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Economic activity

The living world, the biosphere, has a natural cycle of production and consumption, the natural economy, which is powered by the energy of the Sun. Each organism passes through a life-cycle of birth, growth, maturation, senescence, death, decay, and renewal which contributes to the sustainability of the community of life as a whole.

The human economy operates on natural resources, referred to here in simple terms as energy, materials, water, food, and ecosystem services. Of these natural resources it is energy that is the driver of all activity. Energy derived from the natural economy is used to power the cycle of extraction, processing, distribution, consumption, and disposal of resources as goods and services that is the human economy.

Natural economy

All life is powered by energy that is derived ultimately from the Sun. Plants capture the energy of sunlight during photosynthesis and this is stored in plant tissues as chemical energy. This energy is taken up by other organisms when plants are eaten as food, and it then passes through the food chain.

Because plants are at the base of the food chain they are known as primary producers and, a such they support the rest of the biological world with other organisms the consumers. This biological energy is eventually dissipated as heat, but before it does so, it passes through the organic cycle of production and consumption. The entirety of materials and processes that maintain this cycle of life is called the natural economy.

Natural Economy

The Cycle of Life Energy

All life is powered by energy derived from the Sun. Plants use this energy directly: animals derive it indirectly from plants
Courtesy CSIRO Publishing. Sustainable Gardens, Cross & Spencer 2009, p. 9

Human economy

Running within the natural economy, and totally dependent on it, there is the human economy with its production, consumption and distribution of goods and services.

Humans, like all other creatures, are dependent on the primary production of plants to provide the life sustaining biological food energy required for ourselves and our livestock. Powered by this energy we can then access further resources – water, materials, and other organisms that are among the ecosystem services needed to maintain the human economy.

Hunter-gatherers of Natura made use of the natural economy with minimal use of energy and materials, but as human numbers increased, along with technological expertise, so the human economy made increasing demands on the natural economy vastly accelerated when the energy of domesticated plants and animals during Agraria was supplemented by the energy of fossil fuels that greatly accelerated energy and resource consumption during Industria. Our initial need for food gathered from the wild has turned into industrial agriculture. Our need for shelter has turned into the building and construction industry. The advantages of mobility have become modern transport systems. The need for water has turned into dams, pipelines, irrigation systems and treatment plants. Raw materials have been harnessed for manufacturing.

During Informatia, the demand on the natural economy has impacted on global biogeochemicals, including chemicals crucial to life – water, carbon dioxide, oxygen, nitrogen and phosphorus – a human-induced change in the biosphere that has been indicated by the designation of a new epoch, the Anthropocene.

Key points

  • All life is sustained and powered by the energy of the Sun
  • The Sun’s energy is stored in plant tissue during photosynthesis
  • Plant tissue provides the food energy that powers biological metabolism and biological activity
  • Plants are at the bottom of the food chain and, as the planet’s life-support system, are called primary producers
  • The activity of living organisms is generated by biological energy
  • For humans, that party of biological energy used for social activity is called social energy so both biological and social energy are used to drive activity directed at collective or social goals
  • Social activity can be increased by either using existing forms of energy more efficiently or by finding new forms of energy
  • Biological energy, especially that used for our muscles, is made more efficient by the use of tools. Tools leverage the available energy and they may be either physical (technology), or mental (planning, use of mathematics etc.)
  • Historically, to achieve social goals, biological energy was supplemented not only by tools, but by additional sources of energy – like fire, wind, and flowing water
  • Only in 19th century Europe was the full potential of the concentrated energy available in fossil plants (coal, oil, gas), a cheap and plentiful source of energy that, when combined with technology (heavy machinery), launched the Industrial Revolution
  • It is social energy (mostly fossil fuels derived from ancient plants) that powers the synergies of social organization that enhance the modern human economy, the social metabolism, of resource extraction, production, distribution, consumption, and disposal
  • Today, in Informatia, the challenge is to find ways of minimizing the environmental impacts of social metabolism (climate change being just one of these) a major step being the transition from the social energy of plant-based fossil fuels to renewable social energies like wind, solar etc.

First published on the internet – 1 March 2019

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Date of origin

Base state   -       human muscle

Hand tools        -     3.5 M BP
Mental tools     -     3.5 M BP



Fire                     -     1.7-2 M BP
Animal muscle -     12000 BP
Wind & water   -  ...  5000 BP ...
Coal                    -      1600 ...
Gas                     -      1820 ...
Oil                       -      1860 ...
Electricity           -      1880 ...
Nuclear              -      1950 ...




Daily food needs - 1500-2000


   Natura       -     5000-10,000
   Agraria       -    10,000-30,000
   Industria    -    200-230,000
   Informatia  -   200,000 +

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