Using material flow accounting to operationalize the concept of society’s metabolism: a preliminary MFA for the United Kingdom for the period of 1937-1997

Publication type

ISER Working Paper Series

Series Number



ISER Working Paper Series


Publication date

March 1, 2000


In the 1970s environmentalists have began to argue that society's economic behaviour would lead to a global environmental crisis. This crisis, it has been argued, could in the last instance put the future of man as a whole at risk. Firstly, it has been recognised that toxic emissions could severely damage ecosystem functions. Shortly after, the environmental problem was portrayed as a side effect of economic growth. Most influential in those days, the Club of Rome report 'Limits to growth' argued, that business as usual will inevitably reduce future quality of life. This idea of limits to growth was harshly criticised for both, its anti-capitalist argument against unlimited economic growth and its Neo-Malthusian perspective. In the 1990s, environmental and developmental issues were brought together in the new discourse of sustainable development. Under this new notion it has been argued that not economic growth as such is an environmental pressure, but the related material and energy flows mobilised by socio-economic activities. The question has been raised, if further economic growth could be gained with less environmental impact.

Clearly, this question requires not only an in-depth understanding of the interrelationship between society and nature but also an idea about the quantity and quality of the resource requirements an industrial society has. Once the situation is analysed and understood, one might think, society could cope with its sustainability problems. However, since it has been recognised that these questions would lead to rather complex answers, many attempts were undertaken to reduce complexity to support society's capacity of self-observation. Extensive research led to numerous sets of environmental indicators, describing socio-economic pressures upon the environment, the state of nature and also society's responses. With the concept of a physical economy and society's metabolism, and subsequently the idea of a physical accounting this report tries to look at the problem from a new perspective, aiming to introduce a more systematic idea of environmental indicators.

To do this, the paper refers to the theoretical concept of society's metabolism and to material flow accounting as a methodology and technique to operationalize it. On the basis of this accounting framework, we establish an initial data set for the input side of material flows into the UK economy. Whereas the data set allows for numerous disaggregations, the report restricts itself to main categories like domestic extraction of biomass, mineral materials and fossil fuels and imported materials. These inputs are presented in time series for the period of 1937 to 1997. The report refers to physical growth of the UK economy using indicators such as yearly direct material input. This direct material input into the UK economy accounted for an average of 410 million tons (or 8.5 tons per capita) in the 1940s. After a period of rapid growth (average of 774 million tons in the 1970s/14 tons per capita) physical growth came to a standstill. In the 1990s direct material input accounts for an average of 777 million tons yearly (13.3 tons per capita).

To look at physical indicators derived from material flow accounting, instead of using monetary indicators, such as traditional environmental economics are using, offers a different perspective. In this perspective the economy is understood as part of the ecosphere, it is recognised that environmental problems can appear at every step in the extraction-production-consumption chain, and that it is not only problematic substances but also problematic quantities, which makes up society's sustainability problems. On the input side of socio-economic metabolism societies have to cope with scarcity problems, whereas on the output side, waste and emissions might override the absorption capacity of natural systems. The paper introduces the idea of a characteristic metabolic profile of industrial societies. The main features of this characteristic industrial metabolic profile are, besides others, the comparably high amount of throughput, the growth dynamic, the low recycling rate, the over-use of air as a sink and the high amount of yearly net additions to stock.

Finally, the paper tries to present preliminary evidence, that the UK economy establishes a new post-industrial metabolic pattern. However, it seems that the stabilisation of resource input in the UK since the 1980s might rather be a story of structural change and to a lesser extent technological advancement than of an environmental sound policy.



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