The material footprint of nations

Abstract: Metrics on resource productivity currently used by governments suggest that some developed countries have increased the use of natural resources at a slower rate than economic growth (relative decoupling) or have even managed to use fewer resources over time (absolute decoupling). Using the material footprint (MF), a consumption-based indicator of resource use, we find the contrary: Achievements in decoupling in advanced economies are smaller than reported or even nonexistent. We present a time series analysis of the MF of 186 countries and identify material flows associated with global production and consumption networks in unprecedented specificity. By calculating raw material equivalents of international trade, we demonstrate that countries’ use of nondomestic resources is, on average, about threefold larger than the physical quantity of traded goods. As wealth grows, countries tend to reduce their domestic portion of materials extraction through international trade, whereas the overall mass of material consumption generally increases. With every 10% increase in gross domestic product, the average national MF increases by 6%. Our findings call into question the sole use of current resource productivity indicators in policy making and suggest the necessity of an additional focus on consumption-based accounting for natural resource use.

PNAS, May 2015, 112 (20), pp. 6271-6276

Energy, property, and the industrial revolution narrative

Abstract: The Industrial Revolution (IR) story is the core of a mainstream economic history narrative of energy/development relationships, celebrating Modern Economic Growth (MEG) as the increase in per capita energy consumption in the last two centuries. Such a narrative emphasizes mineral technology and private property as the key elements of growth processes. I will criticize the above narrative, from a socio-environmental history perspective, for its inability to account for two crucial aspects of energy history: 1. the role of social power as key determinant in how energy sources are used and to what ends; 2. the socio-ecological costs associated with the increase of energy consumption. I will then review Environmental History studies on energy/industrialization and highlight possible future developments in the field. The article makes a strong point for the need to look at energy transitions as social processes, and to include the unequal distribution of environmental, health, and social costs of mineral energy into global history narratives.

Ecological Economics, Volume 70, Issue 7, 15 May 2011, Pages 1309-1315

Sold Futures? The Global Availability of Metals and Economic Growth at the Peripheries: Distribution and Regulation in a Degrowth Perspective


In recent years, the strategic role certain metals play is seen as central to the
geopolitics promulgated by state agents in the North. While a switch to renewable energy
and an increase in energy efficiency might be instrumental to reducing dependence on
fossil energy, it increases dependence on metals. This paper starts from an analysis of
the likely availability of metals in the near future and then proceeds to investigate political
concerns raised by considering the geological fundamentals of social development at the
peripheries of the capitalist world-system. The inequality of metal stocks, future metal
requirements and the ensuing political challenges are investigated, taking copper as an
example. The final section is dedicated to the discussion of regulatory challenges in view
of multiple constraints on metal extraction. This section also highlights the preconditions
of a socially legitimate transition to a renewable energy system in the coming period of
socio-ecological transformation.

Authors keywords: crisis, resources, peak, copper, development

Governance from below and environmental justice: Community water management from the perspective of social metabolism

The Mexican neoliberal political regime created a hegemonic governance model (top-down) which has tried to impose a single definition for the rules of the distribution of the costs and benefits (environmental and economic) related to the appropriation of “natural resources” (fossil fuels, forests, mineral, water, genetic). Social metabolism is a framework that highlights the contribution of indigenous communities in their struggles to build a movement of environmental justice and austerity (a regionally sensitive alternative to degrowth). By forging an indigenous communitarian identity, known as comunalidad in the Sierra Juárez of Oaxaca, they are forging a new form of “bottom-up” governance. We designed key components and indicators to understand the social metabolism related to three policy objectives: a) local governance; b) reducing water vulnerability; and c) social justice. Heterodox perspectives by Marx and Illich enrich the analysis. The analysis emphasizes the importance of the social control of the “tools” needed to protect their communities and their heritage, transforming the institutions that were imposed on them. The approach is critical for constructing a research program in “ecological economics from below.”

Ecological Economics, vol. 160, June 2019, pp. 52-61

A socio-metabolic perspective on environmental justice and degrowth movements

Degrowth and environmental justice movements share overarching aims of sustainability and justice and pursue them through radical social change and resistances. Both movements are diverse and comprised of groups that originate and operate in different contexts. The ever-growing metabolism of the world economy presents an obstacle to both movements’ aims, while a socio-metabolic perspective unveils very different characteristics and contexts of the specific struggles. The strategies of many environmental justice movements located at the frontiers of resource extraction are employed to resist coerced socio-ecological transition towards industrialization and to protect more customary ways of life. Movements for the degrowth of industrial metabolism tend to push for socio-ecological transformation, pursuing new ways of life and reimagined social relations in alternative societies. The overarching aims and obstacles of these movements may be shared, but their struggles, strategies and required actions are not the same. Alliances should seek advantages from this plurality of perspectives and positions within their struggles, while acknowledging potential tensions arising from these different contexts.

Ecological Economics, vol. 161, July 2019, pp. 330-333

Food self-provisioning as an answer to the metabolic rift: The case of ‘Dacha Resilience’ in Estonia

Abstract: Agriculture is not only an essential nexus between society and nature but in its current industrial form also a possible threat to ecological stability. This article explores how a supplement to the conventional agrifood system alleviates the negative consequences of the industrial food production system that manifest through the metabolic rift (Marx, 1981). During fieldwork in Estonia ten semi-structured in-depth interviews were conducted to analyze the practice of Food Self-Provisioning (FSP) in (peri-)urban dachas – a Russian term for a plot of land with a seasonal allotment house, mostly used for food production.
Using McClintock’s (2010) three-dimensional framework of metabolic rift that consists of ecological, social and individual dimensions, we demonstrate how FSP not only contributes to mending all these rifts but also increases resilience on various levels. As a region-specific practice of “quiet sustainability” (Smith and Jehlička, 2013) it displays an environmentally friendly alternative to the conventional agrifood system and serves as a strong example of sufficiency and moral economy. Furthermore, by its practice it not only challenges the continuous commodification process of ‘fictitious commodities’, such as land, labor and food (Polanyi, 2001; McClintock, 2010), but it defies market logic in general. Therefore, this article proposes FSP as a viable, but largely underestimated and even stigmatized, model of alternative sustainability, already widely practiced in post-socialist Europe.

Journal of Rural Studies, Volume 68, May 2019, Pages 75-86

Why economic growth is not compatible with environmental sustainability

Keynote speech by ecological economist Federico Demaria at “Well-being beyond GDP growth? Panel Discussion on Post-growth in the Era of Multiple Crises.” Organized by the European Commission (Brussels, 22nd February, 12.30).

Why economic growth is not compatible with environmental sustainability

Introduction: Academic FEDERICO DEMARIA will be addressing staff at the European Commission today in a keynote speech about the crucial issues of economic growth and environmental degradation. He asks, is the well-being of the individual, societies and nations possible beyond economic growth?

Finance, energy and the decoupling: an empirical study

Abstract: This paper investigates the empirical and theoretical basis of the decoupling between energy throughput and economic growth, with a critical view of the use of the decoupling concept as a policy priority. We provide an analysis of the historical trends of the metabolic pattern of European economies over a period of 18 years focusing on the changes in energy throughput and financial assets. The results show that energy consumption per hour of labor has remained constant, suggesting that no significant changes in production processes or technology have taken place in the productive sectors of the economy. The contribution of this paper is to establish a bridge between the economic analysis of financialization and the societal metabolism analysis of the economic process from a biophysical point of view. We argue that this bridge is crucial to draw attention to the biophysical consequences of financialization (a relative decoupling) and critically assess the pertinence of policies aimed at encouraging the decoupling in the context of increasing inequality.

Why won’t they see the need for a change?

Social attitudes and behaviours research on nationally representative samples often presents the European semiperiphery (and especially Eastern Europe) as an obstinate laggard stuck in the selfish unrealised growth hopes and unsacrifical individualistic distrust with respect to ecological transformation (cf. EVS and ISSP surveys), even when comparative understanding of the current and historical differences in rates of social metabolism is included. This paper does not attempt to construct cultural and ecohistorical justifications for such popular attitude differences, but argues for the change of perspective through which we frame the degrowth-compliant social attitudes. It illustrates how the blame for the semiperipheral attitudinal obstinacy lies in the eyes of the beholder-scientist working within the dominant developmentalist framework (e.g. productivist optimism) focused on behaviour change within the growth paradigm. Using several ISSP modules datasets, we show how the theoretical expectations of development and human-nature interaction affect the instrument used to assess the social attitudes. We then invert the instrument to reflect more closely the degrowth-compatible “cautious egalitarianism” attitudes. From this perspective stark differences along European core-periphery gradient disappear and new commonalities appear. Our interpretation of the comparative empirical social survey data suggests that the standardly perceived structural lack of degrowth-enthusiasm on the European semiperiphery is a product of the hegemonic scientific socionatural imaginary at least as much as of the metabolism those societies currently reproduce through.

This media entry was a contribution to the special session „Why won't they see the need for a change? “ at the 5th International Degrowth Conference in Budapest in 2016.

Technologies for a Degrowth Transition

I’ll broach the degrowth transition from the combined perspective of social construction of technology and world system theories. I’ll seek to demonstrate how dominant technological complex functions to integrate yet thwart the advancement of semi-periphery.

Narratives of a socially more just and ecologically more sustainable future would frequently have us believe that exising technologies lend themselves either to a wholesale repurposing or a strategic cherry-picking of renewable, microproduction and recycling technologies. Yet they fail to register that technological systems are co-substantial with the existing social metabolism: the division of labor in the integrated capitalist world system is only made possible by interlocking technological systems. Globe-spanning complex of cybernetic, logistic and natural resources management technologies is essential for its continued reproduction. And, in turn, the techno-scientific development is directed by the process of capitalist valorization. The de-intensification of capitalist system would thus lead to the disruption of technological development.

This has a triple consequence I’ll develop in my paper: a) technologies do not lend themselves easily to disaggregation and thus the technological aspect of transition requires an integrated approach, b) degrowth transition is likely to be disruptive and thus cannot be technologically pre-figured with any certainty, c) development through technology is a negative-sum process for capitalist periphery and thus holds a strong incentive for a trajectory of alternative development. Finally, I’ll indicate what technological policies might be meaningful from these constraints.

This media entry was a contribution to the special session „Technologies for a Degrowth Transition“ at the 5th International Degrowth Conference in Budapest in 2016.

Looking for sustainability on local level: Social metabolism of three small-scale organic farms in the Czech Republic

During the last century, we have witnessed unprecedented growth in both global food production and associated environmental, social, and economic problems connected to the increasingly industrialized, globalised and commodified food production. In reaction, the issues of food security, food sovereignty and, more generally, sustainable food production have gained momentum within the academic debate. While sustainable food production is a global challenge, it has an inevitable local dimension. It is at the local level where people live and work, where environmental, economic, social, cultural and institutional issues are interlocked and where the food is produced, processed, transported, traded, and consumed or wasted. Hence, understanding of the particular food production practices and their impacts at a local level is crucial.
Methodologically, the issue of sustainability of food systems calls for complex, systemic insights, including the biophysical side of the problem; although many local case studies exist, they use mostly qualitative approaches and the studies looking for biophysical data on a local level are very rare. This paper aim at fulfilling this gap by providing analysis of three small-scale organic farms in the Czech Republic from the perspective of social metabolism. Quantitative analysis is employed to create a flow-fund representation of the farms that integrates energy, material and monetary flows with available land and labour funds. Case study data are obtained from participative observation, direct interviews and farm accounts. Although all the three studied farms have explicit sustainability focus, their metabolic profile is not fully unambiguous.

This media entry was a contribution to the special session „Looking for sustainability on local level: Social metabolism of three small-scale organic farms in the Czech Republic“ at the 5th International Degrowth Conference in Budapest in 2016.

In search for sustainable local food systems: Sociometabolic perspectives

During the last century, we have witnessed an unprecedented growth in both global food production and associated environmental, social, and economic problems connected to the increasingly industrialized and globalised food production system; projections for the future foresee a continuation of the rising food demand. While sustainable food production is a global challenge, it has an inevitable local dimension; it is the local level where people live and work, where environmental, economic, social, cultural and institutional issues are interlocked and where the food is produced, processed, transported, traded and consumed or wasted. Rising academic attention is devoted, among others, to so-called local food systems; localised food production is supposed to bring benefits such as lower transport dependence resulting in less consumption of fossil fuels, lower CO2 emissions, less waste from packaging, and more closed cycles of matter and energy within the production system. However, material data are still missing to critically assess the real sustainability benefits and trade-offs of food localisation. The framework of social metabolism can provide essential insights to the biophysical dimension of local food systems, and thus help to assess their contribution to deteriorating or improving sustainability. This special session aims to bring together case studies using the social metabolism framework applied on local level (i.e. lower-than-national) to food production (and the following stages of food life-cycle); the sociometabolic reading of a diverse range of local cases will help to carve out promises and pitfalls for sustainable pathways in food production for the future.

This media entry was a contribution to the special session „In search for sustainable local food systems: Sociometabolic perspectives“ at the 5th International Degrowth Conference in Budapest in 2016.

Agriculture and degrowth: State of the art and assessment of organic and biotech-based agriculture from a degrowth perspective

Abstract: Agriculture stands as the foundation of modern human societies. Any changes in social functioning should seriously consider how to guarantee people a proper supply of food, in terms of both quantity and quality. Degrowth is a movement that aims at achieving a radical change in the societal metabolism of societies, toward a more frugal, sustainable and convivial lifestyle. The movement envisages a society where concepts as sharing, conviviality, care, commons, justice could stand at its foundation, and replace the call for economic growth, which is, obviously, biophysically unsustainable. This paper aims to (1) review how agriculture has been addressed within the degrowth discourse, (2) analyse the relation between agriculture and societal metabolism and its relevance from a degrowth perspective, (3) discuss how different agricultural techniques and technologies may represent appropriate technologies (sensu Schumacher, 1973), and meet the call for conviviality (sensu Illich, 1975). The latter point focusses on a comparison between organic agriculture (OA, which bans the use of agrochemicals and Genetically Modified Organisms – GMOs) and biotech-based agriculture (BTA, reliant on GMOs). The paper points out that although many relevant socioeconomic, political and environmental issues have been addressed by degrowth scholars, agriculture is still poorly analysed. Recommendations are made with regard to studying possible alternative transition paths, by assessing their impact on society’s structure and functioning. It is argued that “conviviality” and “appropriate technology” concepts are rather complex and multifaceted. Therefore, different practices might be considered convivial and appropriate under some criteria, and not under others. With regard to conviviality, organic agriculture might not fully respond to the call for autonomy. Notwithstanding claims made by GMOs supporters, BTA does neither suit the call for appropriate technology, nor represent a convivial tool under any criteria.

A response to the paper by Bartosz Bartkowski: “Degrowth, organic agriculture and GMOs: A reply to Gomiero“.

Optimal Versus Sustainable Degrowth Policies

Abstract: This paper introduces a natural resource and pollution in a Ramsey growth model which relies on the postulates of ecological economics. It studies the impact of voluntary degrowth policies on production and welfare. The instrument of these policies is a tax on the natural resource. These public policies are implemented after the downturn of the households’ welfare following from the increased pollution.
Two kinds of policies are considered and rely either on an optimality criterion or on an intergenerational equity criterion. With respect to the laissez-faire case, they decrease both production and pollution but increase welfare. Classes of sustainable degrowth paths characterized by time-constant or time-increasing tax rates are determined.

Ecological Economics; Volume 136, June 2017, Pages 266–281