Energy, Perception and

Social Metabolism

Interview with Marina Fischer-Kowalski

June 2, 2016

Professor Fischer-Kowalski, you are a social ecologist. Could you explain what your discipline focuses on?

Social ecology looks at the interactions between society and nature – how society treats nature, nature’s respond to this and how that affects society. In our view, this is a co-evolutive relationship. Take the question why all agrarian societies shaped by monotheistic or “high” religions believe large numbers of legitimate children to be a blessing. Social ecology offers a perspective on such phenomena. Ester Boserup has described wonderfully how agrarian societies need to intensify their land use once they have reached the limits of expansion. They need to invest more labor to increase the available land’s yield. And that’s why they need lots of children. Feeding all those children does, in turn, take more labor and therefore more children. The solution exacerbates the problem.

What’s your personal fascination with this field, aside from the academic aspects?

I guess it appeals to my inner anarchist. The conventional way of approaching such questions is to ask yourself how humans can control nature most perfectly. I enjoy presenting theories that demonstrate how nature always manages to slip away from this control and create new challenges. I take a rather dim view of human control over nature.

Let’s talk about a key aspect of your research: social metabolism. What does the term describe?

All living things metabolize. Life needs a metabolism. It needs to take in nutrients, breathe, and excrete. That rule applies to every living thing. The interesting question is: can we look at society or social systems as living, metabolizing organisms? Is that possible?

Is it? 

As humans, we are dependent on social connections from our earliest moments. We need them for our individual metabolisms, for nourishment. We are the only animals that cook their food and thus save digestive energy. To cook, you need a fire. The fire is tended by the clan, and as they sat around the fire and ate together, early humans developed language. I would claim that our human metabolism has always been a social metabolism.

Would it be correct to say that social metabolisms function exactly like human bodies trying to maintain a constant body temperature of about 37 °C (98.6 °F)?

It’s comparable. Our institutions, organizations, economies, family and ownership structures all correspond to specific metabolisms. If one of these metabolisms changes, problems arise. We published a study showing that revolutions like in England in 1642 or in China in 1949 happened exactly at the same time as the agrarian metabolism based on biomass was infused with fossil energy. Worldwide, there are currently 40-50 countries on the verge of such a critical metabolic shift: from agrarian, feudal societies to capitalist, bourgeois – or whatever you want to call it – and industrial ones.

Do the perceptive structures of a society change with its metabolism?

Yes. The link between social metabolism and social observation, however, is not obvious to the people experiencing these shifts. A shift in the material exchange with nature brings along dramatic changes in the cultures, religions, gender relations, generational relations, and the entire organization structure of society. New images, new rites, new practices and customs, new skills, and new value systems arise. Yet the people involved in all this often do not understand why that happens.

Let’s take a closer look at different metabolic profiles to illustrate this principle, starting with hunter-gatherer societies.

Hunter-gatherer societies were the most enduring metabolic regime in the history of mankind, lasting millions of years. The key difference between hunter-gatherers and apes was the use of fire. Their ability to control fire meant that these early humans needed lower amounts of highly nutritious foods and therefore less energy for hunting and gathering. This is reflected in their biology: they could afford shorter bowels because they would collect wood and prepare their food, which was easier to digest once cooked. The per-capita energy consumption of hunter-gatherers amounted to about 10 gigajoules, including firewood.

Are there other characteristics that define this type of social metabolism?

Another key characteristic is that it is based on a nomadic lifestyle. You had to follow the food sources. An abundance of children brings no advantages in such a system, because a woman can only carry around one baby and has to nurse her children longer as there are no containers or vessels in which to cook food for the babies. This means that there were cultural and natural limits to the growth of population.

This changes with the rise of agrarian societies.

Farmers, too, derive their energy first and foremost from biomass. Yet while hunter-gatherers used for nourishment the plants and foods that thrived in their environment, fueled by the energy of the sun, agriculture uses the effect of sun energy on areas that are cultivated with exactly those plants that humans need. Forests are cut down and transformed into arable land that can be used for grain or as pastures. The agrarian metabolism is based on the size and quality of this land. Fertile soils are protected and defended against intruders, and a lot of labor is invested in land fertility. Agrarian societies store food from good harvests to prepare for poor ones, thus initiating a continuous regime of scarcity. When further land expansion becomes impossible, the use of the existing land is intensified. At a certain point in traditional agrarian societies, labor increases disproportionately to the yield. Rural poverty emerges. Europe experienced such an agrarian crisis in the 19th century.

Wolf Helmhardt von Hohberg. 1695. Collection and transportation of wood [copperplate] Available at: Wikimedia Commons

Photo: Abel AP

And then, new forms of energy take the stage.

Exactly. Incidentally, social ecologists date the appearance of these new energy forms to a much earlier time than technology experts do. According to social ecology, the fossil-fuel transformation began with the Dutch starting to cut large volumes of peat in the 16th century. In England, it started with coal. At that point, only a few per cent of the original woods were left, and these far away from the cities. The towns and cities were growing along with the textile industry and depended on coal for cooking and heating. But since coal fire and smoke smelled so abominably, it was highly unpopular and used only by those who could not afford better. That was two centuries before the steam engine and the industrial revolution.

“Science on the March”, Popular Mechanics, January 1952 – illustrated by A. Leydenfrost

Which brings us to another social metabolism.

The industrial social metabolism starts with this great gift of nature: fossil energy sources. While agrarian societies have a per-capita energy consumption of 40-80 gigajoules – at least four times higher than hunter-gatherers – consumption levels explode in the industrial metabolism, reaching 80-400 gigajoule per capita and year. That’s a whole new dimension.

Clark Avenue and Clark Avenue bridge, Frank J. Aleksandrowicz/NARA

And where are we today?

We need energy to mobilize large amounts of resources, and about 80-85 percent of this energy still comes from fossil fuels. That’s the key connection. That is why our industrial society is the way it is. There was a time when about 98 percent of the resources we used were biomass, so, basically, plants, animals, wood. Today, roughly 50 percent are non-renewable materials: from metals to cement and other building materials to coal and mineral oil. Both the spectrum and the volume of resources have changed. Over the past century, we roughly quadrupled the amount of resources we mobilized per capita and year. And since the world’s population has grown considerably, the total amount of resources has increased by almost the factor eight. There won’t be another century like that. That is a fact we need to face. Even according to the most conservative estimates, the world’s oil, gas, aluminum, iron, and copper reserves will reach their peak in the 21st century. Many of these estimates are based on current extraction quantities. Yet we are increasing our extractions year by year. There is no way for us to keep up this metabolic regime for another 100 years. Even if we wanted to – and it seems that most of us want that.

There is a widespread hope that new technologies will bring the solution. Do you share this hope? 

Yes and no. Without technologies, we are lost. We can’t turn back time. That much is obvious. We need to use and evolve our technologies. Technologies that increase efficiency are smart and useful. Renewable energy production and wide access to knowledge through information technologies are essential. But they alone won’t save us. We need to change our social metabolic path, and this includes our economy. We need to move away from the growth dictate and extreme inequality, towards the long-term protection of the common good. One step would be to raise the money for our public budgets by taxing energy and resource consumption instead of labor. Otherwise we will just perpetuate unemployment and the waste of resources.

One thing that troubles me in this context is the growing faction of technology-focused academics who basically claim that we need to use our remaining affluence of energy resources for the next big step forward. What this means is that we either go in search for a new planet to inhabit, or conduct a giant geoengineering experiment redesigning our entire atmosphere, or massively intervene in evolution and create completely new organisms. I can see that such fantasies may be highly compelling for certain sectors of society, economy, and science. But I am convinced that these concepts are not only unrealistic, but dangerous.

Photo: Shutterstock, Algol

Yet they fit perfectly with the principles of our current metabolism.

They absolutely match the paradigm. That’s the dilemma: so many would like to continue with business as usual. But then science comes along and tells us that if we do that, we will steer right into a climate catastrophe so we need to solve the key issue and stop burning fossil fuels. This goes against well-established interests. It’s almost astonishing how far science managed to advance under these circumstances. But now it needs support. Science alone won’t be able to fix this. But at least on the political level we now have some international agreements and frameworks.

What changes are needed in your opinion?

That depends on your perspective; the world is heterogeneous. You have the wealthy OECD countries, where people are increasingly dissatisfied with their lives and their governments, grow more and more overweight, and suffer from stress – while still hoping that everything will stay as it is or once was. Then you have the emerging countries like China or Brazil, countries that underwent an industrial transformation in the past few decades. Their goal is to become as wealthy as the OECD countries, as fast as possible and in a similar manner. Finally, there are the agrarian countries in the early stages of industrial transformation, with a strongly growing population and increasing poverty rates. In these countries we see severe and seemingly unsolvable conflicts, very similar to those that raged in today’s OECD countries when they still were at the same developmental stage. Today, this latter group includes countries like Haiti, Afghanistan, Nigeria. The OECD model is not globally applicable; its metabolism is so wasteful that our planet cannot sustain it.

The whole question of energy is generally misrepresented. For example, we differentiate so categorically between nutritional energy and energy in the technological context. That is why we cannot see that our entire metabolism, all matter, is mobilized with energy.

Can you detect any positive developments?

Yes, there are those, too. Quite a few, in fact. I believe that cities are important actors when it comes to new ways of life. The reasons are structural. Cities have to provide municipal services, they need to make sure that their citizens stay healthy and able to conduct their daily lives. They need to keep their citizens satisfied. It is only logical that city governments and other players ask themselves how they can save energy and emissions, reduce waste, or offer better childcare. There are numerous initiatives around the world, from climate alliances to inter-city knowledge exchanges. In Japan, mayoral candidates won elections by calling for a “slow city” or “eco city”. Following the Three Rs – reduce, reuse, recycle –, Japan managed to decrease material consumption to a pre-1970s level, and China is starting to apply these experiences of its former enemy on a large scale. These are positive developments we see too little of here in Europe. Yet at the same time, Japan still insists on continuing to use nuclear energy – in this, as in everything, the world is full of contradictions.

Photo: Rex/Shutterstock, Arkadiusz Podniesinski

One last question: which change in perception do you find the most interesting these days? 

The belief that our children will have a better life than we did used to be a default narrative of post-WWII thinking. Maybe it even dates back to the industrial revolution. This idea of continuous progress and ever-increasing prosperity is now showing cracks, and a new, compelling vision is not in sight. However, we will need one.

Thank you very much for the interview.

Prof. Marina Fischer-Kowalski is Past-President of the International Society for Ecological Economics as well as founder and former director of the Institute for Social Ecology in Vienna. From 2002 until 2010, she chaired the Science Advisory Board of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research.

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