Characteristic Metabolic Profile Of Societies The Postindustrial Pattern

Since the early 1990s, a number of empirical country studies estimating the resource basis of industrial economies have been developed (see Adriaanse et al. 1997; Schandl et al. 2000; Matthews et al. 2000). On the basis of these studies, some characteristics of industrial metabolism at the national level can be identified. One obvious feature of industrial metabolism is the enormous amount of throughput as compared to final output. This is true in the historical comparison with agricultural societies but also compared to recent industrializing societies and societies in transition.

Looked at more closely, the continuing high level of materials use appears to be a result of construction intensity, nutrition habits, energy supply and transport. The amount of consumer goods plays a comparably less important role, even though an enormous amount of resources, both materials and energy, are mobilized to produce them. The amount of physical advance achievements necessary to make available the production infrastructure and all payments due to the transport infrastructure to distribute final goods and the whole commerce infrastructure are also factors. Nevertheless, the dimensions of the material relations have changed dramatically. The metabolic profile of industrial societies is dominated by a small number of materials. Water, for instance, accounts for around 87 per cent of yearly mass throughputs in industrial economies. Air is approximately 8 per cent, whereas all the other materials (biomass, minerals, fossil fuels and imported products) only amount to around 5 per cent (Schandl et al. 1999). Even within the remainder, some materials dominate (for example, sand, gravel, crushed stone and rocks, fossil fuels, wood and feedstuffs for animals).

A second new feature in industrial metabolism is the growth dynamic, which is different from the agrarian mode of production not only quantitatively but also qualitatively. Whereas in agrarian societies production is limited by land availability and by the solar energy system, industrial society seems to possess limitless energetic resources. A further feature of the system is its low capacity for recycling. Currently, much less than 10 per cent of yearly throughput, outside of water and air, are kept within the recycling loops. It is even doubtful that the recycling potential can be raised significantly owing to the fact that many materials (such as fuels) cannot be recycled at all.

As has been argued before, industrial economies tend to use materials for a certain time period. These materials make up society's material components or, in other words, the material stocks. As a result mainly of construction activities, means of production and durable consumer goods net addition to stocks are relatively high. They amount to between 5 and 11.5 tons per capita and year (Matthews et al. 2000). The feedback relationships between stocks and flows described in Schandl and Schulz (2000) give some ideas as to future self-commitments of industrial societies.

Another important feature of the metabolic profile of industrial society is the overuse of the atmosphere as a sink. The main output category of disposals to domestic nature is CO2, caused by fossil fuel use, animal husbandry and waste incineration. Industrial societies were environmentally successful in cleaning up water in the 1960s and in reducing local toxic air emissions by introducing end-of-pipe technologies. Currently, the problem of increasing waste amounts is often met by waste incineration, resulting in a problem shift from one gateway to another (for example, from the soil to the air). Since outputs like CO2 cannot be reduced by waste treatment technologies, environmental problems shift from the local to the global level.

The remarkable similarities in industrial metabolism among many industrial economies encourage us to talk about a characteristic metabolic profile. Looking at the sheer level of average consumption it amounts to 18 tons per inhabitant and year (see Table 26.6). This should be further analyzed and discussed if there appears to be a different pattern within different groups of economies. On the one hand, there are Austria, Germany and the USA with a shared average of around 19 tons and, on the other hand, there are Japan and the Netherlands with an average of around 16 tons.

Table 26.6 A comparison of the material consumption in several industrial economies (tonsper capita, 1991)
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