Long-term sustainable human development requires an understanding of the interaction between human activities and natural processes (Clark and Munn, 1986). Displacement of materials by industrial and agricultural activities causes the most severe human stress on the natural system. Hence, the understanding of human-induced material flows and comparison of those to natural flows is a major step toward the design of sustainable development schemes.
A major component in the understanding of human-induced material flow is the identification of the key players and driving forces involved, i.e. the building of a conceptual model. Initially, such a model does not need to be predictive; it is sufficient for it to have explanatory power for the existing human-nature interactions. In formulating and explaining such conceptual models, it is helpful to use known existing systems as a guide, and by applying metaphors and analogies to transfer existing knowledge and concepts to the new system under consideration. Natural systems have demonstrated their capacity for sustained development and provide a rich choice of desirable metaphors for the description of human activities.
Industrial metabolism is a powerful metaphor for the illumination of the processes that mobilize and control the flow of materials and energy through industrial activities. As in nature, industrial "organisms" consume "food" for the maintenance of their functions and cause the exhalation of waste products (see chapter 1 of this volume). The industrial metabolism metaphor has the organism as its main biological entity, and industrial organizations as its human analogues. These are proper entities for the study of the internal workings of metabolism within these organisms. However, both the causes and the consequences of metabolism lie beyond the confines of an organism. These depend on the external world, which includes other organisms as well as the physico-chemical environment.
This chapter builds on the strength of the industrial metabolism metaphor and discusses the possible applicability of the ecosystem and the biosphere as extended biological analogues for human activities. The goal here is to offer multiple, complementary points of view to describe, by means of analogues, the same topic: the human-induced mobilization of materials. Hopefully, this will contribute to the illumination of this fascinating, multifaceted, and important process.
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