p. 32) and that “sustainable development requires the unification of economics and ecology in international relations” (p. 74). This promise has become a successful commodity not only in the policy world but also in a nascent scientific arena increasingly concerned to conceptualize sustainable development and terms like “resilience” to become, finally, in the first decade of the new millennium, established as “sustainability science.” Its epistemic program became the study of the interrelatedness of social and ecological systems, their dynamics, and how to govern these. Interesting enough, ecotechnology does not appear in the Brundtland report—technology and ecology are never linked directly. Instead they are imagined as being mediated by economics. Most industries rely essentially on natural resources even while they seriously pollute the environment. These changes have locked economy and ecology together, mainly on a global scale.

To conclude, umbrella terms are not necessarily a drawback. On the contrary, they gain their persuasive power as normatively oriented concepts by being radically inclusive and thus providing a conceptual framework that indicates, among other things, when science policy and research have hitched up together successfully. For a while they are highly innovative in their impacts, and this has also been the case for ecotechnology, as will be discussed in the following.

Conceptualizing Ecotechnology—The Main Path and Some Sidelines

“Ecotechnology” has been an ambiguous term from the very beginning and was never a purely technical term in the scientific world. It occurs across different semantic, disciplinary, and sociopolitical settings, referring to a plenitude of environmental problems and research practices. Further, “ecotechnology” is quite often substituted by other similar terms such as “eco-technology” (Aida, 1983; Leff, 1986; Oesterreich, 2001), Eco Technology (Aida, 1986), or “ecotechnics” (Grönlund et al., 2014, Miller, 2012; Nancy, 1991), and it also appears in compound terms such as “ecological technologies” or “living technologies” (Todd & Josephon, 1996), “environmental technologies” (Banham, 1965), or “ecotechnic future” (Greer, 2009). In other languages ecotechnology becomes (to give just the most obvious terms in the debate) “Eko tekunorojī“ (Japanese), “écotechnique” (French), “ekoteknik” (Swedish), “Ökotechnologie” and “Ökotechnik” (German), “eco-tecnologia” (Spanish), or “milieutechnologie” (Danish). These different formulations should not only be understood as a linguistic task of translation to cope with but also must be considered in terms of deliberate semantic differentiation and conceptual delimitation in a geopolitical and a disciplinary context. The same applies to the spelling of the term “ecotechnology.” For instance, “eco-technology” is mainly used to date in Japan in a context of ecological design. A more detailed discussion of “national ecotechnologies” is offered in sections “Ecotechnology in an Asian Context (Japan, China, Taiwan)” and “An Ecotechnological Rationality for Latin America.”

Ecotechnology in the Ecosciences

A conceptual ambiguity is also admitted by the scientific community of ecologists. In his article “Ecotechnology as a New Means for Environmental Management” and after about a decade of conceptual work, modeler Milan Straškraba (1993, p. 311) states that there never was a “common terminology with respect to ecological engineering, ecotechniques and ecotechnology.” This is mirrored in the struggle of the ecological community to define a more authoritative system of principles and rules to enhance the practicability and engagement of methods and tools, and thus establish a standard for linking ecosystem theory and engineering practices. Straškraba proposes a theory of ecosystems, consisting of seven principles that correspond to a theory of ecotechnology and spelling out 17 rules for a “sound management of the environment” (p. 317). Other authors suggested eight (Mitsch, 1992) or 12 principles (Jørgensen & Nielsen, 1996), while other numbers and categories were also proposed (Bergen et al., 2001), indicating that the field was still in a phase of competing classificatory systems and less in a hypothesis-driven phase. Recently, a redefinition of ecological engineering was suggested in the sense of a holistic approach for problem-solving, ecotechnology was just included in a literature search but not conceptualized (Schönborn & Junge, 2021). Here, too, seven ecological principles are proposed to which a good engineering practice should commit (Schönborn & Junge, 2021, p. 388).

The system suggested by Straškraba is distinct insofar as he places scientific ecology and ecotechnology on an equal footing with respect to the potential of theory building. Mathematical and computer models cannot just be applied, he argues, they must be calculated and matched to the specific situation, an instance that needs theoretical input. He recommends using “decision support systems” and an individual selection of what he calls ecotechniques such as “river restoration” or “changed agricultural practices” (Straškraba, 1993, p. 327). Thus, modeling for him is the means to integrate science and engineering and therefore also theoretical and applied ecology. Straškraba was able to rely on a fundamental consensus in the growing community that only those ecotechniques should be used where the costs of the intervention and “their harm to the global environment are minimized” (p. 311). He underlines this commonality, also of the global vision, by referring to one of the first articles to use the term “ecotechnology” explicitly to name a new engineering discipline based on knowledge about biological structures and processes (Uhlmann, 1983, p. 109). Dietrich Uhlmann, head of the water science department at Technical University Dresden, referred explicitly to Marx’s theory of metabolic rift. Though in 1983 the German Democratic Republic had exclaimed the Marx year, the motive for citing a longer Marx passage is equally justified by offering reflections about the necessity to “include environmental requirements in the development of societal needs” (Uhlmann, 1983, transl. AS) and the call for the reconciliation of anthropogenic impacts with the laws of development and active principles in nature. This alludes to Marx’s phrase that a society is not only the owner and beneficiary of earth but also has “to bequeath earth as boni patres familias to the following generations improved” (Marx, 1964, p. 748), which is the passage cited in the article. Thus inspired, Uhlmann suggests the following program for ecotechnology: “Ecological standards must be created and enforced in the technosphere to ensure environmental conditions that promote human health and well-being. This means that a technology must be created that is integrated into the natural material cycles” (Uhlmann, 1983, p. 109, transl. AS).

This in some way anticipates what became the central paradigm of ecological engineering as formulated by William J. Mitsch and Sven Erik Jørgensen (1989), in the very first textbook that established the field ecological engineering, written mainly by the editors. They stated: “We define ecological engineering and ecotechnology as the design of human society with its natural environment for the benefit of both,” and they continued, “it is a technology with the primary tool being self-designing ecosystems. The components are all of the biological species of the world” (Mitsch & Jørgensen, 1989, p. 4). The shift from Uhlmann’s definition lies in the emphasis on who has to adapt to whom: The latter says that societies need to adapt to the natural material cycles, whereas Mitsch and Jørgensen tend to put the environment into the service of human society.

In their preface the authors asserted that their approach was intended to bring about a “cooperation between humans and nature” (Mitsch & Jørgensen, 1989, p. ix) and “will encourage a symbiotic relationship between humans and their natural environment” (p. x), a “partnership with nature” (p. 11). They also refer to Straškraba and Uhlmann, by repeating the minimally invasive strategy already established in the growing community of applied ecology. No conceptual distinction is made between ecological engineering and ecotechnology: The terms are virtually interchangeable. In an article published three years later the word ecotechnology appears only on the first page after reeling off the goals in mantra-like fashion (Mitsch, 1992, p. 28). As has been suggested, Mitsch et al. had identified ecotechnology with the development of ecological solutions to environmental engineering problems particularly in waste management (Bergen et al., 2001, p. 202), whereas Straškraba formed a conceptual tool of ecotechnology in environmental management. Mitsch abandons the term ecotechnology completely and thus fails to define its conceptual contours, an omission not tackled either in later publications by the author collective Mitsch and Jørgensen.

Is Ecotechnology Less Invasive Than Technology?

A closer look at the “collection of principles and case studies” in Mitsch and Jørgensen (1989, p. 11) illustrates that ecotechnological methods and tools must be just as invasive, at least initially, as the industries and mining or agrotechnologies that brought forth the environmental problems. The examples given are coal mine reclamation, the restoration of lakes, or the recycling of wetlands. These illustrate vividly that constructing the desired ecosystems and gaining the desired control over the material and energy flows—and thus to recycling industrial waste and residues—is an elaborate, technology-intensive enterprise. It involves the use of heavy machines, a massive amount of earth forming, chemical interventions on the ground, the introduction of biological species, and high-tech inputs, including, from the very start of a project, the digital-modeling tools needed to manage it. Ultimately, it seems that the difference between ordinary technological and ecotechnological engineering comes down to insisting that “ecosystems are used for the benefit of humankind without destroying the ecological balance, that is, utilization of the ecosystem on an ecologically sound basis” (Mitsch & Jørgensen, 1989, p. 15). The key question then becomes one of where and how to fix the ecological balance to enable natural ecosystems to be used both as resources for commodities and as amenities. It is acknowledged that there is a rising demand for “ecological services” that can be attributed to “the lack of markets for what are the essentially free services supplied by natural ecosystems” (Maxwell & Costanza, 1989, p. 58). This view displays a clear commitment to environmental design in the service of economic factors that “determine how natural ecosystems are manipulated by humans” (Maxwell & Costanza, 1989, p. 61). Even though the authors assure the reader that there is also a feedback loop that affects the “attributes of ecosystems that are valued by individuals, both demand and production (supply) relationships must be considered” (p. 61). However, the “benefit for both” and the cooperative aspects of the human-nature relationship (the central claim of ecotechnology as well as ecological engineering) ring rather hollow in the face of a clear commitment to the laws of the market that treat nature as a mere resource. The following description of an incidental observation provides a dramatic insight into this rather fraught partnership with nature in an ecotechnological context:

Along State Highway 100 between Palatka and Bunnell, Florida, is a business in which old cars are dumped into wetlands, and parts removed for sale. The used car dump is mostly hidden by the wetland trees. From what we know about wetlands absorbing and holding heavy metals (Odum et al., 2000a, b), this may not be a bad arrangement, a kind of ecological engineering (Odum & Odum, 2003, p. 352).

It would take a very sympathetic reader to find any irony here. Moreover, a prior statement made by the same author that “ecological engineering reduces costs by fostering nature’s inputs” (Odum, 1989, p. 81) does leave a rather bad taste in the mouth.

Thus, when Odum’s idea of a “partnership with nature” is referred to in the current debate on an appropriate design of ecological engineering (Schönborn & Junge, 2021, p. 384), the question arises whether a conceptualization is actually provided here that can convince with the attribution of intrinsic values to nature and a holistic method.

Ecotechnology and the Self-Design of Nature

Howard T. Odum was one of the leading figures in the field, the idea of a “self-design” of ecosystems being one of his most important contributions to ecological engineering. As far back as the 1960s, he suggested that ecological engineering may be a viable opportunity to manipulate systems in which “the main energy drives are still coming from natural sources” (cited in Mitsch & Jörgensen, 1989, p. 4). The idea was that such systems can be converted into self-organized systems by applying a new ecosystem design that uses “the work contributions of the environment” (Odum, 1989, p. 81). This top-down perspective, of reducing parts of nature into resource packages driven by energy input and output and transforming them into the service of human society, goes back to general systems theory, which in turn was inspired by cybernetic thinking. However, this is not the whole story: Behind the idea of reducing the environment to a working unit lurks a capitalist strategy. “‘The economy’ and ‘the environment’ are not independent of each other. Capitalism is not an economic system; it is a way of organizing nature” (Moore, 2015, p. 2). “Capitalism—or of one prefers, modernity or industrial civilization—emerged out of Nature. It drew wealth from Nature. It disrupted, degraded, or defiled Nature” (Moore, 2015, p. 5).

Howard T. Odum and Eugene Odum were both influential in establishing these ideas about self-organized and engineered ecosystems. Eugene Odum founded the independent Institute of Ecology at the University of Georgia in 1967 (referred to as the Odum School), and he was the author of Fundamentals of Ecology (1953), an influential textbook in ecology to which his brother Howard T. Odum contributed the sections on energy flow and biogeochemistry (Hagen, 2021). In the 1980s Eugene Odum commented “the possibility that ecosystems do function as general systems with self-organizing properties is to me a very exciting, unifying theory” (Odum, 1984, p. 559). This focus on energy flow diagrams inspired by systems theory as the only basic process in natural and human systems has been debunked by numerous authors as being a reductionist approach. Landscape ecologist Zev Naveh called the strategy of reducing everything to countable units a “real danger”; he noted that the Odum’s ecosystem approach provides only simplistic “ecological” explanations for human systems that could be interpreted as a “new kind of neo-materialistic ‘energy marxism’” (Naveh, 1982, p. 199). Ecology theorist Ludwig Trepl classified the Odum program as the technocratic branch of ecology that seeks perfection in dominating nature, commenting bitingly that “this was the latest attempt so far to grasp that which eludes predictability” (Trepl, 1987, p. 22).

It was precisely his unifying theory that Howard T. Odum had in mind when he developed experimental microcosm systems to apply the findings of self-organizational principles to larger ecosystems. Here, “self-organization” refers to the manipulation and monitoring of a succession observed in an experimental microcosm, consisting in the interaction of a limited number of species inside a vessel of a limited size. Odum had also offered this mesocosm concept to NASA in the 1970s as an experimental system designed to find out more about self-supporting life-support systems (Odum & Odum, 2003, p. 147). Although the concept was rejected, Odum continued to explore the possibility of domesticating ecosystems that can thus be “enclosed in concrete boxes to become the mainstays of environmental engineering” (p. 148).

Whereas in the 21st century, mesocosm studies are successfully used to monitor the impact of climate change (Cavicchioli et al., 2019), still in the 1980 not much was known about upscaling processes and their effects. Odum had to admit that “most self-organization has been happenstance, often in spite of management efforts in some other direction” (1989, p. 85). Based on rather weak experimental evidence, this statement reveals that his “self-organization” is more of a descriptive term derived from observing succession processes in very limited settings (Kangas & Adey, 1996) and that the dynamics involved in upscaling processes were virtually unknown. Accordingly, one might be inclined to conclude that this concept of self-organization is driven primarily by an economy of promise and is fueled by Promethean visions of governing “new ecosystems” using systems theory and a set of engineering design tools.

With “Living Machines”—simultaneously a concept and a technical artifact—an idea of symbiotic, self-organized systems was carried forward in industrial ecology (Zelov et al., 2001). However, the “ecology cells” created by the “New Alchemy Institute” were intended from the beginning to be applied in the limited context of wastewater treatment facilities or even individual households (Todd & Josephon, 1996). This more modest approach was also confirmed by theoretical reflections on industrial ecology that concluded it is not possible to define specific measures and practical actions for achieving an overarching vision of sustainability in industrial society by relying on the general ecosystem theory. Rather, a focus on “local, situational and case specific” practices and models was emphasized, in other words, an approach that conceptually refuses a universal or global application (Korhonen, 2005, p. 37). An influential author (Allenby, 2006) in the field has echoed this view, arguing that industrial ecology was perhaps one of the first fields not only to be aware of the “complex relationship between the normative and the objective” but also to contribute theoretically to a concept of mixed ontology, as it would be called from a philosophical perspective, “even without considering social science” (Allenby, 2006, p. 31), as he candidly admits.

Eventually, even as Odum capitalized on the ecotechnological impetus in environmental management fueled by the idea of a partnership with nature, at the same time he also contributed to the demise of the concept: “Ecotechnology may not be a good synonym for ecological engineering because it seems to omit the ecosystem part,” meaning “self-regulating processes of nature that make ecological self-designs low energy, sustainable, inexpensive, and different” (Odum & Odum, 2003, p. 240). Again, there is no conceptual demarcation here between self-organization and self-design (Mitsch, 1992; Odum, 1989; Odum & Odum, 2003), just as ecotechnology and ecological engineering are used interchangeably (Mitsch, 1992; Mitsch & Jörgensen, 1989). This could also be an indication that the epistemological status of technology in science and engineering is never clarified, leading to a constant confusion of values and categories: Instrumental schemes based on physical descriptions (such as self-organization and black boxing) are thus turned into prescriptive rules for pieces of nature without considering the constructive technicity either of the ecosystem scheme or of the imagined ecosystem in nature.

Other concepts of self-design refer more explicitly to ecotechnology and are intended as a basis for constructing a concise framework of principles, although the authors also explicitly acknowledge that they are using them in a “combination of axioms, heuristics and suggestions” (Bergen et al., 2001, p. 204). The heuristics of these ecological engineering design principles plays out clearly when the authors go back and forth in their arguments between design and ecosystem discourses, being quite explicit about the ambivalence of engineers designing ecosystems as one of their primary activities and the importance of including a value framework. It is in this context that the claim about an environment capable of being domesticated and made to serve human needs is turned into the more modest question: “What will nature help us to do?” This is explored by offering a discussion about the upstream and downstream effects of design decisions and about stakeholder participation, including the need for a strategy to deal with uncertainty and ignorance. It is argued, for instance, that “diversity provides insurance against uncertainty in addition to contributing to ecological resilience” (Bergen et al., 2001, p. 208). This links back to the concept of self-design. The fundamental ecotechnological claim of working for the benefit of society and nature is firmly attached here to an ethical framework that includes a commitment to risk management and reflecting about values during decision-making processes; such considerations encompass, for example, an equitable distribution of risk, intergenerational equity, and a concern for nonhuman species in particular. It might be an interesting follow-up question to ask whether a concept of self-design as deriving from systems theory still makes sense in a discourse that addresses design questions in a framework of adaptive management. Ross et al. argue, for example, “that any ecosystem design is likely to require adjustments over its lifespan, and indeed the most effective ecosystem designs are likely to be those that explicitly acknowledge the lack of any definite endpoint in time” (2015, p. 435).

In conclusion, one might speculate about what might emerge if a conceptual framework for ecotechnological ecosystem design—beyond elaborate ecological knowledge about species and sites—also included (a) consideration of ethical issues from the very start; (b) an acknowledgment that we are living in an anthropocentric world; (c) that design is a goal-oriented practice, meaning that ecosystem functions must be prioritized; and (d) that the existence of ecosystems and species and their historical conditions are considered not only as scientific but also as philosophical issues (including the value of embodied time), as well as a lifeworld issue (such as the pleasure of interrelationships and caring). It is likely that consideration of these criteria offers a viable way to address the urgent need for the localized modulation or assimilation of humans into their limited world. Understood as basic tools for ecotechnological practices, they could serve as a guide for making ecological design and restoration ecology, industrial ecology, and ecological engineering more credible, socially resonant, and robust.

Ecotechnology in an Asian context (Japan, China, Taiwan)

Among the first scientists to use the term “eco-technology” was Shuhei Aida, an academic working in the field of systems engineering at the University of Electro-Communications in Tokyo. He suggested the term in the early 1970s (1971, cited in Aida, 1995; 1973 cited in Aida, 1983). Unfortunately, these early writings could not be found in international literature source systems. Interestingly, the references circulate rather phantom-like as a first mention of ecotechnology in scientific literature. Aida himself regularly referred to this earlier work. For example, an article published in 1995 presents a definition of ecotechnology using a box-like text format:

Professor S. Aida proposed the following definition for Ecotechnology in 1971. Ecotechnology is the use of technology for ecosystem management. Ecotechnology is based upon a deep ecological understanding of mutual symbiosis in natural relationships. Ecotechnology is a mechanism for minimizing entropy production and the damage done to society and the environment by the products of entropy. The minimum entropy production concept attempts to optimize efficiency and effectiveness in society. Efficiency and effectiveness describe the various interactions which define our relationships with society and the environment. Ecotechnology is technology oriented towards ecology.

(Aida, 1995, p. 1456)

The first universally verifiable source for the term “eco-technology” is the book The Humane Use of Human Ideas, edited by Aida and published in 1983 by Pergamon Press on behalf of the Honda Foundation. In the chapter “Fundamental Concepts of Eco-technology,” most of the terms used in the 1971 definition, such as efficiency, effectiveness, and entropy, do not appear. An exception to this is the term “symbiosis,” which is used in a dual sense: First, to characterize a “symbiosis of nature and artificials,” realized by means of “eco-mechanisms” and “construction of nature”—both are to characterize the eco-technology of the future (Adia, 1983, Figure 16.8, p. 301). Second, “symbiosis” is used to refer to the “symbiosis of man and society,” this being considered a “holistic function of culture” that eventually culminates in a “synthesis of culture with technology that is Eco-technology” (Aida, 1983, p. 308). This metaphor of symbiosis, in both senses, is also used in other national and disciplinary ecotechnological contexts, indicating an attempt to conceptualize the entanglement of different materials and energy as well as cultural artifacts. For instance, in industrial ecology there is a reference to “industrial symbiotic systems” (Graedel & Allenby, 2010, p. 232) and in ecological engineering to the symbiotic relationship between humans and their natural environment (Mitsch & Jörgensen, 1989). In the Chinese context, the principle of symbiosis is asserted in ecological engineering, in industrial ecology as well as in emerging technologies (Li, 2018; Ma, 1988; Yu & Zhang, 2021; Zhang et al., 1998).

Eco-Technology and Ecotechnology

Aida’s (1995) article promotes the application of ecotechnology in the AIES project (adaptive intelligent energy systems) and suggests that it can function as a blueprint for a symbiotic technology based on artificial intelligence. This ecotechnology is expected to enable the development of “sustainable, adaptable energy systems for the future,” mainly the construction of power facilities (1995, p. 1458). The development and application of an “adaptive intelligence” is crucial for this project: The principle of ecological symbiosis is linked to the law of entropy and eventually results in a symbiotic self-organization process that enables environmentally benign design in many areas of society, technology, or the economy. It is interesting to note that, at about the same time, the concept of the “eco-thermodynamics” of natural resource depletion gained a certain momentum. It was pointed out that it is not the “finiteness of resource stocks, but the fragility of self-organized natural cycles that we have to fear. Unfortunately, the services provided by these cycles are part of the global commons. They are priceless, yet ‘free’” (Ayres, 1996, p. 11). Symbiotic processes of self-organization were expected to reinforce a mimetic ecotechnology that, so it was claimed, would initiate a third industrial revolution. Accordingly, it is not surprising that this technoscientific vision rests on a triple helix model, namely, a consortium consisting of Cranfield University in the United Kingdom, the Japanese International Foundation for Artificial Intelligence (IFAI) and, finally, TEPCO, the Tokyo Electric Power Company. Ecotechnology in this context becomes a program conceived as “ecological optimization in nature” (Aida, 1995, p. 1458) and thus a mode of technological design with nature, in which the human-built world, including industrial production, affords a better kind of nature than nature itself could ever build.

In the 1980s, Aida (1983) used the term “eco-technology” to express his unease with the “arrogance found in today’s technology” (p. 286), which he identified particularly with a supposedly inevitable interlocking of economics and technology, as indeed was presented shortly after this in the Brundtland report. Aida aligns himself instead with the Club of Rome report, explicitly seeking a “humanised approach” (p. 286) that should be based on a “productive collaboration between technology and ecology” (p. 286, emphasis in original) “to establish a new technological philosophy, based on ecological concepts and involving every aspect of scientific technology” (p. 288). For Aida, the key function of the “eco-technology” concept is to provide a “new ‘all-sided and multi-layered’ philosophy of science” (p. 286), offered within a holistic framework. This reference to a holistic view of ecotechnology has become a common currency in many Asian countries and is still visibly present. References can be found, for example, to concepts such as “holism, coordination, recycle and regeneration” in ecotechnology and ecological engineering, while its methods and practices should be based on principles of holistic planning and design (Zhang et al., 1998, p. 18). In Taiwan, ecotechnological methods and practices are promoted by the government based on a holistic view of problem-solving (Chou et al., 2007, p. 270). Additionally, the message contained in the very first preface of the Chinese journal Environmental Science and Ecotechnology could be summed up by the key sentence that human civilization and nature are intertwined—“as inseparable as mind and body” (Qu, 2020, p. 1).

However, this holistic framing is not new to scientific ecology, to Western science and philosophy in general, or to international science policy. What is new, however, is to suggest that technology is a means of enabling humans to become adapted to—almost molded into—their environment, which is ecologically limited. This clearly goes beyond the idea of technology as mediating between abstract ideas and material forms, while simultaneously referring to the concept of technè in Greek philosophy. Aida’s work poses a powerful reminder of the 1970s debate on the limits to growth, and his plea to give up the “‘confrontational aspect’ of science and technology” (Aida, 1983, p. 283) leads him to the proposal that ecology should be understood as an all-embracing science because “all modern scientific technology, in the biological world around us, must be in harmony with, and a component of, nature” (p. 282). In Aida’s historical reconstruction of science and technology, it is the predominance of physical science that has resulted in science going down the wrong route and thus bringing about a “mistaken evolution of technological methodologies,” both moves being due to the “Western approach of confrontation and conquest of nature” (p. 283). Thus, the current global crisis of humanity’s oikos must necessarily be identified as being largely a consequence of the hubris of Western-style technology.

To address this drawback, Aida suggests that we turn to traditional Oriental, especially Chinese, philosophies that emphasize instead “the need for mankind to unite and cooperate with nature, so that both may continue in harmonious coexistence” (Aida, 1983, p. 283). Confucian concepts, he argues, could help us to (re-)introduce “the spirit” in a world of technology that is largely imagined and managed in its materialistic dimension. Aida believes that an ecotechnological philosophy, meaning an “all-round ecological approach to the future,” could bring about this turnaround and close the gap between the material and the ethical, the materialistic and the spiritual in science and technology (Aida, 1983, p. 290). Environmental pollution and excessive industrial production could only take hold to such an extent, he argues, because ethical and spiritual issues have been pushed firmly into the background behind material and economic growth in the development of scientific technology.

Aida offers some thoughts on how an ecotechnological philosophy might work to nurture the role of a nonmaterial dimension in science and technology and to combat “Western-made” problems. He suggests that we distinguish between “hard pollution,” the contamination of the physical environment, and “mental pollution,” the latter being the more critical pollution, particularly since it is more difficult to perceive and control. In a visual representation reminiscent of the cybernetics-inspired ecosystem figures of the Odum brothers, “eco-technology” is portrayed as the means of connecting society, energy, and natural resources so that it becomes a means to short-circuit the “problem of human mind,” “future society,” and “technical control” (Aida, 1983, p. 291). The resulting eco-technological system then covers the totality of individuals, minds, ambitions, and actions bound together in a society in which the spheres of matter, energy, and information are closely interconnected. Such a modern society, Aida argues in conclusion, is organized by the work of men and machines, “involving many different kinds of interaction between technology, nature and art” (p. 298). In this societal model, ecological science can “offer essential knowledge from nature to form an environmentally harmonious system” (p. 300). Correspondingly, it is eco-technology, the “adjustment technique,” that is expected to synthetize culture and technology, both conceptually and functionally (p. 308). As far as the problem with so-called mental pollution in this eco-technological system is concerned—how it might be characterized, detected, and handled—nothing further is mentioned, and thus the dilemma of an eco-tech-culture persists. In any case, the all-embracing understanding of eco-technology as a technique of adjustment in a world framed in terms of cybernetics acquires something of the uncanny.

Technology and Nature in Harmony?

“Eco-technology” continues to be used more recently in the Asian context, on the one hand in general reflections about sustainable science, and on the other hand, in the sense of establishing ecotechnological practices. Some elements of the narrative discussed above have disappeared, such as the concept of hard versus mental pollution, or the entropy models that conflate the spheres of matter and energy, animate and inanimate, society and nature. Others have persisted, however, such as Western philosophy still being criticized for building “a human empire enslaving nature” and foregrounding an anthropocentric worldview that “does not allow for any restraint in relation to nature, and thus led to the creation of severe environmental constraints” (Ishida & Furukawa, 2013, p. 135). A new kind of technology is expected to unfold based on Japanese Buddhist philosophies referring to the core idea that “all living things–mountains and rivers, grasses and trees, and all the land, are imbued with the Buddhist spirit,” and therefore all “living things including humans are seen to be part of the same cycle of life” (Ishida & Furukawa, 2013, p. 142). Rethinking the relationship between human beings and nature in the light of environmental constraints thus also means creating a new form of technology that “helps people live wholesome, spiritually fulfilling lives” (Ishida & Furukawa, 2013, p. 143) and developing new lifestyles in this limited world. The notion of adjustment as a technique resonates in these ideas, with the individual never dissolving fully into general categories or physical quantities, as is the case in the more technocratic ecotechnological philosophy of Shuhei Aida. Instead, technological potential is seen in the cultivation of a playful and skillful appropriation of things and ways of acting in society. It is this technology incorporated into culture that balances the spiritual and the material sphere, eventually resulting in an industrial revolution which embraces a more relational view of nature. The authors propose a philosophical approach they call “Nature Technology” that revolves around the following four claims: (a) Technology “realizes high function/ultra-low environmental impact with nature as a point of departure,” (b) “is simple and easy to understand,” (c) “encourages communication and community,” and (d) “inspires attachment and affection” (Ishida & Furukawa, 2013, p. 153). Each of these elements additionally provides interesting linkages to approaches developed in social and political ecology in Europe, Latin America, and North America (see section “Social/Political Ecology”), as well as to new materialism and posthuman theories (see section “Another Semantic Turn of Ecotechnology/Ecotechnics”).

Sustainability and Ecotechnological Agency

The term “eco-technology” appears on the scene when it comes to the socio-technical implementation of sustainable products and to behavior in everyday life, particularly in the world of consumption. Japan is considered as having a diversified and an economically impressive market in highly advanced eco-technologies. At the same time it is said that Japanese citizens have the highest environmental awareness compared to other industrialized countries so that one might “rightly expect a synergy between the launch of eco-products and high citizen awareness” (Ishida & Furukawa, 2013, p. 12) and an improved situation in general. However, it has been shown that the “eco-dilemma”—the steady degradation of the global environment—cannot be solved with eco-technologies because increasing consumption is cancelling out the positive effects of green technology, particularly when greenwashing takes over. This has been identified as a kind of rebound effect and has led to a call to change the precondition of eco-technologies that is allied with the socioeconomic formula “people’s desires = convenience and comfort = a prosperous life” (p. 17). Accordingly, it is argued that partially optimized eco-technologies are not sufficient, particularly if they only involve replicating the technological fix of conventional manufacturing, with a layer of green camouflage added on. Technology that truly acknowledges the existence of environmental constraints, then, should be understood as a socio-technical contribution to innovative lifestyles in which new forms of prosperity must be developed and where values and virtues such as responsibility and self-restraint are incorporated into the creation of products and lifestyles alike. However, this would require going beyond recent eco-technologies. Thus, in the Japanese context too, it seems that eco-technology has lost its heuristic persuasiveness as well as its socio-technical power. By contrast, in the Chinese and the Taiwanese context ecotechnology is gaining momentum: It is being incorporated into governmental road maps and is becoming more and more visible in institutional settings. Scientific journals, research centers, and businesses have been established that have the term “ecotechnology” in their name, and most of them see themselves in the tradition of ecological engineering or restoration ecology.

Sociopolitical Imagineries and Agency in International Networking

The ground was well prepared for the emergence of ecotechnology in the 1970s in terms of the sociopolitical imaginaries being linked to ecological thinking. From the beginning, issues about humankind and its habitat were seen in their international dimension, not least as a result of the science policymaking organized by various scientific, industrial, or philanthropic foundations or in the context of activities initiated by the United Nations. Still under the impression of World War II, the volume Man’s Role in Changing the Face of the Earth was published in 1956, the voluminous outcome of an interdisciplinary conference funded by the American Wenner-Gren foundation for Anthropological Research and the U.S. National Science Foundation. The wording of ecotechnology did not appear, but “man as an agent of change” that should “strive toward a condition of equilibrium with its environment” (Sears, 1956, p. 473) was the dominant leitmotif. The concern put forward by American public intellectual Lewis Mumford captured the zeitgeist when he called for a self-transformation of the conditions of the Anthropos, that is humankind, itself, pointing out that

what will happen to this earth depends very largely upon man’s capacities as a dramatist and creative artist, and that in turn depends in no slight measure upon the estimate he forms of himself. What he proposes to do to the earth, utilizing its soils, its mineral resources, its water, its flows of energies, depends largely upon his knowledge of his own historic nature and his plans for his own further self-transformations.

(Mumford, 1956, p. 1146)

In the context of ethics, the idea of nature and technology being in a cooperative (Allianztechnologie) rather than a confrontational relationship was—and still is—popular, as is expressed in Ernst Bloch’s often-quoted analogy about the present technology standing in nature like an occupying army in enemy territory and knowing nothing of the interior (Bloch, 1985). In a further ethical twist, the debate was also linked with the holism debate present in the ontological strand of ecology from the beginning (Bergandi, 2011, p. 36). An ecological ethic of using technology to harmonize humanity’s relationship with nature was appealing and was often linked to values such as the integrity of the biosphere or the use of nature in an ecologically sound manner. At the same time, it was very common to criticize the Promethean quest of using technology to dominate nature (e.g., Bookchin, 1977). Accordingly, in the 1960s and 1970s, the call to action grew louder as the widely exploitative and destructive character of humankind came to be sensed by many people to be both menacing and dehumanizing; in this context, the global environmental movement gained momentum. This was by no means a uniform phenomenon. Instead, there were different “policy styles” that evolved out of different national contexts, spawned by the interactions among stakeholders in government administrations, the economy, academia, and civil society (Jamison, 2001, p. 102). In the U.S. environmental movement, political philosopher and environmental activist Murray Bookchin was a creative “dramatist” and multiplier at the same time. He fleshed out the concept of “ecotechnology” on the occasion of his preparation for the UN Conference on Human Settlements in 1974 and issued the following statement: “If the word ‘ecotechnology’ is to have more than a strictly technical meaning, it must be seen as the very ensemble itself functionally integrated with human communities as part of a shared biosphere of people and non-human life forms” (Bookchin, 1977, p. 79). In parallel to the conceptualization of ecotechnology, interdisciplinary collaboration and the trading of concepts and theories were stimulated during an interim phase of about 20 years, starting in the 1970s.

When the first report commissioned by the Club of Rome was published, it almost coincided with the date of the first environmental summit of the United Nations in Stockholm in 1972, in a sense the birth of environmental diplomacy. The summary of the general debate notes—not without a hint of drama—that “the Conference was launching a new liberation movement to free men from the threat of their thraldom to environmental perils of their own making” (UN Conference on the Human Environment, 1973, p. 45). Shortly after the conference the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) was founded and became the coordinating body for the United Nations’ environmental activities. One of the dominant topics became the limits to growth and economic development, particularly in less developed countries. The term “eco-development” was introduced by the incumbent secretary-general, Maurice Strong, as an alternative form of economic development to the globally occurring pattern of economic expansion; the term seeped rapidly into debates about social and political theories. It appeared repeatedly in various bodies belonging to international organizations and was also adopted by research centers affiliated with these. The debates about models of economic growth and limited resources were dominant for a while, eventually leading in the 1980s to a debate about environmental pollution (Moll, 1991; Radkau, 2014). Perhaps ironically, this issue had already been “forecast” in The Limits to Growth, a book that, perhaps apart from the Bible, had become one of the most hotly disputed and successful books ever published.

‘Unlimited’ resources thus do not appear to be the key to sustaining growth in the world system. Apparently, the economic impetus such resource availability provides must be accompanied by curbs on pollution if a collapse of the world system is to be avoided (Meadows et al., 1972, p. 133).

Less extreme categories emerged subsequently to combine environmental care and economic growth: The time for the term “sustainability” had come. In 1983, the United Nations established the World Commission on Environment and Development. It was headed by the Norwegian Gro Harlem Brundtland, who in 1987 presented the report “Our Common Future” and made “sustainability” the pivotal point of the report. Eco-development and ecotechnology did not appear here explicitly. Instead, key issues associated with ecotechnology were included in the concept of sustainable development.

Social/Political Ecology

In the 1970s ecologically oriented debates, political economy, and social theories came together in various frameworks, and ecotechnology became a key concept in different settings. Authors involved in these debates referred to either social ecology or political ecology, but the differences were determined less by content or a particular set of theories than by institutional settings. Similarly, in historical reconstructions of social ecology (Luke, 1987) or political ecology (Escobar, 2010), the same authors (such as Ernst Friedrich Schumacher, Amory Lovins, and Murray Bookchin) might be claimed as important scholars. It has also been pointed out that utopian political thought comes from the tradition of social philosophy with its historical roots in the 18th century, in the political ideas of Henri Rousseau, for example, and can also be located in the utopian literature of the 19th century, such as in William Morris, Peter Kropotkin, or Henry David Thoreau.

There are several possible narrative strands available to tell the story of the conjuncture of ecotechnology and social ecology. One important nexus is certainly an experimental project in the 1970s, the “Vermont Installation,” which served to combine ecotechnology with ecocommunity. It was launched by Murray Bookchin, an American political philosopher, social theorist, and activist, who called for new forms of knowledge with respect to the use of technology. Most likely, he was also the first to explicitly link the idea of an ecologically informed technology with the project of “social ecology.” He considered his project an ensemble that “has the distinct goal of not only meeting human needs in an ecologically sound manner—one which favors diversity within an ecosystem—but of consciously promoting the integrity of the biosphere” (Bookchin, 1977, p. 79). He, too, just like many of his contemporaries, criticized the Promethean attitude that sees technology as a means of dominating and colonizing nature, ultimately leading to energy-, pollutant-, and capital-intensive growth. What is required instead, he argued, is an ecological ethic to tame technological excess in order ultimately to harmonize humanity’s relationship with nature:

Ecotechnology would use the inexhaustible energy capacities of nature—the sun and wind, the tides and waterways, the temperature differentials of the earth and the abundance of hydrogen around us as fuels—to provide the ecocommunity with non-polluting materials or wastes that could be easily recycled (Bookchin, 1980, p. 69).

Bookchin advocated a transformation of both capitalism and socialism toward a radical social ecology, the utopia of a “post-scarcity anarchism” (1986) that would ultimately create a more humane and balanced society capable of caring properly for its organic and inorganic environment. He considered two agents of change as being particularly promising in the quest to generate ecotechnology as a liberatory technology: First, the implementation of the principle “small is beautiful” (Schumacher, 1973) in technological devices and machines, and, second, the integration of ecotechnologies into local environments and everyday practices. He argued that self-management, community empowerment, and household production are crucial for compliance with the ecological constraints of every bioregion (Bookchin, 1980, p. 27). Small-scale agriculture and scaling down industry to the needs of a community would not only mimic ecosystems/nature but also become a self-sustaining ecosystem, a basic communal unit of social life. This ecocommunity would be guided by a permanent critically verifying and reifying process of the “making” of a liberated self “capable of turning time into life, space into community, and human relationships into the marvelous” (Bookchin, 1986, p. 66).

Bookchin was not alone in seeking new forms of social organization and technological practices and a revival of personal moral responsibility and democratic citizenship in the practices of everyday life. Other social ecologists—even if they did not use the term explicitly—also advocated ecotechnology in the sense of a less destructive technological approach toward nature and a transformation of the prevailing economic order. However, the range of positions was remarkably broad and varied and included fairly radical, direct-action programs such as Bookchin’s, the quest to awaken a moral consciousness that views nature as a moral force (Schumacher, 1973) and the call for a simplification of everyday life (Illich, 1975/2014). More moderate ideas included environmental policy reform—including calls for a new class of experts, or “ecomanagers” (Amory B. Lovins or Hazel Henderson)—and Marxist positions dealing with nature more efficiently and at the same time preventing the overproduction of commodities (André Gorz). All these positions entailed enlisting different agents of change willing to work toward an ecological future with their different motivations. Timothy W. Luke suggests that this rather complex situation can be divided into two strands of political strategy. The first of these places its hope in the educational impact of political actions and writings that would ultimately enable agents of change to tackle the ecological crisis. This so-called soft path is characterized mainly by an appeal to individual decision-making, moral insight, and bottom-up processes of social change. The hard path, by contrast, considers the state to be a key agent of social change, one that uses “bureaucratic coercion, material incentives, and scientific persuasion” (Luke, 1987, p. 305) from its operational toolbox to solve the environmental and technological problems identified. Luke is not very optimistic that the full potential of social ecology will be realized in practice, yet he does see some potential in the European Green Parties “to provide a practical model for the effective politicization of social ecology” (p. 314). A more recent critique has pointed out that the declarations that emerged from progressive oppositional politics in the 1970s and 1980s to explain environmental degradation made reference “solely to human-to-human hierarchies and oppressions” and not to a broader network of actors, and that this “can look like an evasion of the need to accord to the nonhuman a disconcerting agency of its own” (Clark, 2012, p. 152).

“Soziale Naturwissenschaft” (Social Natural Science)—Another Ecotechnology?

Another closely related narrative strand can be identified in the German-speaking context, even though it did not directly address the connection between ecotechnology and the story of social ecology—in fact, the word ecotechnology was even not used. However, the concept of social [natural] science acquired a certain momentum in the 1980s and established a connection to the more general discourse in philosophy and sociology about the transformation of science, technology, the economy, societal institutions, and personal lifestyles. Other authors were rather skeptical about these suggestions for “ways of expanding ecology” (Böhme & Grebe, 1985) or claiming it as a so-called key science (Leitwissenschaft). Historian and philosopher of ecology Ludwig Trepl pointed out that the history of ecology itself

shows most clearly that there is nothing one could unproblematically ‘latch onto’ theoretically: neither the traditional natural history route nor even the strand modernized by systems theory and cybernetics displays the characteristics of an ‘alternative, non-dominating etc. relation to nature’ (Trepl, 1987, p. 227; emphasis in original).

The working group “Soziale Naturwissenschaft” at the Technical University in Darmstadt was actively involved in case studies looking at water management projects in Egypt and Germany that were highly problematic in technological and ethical terms. In the course of addressing these concerns, they formulated the need for a new type of knowledge that they dubbed “basic research for applied science” (Anwendungsgrundlagen) (Böhme & Grebe, 1985, p. 38). They argued that pressing environmental problems cannot be solved by scientific communities organized along traditional disciplinary lines but that new epistemic forms and practices need to be established that are oriented toward problem-solving and include a normative element of theoretical reflexivity. This idea of a “nature policy for the whole society” (gesamtgesellschaftliche Naturpolitik) (Böhme & Grebe, 1985, p. 38) ultimately set in motion a reorientation and a reassessment of interdisciplinary and later transdisciplinary research that addressed this issue in different research programs. These dealt with questions regarding human-nature metabolism, and most of them shared the assumptions that, first, humans exert a significant impact on nature (as Marx had noted), second, this relation emerged historically—that is, nature itself has a history—and, third, accordingly, the human-nature relation is produced and not just given, necessitating a normative framework. Recent work on socio-ecological transformation takes these ideas, substantiates them, and implements them in design principles relating to society and biodiversity, such as “focusing on relationships between society and nature,” “enabling coexistence,” “strengthening resilience,” as well as in the pursuit of a critically constructive and democratic participatory development of technology (Jahn et al., 2020). Accordingly, the concept of socio-ecological design in the Anthropocene clearly stands in more than a merely analogous or metaphorical relationship to the concept “ecotechnology” as discussed in social ecology by, among others, Bookchin. The same goes for other important research programs dealing with issues of society-nature metabolism. In addition to the Institute for Socio-Ecological Research (ISOE) in Frankfurt am Main, Germany (ISOE), where the research discussed above was conducted, there are other institutions, such as the research platform for socio-ecological transformations at the Institute of Social Ecology in Vienna, Austria, or the Institute for Social Ecology in Vermont, United States. If one had to name a common denominator among all the actors working in the field of socio-ecological transformation, it may be the commitment to transformation in the present (rather than in the future) and to enabling the political implementation of principles for socio-technical design and decision-making.

Social Ecology Interwoven With Industrial Ecology

Another narrative strand of social ecology is that of ecotechnics (Ökotechnik), which clearly signals the notion of technological innovation as ecological modernization. The concept of ecotechnics was first developed out of industrial ecology, and its proponents claim that it arose not “from ideological preference, but from the geo- and biospheric reality of societal metabolism” (Huber, 1986, p. 283). Ecotechnics and ecological sustainability are two sides of the same coin, the former providing the ecologically informed technology that serves the official government credo in industrialized countries regarding the ecological modernization of society. With ecotechnics, the greening of technology and science goes hand in hand with both a mechanization and a monetarization of ecological contexts. In an ecotechnic context, a naturally balanced system is disrupted by technological means and replaced by the technological production of an artificial eco-equilibrium. Proponents of ecotechnics are aware that this constitutes a far-reaching manipulation of the metabolism of materials and energy that, ultimately, would transform planetary water cycles and also the earth’s climate (Huber, 1986, p. 86). This idea of transforming the metabolism of natural systems in favor of industrial production fits perfectly into the strategy—criticized as being a capitalist strategy—of reducing the environment to a matter of managing labor and resources and, ultimately, of reorganizing nature.

It is openly asserted that ecotechnics has the character of a breakthrough technology (similar to biotechnology); accordingly, its aim is not to adapt industrial processes, structures, or products to eco-cycles that have hitherto been given by nature (an idea attributed to conservative parts of the ecology movement). Instead, ecotechnics “breaks up natural materials and their interrelationships, breaks them down, breaks through them and tries to reconstruct them according to its own will” (Huber, 1986, p. 86). This rather “bellicose” description is generally countered immediately by the comment that it is a constitutive part of human activity to intervene in nature and thereby change both nature and itself to some extent as a result. This echoes the philosophical idea that humans have never encountered a pristine nature but rather are always dealing with an environment that is nature already transformed and that they appropriate through work.

Clearing, burning, hunting, digging furrows, diverting water, rummaging through the earth for mineral resources, producing garbage, thus consuming, changing and substituting natural resources, man appropriated nature from the beginning, made it his environment. His culture always already created a nature-culture, in the good like in the bad (Mittelstraß, 1992, p. 21).

This anthropological determination reinforces the bellicose tone and leaves little room for hope or for any credibility of the claim that ecotechnics can also mean development in an “intelligent and cultivated way” (Huber, 1986, p. 86). With this ecotechnics, ecological modernization is positioned in the tradition of progressive technology development that is open-ended, the key being new technologies such as renewable clean energy, new materials, and new modes of production and practices. This resembles the widespread picture of a technological development that comes up against ecological limits to growth while at the same time discovering ways to shift these limits and to permanently “increase the ecological carrying capacity of the geosphere and biosphere for humans” (Huber, 1986, p. 279). This ecotechnics fits quite well with the strategy of the Brundtland report, which was published just one year later: In an anthropocentric world structured by hierarchies and colonialisms, nature is dealt with accordingly.

Ecotechnics as Problem-Based Learning

The study program Ecotechnics/Ecoteknik was launched at the university college of Östersund, Sweden, in 1983 and became a pioneering model in combining theoretical knowledge with practical action. What eventually emerged was a problem-based learning method. After the turn of the millennium the program was renamed “Ecotechnology,” thus promoting a concept of sustainable development intended to link ecological, economic, and technological elements in a cooperative and productive way with an entrepreneurial focus. The program specialized in environmental science and environmental engineering, and courses were also offered on socioeconomic issues and on national and international environmental policy structures. Key topics included a number of important instruments for the sustainable use of bioresources in society, such as life cycle and environmental impact assessments, as well as the international environmental management system (EMAS, ISO, etc.) and environmental law (Grönlund et al., 2014). Later, the program was split into three strands: First, ecoengineering, an interdisciplinary course with an engineering focus; second, ecoentrepreneurship, designed to impart special skills in social entrepreneurship and green production; and, third, ecotechnology, which somehow mediated between the two other strands. The participants attending Ecotechnics ’95, the International Symposium on Ecological Engineering in Östersund, agreed that “ecotechnics is defined as the method of designing future societies within ecological frames” (Thofelt & Englund, 1995, p. xvi).

One of the core values of the study program is that knowledge must be turned into practical action. Students are taught how biological and ecological systems work and at the same time how to handle complex systems and the sustainable use of local resources. Another important value is the development of the concept of resilience, not only to understand theoretically resilient socio-ecological systems but also to develop self-management skills. Resilience is understood here in the sense of a general theory of adaptive systems. The concept, developed for the modeling of ecological systems (Holling, 1973), was transformed, extended, and applied to the teaching formats in the ecotechnics program. Resilient systems are considered to exhibit similar patterns when they accumulate resources, increase connectedness, or decrease resilience, and they are able to compensate for periods of crisis and transformation. Accordingly, resilience can be understood as an approach to adapting to changing environments, including coping with daily practical life by developing “ego resilience” (Cohn et al., 2009, p. 362). Finally, resilience is considered a way of thinking that could be used to analyze social-ecological systems and be applied to social, management, and individual systems. One of the important experiences afforded by the study program is that learning skills takes more time than learning facts, so that more time must be allowed for this—even if it comes at the expense of theoretical knowledge. Students who applied to study for this degree had a reputation for not knowing much but for being good problem-solvers, which was considered an advantage in terms of interdisciplinary project work and problem-solving capacity (Grönlund et al., 2014). “During the period when the Ecotechnics/Ecotechnology was a 2-year education program one employer even said: ‘These Ecotechnics students, they don‘t know much, but they always solve the problem you give them!” (Grönlund et al., 2014, p. 18). Meanwhile, the popularity of problem-based learning has increased enormously and has become an established method in academic teaching not only in Sweden. To conclude, it is interesting to note that one of the discursive strands of ecotechnics led to the development of a successful teaching method in general based on combining ecology-inspired theories (mainly resilience) and consideration of the wisdom of everyday practices.

An Ecotechnological Rationality for Latin America

Latin American social ecology has been embedded from the start in a discourse about the decolonization of scientific knowledge and about eco-development, as put forward at the first UN conference in 1972 in Stockholm on the human environment. It was clearly seen that the models and concepts developed in fully industrialized countries were not an appropriate fit for Latin American contexts. Accordingly, the publication of “Limits to Growth,” which elaborated a so-called world model, was matched by the publication in 1976 of a Latin American world model entitled “Catastrophe or New Society?,” written by a group of scholars coordinated by Argentinian geologist Amílcar Herrera. Environmental deterioration and poverty were identified as the main factors of environmental degradation, underlining the need to design and apply proposals based on eco-development. In the years following this, Latin America became an important player on the global international scene. For example, the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) was founded, which brought together an interdisciplinary group of ecologists, economists, and scholars from other disciplines to study the particular environmental problems of the different regions. A Latin American group for the Analysis of Ecological Systems was set up in 1980 and published “The Ecological Future of a Continent: A Prospective Vision of Latin America,” which in some ways foreshadowed the Brundtland report of 1987. A couple of years later, the Brundtland publication “Our Common Future” was similarly matched by a Latin American study “Our Own Agenda” (2005), which received support from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Inter-American Development Bank.

It is important to note that Latin American social ecology has always been a search for an epistemological concept of environment. The concern behind such a concept is to help deconstruct the nonsustainable rationality of modernity and instead construct “alternative sustainable worlds guided by an environmental rationality” (Leff, 2010, p. 10). For many actors working within international organizations, Latin America seemed to be a useful real-world laboratory in which to apply and explore the ideas contained in eco-development. One of the main proponents was political economist Ignacy Sachs, who successfully disseminated the concept in Latin America and promoted eco-development in different institutions such as universities, municipalities, and government agencies. The creation of the Center for Eco-development in Mexico was one of the outcomes of this networking campaign, the aim being to foster a generation of policies for development “in harmony with ecosystem conditions in Mexico” (Leff, 2010, p. 6). Following this, the environmental issue was debated in many Latin American countries, including the problem of how to produce forms of knowledge suited to tackle environmental management issues. Accordingly, identifying socio-environmental problems always meant combining economic, political, and social analysis with specific case studies on deforestation, biodiversity loss, soil and nutrient erosion, and, later on, climate change.

Enrique Leff, a Mexican economist and environmental sociologist, pointed out that a simple transfer of technostructures from temperate industrialized regions to tropical underdeveloped countries poses particular problems on social, economic, and biological levels. He noted critically that “the social productive forces created through the technological harnessing of nature’s laws become a force destructive of the material processes that are their source of wealth and development” (Leff, 1986, p. 686). This constitutes an argument against a productive process dominated by extraction, exploitation, and a general technological transformation of natural resources that goes far beyond the capacity of ecological conditions to maintain resilience. The term “technostructure” already implies the work of adaption and integration into the productivity of a particular ecological system. It denotes a technological system defined—and constrained—by the ecological conditions of natural productivity and by the productivity of individuals and collectives in a social entity in their quest to appropriate the technological means of production. It is important to note that this is imagined as a two-way process of adaptation that follows a repertoire of heuristics, affords new skills and new knowledge, and is accompanied by the development of monitoring instruments that eventually enable self-management.

The conceptualization of an ecotechnological (Leff, 1986) or environmental (Leff, 2010) rationality receives support from the idea of an ecological rationality as suggested by the ABC Research Group at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development and the Max Planck Institute for Psychological Research, both located in Munich, dedicated to studying adaptive cognition and behavior (Todd et al., 2012). Their main thesis is that ecological rationality is lead in part by using simple heuristics and in part by the structure of the environment: “In what environment does a given heuristic perform better than a complex strategy, and when is the opposite true? This is the question of the ecological rationality of a heuristic” (Todd et al., 2012, p. 5). Ecotechnological and ecological rationality both assume that it is only rational to rely on the local environment and a proven pattern of thinking, and that adaptive behavior emerges from a dynamic interaction between mind and world.

In an ecotechnological process designed this way, cultural values are embedded in workflows and in the design of technological artifacts, while, conversely, a transformation of values takes place during the process of resource exploitation as imposed by external political and market forces (government, international economic conditions, etc.). In this way, a system of carefully interrelated natural and technological resources is generated that is attuned to the order of cultural values provided by the local political and economic conditions (Leff, 1994, p. 6). This adjustment process is based on an eco-technological rationality that relies on the idea of integrative ecotechnological principles; that is, productive potential is based on an ecosystemic organization of resources and new socioeconomic formations (Leff, 1994, p. 3). This ultimately generates technological innovation, accompanied by a reorganization and relocation of industrial production, including societal action and innovative products. Eco-technological rationality thus emerges from a historical, cultural, and political process that provides orientation for a form of ecotechnological production rooted in social values and lifestyles, produces socio-technical innovation, and affords an institutional transformation. In this sense eco-technological rationality is the precondition for potential eco-development.

Leff’s suggestion of an “ecotechnological paradigm” became an important working concept with which to explore the new field of knowledge around a prudent and sustainable development of socioeconomic formations, cultural knowledge, and ecological resources. The conceptual basis for implementing this comprehensive program was constituted by three independent spheres of productivity, namely, the cultural, the ecological, and the technological (Leff, 1986, p. 691). The skill required in the planning process is to discover, define, and evaluate the relevant technostructure that has already internalized the necessary ecosystem services. This technostructure then takes shape and acquires a specific technical materialization. It is then presented to the community in such a way that people can accept and assimilate the new knowledge and are empowered to participate in the management processes of their own productive resources.

An Epistemology of Ecotechnology?

Founded in 1976, the Mexican Association of Epistemology held its first conference on the topic of ecodevelopment models. Unsurprisingly, the conference issued the statement that the environmental crisis is a consequence of the established hegemonic economic and epistemic orders. A need was identified to seek out “environmental rationalities through a dialogue of knowledges with the critical Western thinking now underway in science, philosophy and ethics” (Leff, 2010, p. 2). As a consequence, a new culture of epistemological practices emerged that transformed European theories and concepts while at the same time creating a specific concept of knowledge that emphasized the “ecological potentials and the cultural diversity of our continent” (Leff, 2010, p. 9). Leff points in particular to the productive engagement with French philosophy, in particular with authors such as Bachelard, Canguilhem, or Derrida, which ultimately led to an understanding of environment as otherness. This allowed an empirical–functional concept of environment to emerge in contrast to more holistic–systemic ones. From the very beginning, investigation of the environment of a certain population (its milieu) included economic and social issues and was not reduced to a mere natural science perspective, one associated with a seemingly value-free collection of data. This is what Leff addressed as being beyond “the logocentrism of science, as the ‘other’ of established scientific theories” (Leff, 2010, p. 8). In this framework, nature is still seen as a distinct ontological domain, but it is now acknowledged that it has become inextricably hybridized with culture and technology and that it is also produced by knowledge systems.

All this opened up new fields of political ecology in Latin America, which began working with concepts such as “environment as potential” and “environmental complexity,” the latter understood in terms of self-organization, emergence, nonhierarchy, and nonlinear dynamic processes. Philosopher Arturo Escobar identifies in Leff’s works a “neo-realism derived from complexity” that might allow for a “different reading of the cultural dimension of nature–culture regimes” (Escobar, 2010, p. 97). This, he points out, could afford a political ecology in which knowledge is considered a product of lived experience and is co-produced in an environment that is characterized first and foremost by an indifferent relational potentiality toward the cultural and the natural world without immediately drawing an epistemological line between the two. However, as Escobar admits, it is still difficult to maneuver between the interpretive frameworks of constructivists and essentialists, and the move toward a better understanding of relationality, incorporating multiple modes of knowing, is not yet clearly spelled out. Further elaboration of the concept of ecotechnology could indeed be a worthwhile path to pursue.

Another Semantic Turn of Ecotechnology/Ecotechnics

That humans encounter an environment that is already nature transformed and that is subject to progressive technological development is a narrative expounded with differing points of emphasis. Whereas philosopher Mittelstraß (1992) argues that nature has never been part of the living world of humans—because they transform nature into their environment through work—historian Bill McKibben, in his well-known book The End of Nature, brings in a temporal dimension: “We have ended the thing that has, at least in modern times, defined nature for us—its separation from human society” (McKibben, 1990, p. 80). Another point of view is put forward by French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy, who argues that if we regard nature as that which fulfills its purpose by itself, “then we must also regard technology as a purpose of nature, because from it comes the animal that is capable of technology–or needs it”—that is, the human being (Nancy, 2011, p. 55). Accordingly, he suggests locating technology at the center of nature rather than constructing it as its opposite or as other. Technology has its own developmental dynamic and finds its own order in that it responds to demands and needs. The breeding of plants and animals, new chemical elements, and the construction of technical infrastructures are examples of this momentum, which may or may not be triggered by humans and cannot be controlled by them. All this is summed up in the term “Ökotechnie” denoting the technological becoming of the world (Nancy, 1991, p. 38). It is a technoscientific world of possibilities, unstable and plastic, consisting of highly interwoven and nested assemblages in which “ends and means incessantly exchange their roles” (Nancy, 2011, p. 56), and the idea of a greater order has been abandoned: There is no longer any intelligent design. Instead, the world has become a technosphere and is compounded of innumerous bits and pieces, all of them somehow related to or sprouting from the well-known technologically armored animal that has itself become part of a network of intelligence (Hörl, 2011, p. 17). This dynamic structure with a common though not constructed origin in Homo faber is what Nancy calls an “ecosystem, which is an ecotechnology” (Nancy, 2011, p. 66) endowed with the potential to permanently renew and revitalize itself. The concept is not developed further here, but in his earlier writings Nancy had put forward a critique of instrumentalized nature:

So-called ‘natural life,’ from its production to its conservation, its needs, and its representations, whether human, animal, vegetal, or viral, is henceforth inseparable from a set of conditions that are referred to as ‘technological,’ and which constitute what must rather be named ecotechnology (Nancy, 2007, p. 94).

The only nature that exists is thus the one already de-structured and recombined by ecotechnologies. When one speaks of “nature,” one refers to a representation of nature that is already remodeled by ecotechnology. Accordingly, ecotechnology is a thoroughgoing technological manipulation, and humans are the subject of an ecotechnological creation. Humans’ ecotechnological activities establish the conditions for any appearance or dynamics of nature, outside or inside the laboratory, for humans and for humans’ milieu, mediated or not through a particular medium. Even when one engages physically with nature outside, this is already ecotechnologized nature, be it a historical cultural landscape, a nature reserve, or the ever more visible heralds of climate change. This conceptualization stands in stark contrast to the alliance technology discussed above and to ecotechnology for the benefit of humans and nature, whatever that may mean in detail and however manipulative it may be in ecological engineering or restoration.

Another technological layer is added when humans engage with visual representations of this ecotechnologized nature outside. Weather, for instance, has—at least for a large part of urban populations—become a phenomenon that takes place mainly on a computer or television screen. The same goes for experiences of nature, for encounters with nondomesticated animals, and, of course, for the greenhouse effect and the hole in the ozone. Media technologies can be considered naturalized in that they offer simulations of nature and may become the only points of reference for experiences and knowledge of nature. In this way, many interactions with the biosphere—including measurements as well as representations—not only become part of an ecotechnologically mediated global information turnover but also crucially raise the problem of how nature is perceived and narrated at all.

The latter has also become an issue in educational programs at international and national levels, where ignorance of the sorely needed shift from the usual nature-culture separation toward ecotechnology in Nancy’s terms has been criticized for distorting reality. To counteract this conceptual habit, education scholars Anette Gough and Noel Gough suggest that “we need to attend much more closely to the micro-politics of subjective life. . . to participate more fully, self-critically, and reflexively in the cultural narratives within which identity, agency, knowledges and ecotechnologies are discursively produced” (2014, p. 6). They conclude that environmental education should move away from expounding common but misleading ideas about nature. Instead, they argue, there should be a focus on narrating environmental issues through the ecotechnological framework, as this provides a more compelling way of preparing people for sustainable development, which depends on the interconnectedness of cultural, economic, and environmental issues and on practices of the self and its milieu.

Complementing Ecotechnology With Ecoscience

The juxtaposition of two umbrella terms, ecotechnology and ecoscience, has been suggested as a way to map the variegated scientific “eco” world from a philosophy of ecology perspective (Schwarz, 2014, p. 141). Ecotechnology is regarded as an instance of use-inspired basic research. Good examples of this include restoration ecology, ecological engineering, industrial ecology, and sustainability science. It can be understood as a technoscience that principally develops local theories and practices. In contrast, ecoscience is suggested as an instance of pure basic research, that is, the search for basic understanding with no interest in application (Stokes, 1998). It is characterized by the development of general concepts and theories, something that is done in theoretical ecology, for instance, which has generated the competitive exclusion principle as well as models depicting predator-prey relationships and ecosystem theories. Ecoscience also includes systematic work on biotopes and plant/animal communities, on ecophysiology, and on parts of hydrology and geology, for example, studies of ion exchange in soil and the dynamics of turbulences in running water. One might say that ecoscience seeks to overcome the dimension of singularity and instead to describe rules of connectedness using more general concepts, models, and sometimes even laws. This can be seen in distinct contrast to ecotechnology, which is about developing tailored solutions and site-specific practices.

In another philosophical approach, ecotechnology is proposed as a third cornerstone of ecology along with applied science and basic science (Mahner & Bunge, 2000, p. 190). The boundary is drawn, it seems, at the threshold to the laboratory: Inquiring into the ecological connectedness of an aphid is basic science, looking into the control of the aphid population in the laboratory is applied science, and going outside to combat the aphid in the cabbage plot is ecotechnology. In this model, scientists know about the possibilities of things, and technologists bring them into the world by placing them in a context of action, that is, society at large; accordingly, doctors, lawyers, biotechnologists, and planners are all technologists. This conceptualization relies on top-down knowledge transfer as a one-way street, yet this is not adequate for dealing with the variegated landscape of knowledge forms (and never was, in fact). The planning, production, operation, maintenance, and monitoring of things or processes are also part of scientific work and are themselves epistemic practices.

The program of technosciences, and therefore also ecotechnology, is to improve the conditions of human life through innovation. It is this permanent process of reforming ways of knowing and manufacturing that Hannah Arendt refers to when she places such great emphasis on “fabricating experiments,” as she calls them; at issue, for her, is the making of an artifact, of a “work” and, more generally, a shift from asking “what” and “why” toward asking “how” (Arendt, 1994, p. 288). Arendt points out that it is the success of technology and science, and, particularly, of their alliance that bears witness to the fact that the act of producing or manufacturing is inherent in the experiment: It makes available the phenomena one wishes to observe. However, it is not Homo faber, but rather Arendt’s Homo laborans who inhabits the ecotechnological world, a world in which an exuberance of energy and materials and the relentless production and consumption of goods is the driving force. All these largely industrially produced artifacts (cars, domestic appliances, hardware, etc.) must be consumed and used up as quickly as possible lest they go to waste, just as natural things decay unused unless they are integrated into the endless cycle of the human metabolic exchange with nature. “It is as though we have torn down the protective walls by which, throughout all the ages past, the world—the edifice made by human hand—has shielded us against nature” (Arendt, 1994, p. 115). Here Arendt offers a pessimistic vision of the human-environment relationship and sounds an ecotechnological warning. The “specifically human homeland” is endangered, she cautions, mainly because we erroneously think we have mastered nature by virtue of sheer human force, which is not only part of nature but “perhaps the most powerful natural force” (Arendt, 1994, p. 115). She thus anticipates a constituent component of the Anthropocene and ecotechnology as the technological becoming of the world in the 21st century, as discussed above.

However, technological and social innovation seems to be needed more than ever because the relationship between humans and their material environment—artificial or not—is not yet sufficiently developed. Ecotechnology thus means enabling an adaptive design that is compatible with social and political values and norms as well as with the nonhuman requirements of a particular site. Historian Thomas Hughes points out that “we” (humanity) have failed to take responsibility “for creating and maintaining aesthetically pleasing and ecologically sustainable environments” and that humans should, at long last, accept responsibility to design a more “ecotechnological environment, which consists of intersecting and overlapping natural and human-built environments” (Hughes, 2004, p. 153). This appeal is addressed mainly to engineers, architects, and environmental scientists whom Hughes considers the experts suited to design and construct the ecotechnological environment.

Around the turn of the millennium an issue of the Trialog Journal (for planning and building in the third world) was dedicated to “eco-technology.” It highlighted the importance of traditional cultures and their wisdom when it comes to dealing with the uncertainty resulting from upheavals. Eco-technology is proposed as a means to support ecologically compatible and culturally acceptable development, including a conscious process of self-development toward sustainability, supported by democratic consensus-building (Oesterreich, 2001). Meanwhile, research on traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) has become established in many places and regions around the world, ecotechnology being a part of its conceptual framework. TEK is considered a body of knowledge, practices, and beliefs that has evolved by adaptive processes over longer time periods and thus is somehow empirically saturated. It is also about relationships among living beings, including humans, both with one another and with their environment (Martin et al., 2010). The cultural transmission of practices, of material and immaterial heritage, is an important issue and includes the investigation of wisdom as an epistemic category (Ingold, 2000).

It can be noted that space and place as an oikos in the mode of experimentation is the recurrent theme that links recent debates on climate change, green lifestyles, restoration ecology and industrial ecology, as well as historically more distant issues such as blue sky campaigns (against air pollution in industrialized countries), efforts to combat water pollution in the 19th century and well into the 20th century, the management of dying forests, and space ecology. Accordingly, it is hardly surprising that the space-oikos theme developed mainly in the context of sustainability discourse, without always being explicitly spelled out.

Ecotechnology Diplomacy

The term “ecotechnology” may be used (a) in the sense of a heuristic strategy in the natural and engineering sciences or in international policymaking, (b) as an umbrella term that travels between already existing fields of science, technology, and policy, (c) to label a disciplinary and institutional enterprise, such as ecotechnics or ecological engineering or ecotechnology, or (d) to refer to an epistemic program that has been spelled out in philosophy, in the educational sciences, and in political anthropology. Accordingly, there is no simple answer to the question, “What is ecotechnology?” Rather, the question to be asked is how ecotechnology is conceptualized in each case and in what way this umbrella term then organizes an epistemic, institutional, or sociopolitical field. The diplomatic aspect of ecotechnology comes in when it is used to foster international relations in scientific cooperation, that is, when science is used for diplomacy, as in the context of UN programs, for example. Ecotechnology as a science is used for diplomatic purposes when international and technical cooperation is fostered between countries, which was the case in the 1990s when ecotechnology became a cipher for sustainable and computerized production. Finally, ecotechnology performs diplomacy when ecotechnologically justified findings, processes, or objects are used to support foreign policy objectives.

As a technoscience operating at the intersection of science and technology, ecotechnology was prolific for some time during the 1980s and 1990s but then gradually lost its heuristic power and was absorbed into the up-and-coming sustainability sciences. An institutional settling never happened in the United States or Japan, where the term was coined and some conceptual work took place. However, the issues, theories, and practices of ecotechnology migrated into other disciplinary fields such as ecological engineering or industrial ecology. In the 21st century it is mainly in China and some other Asian countries where “ecotechnology” appears explicitly in the names of institutions and their research programs.

The association of ecotechnology with a holistic approach or a partnership with nature is a claim that is frequently encountered, particularly in the engineering sciences, although it is barely operationalized in the sense of particular tools or practices. The most convincing ecotechnological principles are those embodied in specific machines or objects and are based on ideas of a circular economy or the cradle-to-cradle design principle. The conceptual opposition between technology and nature is generally upheld in these approaches. More recent ideas in philosophy about an ecotechnics involving the use of technology in nature might contribute to solving the problems of incoherent conceptualization if they were to provide a foundation for a philosophy of science and technology in practice.

In the field of political anthropology a conceptual framework has been developed around ecotechnology, particularly in the French and the Latin American context, and an ecotechnological rationality has been used to argue against the widespread colonialist and exploitative rationale. This discourse mainly argues against a capitalist productive process that is dominated by the technological transformation of natural resources and operates far beyond the resilience capacity of the given ecological conditions. It calls instead for adaptation and integration into the productivity of a particular ecological system. Technostructures should be defined by the ecological conditions of natural productivity and the productivity of the individuals and collectives of a social entity in order to appropriate the technological means of production. This adaptive and integrative process adheres to a repertoire of heuristics, affords new skills and new knowledge, and is accompanied by the development of monitoring instruments that eventually enable self-management. This concept of ecotechnology is seen as a viable path (albeit one that is not yet completely spelled out) for moving toward a better understanding of relationality and incorporating multiple modes of knowing about human beings in their environment.

Further Reading

  • Blühdorn, I., & Welsh, I. (2007). Eco-politics beyond the paradigm of sustainability: A conceptual framework and research agenda. Environmental Politics, 16(2), 185–205.
  • Bookchin, M. (1977). The concept of ecotechnologies and ecocommunities. In I. Tinker & M. Buvinic (Eds.), The many facets of human settlements (pp. 73–85). Pergamon.
  • Escobar, A. (2010). Postconstructivist political ecologies. In M. Redclift & G. Woodgate (Eds.), International handbook of environmental sociology (pp. 91–105). Elgar.
  • Hughes, T. P. (2004). Human-built world: How to think about technology and culture. University of Chicago Press.
  • Leff, E. (2010). Latin American environmental thought: A heritage of knowledge for sustainability. ISEE Publicaión Ocasional, 9, 1–16.
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  • Mitsch, W. J., & Jørgensen, S. E. (2003). Ecological engineering: An introduction to ecotechnology. Wiley.
  • Mitsch, W. J., & Jørgensen, S. E. (1989). Ecological engineering: Introduction to ecotechnology. In W. J. Mitsch, W. J. & S. E. Jørgensen, S. E. (Eds.), Ecological engineering: An introduction to ecotechnology (pp. 3–12). Wiley.
  • Nancy, J.–L. (2007). The creation of the world or globalization. State University of New York Press.
  • Ross, M. R. V., Bernhardt, E. S., Doyle, M. W., & Heffernan, J. B. (2015). Designer ecosystems: Incorporating design approaches into applied ecology. Annual Review of Environment and Resources, 40, 419–443.
  • Schwarz, A. (2014). Experiments in practice. Pickering & Chatto.


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  • Bookchin, M. (1977). The concept of ecotechnologies and ecocommunities. In I. Tinker & M. Buvinic (Eds.), The many facets of human settlements (pp. 73–85). Pergamon.
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