Handbook of Environmental and Resource Economics
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Handbook of Environmental and Resource Economics

Edited by Jeroen C.J.M. van den Bergh

This major reference book comprises specially commissioned surveys in environmental and resource economics written by an international team of experts. Authoritative yet accessible, each entry provides a state-of-the-art summary of key areas that will be invaluable to researchers, practitioners and advanced students.
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Chapter 62: Industrial Metabolism and the Grand Nutrient Cycles

R.U. Ayres


Robert U: Ayres 1. Introduction The world we live in can be described as a hierarchy of nested non-linear subsystems of a very complex non-linear dynamic system. Each subsystem exhibits variability in several dimensions, including both time and space. Each is a consequence of long-term co-evolution, with links to other subsystems. The earth is part of the solar system, which is a small corner of the galaxy, but life on earth is totally dependent on energy (exergy) from the sun. Life also depends on the climate, the hydrological cycle and the nutrient cycles. The climate itself is strongly determined by the carbon-oxygen cycle and the hydrological cycle. Thus the biogeochemical system that constitutes the earth as we know it is in many respects self-organized. All these cycles can be characterized, in Prigogine’s terms, as ‘dissipative systems’ that are far from thermodynamic equilibrium (for example, Nicolis and Prigogine, 1977). (If the earth were in thermodynamic equilibrium in the sense that all possible chemical processes among its constituent elements had proceeded as far as possible, it would be uninhabitable and truly dead.) In any case the biosphere and its supporting geochemical cycles exist in a quasi-steady state subject to constant (and largely unpredictable) fluctuations around an ‘attractor’. The ‘attractor’ itself can move unpredictably, as a result of natural forces or human interventions. The grand nutrient cycles discussed below affect economic activity in several domains, from agriculture and forestry to construction and tourism. Moreover, these cycles are also peculiarly subject to inadvertent human...

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