Frontiers in Socioeconomic Metabolism

The Journal of Industrial Ecology, a peer-reviewed international scientific journal, owned by Yale and based at the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, has just published a special issue, Frontiers in Socioeconomic Metabolism (see bit.ly/JIE-SEM).  The title is a bit daunting, but topic is compelling, and worthy of some explanation.

In 1994, Robert White, then the president of the US National Academy of Engineering, identified the emergence of a new field, industrial ecology. He described industrial ecology as

the study of the flows of materials and energy in industrial and consumer activities, of the effects of these flows on the environment, of the influences of economic, political, regulatory and social factors on the flow, use, and transformation of resources.

Charlie Chaplin from the movie, Modern Times.  The image evokes the coevolution of production systems and people and how individuals cannot easily influence social metabolism which follows its own inner dynamic. The analysis of social metabolism reflects the need to go beyond individual choice and consider social choices through which unsustainable systems can be rearranged or replaced by sustainable ones.  Image credit: Modern Times © Roy Export S.A.S. Scan Courtesy Cineteca di Bologna”

Charlie Chaplin from the movie, Modern Times. The image evokes the coevolution of production systems and people and how individuals cannot easily influence social-economic metabolism (SEM) which follows its own inner dynamic. The analysis of SEM reflects the need to go beyond individual choice and consider social choices through which unsustainable systems can be rearranged or replaced by sustainable ones. Image credit: Modern Times © Roy Export S.A.S. Scan Courtesy Cineteca di Bologna

In its early days, industrial ecology produced a considerable amount of research using material flow analysis (MFA). Researchers quantified the flows of material resources into and out of industrial societies detailing the extent and composition of their physical economies. MFA provided a foundation for addressing such questions as whether industrial societies are decoupling their economic growth from the use of physical resources.

In the intervening years, MFA has grown in sophistication: the methodology has been refined, data standards and sets have been established, analysis of stocks was added to the accounting of flows, and the impact of international trade on material flows has been incorporated (among many other developments). Most notably, MFA has been increasingly applied to a wide variety of elements of our physical economy—production processes, firms, facilities, supply chains, substance and product life cycles, cities, regions and groups of countries.

MFA has moved beyond the basic quantification of flows of materials. Along with development of the methodology and the extension of its boundaries, it has—as urged by Robert White—embraced the study of the impacts of the flows and the influences that drive those flows.

From the beginning, research on the flow of materials, energy and substances was defined not only by the nature of the tool—MFA—but also the subject of study. In this regard, the evolution has been accompanied by an increasing use of the notion of metabolism in the words a prominent scholar, “not as metaphor, but as a material and energetic process within the economy and society, vis-a-vis various natural systems.” The field, now called socioeconomic metabolism, seeks to examine not only the physical flows, but also the social and technical systems in which they are embedded. Material, energy, and substance flow accounting and analysis, in this view, are tools developed by the industrial ecology research community to measure and model socioeconomic metabolism.

This special issue examines the frontier socioeconomic metabolism research a quarter century after the notion was proposed as a key element in industry ecology.  The issue probes its foundation and boundaries, extends its reach, and present new findings.  The special issue includes

  • Analyses of the concept, its soundness, and its foundations
  • New historical understanding of its antecedents
  • A proposal for terminology across the different methodological approaches including MFA, SFA, IOA, and general equilibrium modeling
  • Uncertainty analysis for material flow accounts
  • A review of MFA in the domain of waste management
  • Analysis of embodied land use in trade, options for land footprint analysis, and human appropriation of net primary productivity
  • Calculation of the circularity of the economy of the European Union and the globe
  • Integration of water metabolism into research on socioeconomic metabolism
  • Accounting for stocks, long-term material flows, and urban metabolism
  • Material flow analyses of iron, steel, and specialty metals

The research in this issue indicates the study of socioeconomic metabolism has become richer, more methodologically sophisticated, and engaged in providing reliable scientific information about the magnitude of material use, related environmental impacts, supply security for specific resources, and the potential for decoupling material use from human well-being. Read the special issue and see for yourself. The articles in the special issue are freely available for download for a limited time at bit.ly/JIE-SEM.