Key focus and research questions
Socio-economic systems depend on a continuous throughput of materials and energy for their reproduction and maintenance. This dependency can be seen as a functional equivalent of biological metabolism, the organism’s dependency on material and energy flows. We therefore address the concept of a “social metabolism”. Contrary to the biological notion, however, this socio-ecological concept links materials and energy flows to social organisation, recognizing that the quantity of economic resource use, the material composition and the sources and sinks of the output flows are a function of socio-economic production and consumption systems that are highly variable across time and space. The industrial metabolism is a precondition for the evolution of modern societies and at the same time one of the most important single causes for unsustainable development. Describing and analysing socio-metabolic patterns at different scales and identifying points of intervention for guiding current patterns into a more sustainable direction is identified as the core task of this thematic area.
Core research questions:
What are appropriate and feasible methods to consistently quantify material and energy flows of socio-economic systems across various functional and spatial scales? What are appropriate units of measurement and aggregation?
What are the differences between resource-use levels among countries and world regions, and how can these be explained? How can a sustainable use of resources be defined?
What are the causal relations between the physical and the monetary economy? How can we make this information meaningful in a social context?
What are the preconditions that facilitate current industrial metabolic patterns and what are their environmental consequences?
How can expert knowledge of socio-metabolic patterns gain momentum in policy? How can it be transformed into feasible strategies of decoupling or dematerialization?
What impact does global trade have upon resource use and what are the environmental consequences? How can national indicators and accounting systems be adapted to consistently take ecological terms of trade into account?