Fueling Civilization: Unraveling the Energetic Metabolism of Societies

12 Min Read

May 8, 2024

Alevgül Sorman is an Ikerbasque Research Associate at the Basque Centre for Climate Change (BC3). Her research scrutinizes energy transitions and transformations with insights from human geography, political ecology and ecological and biophysical economics focusing on issues of labour, space, gender, justice and participation.

Just as our bodies metabolise different food groups to perform a range of activities, societies also metabolise energy and materials to remain operational, commonly referred to as societal metabolism. Researchers developed the concept to study the complex interactions between societies and their environments, quantifying flows of materials, and energy to analyse resource use and social and environmental impacts. The energetic metabolism of societies, therefore, is an analogy and a means to scrutinise what a society’s energy use reveals about its energy cultures.

More specifically, like an array of proteins, carbohydrates, and fats as macronutrients to the body, different primary energy sources, such as coal, petroleum, or renewables, can be considered as energy inputs going into societies. Once in the system, the different components are broken down (e.g., into glucose for the human body or as an energy carrier like electricity for societies) and are used in the form of digestible energy for our cells or the different socio-economic sectors. Societal metabolism, therefore, is a representation of the economic process through biophysical transformations associated with the production and consumption of goods and services - a process that was first described by its forefounder, the economist Nicholas Georgesu-Roegen in his book The Entropy Law and the Economic Process in 1971.

Scholars have long stressed the importance of living within the biophysical boundaries of the Earth. The notion of “metabolism" can be traced back to Karl Marx’s concept of the metabolic rift: “a powerful critique of the relation between nature and contemporary capitalist society.”1 During the period of oil wealth, interest in biophysical constraints acting upon societies was left aside. The biophysical and ecological economics communities, however, re-adopted this approach in the 70s and 80s, and more recently, political ecologists have also sought means and conceptual tools capable of biophysically assessing society-environment relations.2 Anchored in our biophysical limits, a grim study in 2023 concluded that six of the nine planetary boundaries have been transgressed, indicating that our planet is now substantially beyond the safe threshold for operating (Figure 1).3

Fig. 1. Current status of control variables for all nine planetary boundaries from Katherine Richardson et al., "Earth beyond six of nine planetary boundaries," Science Advances 9, no. 37 (2023): 4.

An energetic metabolic outlook can not only show us the intensification of energy input and throughput in societies but also reveal structural transformations that societies undergo because of this process. For example, historically, what was used in the form of biomass to meet more simple energy services was - in time - overtaken by high-output fuels (or high Energy Return on Investment (EROI) fuels). Cheap and abundant fossil fuels of this era led to the expansion and transformation of human civilizations. The evolution of this process is beautifully described by Vaclav Smil in his book Energy and Civilization: A History. At present, societies are hooked into an ever-increasing metabolic demand, providing us with the goods and services we require facilitating current levels of industrialisation. However, leaving our carbon-abundant past behind implies replacing fossil-fueled metabolisms with one operating on renewables. How do we restructure our societies operating on high-intensity metabolisms to operate on renewable energy sources with lower power densities?4 Can societies be reorganised to operate solely on a diet of renewable energies?

Methodologically, to analyse the metabolism of a system, the system’s boundaries should be well defined, indicating which sectors of the economy and which geographical areas are to be used for the study. Data collection can be gathered from statistics, reports, and/or interviews if the area of study is more localised.  For analysing the data, relationships can be established by synthesising demographic (labour) or spatial (land) data with energy/material/water flows. Indicators generated in this process (e.g., MJ of energy used per hour of labour, CO₂ emissions per hour of labour in the construction sector, kg of waste generated per hour in manufacturing or m3 of water per m2 of crop-land, etc.) can be used to assess the socio-environmental impacts associated with material and energy flows. 

Methods of measuring metabolism range from social metabolism, which looks at the Material and Energy Flow Analysis (MEFA) of economies, to societal metabolism, which looks at flows required to holistically maintain a system (funds - not stocks) at different scales.5 Even the popular notion of an ecological footprint can be interpreted as a form of metabolism indicating the use of certain resource equivalents required to maintain a population. These indicators and trends can ultimately shed light on our contemporary energy and material cultures and inquire whether such forms of development are the desired ones we wish to replicate for future generations. 

Banksy Street Art in Stavanger, Norway, August 2022. Photo by Alev Sorman.

Today, different thematic applications of the concept of metabolism can be applied to water or waste metabolism, across diverse spatial contexts such as urban/rural metabolism or industrial/household metabolism. For example, I have explored the metabolic patterns of island tourism looking at the socio-environmental impacts of subsidies on diesel across tourism and local livelihoods in the Galapagos Islands. I've also used different scenarios of water metabolism and participatory mapping as tools to bring the two divided communities on the island of Cyprus closer together. 

Scholars from the social sciences and humanities can use societal metabolism as a framework where quantitative flows of materials and energy and qualitative cultural, political, and socio-environmental dimensions of energy use intersect. Several scholars have called this approach Quantitative Storytelling.6 Telling metabolism stories through numbers can be scrutinised from a historical perspective, where patterns of energy use can shed light on resource substitutions and transitions. The domain of political ecology critically scrutinises exploitative mechanisms and conflicts over extractivist economies, which favour certain metabolic patterns over others, prolonging unequal exchange and social injustice.7 Systems and behavioural theorists, from STS literature, look at energy metabolism through a reinterpretation of energy cultures where energy practices, material cultures, and cognitive norms delineate populations with distinctive ‘energy cultures’.8 More recently, biophysical analyses of metabolism and ethical inquiries of “energy for whom and at whose cost?” have been posed to complete the bigger picture of where we want to be heading in terms of energy transitions in a just way. Meanwhile, action responding to the urgency of the climate crisis - one of nine planetary boundaries that we have transgressed - now unfolds through different forms of mobilisation as resistance (e.g., protests, blockades, boycotts, lawsuits etc.) with many different actor groups joining the cause such as the Just Stop Oil movement, or fossil fuel divestment campaign calls by Fridays for Future.9 

Just Stop Oil protestors at Parliament Square on May 5, 2023. Photo courtesy of: Just Stop Oil.

Going into the future, we have to realize that to lead healthier lifestyles, we have to be mindful of what we eat and look after our bodies. This analogy of energetic metabolisms of societies can therefore help us draw parallels to what we mean by transforming our societies when seeking post-growth futures. An intake of less food does not necessarily mean we are worse off. Rather, it means being mindful of a balanced diet and therefore, a healthier lifestyle. Similarly, for societies, we all need to make a more conscious effort on what we decide to put into the system and what eventually decide to do with the energy flows that are the driving forces of our civilization.

Notes

1. John Bellamy Foster, “Marx and the Rift in the Universal Metabolism of Nature,” Monthly Review 65, no. 7 (2013): 1.

2. For a recent compilation, see Sergio Villamayor-Tomas and Roldan Muradian, The Barcelona School of Ecological Economics and Political Ecology: A Companion in Honour of Joan Martinez-Alier (Cham, 2023).

3. Katherine  Richardson, et al., "Earth beyond Six of Nine Planetary Boundaries," Science Advances 9, no. 37 (2023): 4.

4. Power density is a variable that looks at how many watts can be produced per square meter of land-use. While concentrated fuels e.g. petroleum have high energy density per m2, renewables require a lot more land to produce less concentrated energy output. See: Vaclav Smil, Power Density : A Key to Understanding Energy Sources and Uses (Cambridge, MA, 2015).

5. For instance, see Marina Fischer‐Kowalski and Helmut Haberl, “Tons, Joules, and Money: Modes of Production and Their Sustainability Problems,” Society & Natural Resources 10, no. 1 (1997): 61–85, and Mario Giampietro, Kozo Mayumi, and Alevgül H. Sorman, The Metabolic Pattern of Societies : Where Economists Fall Short (London, 2012).

6. Louisa Jane Di Felice, Violeta Cabello, Maddalena Ripa, and Cristina Madrid-Lopez, "Quantitative Storytelling: Science, Narratives, and Uncertainty in Nexus Innovations," Science, Technology, & Human Values 48, no. 4 (2023): 861–87.

7. Joan Martinez-Alier and Mariana Walter, "Social metabolism and conflicts over extractivism," Environmental Governance in Latin America (2016): 58–85.

8. Janet Stephenson et al., "Energy Cultures: A Framework for Understanding Energy Behaviours," Energy Policy 38, no. 10 (2010): 6120–29.

9. Jen Gobby, Leah Temper, Matthew Burke, and Nicolas von Ellenrieder, “Resistance as Governance: Transformative Strategies Forged on the Frontlines of Extractivism in Canada,” The Extractive Industries and Society 9 (2022): 100919.

10. Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, The entropy law and the economic process (Cambridge, MA , 1971).

11. Vaclav Smil, Energy and Civilization: A History (Cambridge, MA, 2017).

12. Alevgul H. Sorman "Societal Metabolism" in eds., Giacomo D’Alisa, Federico Demaria, and Giorgos Kallis, Degrowth : A Vocabulary for a New Era (New York, 2014).

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