Material use in modern society

Complexity, exquisite design,...and fragility

Human society pursues product design with a prioritization on performance. The steady increase in product performance has been paralleled by an increased complexity and specificity in materials used to produce those products. Graedel et al. suggest that product performance hinges so directly on the materials used it’s as if the specific physical and chemical properties of the materials are equivalent to production requirements. The implication of this is that substitution of materials in the face of scarcity is not feasible. Products have been iteratively redesigned to achieve higher performance based on specific materials and in consequence have become incredibly sensitive to supply risks like trade barriers, political unrest, decreased availability, and other supply chain disruptions.

This preference for a certain design outcome without consideration for associated consequences is paralleled in the construction sector. Horvath’s review article surveys the state of knowledge concerning the relationship between construction materials, the environment, the economy, and society. He shares that construction impacts the environment in terms of what resources and energy is needed to produce materials, as well as what is left over after renovation and demolition. Buildings are responsible for 2/5th of the world’s material and energy flows and 1/6th of the world’s freshwater withdrawals. But regardless of these environmental impacts, the Horvath’s review begins with the suggestion that “the construction industry has to support a world of continuing population growth and social and economic development.” However, there is other discussion regarding how there are significant cultural and social factors that impact the rate of construction and what kind of construction happens. For example, sociopolitical trends like urban sprawl and automobility have encouraged growth in residential construction as compared with investment in civil structures. As such, the imperative to construct is based on societal preferences – and it is more difficult to tease out the actual relationship between the construction industry and socioeconomic development as measured by more compelling indicators like wellbeing and access to education.

Industrial ecology was initially founded to balance socioeconomic development with long-term environmental system. Industrial ecology was motivated by first, the recognition that humankind is a planetary force with the capacity to irrevocably alter planetary systems and then to second to pursue, and second, data-driven advocacy for real-world sustainability is critical. Weisz et al. discuss industrial ecology’s attempt to accomplish this outreach and advocacy via 1) facilitating academic-industry cooperation to simultaneously reduce economic costs and metabolic throughput, and 2) simulate the physical economy as a basis for providing recommendations for a sustainability transition. Since the establishment of industrial ecology with Ayres’ application of thermodynamic theory to socioeconomic activity, there has been some insights, but overall we have failed to undergo a societal transition as “fundamental as the industrial revolution” as discussed above. Instead, cultural trends have driven an increasing complexity that has left us sensitive to those global environmental crises that we created.


Horvath, A. (2004). Construction materials and the environment. Annu. Rev. Environ. Resou., 29, 181-204.

Graedel, T. E., Harper, E. M., Nassar, N.T., & Reck, B. K. (2015). On the materials basis of modern society. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 112(20), 6295-6300.

Weisz, H., Suh, S., & Graedel, T. E., (2015). Industrial ecology: The role of manufactured capital in sustainability. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 112(20), 6260-6264.