I decided to publish my write-ups from my comprehensive exam reading fields. I am publishing them *as is.* Thus they represent my thoughts as a new PhD student. They were written between September 2011 and July 2012. The full collection is accessible here.

Socio-Ecological Metabolism

  • Rolf Peter Sieferle, The Subterranean Forest: Energy Systems and the Industrial Revolution (Cambridge: The White Horse Press, 2001). 
  • Marina Fischer-Kowalski and Helmut Haberl, Socioecological Transitions and Global Change: Trajectories of Social Metabolism and Land Use (Northampton, Massachusetts: Edward Elger, 2007). 
  • Myron P. Gutmann, William J. Parton, Geoff Cunfer, and Ingrid C. Burke, “Population and Environment in the U.S. Great Plains,” in Population, Land Use, and Environment: Research Directions, ed. Barbara Entwisle and Paul C. Stern (2005). 
  • Kenneth M. Sylvester, Susan Hautaniemi Leonard, Myron P. Gutmann, and Geoff Cunfer, “Demography and Environment in Grassland Settlement: Using Linked Longitudinal and Cross-Sectional Data to Explore Household and Agricultural Systems,” in History and Computing 14 (2006): 31-60. 
  • Xavier Cusso, Ramon Garrabou, and Enric Tello, “Social Metabolism in an Agrarian Region of Catalonia (Spain) in 1860-1870: Flows, Energy Balance, and Land Use,” in Ecological Economics 58 (2006): 49-65. 
  • G.I. Guzman Casado and M. Gonzalez de Molina, “Preindustrial Agriculture Versus Organic Agriculture: The Land Cost of Sustainability,” in Land Use Policy 26 (2009): 502-510. 
  • Fridolin Krausmann, Heinz Schandl, and Rolf Peter Sieferle, “Socio-Ecological Regime Transitions in Austria and the United Kingdom,” in Ecological Economics 65 (2008): 187-201. 
  • Geoff Cunfer and Fridolin Krausmann, “Sustaining Soil Fertility: Agricultural Practice in the Old and New Worlds,” in Global Environment 4 (2009): 8-47. 
  • Fridolin Krausmann, Simone Gingrich, Nina Eisenmenger, Karl-Heinz Erb, Helmut Haberl, and Marina Fischer-Kowalski, “Growth in Global Materials Use, GDP and Population during the 20th Century,” in Ecological Economics 68 (2009): 2696-2705.

In The Subterranean Forest: Energy Systems and the Industrial Revolution, Rolf Peter Sieferle, Professor of History at the University of St. Gallen, examines and illuminates the energy regime changeover from an agrarian way of life to an industrial. Sieferle writes that the field of environmental history, which for the opening decades of its existence was much obsessed with the heroic exploits of the environmental movement, must now adopt some of the characteristics and methods of environmental science in order to stay relevant. Environmental history is inherently interdisciplinary. Those environmental historians who stick to the traditional written sources typically used in the writing of history, Sieferle writes, will be confined to “aspects of mentality,” i.e. evolving perceptions of nature—which threaten to demote nature to a social construct. Sieferle credits historians like Alfred Crosby with successfully demonstrating the connection between natural processes and human societies. He states that one of the most important natural processes in history is the amassing and use of energy. Energy is a key part of any ecological system. He explains that he first became involved in the study of energy in the context of the nuclear energy debates of the 1970s and 1980s. Sieferle writes that he came to the conclusion that energy and social formations are directly related because the availability of free energy determines the boundaries in which socio-metabolic processes can take place. “When the energy systems of the past,” Sieferle states, “have been reconstructed, we will understand the natural framework that determines the physical boundaries of economic development.” (viii) 

The Subterranean Forest, Sieferle writes is “mainly an essay on environmental history that focuses on energy as the physical framework of material activities,” (x) which focuses empirically on eighteenth-century wood scarcity. Sieferle writes that the earth’s biosphere is a powerful solar energy system. All organisms require energy to survive. They take free energy from the environment in order to perform work and then this energy is returned the environment is a lesser form. This metabolic process takes place in all living organisms, and thus the process of life is essentially an energy process, Sieferle argues. Ecological systems are basically a collection of species, which tap from the same energy sources and are part of the same metabolic system. Likewise, human societies are a collection of individuals that use the same energy sources and are part of the same metabolic system. Organic and cultural evolutions are inherently linked, Sieferle contends. Paleolithic hunter-gatherer societies required mobility for survival because they had to be on the move because of their position in the food chain. The basis for a society’s subsistence determines the management of the society’s population and territorial range. Hunter-gatherer societies, due to their behavioral modes, maintained a population which was below the maximum made possible by their food sources. Paleolithic society, Sieferle argues, used unadulterated sources of solar energy in a highly efficient manner. They also took the first step in the technological control of energy by mastering the use of fire.  

The transition from a hunter-gatherer society to an agrarian society is the most profound change in the history of humanity, Sieferle argues. Although population increase did play a role in the Neolithic revolution, he argues that the causational factors, such as climactic change, of this modification in metabolic regime were much more complex. While the hunter-gatherers had passively tapped into a natural flow of energy; the need to avoid a devastating population bottleneck, meant that they kept their numbers low and thus lived in superabundance. Agrarian societies, on the other hand, began to directly manage and modify their energy resources. The sedentary state of agrarian society meant that they were able to and often had to store food. Because they could hypothetically count on a steady flow of foodstuffs, agricultural societies were able to expand their populations. Sieferle states that it is a mistaken assumption that the quality of life improved with the move to agrarianism. Rather, conditions worsened for much of the population because access to food was no longer as egalitarian.  

Sieferle calls the socio-metabolic system of agricultural society a “controlled solar energy system.” (14) The development of this system occurred in four phases. In the first phase a transition was made to the reproductive use of plants and animals. Secondly, humans eliminated competition for these plants and animals by weeding and pest and predator control. Thirdly, humans concentrated these plants and animals which were beneficial to humans in areas such as fields and pastures. Lastly, agrarian societies began to deliberately modify these species and their ecosystems for human advancement. Agrarian society was dependent on a variety of energy forms, all of which, even water, could be traced back to the sun. The only way to optimize the use of this energy was to develop a stationary status, which enabled them to take advantage of possibilities for innovation. However, these innovations, because they transformed natural systems, caused agrarian societies to be more precarious than those of the hunter-gatherers. Agrarian society was naturally in a constant state of strain against the natural bonds of its environment as it sought for greater control over it in order to increase population numbers and cultural standardization. One of the key sources of energy in agrarian society was wood. Unlike hunter-gatherer societies, which viewed the collection of wood in the same manner as the collection of food, agrarian societies divided the land into economic territories. These territories were typically divided into three categories—arable, pasture, and forest—which were expected to serve their designated functions in the socio-metabolic system. Forests were often cleared to make way for arable and pastureland, causing soil erosion, flood plains, and the like. Wood was also used for construction and for hearth activities. Demand for wood, Sieferle writes, increased at the same rate that forests decreased. Sieferle links the final demise of the woodland to the evolution of the state. The communal wood courts of the Middle Ages were able to maintain a relatively sustainable use of the forests. However, with the move to a modern states “special interests and privileges, local self-administration and corporations were increasingly subsumed into a general law that first appeared in the guise of absolutist rule. State forest legislation now took the place of communal wood regulations.” (73) Public land was no longer protected from private greed, and thus the forests fell victim to over-exploitation.  

The industrial revolution of the eighteenth century occurred because agrarian society had resulted in wood scarcity, which led society to turn to the fossilized fuel of the subterranean forest: coal. The history of energy is the history of industrialization, he argues. Sieferle writes that “it was in the British Isles that the production and combustion of coal on a grand scale bean and here that the huge global transformation of the socio-metabolic process set in, which is still under way, began.” (78) Sieferle points to two technological developments that revolutionized the use of energy. The first was iron smelting with coke, and the second was the transformation of chemical energy to mechanical energy by the steam engine. In England coal became so pervasive because it was easy to mine and easy to transport. Sieferle emphasizes that shift in land uses that occurred during industrialization resulted in the conversion of much of the former woodland to pasture because the need for this wood source had been replaced by coal. However, Sieferle demonstrates that in Germany the wood scarcity issue led to the rationalization of forestry. Today there are only three known sources of energy, Sieferle writes: fossil, nuclear, and solar. Each of these sources has advantages and disadvantages, but fossil fuels, due to their characteristics, show no signs of flagging in usage. 

Socioecological Transitions and Global Change: Trajectories of Social Metabolism and Land Use, Marina Fischer-Kowalski, Helmut Haberl, and the other contributors, who are mainly from the Institute of Social Ecology at Klagenfurt University in Vienna, Austria, is a book that combines human ecology, environmental history, and ecological economics, which further investigates the topics broached upon by Sieferle in The Subterranean Forest. The volume is intended to investigate the material and energy patterns of the past and to use these patterns to better understand what may occur in the future. Joan Martinez-Alier writes that “the economy may be seen as a system of transformation of energy and materials into products and services for human consumption, and ultimately into dissipated heat, carbon dioxide, and solid or liquid wastes.” (xiii) The study of social metabolism relies on the availability of material flow statistics. The socioeconomic metabolism of a society is directly related to the way in which the land is used. Societies have different metabolic histories, but Socioecological Transitions and Global Change seeks to demonstrate that these different histories have much in common.  

Fischer-Kowalski and Haberl are very upfront about the applicability of their studies to contemporary issues. Looking into the past, one can examine historical socioecological regimes and determine their sustainability and use these findings to shape how society interacts with natural energy systems in the future. As Sieferle demonstrated, the hunter-gatherer society was sustainable over a long period of time, and agrarian society was less sustainable because of the balance that had to be maintained between population growth and the manipulation of natural systems. The industrial socioecological regime appears even more unsustainable because of the fact that fossil-fuels are finite and the use of them causes damage to the environment. The world today is still in the middle of the explosive transition from agrarian to industrial society. If the entire world completes the industrial transition on the same trajectory that has been taken since the mid-eighteenth century in Europe, then the level of carbon output may well prove fatal.  

Like Sieferle, this collection is focused on the transition from an agrarian to an industrial state, and the various articles in the collection look at this change from a variety of spatial and time scales. They operate under the assumption that the term society “is a structural coupling between a cultural system and material elements, among them, as its structural purpose, human population.” (11) Society is driven by cultural software, which determines meaning, and natural software, which determines material effectiveness. Society reaches its main goal of population sustainment and increase by interacting with and manipulating natural systems of energy and material flows. Human modes of subsistence are referred to as socioecological regimes. Socioeconomic metabolism refers to the “exchange of energy and matter between social and natural systems.” (18) Fischer-Kowalski and Haberl state that the main theme of Socioecological Transitions and Global Change is that contemporary, global sustainability issues are directly linked to the fact that at least two thirds of the world population is still caught in the chaos of the transition from an agrarian to industrial society.  

The essays in the volume aim to answer four main questions. The first question is: Is there such a thing as a characteristic metabolic profile of agrarian societies? They found that there is a characteristic profile, but that this does not mean that these societies were static. Rather, agrarian socioecological regimes were quite dynamic as they were constantly adapting to altering conditions. The second question is: What happens when this socioecological regime starts to change? What are the changes? A transition always begins at a point at which society has reached a relatively stable, though dynamic, state, and presumably ends at a point of new stability. There are three phases in a socio-metabolic transition. The first phase is the ‘take-off phase,’ which occurs when one or more of the variables that allowed for this stable state either decline or undertake sudden growth, which propels that society into a process of transitions. The second phase is the ‘acceleration phase,’ during which society is driven by a closed cycle of positive feedbacks, which compels the system to keep moving towards a new state of being. The third phase is the ‘stabilization phase,’ during which that which caused the unprecedented growth is exhausted and equalized by new negative feedback processes, which create a new state of relative balance. The third queston is: How does the transition from the agrarian to the industrial mode depend on world context? They found that those countries that have lagged behind in the transition to industrialism typically become part of an export-oriented economy based on the extraction of natural resources or the exploitation of cheap labor. Similarly to the conclusion of Rethinking Environmental History: World-System History and Global Environmental Change, Haberl and Fischer-Kowalski write that in these developing countries “production is export-oriented and products are consumed elsewhere, while the social and environmental costs of production and the depletion of resources are felt at home.” (243) Lastly, the authors wished to discover what occurs when one plays around with the scales of analysis. Haberl and Fischer-Kowalski conclude by reasserting their wish to have their research assist with the advancement of a more sustainable path of global development based on renewed commitment to climate policy, restrictions on resource use, sustainable infrastructure, and wilderness and biodiversity preservation. 

In “Population and Environment in the U.S. Great Plains,” Myron P. Gutmann, William J. Parton, Geoff Cunfer, and Ingrid C. Burke acknowledge that the history of the Great Plains is often viewed as one of the most well-known examples of the effects of human intervention on the natural landscape due to the sensational aspects of the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. The climate of the Great Plains, they write, is characterized by dry winters and wet summers. The regions climactic patterns—an east to west gradient of increasing precipitation and an north to south gradient of increasing temperature—determine the boundaries of natural ecosystems and the boundaries of various systems of land-use management. The conventional story of the Great Plains is a story of environmental degradation, which resulted in the Dust Bowl. However, this traditional story, they argue, ignores the fact that land use did not change after the Dust Bowl and actually recovered fully by 1945. The real story of change in the Great Plains is not one of land-use change, but one of demographic change. The authors identify two major population patterns since the mid-nineteenth century. Firstly, the rural areas have been defined by a declining, aging, and increasingly impoverished population. The metropolitan areas, on the other hand, have experienced sustained growth, particularly since the 1960s, due to recreational and industrial development. The authors wish to demonstrate that population, environment and land-use change are related to one another. Their project has three main research components. Firstly, they wish to analyze county-scale processes of historical population, land-use and environmental data. Secondly, they wish to study individual localities to better understand the experiences of farmers and their land-use practices. Thirdly, they will use the interviews of 180 farm families to further link these changes to personal experiences. They hypothesize that their findings will demonstrate a linear linkage between increased population and land-use and environmental changes, which will demonstrate that population density is a kind of resource attribute of the land. They also aim to show that the environmental impact of human populations can be calculated by way of biogeochemical models. 

“Demography and Environment in Grassland Settlement: Using Linked Longitudinal and Cross-Sectional Data to Explore Household and Agricultural Systems,” by Kenneth M. Sylvester, Susan Hautaniemi Leonard, Myron P. Gutmann, and Geoff Cunfer, also further explains the methods of the The Demography and Environment in Grassland Settlement project, which hopes to understand the transformational processes that land use and family systems underwent during the settling of the Great Plains by looking at sample statistics from the state of Kansas, as state that was initially organized by way of a grid system. “This paper,” they state, “is about the process of choosing that sample, about the data we have accumulated and about the process we are undertaking to link records about families and farms through time and to attempt to find their locations in space.” (31) They want to demonstrate that the seemingly clear-cut association between settlement and environmental degradation in the region is not so simple. They wish to paint a more complicated picture, which demonstrates that demographic priorities and changing ecological situations resulted in an ever-changing pattern of land stewardship and demography. Their main goal is to understand these changes at the individual farm family level by attempting to track individuals and families over time through the agricultural and population censuses. “By following individuals and families in the community over time,” they write, “our research design allows us to directly compare the decisions of households within and across ecological settings.” (33) The article demonstrates how the project participants decided which counties, townships, and farms they would study in the state of Kansas and the trials, tribulations, and adjustments that followed. The main goal is to link information from the population censuses to information in the agricultural censuses. They present four main linkage tasks. Firstly, they wish to link farmers in the population census to those in the agricultural census. Secondly, they wish to link federal population schedules to Kansas agricultural schedules. Thirdly, they wish to make a vertical linkage from one population census to the next. Lastly, they wish to link farmers across agricultural censuses.  

In “Social Metabolism in an Agrarian Region of Catalonia (Spain) in 1860-1870: Flows, Energy Balance, and Land Use,” Xavier Cusso, Ramon Garrabou, and Enric Tello demonstrate how a nineteenth century agrarian system in Spain was able to sustain a surplus in energy returns despite the highly intensive nature of Mediterranean organic agriculture, the inefficiency of being dependent on livestock biomass to obtain fertilizer, and the absence of external energy subsidies. The authors calculated the energy flows of the region in order to better understand the development of certain agricultural practices or advanced organic economies. The key feature of this system which enabled it to be sustainable was a land-use system was the integration of agricultural, pastoral, and forest lands based on the breeding of livestock, which enabled the system to function with very low input from outside energy systems. They argue that the study of past, sustainable metabolic flows, such as the one in late nineteenth century Spain, allows for the highlighting of the two main factors that have led to lower energy efficiency in twentieth century agriculture. The first factor is the insertion of external energy sources, namely fossil fuels. The second factor is the “functional disconnection between the different land covers inside the whole agrarian ecosystem,” (49) which have led to much less efficient land use.  

In “Preindustrial Agriculture Versus Organic Agriculture: The Land Cost of Sustainability,” G.I. Guzman Casado and M. Gonzalez de Molina also assert that the study of historical agrarian systems can help provide knowledge for contemporary, agricultural sustainability projects. In this article, Casado and de Molina are particularly interested in informing the resurgence of organic agriculture. Examining the evolution of the agricultural system of Santa Fe, a Mediterranean community near Grenada, over the last 250 years they show that the greatest agricultural sustainability is reached when there is high crop and livestock diversity and the energy and nutrient flows are internalized; Santa Fe began to become unsustainable once the pressures of the market induced it to focus too exclusively on the production of one crop such as wheat and sugar beets. This process of becoming unsustainable was enhanced by the mechanization of farming in the 1950s and 1960s, which divorced the energy and nutrient cycles from the natural systems. These earlier agrarian communities were sustainable simply because they are able to replace the nutrients that are exported with the harvest each year. The downside to this sustainability is that it requires larger quantities of land in order to reach the same levels of production. Present-day organic agriculture needs to recognize the reality of this “land cost,” they argue s that they can work to minimize it without sacrificing sustainability.  

In “Socio-Ecological Regime Transitions in Austria and the United Kingdom,” Fridolin Krausmann, Heinz Schandl, and Rold Peter Sieferle revisit many of the themes discussed in The Subterranean Forest and Socioecological Transitions and Global Change. “We employ the concepts of socio-ecological regime and regime transition to better understand the biophysical causes and consequences of industrialization,” (187) they state. Industrialization is an ongoing process that is characterized by continuous technological advancement and the declining importance of agriculture. They use Austria and the United Kingdom as examples to show the transition from agrarian to industrial regime, and the effects that this change had on energy use, land use, and labor. Two major transitional steps have been taken in this process. In the first step, they write, the traditional, agricultural, controlled solar energy system, regime functioned alongside the new coal-based industrial regime, which was sparked by greater agricultural productivity and population growth. In the second step, however, the infusion of oil and electricity into the industrial regime also infiltrated the agricultural sector, pulling it into the new socio-ecological regime. Industrialization took over the old regime because it answered the growth and sustainability problems. However, industrialization has merely replaced these older problems with newer and more dangerous problems. The divorcement of energy production from the land removed older biophysical growth boundaries that kept agrarian societies in check, creating massive levels of resource use, which are unsustainable. Developed parts of the world are moving towards the third phase of transition, attempting to reach a state of stability, but the undeveloped parts of the world are just entering the acceleration phase, which could have dire consequences for the global environment.  

In “Sustaining Soil Fertility: Agricultural Practice in the Old and New Worlds,” Geoff Cunfer and Fridolin Krausman compare the agricultural practices of Austria and the Great Plains by following the immigrant farmer experience of George Thir, who left Austria for Kansas in 1884, and his wife Elizabeth. “This study,” Cunfer and Krausmann write,” takes a socio-ecological perspective on agriculture and focuses on biophysical relations between society and its natural environment, using a social metabolism approach to investigate the structure and functioning of agricultural production systems.” (13) By examining biophysical flows of energy and materials in the two locations, Cunfer and Krausman are able to illustrate the major socieo-economic differences in the two locations. In Austria, where land was scarce and labor was abundant, the agricultural system was designed to support large populations on a small amount of well-watered land in a sustainable manner, which ensured that the energy and nutrients of the region were steadily renewed, so that the land could support many generations to come. In contrast, the land that George Thir moved to in Kansas was still relatively undeveloped for agricultural uses. Rainfall in Kansas was erratic and available population for labor was little, but fertile land was abundant and cheap. As pioneer communities, Decatur and Finley Counties, in Kansas, naturally began exploiting the soil nutrients of the land quickly and with gusto. The natural fertility of the freshly plowed grassland produced very high yields initially, but, because the agricultural system was based on immediate results and not long-term stability the nutrients and energy used were not returned to the land, this rate of production was fated to only last a limited number of years. In the twentieth century, with the onslaught of fossil fuels, both agricultural systems began moving towards the same socio-economic system based on record breaking production.  

In “Growth in Global Materials Use, GDP and Population During the 20th Century,” Fridolin Krausman, Simone Gingrich, Nina Eisenmenger, Karl-Heinz Erb, Helmut Haberl, and Marina Fischer-Kowalski “present an assessment of the global rise of materials since the beginning of the 20th century based on the conceptual and methodological principles of material flow accounting (MFA.” (2696) Using statistical data, they assembled a quantitative estimate of the annual global extraction of biomass, fossil fuels, metal ores, industrial minerals, and construction minerals between 1900 and 2005, a period that they argue marks unprecedented industrial and economic growth globally. They use their calculations of resource extraction and compare them to the growth of the global economy, population, and primary energy consumption. By comparing these statistics they are able to demonstrate that global material use is at eight times the level today that is was at in 1900. This growth in material use is particularly evident after World War II with the rise of mass consumerism, fossil-fuel usage, and population growth. They show that an increase in material usage is a natural consequence of economic growth and that the increasing rate of material consumption shows no signs of abating.

Published by Jessica M. DeWitt

Dr. Jessica M. DeWitt is an environmental historian of Canada and the United States. She is passionate about the use of digital technologies to bridge the gap between the public and researchers. In addition to her community and professional work, she offers various editing and social media consultancy services.

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