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A socio‐metabolic transition towards sustainability? Challenges for another Great Transformation


  • Helmut Haberl
  • Marina Fischer‐Kowalski
  • Fridolin Krausmann
  • Joan Martinez‐Alier
  • Verena Winiwarter


Over the last two million years, humans have colonized almost the entire biosphere on Earth, thereby creating socio-ecological systems in which fundamental patterns and processes are co‐regulated by socio‐economic and ecological processes. We postulate that the evolution of coupled socio‐ecological systems can be characterized by a sequence of relatively stable configurations, here denoted as ‘socio‐metabolic regimes’, and comparatively rapid transitions between such regimes. We discern three fundamentally different socio‐metabolic regimes: hunter‐gatherers, agrarian societies and industrial society. Transitions between these regimes fundamentally change socio‐ecological interactions, whereas changes and variations within each regime are gradual. Two‐thirds of the world population are currently within a rapid transition from the agrarian to the industrial regime. Many current global sustainability problems are a direct consequence of this transition. The central hypothesis discussed in this article is that industrial society is at least as different from a future sustainable society as it is from the agrarian regime. The challenge of sustainability is, therefore, a fundamental re‐orientation of society and the economy, not the implementation of some technical fixes. Based on empirical data for global resource use (material and energy flows, land use), this essay questions the notion that the promotion of eco‐efficiency is sufficient for achieving sustainability, and outlines the reasons why a transition to a new socio‐metabolic regime is now required. Copyright (C) 2009 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd and ERP Environment.

Suggested Citation

  • Helmut Haberl & Marina Fischer‐Kowalski & Fridolin Krausmann & Joan Martinez‐Alier & Verena Winiwarter, 2011. "A socio‐metabolic transition towards sustainability? Challenges for another Great Transformation," Sustainable Development, John Wiley & Sons, Ltd., vol. 19(1), pages 1-14, January/F.
  • Handle: RePEc:wly:sustdv:v:19:y:2011:i:1:p:1-14

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    Cited by:

    1. Stephanie Pincetl & Mikhail Chester & Giovanni Circella & Andrew Fraser & Caroline Mini & Sinnott Murphy & Janet Reyna & Deepak Sivaraman, 2014. "Enabling Future Sustainability Transitions," Journal of Industrial Ecology, Yale University, vol. 18(6), pages 871-882, December.
    2. Katarzyna Gruszka, 2016. "Framing the Collaborative Economy," Ecological Economics Papers ieep11, Institute of Ecological Economics.
    3. O'Neill, Daniel W., 2012. "Measuring progress in the degrowth transition to a steady state economy," Ecological Economics, Elsevier, vol. 84(C), pages 221-231.
    4. Gruszka, Katarzyna & Scharbert, Annika Regine & Soder, Michael, 2017. "Leaving the mainstream behind? Uncovering subjective understandings of economics instructors' roles," Ecological Economics, Elsevier, vol. 131(C), pages 485-498.
    5. Rezai, Armon & Taylor, Lance & Mechler, Reinhard, 2013. "Ecological macroeconomics: An application to climate change," Ecological Economics, Elsevier, vol. 85(C), pages 69-76.
    6. García María & Swagemakers Paul & Bock Bettina & Fernández Xavier, 2012. "Making a living: Grassroots development initiatives, natural resource management and institutional support in Galicia, Spain," European Countryside, De Gruyter Open, vol. 4(1), pages 17-30, January.
    7. Singh, Simron Jit & Krausmann, Fridolin & Gingrich, Simone & Haberl, Helmut & Erb, Karl-Heinz & Lanz, Peter & Martinez-Alier, Joan & Temper, Leah, 2012. "India's biophysical economy, 1961–2008. Sustainability in a national and global context," Ecological Economics, Elsevier, vol. 76(C), pages 60-69.
    8. Krausmann, Fridolin & Gaugl, Birgit & West, James & Schandl, Heinz, 2016. "The metabolic transition of a planned economy: Material flows in the USSR and the Russian Federation 1900 to 2010," Ecological Economics, Elsevier, vol. 124(C), pages 76-85.
    9. Gruszka, Katarzyna & Scharbert, Annika Regine & Soder, Michael, 2016. "Changing the world one student at a time? Uncovering subjective understandings of economics instructors' roles," Ecological Economic Papers 4794, WU Vienna University of Economics and Business.
    10. repec:eee:enepol:v:108:y:2017:i:c:p:551-564 is not listed on IDEAS
    11. Katarzyna Gruszka & Annika Scharbert & Michael Soder, 2016. "Changing the world one student at a time? Uncovering subjective understandings of economics instructors' roles," Ecological Economics Papers ieep7, Institute of Ecological Economics.
    12. repec:eee:enepol:v:108:y:2017:i:c:p:755-764 is not listed on IDEAS


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