A socio-metabolic perspective on (material) growth and inequality

Authored by: Anke Schaffartzik , Fridolin Krausmann

The Routledge Handbook of the Political Economy of the Environment

Print publication date:  October  2021
Online publication date:  October  2021

Print ISBN: 9780367410704
eBook ISBN: 9780367814533
Adobe ISBN:


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The accelerating rise in global resource use is inextricably linked to extractive expansion, that is, to the encroachment on or even destruction of habitats and livelihoods and to the disturbance of major biogeochemical cycles. This growth trajectory, however, is considered unavoidable or even necessary to overcome poverty and to sustain the growth-led economic system currently in place. In this chapter, we adopt a socio-metabolic perspective on growth and on the distribution of global resource flows. This means that we consider societies, and more specifically national economies, to require resource inputs, transformation and accumulation, as well as outputs for their reproduction. Increasing shares of the material resources extracted, especially of fossil energy carriers but also of minerals and biomass, are destined for export, directly or indirectly supporting final demand in the high-income countries. Despite some very notable growth in resource use in the middle-income countries, this particular growth pattern has led to the polarization of international rates of per capita resource consumption, possibly aggravating rather than reducing inequality. We argue that, in fact, material inequality is not only an outcome but also a prerequisite to the currently accelerating global growth. In order to curb negative environmental and social impacts, in the context of broader sustainability transformations, it is necessary to address growth and inequality in conjunction.

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