The scientific finding that humanity is overburdening nature and thus risks further ecological crises is almost uncontroversial. Main reason for the crises is the drastic increase in the societal metabolism, which is accomplished through labour. In this article, we examine the societal metabolism-labour nexus in two energy regimes: a valley in the Ethiopian highlands, typical of an agrarian society, and a village in Austria, typical of an industrial society. In the Ethiopian village, the supply of food demands almost the entire labour force, thus limiting the capacity to facilitate material flows beyond food provision. In the Austrian village, fewer working hours, lower workloads but 50 times higher useful energy allow to accumulate stocks like buildings 70 times higher than the Ethiopian case. With fossil energy, industrial societies decisively expand their energy supply and reduce labour hours at the cost of high carbon emissions, which are almost non-existent in the Ethiopian case. To overcome the resulting ecological crises, there is a call to drastically reduce fossil fuel consumption. Such an abandonment of fossil fuels might have as far reaching consequences for the societal metabolism-labour nexus and consequently human labour as the introduction of fossil fuels has had.
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