Metabolism in Social Geography and Geology

In 1955 a total of 70 participants from all over the world and from a great variety of disciplines convened in Princeton, New Jersey, for a remarkable conference: 'Man's Role in Changing the Face of the Earth'. The conference was financed by the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research. The geographer Carl O. Sauer, the zoologist Marston Bates and the urban planner Lewis Mumford presided over the sessions. The papers and discussions were published in a 1200-page compendium (Thomas 1956a) that perhaps documents the world's first high-level interdisciplinary panel on environmental problems of human development.

The title of the conference honored George Perkins Marsh, who published the book, Man and Nature; or, Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action, in 1864, and is considered the father of social geography. For Marsh, man was a dynamic force, often irrational in creating a danger to himself by destroying his base of subsistence. The largest chapter of Man and Nature, entitled 'The Woods', advocated the recreation of forests in the mid-latitudes. He was not, as the participants of the conference note, concerned about the exhaustion of mineral resources. He looked upon mining rather from an aesthetic point of view, considering it 'an injury to the earth' (Thomas 1956b, p.xxix).

The issue of possible exhaustion of mineral resources was taken up by the Harvard geologist Nathaniel Shaler in his book Man and the Earth (1905). In considering longer time series, he noted that 'since the coming of the Iron Age' the consumption of mineral resources had increased to a frightening degree. In 1600 only very few substances (mostly precious stones) had been looked for underground. But, at the turn of the 20th century, there were several hundred substances from underground sources being used by man, of essential importance being iron and copper. Shaler was concerned with the limits of the resource base.

This shift of focus from Marsh (1973 [1864]) to Shaler (1905) reflects the change in society's metabolism from an agrarian mode of production (where scarcity of food promotes the extension of agricultural land at the expense of forests) to an industrial one, where vital 'nutrients' are drawn from subterrestrial sinks that one day will be exhausted.

In Thomas (1956a) the concern with a limited mineral base for an explosively rising demand for minerals is even more obvious. Such a 'materials flow' focus seems to have been strongly supported by wartime experiences and institutions: Samuel H.J. Ordway quoted data from Paley (1952) - an excellent source for longer time series of materials consumption - worrying about the 'soaring demand' for materials.4 The depletion of national resources becomes part of a global concern: 'If all the nations of the world should acquire the same standard of living as our own, the resulting world need for materials would be six times present consumption' (Ordway 1956, p.988). Ordway advanced his 'theory of the limit of growth', based on two premises:

1. Levels of human living are constantly rising with mounting use of natural resources. 2.

Despite technological progress we are spending each year more resource capital than is created.

The theory follows: If this cycle continues long enough, basic resources will come into such short supply that rising costs will make their use in additional production unprofitable, industrial expansion will cease, and we shall have reached the limit of growth. (Ordway 1956, p.992)

It is interesting to note that even the idea of materials' consumption growing less than GDP because of increases in efficiency was taken up: in its projections for 1975 the Paley Report expected US GDP to double compared to 1950, but the materials input necessary for this to rise by only 50-60 per cent (data from Ordway 1956, p. 989).

McLaughlin, otherwise more optimistic than Ordway, stated in the same volume that by 1950 for every major industrial power the consumption of metals and minerals had exceeded the quantity which could be provided from domestic sources (McLaughlin 1956, p.860).

Similarly, the 1955 conference participants discussed the chances of severe shortages in future energy supply. Eugene E. Ayres, speaking of 'the age of fossil fuels', and Charles A. Scarlott, treating 'limitations to energy use', emphasized the limits inherent to using given geological stocks. Ayres, elaborating on fossil fuels since the first uses of coal by the Chinese about two thousand years ago, was very skeptical about geologists' estimates (then) of the earth's reserves, suspecting them of being vastly understated. He nevertheless concluded: 'In a practical sense, fossil fuels, after this century, will cease to exist except as raw materials for chemical synthesis' (Ayres 1956, p. 380). Scarlott (1956) demonstrated the diversification of energy uses and the accompanying rise in demand and then elaborated on a possible future of solar energy utilization and nuclear fusion as sources of energy.

In the 1955 conference materials flow considerations were mainly confined to the input side of societal metabolism. The overall systemic consideration that the mobilization of vast amounts of matter from geological sinks (for example, minerals and fossil energy carriers) into a materially closed system such as the biosphere would change parameters of atmospheric, oceanic and soil chemistry on a global level does not appear there. Still, many contributions to this conference document the transformations of local and regional natural environments by human activity, both historical and current. These concerns were also explicitly addressed in The Earth as Transformed by Human Action: Global and Regional Changes in the Biosphere over the Past 300 Years (Turner et al. 1990), representing the contemporary state of the art of social geography.

The global environmental change issue was taken up in a special issue of Scientific American in September 1970, devoted to the biosphere. One year later, Scientific American edited an issue on energy and socioeconomic energy metabolism. In 1969 the German geographer Neef explicitly talked about the 'metabolism between society and nature' as a core problem of geography (Neef 1969). But this already belongs to the post-1968 cultural revolution of environmentalism we will treat next.

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