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Social Metabolism

Social Metabolism


Social Metabolism Flow Chart: S. Pauliuk, G. Majeau‐Bettez, D. Müller

The concept of social metabolism investigates economic systems in terms of biophysical stocks and flows. It describes the amount of material, energy and labor that emerge in an eco-social market economy. The term metabolism suggests an organismic analogy: metabolism, in the biological sense, is the process by which an organism grows and maintains itself through exchange of energy and materials with its direct environment throughout its life. 

That kind of correspondence is eligible for social entities that intersect with those key system characteristics of organisms in primitive as well as advanced forms, (1) as they have the ability to create and reproduce essential elements, a high degree of intra- and interdependency between system departments, and the ability to reproduce a clear boundary towards their ambiance while exchanging energy and materials with it. 


“The substantive meaning of economics derives from man’s dependence for his living upon nature and his fellows. It refers to the interchange with his natural and social environment, insofar as this results in supplying him with the means of material want satisfaction.” (2)


The change of perspective from looking at economies in monetary terms towards analyzing economic structures in biophysical terms, discloses key information, concerning those natural resources, which are exploited by our social system. Furthermore a quantification of this exploitation is possible and allows us to discuss scarcity and abundance of certain goods and funds, intertwined with the ecological capacity of our ecosystem, which we currently exceed. Throughout the flow and value chains of the social metabolism you can focus on stock and flow matrixes, recycling, waste and emissions, which are byproducts of the meta-production chain, providing goods and services to the realities we are living in. In order to maintain our current way of life, our current biophysical and social reality and in order to allow it to improve, it is crucial, that this economic string figure proceeds. 


The theory of social metabolism is directly challenged by the rather classical economic views of capitalism, which evaluates human labor as the principal generator of wealth, while land and natural resources guaranteed a constraint to unlimited economic growth. This constraint is thoroughly discussed in the field of economics and was eventually removed by Karl Marx, stating that the means of production are only limited by human ingenuity, which generates progress in technology. As technological innovation is impossible to quantify and therefore cannot be argued in the system of societal metabolism, it relies on the concept of an energy driven economy, which renders an outcome of more convincing empirical evidence. (3)


Empowered by the growing discussion about climate policy and the global movement of cutting the energy supply by fossil fuels, the debate about an energy based economy gets new impulses, peaking in a remake of economic fundamental principles. In general, there are two perspectives on climate change. One is propagating technological abundance, promoting, that technological progress and resource substitution will provide humanity with sufficient energy resources for eternity, while the second one is warning of future events of resource scarcity such as peak oil, peak coal and peak gas. Both sides entirely focus on the quantification of energy, while leaving a very important point aside: the energy return of investment, which is measuring and comparing the opportunity cost of energy input and output of societal activities. As social metabolism takes this ratio into account, it follows the idea that the control of energy matters for society, and even determines the advancement of civilization. (4)

According to this basic principle, societal progress is based on energy surplus, enabling social growth and social differentiation as well as providing space for cultural activities beyond basic needs. 


The best way to fully understand the complexity and theoretical potential of the idea of social metabolism is to understand the distinctive energy and material flows, which are subcategorized in three domains, input flows, inner flows and output flows. 

The metabolic process - the inner flow - is represented by five phenomena that represent the five main functions of social metabolism: appropriation, transformation, circulation, consumption and emission. 

Appropriation is the primary mode of exchange, taking place between human societies and nature. Hereby society is nourished from all those materials, energies, water, etc.

The process of transformation implies all changes induced on the products acquired by appropriation. Transformation takes place in simple and mundane forms like food preparation, as well as in advanced forms like industry and technology. Obviously the transformation process has become less labor intensive and more energy intensive, during the time. 

The process of Circulation appears when appropriation agents like households or companies stop consuming all of what they produce. 

Society as a whole becomes involved in the metabolic process of consumption regardless of placing within the metabolic chain. Consumption can become a powerful factor of demand that empowers and therefore subordinates all other metabolic processes. 

Emission is the most dependent metabolic function emerging as a consequence of all the other metabolic processes. The volumes of generated waste turn emission into a phenomenon requiring novel metabolic processes and connections concerning its treatment, final disposal, or storage. Capture, transformation, transportation, and storage of wastes are basic requirements our society has to supervise nowadays. New economic systems like Cradle-to-Cradle or recycling chains are additional forms of waste treatment, which allow us to reuse produced waste material and therefore improve the energy return of investment ratio. (5) 


Recapitulating, it is the character of each process, combined and interlaced in multiple forms with the other economic protagonists of the social metabolism, that leads to highly diverse specific configurations, which are creating multiple complex phenomena and possibilities within the system of social metabolism.



1. Fischer, M., Haberl, H., 2015. Social metabolism: a metrics for biophysical growth and degrowth. 

2. Polanyi, K., 1968, p. 139. Primitive, Archaic, and Modern Economies, Essays of Karl Polanyi. Edited by George Dalton. Boston: Beacon Press.

3. Odum, H.T., 1971. Environment, Power, and Society. New York: Wiley-Interscience.

4. Murphy, J.D., 2012. Fossil fuels: Peak oil is affecting the economy already. 

5. Toledo VM et al., 1985. Ecología y autosuficiencia alimentaria. Siglo XXI, México.

Food Systems

Food System


Flow Chart of the current Food System


Flow Chart a regional Food System


Inequality is widely diffuse across global economy and the food supply chain system is not an exception. Interests, global companies and big supermarkets are the driven forces that dominate the global food market, making big profits while on the other side small-scale farmers, workers on large-scale plantations or in processing factories, climate and environment are widely exploited. The current food industries have enormous influence on both human poverty (1) and exploitation and consumption of natural resources. Here the lack of humanity and the reckless monetary opportunism is striking. So far, in response to the challenge of climate change, we believe in the necessity of developing a new sustainable food system that is resilient, safe and diverse, that provides healthy and affordable food to all people protecting human rights, that minimizes waste and conserves biodiversity while adapting to and mitigating impacts of climate change. 

In the light of an emergency situation, the first step is to face up to the crisis by developing a future scenario able to deal with uncertainties. The current food system is not flexible enough. Therefore, we want to supply a new infrastructure able to provide better conditions for human beings and the environment, shifting towards the foundation of a new social and economic coexistence, and providing the food system with a new value chain. 


Problems of the Current Food System

The current food system is a complex network of activities. We analyzed this complex web in a flow chart, which is divided into different fields of interest such as economy, environment, science, socio-cultural reality, technology, politics and governance. It takes into account the input and output of the whole system and how the different stakeholders influence each other. It involves production, processing, packaging, transportation, storage and consumption and also shows the issues arising around food mechanism such as climate change, use of natural resources and carbon emissions. 


The flow chart presents lots of lacks and failures of the system due to the multiple actions that lead to bigger energy and resource consumption. In fact, the current food system is one of the major sources of greenhouse gas emission, in 2018, 63% of the total methane and 79% of nitrous oxide emissions in Germany came from agriculture. (2) It is also responsible for 37% of global emissions. (3) Moreover, analyzing the current data about growing population the European Union‘s Scientific Advice Mechanism found that, without significant change, emissions would increase by 30–40% by 2050.

In the current food supply chain 33% of total food production gets lost and/or wasted. (4) In Germany, the food consumption amount is ca. 675 kg pro capita (5) and the food waste pro capita is around 55 kg. (6)

Furthermore, according to the IPCC Special Report on Climate Change and Land, the current global food system has major food security risks due to=climate change. (7) Indeed, the effect of climate will ensure that many types of agriculture will be much more vulnerable in the future. 


Solution – A Local Food System 

In order to limit food waste, carbon footprint and provide more sustainable and healthier diets, we believe that it is necessary to scale down the food supply system to a farm-to-table approach. Therefore we aim at providing cities with a new local food infrastructure.

Thanks to a local production and consumption system it is possible to provide people with fresher food, to maintain genetic diversity in our plant-based foods and to preserve natural areas by developing unused ground in the urban and non-urban landscape. 

Moreover, the shift to a local production allows to reduce CO2 emission by reducing food miles. In fact, eliminating the transport of food for one year could save the CO2 equivalent of driving 1,000 miles. (8) The food industry has a strong impact on state’s economies, but the amount of import and export products present almost the same value. In Germany, every year food worth over 50 Billion € gets imported (9) and over 59,5 Billion € gets exported. (10)

Lastly, beside the environmental impacts of a local based food system, communities can benefit from it and local food business can help strengthening the state’s economy. (11)



1. R. Willoughby and T. Gore, “Ripe for Change: Ending human suffering in supermarket supply chains”, 2018.

2. <>

3. C. Mbow, C. Rosenzweig, L.G. Barioni, T. Benton, “Chapter 5:Food Security”, 2019, pp. 439–442.

4. FAO United Nations: „Global Food Losses and Food Waste“, Düsseldorf: 2011. / Statitisches Bundesamt: „statistisches jahrbuch 2019“. Wiesbaden: 2019, p. 187. 

5. Statitisches Bundesamt: „statistisches jahrbuch 2019“. Wiesbaden: 2019, p. 187.

6. Bundesministerium Ernährung und Landwirftschaft: „Ernährungsreport 2019“, Berlin: 2019, p. 26.

7. C. Mbow, C. Rosenzweig, L.G. Barioni, T. Benton, “Chapter 5:Food Security”, 2019, pp. 439–442.

8. Weber and Matthews: “Food miles and the Relative Climate Impacts of Food Choices in the United States”, Environmental Science & Technology, 42(10), 2008: p. 3508-3513. / Umweltbundesamt: <>

9. <>

10. <>

11. Peters, C.J., N.L. Bills, J.L. Wilkins and G.W. Fick. “Foodshed analysis and its relevance to sustainability. Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems”, 2008, pp. 1-7.

Local vs. Global


Looking at the data we collected during the research phase of the project, we found out that Germany imports almost as much food as it exports. This information reveals that there is enough food being grown, processed and produced in Germany to serve the whole population - leaving aside some exotic fruits, vegetables and exclusive delicatessen. However, the data also depicts a strong interest of the consumed food. Nonetheless, national and international companies rule the market. Another revealed fact is, that the major amount of the proceeds go to the supermarkets, traders and manufacturers. The costs of input are relatively low but farmers and workers hardly benefit from the retail pricing. Usually, they are the ones suffering most by price dumping policies made by competing companies. 

It’s not just the food industry, also many consumers are not willing to pay higher prices for healthier or organic food as long as there is cheap food. In order to make local food lucrative, it is essential to sell the local food on a local basis and to exclude traders and major companies from the flow. Following this line, famers and workers get better pay-offs and gain the financial possibilities to grow qualitative over quantitate amounts of food. For the consumer, the prices would hardly change, but the proportioning of the volume creates a regional value-chain together with a regional food-supply-chain. 



we are grow - GROW FLOW THINK MAKE,  Image: GROW

The change of human behavior and mentality is one of most difficult things to achieve. During the current Covid-19 pandemic however, we all had to change and assimilate our behavior and daily life routines all of sudden due to medical recommendations and political decisions. Leaving aside the justification of all these actions, most people coped quite well with all the restrictions. But they also showed something else, if it becomes necessary to take action and change the way of life, it works. 

Ideally, humans change their behavior as a result of realizing that the present and the future as well as their personal wellbeing benefit by their change in behavior. This includes the human’s as well as nature’s future. Relinquishment is not the goal, but it’s part of the path leading there. As none of us is willing to give up parts of hers/his perceived life quality standards but expects them to grow constantly, it is time promote a different kind of enlightenment, where degrowth is not the answer. We should reconsider what and how we consume, where it comes from and who profits by it. 

Public relations activities to promote the further education and the change of behavior of grown-ups and younger generations are needed. GROW is a good example of an initiative trying to evoke a change in humans. Conscious choices by millions of peoples have the potential to change something without making individuals suffer by the consequences. Starting with food is definitely a suitable starting point as everybody needs to eat and willingly or unwillingly supports the current cruel and inefficient food industry.



The average European eats ca. 675kg per year. Per capita about 55kg of food per year end up as waste. The overall food loss food during processing and producing sum up to 337kg per capita and year. This means, about one third of all food reaches a trash bin before it gets a chance to get sold. Due to long distance travelling of most food, it is packed in plastic. Most food we buy is packaged as well for various reasons. 

Long distance travelling and packaging also are the reason why most food has a bad carbon monoxide footprints. In addition and although the transportation system is continuously running, it takes a while until the food is available in the supermarket. This easily can be optimized or even better, made be obsolete with a local food supply chain. Fruits and vegetables ripe on the fields, not in airplanes or storage houses and therefore need less packaging. 

Here again, data shows that people believe in changing the world for the better with minimizing food loss and waste or more agricultural land in and close to urban areas. In addition the consumers have high expectations on farmers and the food industry. In general, some preconditions for a more sustainable and local, organic and fair food industry are existing. 

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