Serious studies of ecologists consider human activity as a major element of the Earth system. It tries to understand all the flows of matter and energy that are attracted and rejected by the economy in the biosphere and to examine the disturbances they cause to living things.
A normative perspective is faithful to the idea of the bio-economy developed by the two pioneers of ecological economics. There is an argument for integrating the economy into the biosphere by reducing or stopping these flows.
How do economic actors integrate this biophysical approach into the economy? If we leave the macroeconomic level and the level of major public policies, it is the engineers who are exposed to the challenges of changing production and consumption patterns and ecological constraints in companies.
To do this, two types of tools have been developed: They aim to study the flows associated with their use and destruction, in order to quantify and mitigate the effects of production.
The analysis of the life cycle of products aims to reduce the consumption of inputs rather than recovering them as resources for others.
It is industrial ecology which proposes to treat industrial sites as ecosystems. Do these approaches serve to solve fundamental ecological problems posed by human activity? Or do they aim to optimize the use of resources as engineers know how to do?
While new industrial developments in the use and transformation of biomass, also called bio-economy in recent years, aim to create a circular economy, the questions are still multiplying.
A biophysical approach to economic activities
An ecosystem is made up of two main interacting elements: the biocenosis of species living in interdependence, and a biotope made up of all the physico-chemical conditions that make up their living conditions.
Materials and energy are in constant interaction between the different elements of this ecosystem, particularly through food chains. (One of the main interactions between species is that some feed on others.)
Some ecologists have extended this analysis to the study of cities and production systems.
They perceived them as ecosystems where flows of materials and energy intersect. These are goods and services that meet people’s needs. Energy efficiency aims to generalize this type of biophysical approach to the economy.
A pond or a vast forest can be considered as ecosystems, the way energy and materials are exchanged and metabolized with the outside world, to be studied.
In this case, the challenge consists in linking the production or consumption zones to the ecological zones, thanks to different types of biophysical indicators.
At the global level, the ecological impact of the production system can be apprehended by calculating the human allocation of net primary production to it.
Net primary production measures the amount of solar energy fixed on earth by plants (biomass) available to other living species.
It is underlined that for all terrestrial ecosystems, it could double in a century due to the growing demand for agricultural land and the conversion of land uses (deforestation in particular).
It shows that humanity has become an important factor in the consumption of biomass and the degradation of the biodiversity of ecosystems.
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