Considering our society as an ecosystem

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Let us imagine a simple ecosystem. A seed germinates in the presence of sunlight and water. It becomes a tall tree while taking up nutrients from the soil with the help of other microorganisms. When the tree dies, its degradation releases the nutrients back to the soil, which are taken up by other growing trees and other micro-organisms, until they die and release the nutrients again … You will find many such closed loops in the nature.

Now imagine that our society is also an ecosystem. We take up our resources – fuel, water, etc. – from the ground and process them. After using them, we release them back in the system. The difference with the tree is that many of our resources leave us in a form that is difficult and expensive to re-use. Waste and pollution are results of an open loop system.

Industrial ecology is a concept that aims to close the open loops within socio-economic systems that lead to wasted resources and pollution of climate, air and waterways. For instance, in a place with water scarcity, could we use household waste water (the used resource of a system) to water agricultural fields (the primary resource of another system)? In principle yes! But under some conditions of course, such as the primary treatment of the water in order to avoid pathogen contamination.

Prof. Dr. Marina Fischer-Kowalski was President of the International Society for Industrial Ecology in 2007-2008. She undertakes research in areas such as society metabolism and society resource use.

I am looking forward to her talk on Sociometabolic regimes, revolutions and transitions on September 21st at the World Resource Forum to get more insight on those concepts.

 

5 thoughts on “Considering our society as an ecosystem

  1. Hello,
    something important is missing (or almost missing) and the diagram shows what is missing

    Thus, the system can not function without the income of solar energy and any system which requires
    more than this is doomed to collapse.

    >“Let us imagine a simple ecosystem. A seed germinates in the presence of sunlight and water. It >becomes a tall tree while taking up nutrients from the soil with the help of other microorganisms. When the >tree dies, its degradation releases the nutrients back to the soil, which are taken up by other growing trees >and other micro-organisms, until they die and release the nutrients again … You will find many such >closed loops in the nature.”

    in short, the tree only takes what is required and available.
    if the tree is shaded by something else (less sun light energy) it will grow differently.
    The energy from the sun is gone! Now, if by some mechanism there is another
    but unsustainable supply of energy to grow the tree (or plant), lets imagine electric light
    from whatever source.. and this source runs dry. What will happen to the tree?

    >“Now imagine that our society is also an ecosystem.”

    Why should one imagine this? We are obviously part of a much broader ecosystem.

    > “We take up our resources – fuel, water, etc. – from the ground and process them.”

    the most important “energy” should be mentioned more clearly.
    Especially as we are taken enormous amounts more than we did thousands of years ago
    when we were still living a sustainable life. That time is gone.

    >“ After using them, we release them back in the system.”

    Unfortunately not! The unsustainable energy overuse of fossil (and uranium) is gone after its use
    and on top creates pollution.
    The entropy of the system is increasing!

    >“ The difference with the tree is that many of our resources leave us in a form that is difficult and >expensive to re-use. Waste and pollution are results of an open loop system.”

    No, the difference is that the tree just takes what is “renewable” sun shine (energy)
    kind of endless within the next billion of years.

    We, in the civilized world take much more energy today and in an unsustainable way.

    Imaginations of recycling are nice, but we should never forget the entropy law!

    Recycling requires additional energy/time and much more than the sun light can provide per time unit.

  2. Hello Michael

    Thank you for your valuable comment!

    Ecosystems are interconnected. A pond, a forest or a wetland are different ecosystems, but all are connected with the climate and the soil around, which are in turn influenced by other systems. The different ecosystems of our planet form thousands of units, all interlinked and embedded in each other. For this reason, we can consider our society as an ecosystem too, even though we are dependent on the broader natural system around us.

    Many resources that we use are released in the system as wastewater, trash and pollution. But you are right, in the case of fuels for instance, energy is lost! We release them in their oxidized form such as CO2. However, this process is not unique to the human beings. Many organisms oxidize molecules to get their energy.

    Hence yes, entropy is lost, but it does not mean that recycling is not valuable. The question is how to match the different processes to the renewable resources available to us. I fully agree with you that the amount of energy – and resources – we use nowadays is not sustainable. I like to be optimistic and hope that achieving a sustainable way of life is feasible. Somehow I believe that in the worst case, it will become sustainable when there will be no more extra resources to use. The tree has no choice than growing less if there is only a little bit of sunshine left.

  3. The nature will find its way, sooner or later. With a little sunlight, the tree will still grow, albeit differently.
    And slowly but surely the species will evolve and adapt.

    But what about now? What about us? What about the support that the tree is providing to the human species.
    We need it and we need it right now. So comes the need of adopting sustainable living and the sustainable production/consumption practices. Here the realm of sustainability is confined to the needs/survival of the human species only. But wait a minute. What about the whole earth being an ecosystem and the like? yeah? Do we really understand the full gambit and the full crux of the interlinks and symbiosis processes that exist in nature? Even a little that we know about these, we are still not able to protect that (read: leave them alone!).
    I would say that the need of the hour is may be not only the invention and discovery of cutting edge technology or path breaking solutions but more so to implement what is already learned; to better manage with all our will power and zeal what little we have left; to stop disturbing these fragile ecosystems that nature has weaved around the mother earth to keep it alive and breathing; to control the damage that is already done and still continuing!

  4. Dear Laura,

    thanks for your reply. Let me comment a little more.
    Unfortunately the tree (species) has another solution than growing less.
    Which is dying! (disappearing like so many species we are making extinct every day.)

    now back to:

    “I like to be optimistic and hope that achieving a sustainable way of life is feasible.”

    sure, nature will find a way (with or without us) to be sustainable again.

    Being optimistic in this respect could mean many things.

    like the end of cheap oil,gas, coal, uranium etc etc will mean
    less co2 (and perhaps enough to bring us back into “safe” co2 level and sustained climate.

    it might also end all these greedy useless and thoughtless use of resources.

    No resources left –> no further resource wars (like for oil).

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