The water metabolism of socio-ecological systems: Reflections and a conceptual framework

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© 2014 by Yale University. Water accounting is an unresolved issue in metabolism studies. Through epistemological analysis, we show that the problem resides in the conceptualization of social metabolism. Social metabolism has its origins in the analysis of societal energetics, which has led to an exclusive focus on society and a representation based on linear throughputs at a single scale. Whereas fossil energy resources constitute a mere stock flow for society, water constitutes a set of both funds and flows essential for the maintenance of the internal organization and stability of society and ecosystems. This means that societies and ecosystems need water for different reasons. Consequently, the analysis of water requires the simultaneous adoption of multiple narratives and scales. The development of hydrology toward a socio-eco-hydrology (SE-hydrology) deals with this multidimensionality, but lacks a conceptualization of the coupled human-water system useful to integrate the assessment of water processes at different rates and scales. We propose a conceptual framework, based on the multiscale integrated analysis of societal and ecosystem metabolism approach, that combines the perspectives of SE-hydrology and social metabolism. This framework describes society and the embedding ecosystem as two distinct levels of the same hierarchical system (i.e., the socioecological system), expressing two distinct, but tightly interconnected, metabolic patterns (societal and ecosystem) at different spatiotemporal scales. Using food grain production in Punjab as an example, we show that this framework can accommodate the multiple interpretations of social metabolism found in different scientific fields.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)853-865
JournalJournal of Industrial Ecology
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2015


  • Industrial ecology
  • Punjab
  • Scale issues
  • Socio-eco-hydrology
  • Water accounting


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