Economic Perspectives on a finite Planet: in conversation with Marina Fischer-Kowalski
Economists for Future: What is material flow analysis, and why is it important for social scientists to use it?
Marina Fischer-Kowalski: Early on in my career as a sociologist, experienced in empirical work, I found most of sociology just as ignorant of the natural base of human and social life as you find economics – but, of course, much less powerful and influential. Shouldn’t it be the business of scholars of societal development to analyze why the natural base of societies matters, how it is modified by social interventions, evolves over time, and how it will evolve in the future? One cue for addressing this question rested in the term coined by Marx (under the influence of the biologist Liebig) – “social metabolism”. Social metabolism is the systemic overarching concept; material (and energy) flow analysis is a technical tool to quantify this metabolism. This tool has been developed in cooperation with a number of interdisciplinary research institutes, with contributions both from the natural and social sciences. But interestingly, only a few economists, in the late 1980s, and became very influential in the new fields of Industrial Ecology and Ecological Economics.
E4F: Developing a global database of material flows is no doubt incredibly complex. How do you go about gathering that data and making sure the numbers are accurate?
MFK: Quite some effort was first invested into the conceptual model for MFA: where does it make sense to draw the boundaries between the economy and the environment, which material flows should be recorded (result, on the most aggregate level: ores and industrial minerals; fossil energy carriers; construction minerals; biomass). The whole construct follows the physical mass balance principle: material that enters a system (e.g. a domestic economy) through extraction from the environment or import from other economies has to either go to stocks (e.g. buildings etc.), be exported to other economies, or end up as waste and emissions. A publication by the World Resources Institute (The Weight of Nations, 2000), based upon a collaboration with The National Institute for Environmental Studies (Tokyo, Japan), the CML Centre for Environmental Science (Leiden, Netherlands), the Institute of Social Ecology (Vienna, Austria) and the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy (Wuppertal, Germany) demonstrated for those five countries, that such an MFA could be done on the basis of existing public statistics. From then on, national statistical offices picked up this methodology, and in intensive collaboration with the pioneering research institutes, Eurostat, the statistical office of the European Union, made it obligatory for its member states; the same happened in Japan, and other countries (not the US, though), followed suit. A global breakthrough was achieved by UNEP’s International Resource Panel, which in 2011 published the first global report on “Decoupling natural resource use and environmental impacts from economic growth”. This report presented global data for the evolution of material flows for the period 1900-2000, demonstrating an eight-fold increase of material extraction worldwide (a doubling of per capita extraction), while global GDP, particularly since the end of World War II, rose faster – this is what the report addressed as “spontaneous decoupling” between material and economic growth. And that a mere continuation of this observed process of decoupling resource use and environmental impacts – in particular CO2 emissions – from GDP growth, would not suffice to avoid dangerous climate change and other severe negative environmental impacts. This was made clear in IRP’s later publications too (e.g. Global Resources Outlook 2019), where more sophisticated multi-regional input-output models and scenarios were applied.
E4F: The International Resources Panel found that, over the last 40 years, we have seen a slowdown in economic growth in advanced economies but simultaneously an acceleration in the rate of material use and waste production in these economies. Why is that?
This can best be understood by applying the classical formula of Ehrlich (1968): I = P * A * T,
adjusting it to the problem at hand, where
I = (environmental) impact, in our case material use and waste production,
P = population (numbers)
A = GDP/capita
T = material intensity (domestic material extraction / GDP).
E4F: You have argued that the world economy has entered a period of socio-ecological transition. What are the defining features of this transition?
MFK: On the basis of long time series of GDP development and energy use, we could demonstrate quantitatively across 70 countries of the world that the access to fossil fuels (starting in Britain and The Netherlands already in the 16th century, long before the invention of the steam engine, critical for industrial development, with the bulk of the now “advanced economies” joining in during the 18th and 19th century) triggered economic growth trajectories. At the same time, this transition from an agrarian to an industrial mode of production was present in about half of the countries with social revolutions and most historically known revolutions occurred in the very early phase of this energy transition. We now face – if we want to avoid even more dramatic climate change – the need to shift away from fossil fuels as key energy resource towards other sources, partly high risk (nuclear) and mostly of lower energy density (such as renewables). This defines a socio-ecological transition. In 2008, we were confronted with a global financial crisis; since, with a global pandemic (COVID-19) and now with the outbreak of an imperialistic war (Ukraine), the international tensions are mobilizing re-armament and creating bottlenecks as well as unprecedented price rises for fossil fuels. During the same period, climate change, unchecked by adequate political and economic decisions, demonstrates its rising power by global heat waves, floodings, forest fires and a shortening of a key resource never accounted for as such freshwater. This situation definitely does not look like a calm socio-ecological transition towards “green growth”, but poses severe threats to social metabolism and challenges peaceful socio-political governability across the world. (When I wrote my articles about a socio-ecological transition ahead, I definitely did not imagine such a dramatic turn of events!)
1. Fischer-Kowalski, M., Rovenskaya, E., Krausmann, F., Pallua, I. and Mc Neill, JR (2018). Energy transitions and social revolutions. Technological Forecasting and Social Change.
2. Fischer-Kowalski, M., Krausmann, F., & Pallua, I. (2014). A sociometabolic reading of the Anthropocene: Modes of subsistence, population size and human impact on Earth. The Anthropocene Review, 1(1), 8–33.
3. Fischer-Kowalski, M., & Haberl, H. (2015). Social metabolism: A metric for biophysical growth and degrowth (S. 100–138). In: Martinez-Alier,J. and Muradian,R., (Eds.) Handbook of Ecological Economics, Cheltenham, UK and Northampton MA, USA: Edward Elgar. pp. 100-138.
4. International Resource Panel, 2016. Global material flows and resource productivity. Authors: Schandl H., Fischer-Kowalski, M., West, J., Giljum, S., Dittrich, M., Eisenmenger, N., Geschke, A., Lieber, M., Wieland, H.P., Schaffartzik, A., Krausmann, F., Gierlinger, S., Hosking, K., Lenzen, M., Tanikawa, H., Miatto, A., Fishman, T. UNEP, Paris
5.Fischer-Kowalski, M., Swilling, M., Weizsäcker, E. U. v., Ren, Y., Moriguchi, Y., Crane, W., Krausmann, F., Eisenmenger, N., Giljum, S., Hennicke, P., Kemp, R., Romero L., Paty, and Siriban-Manalang, Anna, B. (2011): Decoupling natural resource use and environmental impacts from economic growth. Nairobi: United Nations Environment Programme
6. Turner, B. L., & Fischer-Kowalski, M. (2010). Ester Boserup: An interdisciplinary visionary relevant for sustainability. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107(51), 21963–21965.
7. Fischer-Kowalski, M., Reenberg, A., Schaffartzik, A. and Mayer, A.(eds.) (2014). Ester Boserup’s Legacy on Sustainability – Orientations for Contemporary Research, Dordrecht, Heidelberg, New York, London: Springer.
8. Fischer-Kowalski, M. and Schaffartzik, A. (2015) Energy availability and energy sources as determinants of societal development in a long-term perspective. MRS Energy & Sustainability : A Review Journal 2, 1-14.
9. Schandl, H., Fischer-Kowalski, M., West, J., Giljum, S., Dittrich, M., Eisenmenger, N., Geschke, A., Lieber, M., Wieland, H.P., Schaffartzik, A., Krausmann, F., Gierlinger, S., Hosking, K., Lenzen, M., Tanikawa, H., Miatto, A., Fishman, T. (2018). Global Material Flows and Resource Productivity. Forty Years of Evidence. Journal of Industrial Ecology vol.22 no 4, pp. 827-838.
10. Fischer-Kowalski, M., Swilling, M., Weizsäcker, E. U. v., Ren, Y., Moriguchi, Y., Crane, W., Krausmann, F., Eisenmenger, N., Giljum, S., Hennicke, P., Kemp, R., Romero L., Paty, and Siriban-Manalang, Anna, B. (2011): Decoupling natural resource use and environmental impacts from economic growth. Nairobi: United Nations Environment Programme.
11. Schandl H., Fischer-Kowalski, M., West, J., Giljum, S., Dittrich, M., Eisenmenger, N., Geschke, A., Lieber, M., Wieland, H.P., Schaffartzik, A., Krausmann, F., Gierlinger, S., Hosking, K., Lenzen, M., Tanikawa, H., Miatto, A., Fishman, T. 2016. Global material flows and resource productivity. UNEP, International Resource Panel Paris.
*The Economists for Future team is thankful to Nikhil F. Ghosh for conceptualizing this series.
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