• industrial metabolism;
  • intellectual history;
  • material flow analysis;
  • physical economy;
  • social ecology;
  • social theory


In this article, we inquire into the intellectual history ofthe application of the biological concept of metabolism to social systems-not as a metaphor; but as a material and energetic process within the economy and society vis-A-vis various natural systems. The paper reviews several scientific traditions that may contribute to such a view, including biology and ecology, social theory, cultural anthropology, and social geography It assembles widely scattered approaches dating from the 1860s onward and shows how they prepare the ground for the pioneers of “industrial metabolism” in the late 1960s. In connection to varying political perspedives, metabolism gradually takes shape as a powerful interdisciplinary concept It will take another 25 years before this approach becomes one of the most important paradigms for the empirical analysis of the society-nature-interaction across various disciplines. This later period will be the subject of part II of this literature review