Shades of Green: Complexity & Metabolic Cost


Success always comes with costs. The clarity of this idea, presented so elegantly in the 19th century by Thomas Malthus and then explored recently by the economist Joseph Tainter and the ecologist/historian Kenneth Boulding, illustrates parallels between nature and humans that should give us thoughtful pause.

In nature, success for a species requires that it must always find new sources of nourishment if it is to flourish. It must also find ways to dispose of the wastes generated by its increasing numbers. In oceanic algal blooms, for example, a generous supply of nutrients feeds massive plant growth but the inability of the aquatic environment to dispose of the carbon dioxide from the decomposing algae creates an anoxic dead zone in which nothing lives. In another example, a rising population of animals may find enough food to thrive but must then combat an increasing incidence of virulent diseases. Such adversities are the “metabolic cost” of success, a process that is paralleled in human civilizations.

Every successful thing we do as humans comes with metabolic cost. Each solution to a problem brings new problems that invite new solutions in an ascending network of complexity. The earliest farming communities that could feed more people than their ancestral nomads, invariably risked survival from soil depletion and erosion. The irrigation that increases food production in dry climates, eventually causes the salinization that renders the ground useless. The standing armies that became necessary to protect large swaths of territory had to be fed and equipped, often at a destructively high cost for the security they were providing. (The Canadian government is spending $11 billion to purchase and service 43 new helicopters and now intends to commit $16 billion for 65 new F-35 stealth fighter aircraft.) Rome eventually collapsed under the weight of metabolic cost. Indeed, history is littered with wrecked civilizations in which the metabolic cost of complexity rose to debilitating levels.

Metabolic cost is insidious because it is invariably disguised as progress and welcomed as efficiency. The economic globalization that ships billions of tonnes of resources around the planet can only be sustained by the expenditure of gargantuan amounts of energy. The international tourism that whizzes hundreds of millions of people from country to country exacts a damaging toll on the atmosphere and destroys distinctive cultures. This metabolic cost is now expressing itself as oil shortages, resource scarcity, political conflict, terrorism, miscellaneous pollution and global warming. All these problems are directly linked to the hidden cost of solutions.

The technological ingenuity that allows the industrial fishing of our oceans has heretofore been successful in feeding a burgeoning human population. But the metabolic cost will be empty oceans and a chain reaction of catastrophic ecological and social consequences. The specific problem of an inadequate supply of wild salmon – caused by solutions to other problems – is being addressed by salmon farming, a solution that purports to reliably supply protein to affluent societies at an affordable price. The metabolic cost, however, is excessive energy use, bureaucratic supervision and a proliferation of ecological stresses such as parasites and diseases. The inherent inefficiency of using 6 tonnes of oceanic fish to make one tonne of fish meal, and then expending 1.5 to 3 tonnes of fish meal to grow one tonne of salmon, is patently wasteful given the increasing demands on limited marine resources.

The metabolic cost of complexity expresses itself in many other ways. Despite increases in efficiency, energy consumption continues upward because the hidden toll of consumerism expands faster than energy savings. The number of households requiring two working adults to maintain a modern standard of living has become commonplace rather than rare. Debt and stress are rising everywhere that modernity encroaches. Demands increase disproportionately on law enforcement, education and health care. No matter how many freeways are built, commuting time continues to lengthen. The contentment of people declines as civilization becomes more complex.

Consider the metabolic cost of oil. Whereas 50 years ago the return of energy for expended effort to procure oil was about 99 percent, about half the energy we now get from oil is expended to acquire it. Offshore drilling, once a rarity because of risk, is now ordinary. The ecological costs of deep-sea wells – as BP’s Gulf of Mexico blowout attests – can be horrendous. So can spills from oil tankers and pipelines. Indeed, a large portion of the current political and economic stress on the planet can be linked to the complexities of supplying, financing and securing oil resources.

The same applies to other resources. As we exhaust the most accessible supplies, we venture into more remote, costly and risky places to find diminishing quantities of wood, iron, coal, gold, natural gas, copper, lithium and the rare earth metals needed to supply our increasingly sophisticated technologies. The ecological, social, political and cultural costs rise with the disruptions to the human and natural environments.

And hovering above all this metabolic cost, like the Angel of Death, is global warming and climate change, a pervasive malaise that is already incurring billions in property damage, disrupting food supplies, dislocating people, inspiring political tension, causing vast human suffering and ravaging natural ecologies. These are the complications we have earned from a average world temperature increase of about 0.6°C. And our political leaders are willing to risk a 1.5°C increase – 2.0°C maximum. Many climatologists think we are presently on target for an increase of at least 3.2°C.

The only known way to reduce metabolic cost is simplification. In these days of increasing complexity, simplification seems like an impossible goal. But it may not be so difficult if each of us were to move in this direction with our awareness and choices.


About Ray Grigg

Ray Grigg is in his ninth year as a weekly environmental columnist for the Campbell River Courier-Islander on BC's Vancouver Island. Before this column, titled Shades of Green - now appearing on as well - Ray wrote a bi-weekly environmental column for five years. He is the author of seven internationally published books on Oriental philosophy, specifically Zen and Taoism. His academic background is in English literature, psychology, cultural history, and philosophy. He has travelled to some 45 countries around the globe.

1 thought on “Shades of Green: Complexity & Metabolic Cost

  1. Ray, man the tool maker, the quality that separates humans from other primates, is writing its own prescription for assisted suicide. It’s very difficult for us to fully admit that technology, which defines our civilization, will write our final chapter. Our agriculture and food processing, the petro-chemical industry, our military-industrial establishment, the internal combustion and jet engines, fish catching equipment, etc., etc. All driven not by our needs but by the possibility of financial profit. What fools we are.

    Don Maroc
    Cowichan Valley

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