CEFO Workshop with Marina Fischer-Kowalski

In the beginning of March, CEMUS had yet another prominent guest: Dr. Marina Fischer-Kowalski. As the director and “designer” of the Institute of Social Ecology at Klagenfurt University and senior lecturer at the University of Vienna she has published numerous texts on social ecology and social metabolism. Marina has also worked for the United Nations Environmental Program and she used to be the president of the International Society for Ecological Economics.

CEFO – the research forum of CEMUS – had organized a workshop on social metabolism with Marina and I was lucky enough to be able to participate in it. While the concept of social metabolism was relatively new to me, it is apparently tackling many familiar issues. So the workshop was a very enriching experience. Many things were discussed in detail that day, but to keep it “readable” I will focus on some main points here.

Marina explained that social ecology is about how society behaves towards its environment. Her model of social metabolism considers the natural and cultural sphere of causation and how they interact. She claims that other existing models do not connect these two spheres at all, or in the wrong way. She visualized these approaches somewhat like those two for instance:

Marina claims that her model is more holistic and looks at different levels of interactions. It reminds me of Jay Forrester’s System’s Thinking.

The whole cultural sphere – including the overlapping part – forms our society. For all those of you who wonder what belongs to the coinciding part: that’s for example the world population, but also artefacts and life stock. A lot is happening between those two spheres. Through our labor we change the natural realities and experience feedback from that. In the cultural sphere, we develop programs within subsystems like economics, law, etc. – as a reaction to natural feedback, for instance.

Social Metabolism

After a really stimulating discussion and a fantastic Turkish lunch, Marina held a lecture in the afternoon. That was the part I was really most interested in, as it was about decoupling environmental impacts from economic growth. Probably this is THE dream of every economist these days (and if it is not, it should be!). Marina promoted an idea of a tax shift from labor to resources brought forward by Prof. Robert K. Weizsäcker. She highlighted that one needs to distinguish between resource and impact decoupling. When presenting material use and GDP growth over the last century, one can see a “spontaneous” (not following a certain policy) decoupling of these two indicators since the 1970s in the developed countries. Marina presented several possible explanations for this phenomenon: (1) slower economic growth, (2) outsourcing of material production (to developing countries), (3) increasing income inequality, which reduced mass consumption to a certain extent or (4) maybe even a saturation of material needs. Some of these suggestions deserve attention, but with respect to the second point: outsourcing of production to developing countries, it would have been interesting to look at consumption-based resource use. I wonder how much decoupling we could have seen then. The saturation of material needs also is an argument limited to the developed world.

That is something I need to criticize about this lecture in general. Marina often gave examples from Europe. Due to global trade and supply chains the approach to decoupling should always be global, though, in my opinion.

GDP growth and material extraction. The “metabolic rate” is the amount of resources required per year and capita.

We also talked about productivity a lot during this presentation. Marina mentioned in the beginning that technology is one of the key factors when it comes to decoupling economic growth from resource use and pollution, actually. She showed some graphs where one could see how much faster labor productivity increased compared to energy and material productivity. This is where the proposed shift of tax burden comes into play. It would make labor cheaper relative to materials or energy. As Rob Hart suggested in our latest course on sustainable economic growth, the main reason why labor productivity increases so much faster is that the relative factor share of labor is much higher than that of resources within global production.

However, there are many ways of looking at resource consumption and it was really inspiring to discuss this with Marina. I want to thank her for a very pleasant and informative day and I hope that she will visit us again.


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