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ARQ (Santiago)

On-line version ISSN 0717-6996

ARQ (Santiago)  no.111 Santiago Aug. 2022 


Another End of the World is Possible. Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, From Bioeconomy to Architecture

César Reyes Najera1 

Simona Bozhidarova Popova2 

1 University of Luxembourg. Master in Architecture, Department of Geography and Spatial Planning, DGEO. Luxembourg.

2 University of Luxembourg. Master in Architecture, Department of Geography and Spatial Planning, DGEO. Luxembourg.


For many, the degrowth problem is the problem of time management, not just resources. Reflecting upon the work of the Romanian-born economist Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, this article applies the theory of the irreversible quality of (natural) resources used for economic purposes to architecture. The discussion helps us to think about whether architecture could, given its material quality, extend the life or death of the world or whether we are subject to the - very contemporary - brevity of its extravagance.

Keywords: economy; capital; entropy; essay; degrowth

Born in Constanța, Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen was the most important ecological economist of the twentieth century and, at the same time, a very particular academic. His impeccable handling of mathematics and statistics earned him respect within the circle of most influential economists in the second half of the last century, while his unwavering research would lead him to point out the fictions of traditional economic theory, as far as to become a dissident economist within the system.

From humble origins and educated in Romania, he completed all his studies on a scholarship. After graduating in mathematics in 1926, the University of Bucharest granted him funds to pursue a doctorate in statistics in Paris, where he graduated with honors in 1930. He then extended his studies with a postdoc in London until 1932. In 1934, he received a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to study at Harvard University for two years. It was at that time that he met and worked alongside the economist Joseph Schumpeter who was a fundamental influence on his career (Maneschi, 2006). There he cemented his reputation as a mathematical economist of the first order.

From his mentor he learned the dynamic way of describing the capitalist system, impossible to frame only within the precepts of neoclassical economics - of a mechanistic nature -, and that the most relevant economic evolutions are qualitative and not quantitative (Gowdy, 1998). Despite a promising future at Harvard, from 1936 to 1948 Georgescu-Roegen voluntarily returned to Romania, where together with his academic activity, he held diplomatic posts, while also obtaining a deep knowledge of peasant economies. The post-World War II political situation pushed him to flee the country and return to the United States in 1948, where after a brief stay at Harvard, he obtained a permanent position at Vanderbilt University.

Georgescu-Roegen had an innate curiosity that led him to cross the disciplines in an unconventional way, moving between mathematics, economics, philosophy, and the physical and biological sciences, which often made him incomprehensible to his contemporaries. By questioning the foundations of the neoclassical economics that dominated the twentieth century, this heterodox economist proposed an alternative model that I call ‘bioeconomy,’ which has social, political, and technological implications. This model has reached our days within the postulates of ecological economics as well as in the decrecentist strategies of those who question growth as a mantra used to justify the extractive nature of capitalism, which has cemented the development of contemporary architecture.

Economics Is Evolution and It Is Biology

One of the fundamental contributions of Georgescu-Roegen was to consider the economic activity of the human being as a characteristic of his biological evolution, which can be described under the prism of the second law of thermodynamics: the Law of Entropy. By incorporating the flows of energy and materials into the economic process (the functions of production) where normally only productive factors such as labor and capital are included, Georgescu-Roegen reminds us that the human being does not produce materials, he only manages them. Supported by the ideas of the biophysicist Alfred Lotka, he argued that the objects we manufacture, be they machines, buildings, or appliances, can be considered authentic “exosomatic” organs, unlike the “endosomatic” organs, which are those of our body (Bobulescu, 2015). Exosomatic organs have allowed us to expand the radius of action beyond our body limits (Figure 1). We build these organs from mineral and energy resources at such a rate of extraction and transformation that, in the end, it makes us act as a true agent of geological change on Earth. Georgescu-Roegen warned that much of the disaster in which we find ourselves - the widespread ecological devastation and social inequalities -, are precisely due to our exosomatic evolution. Humanity’s long history of utilizing these exosomatic organs has created an ‘addiction’ to the comfort and pleasure they provide. The difficulty is because its production depends on the finite reserves of matter available, which causes our species’ obsession with having more and better ‘things’ to conflict with the biophysical limits of the planet. And it is precisely the control over such mineral resources that causes the great historical upheavals whether in the form of wars or migrations (Georgescu Roegen, 2007).

Source: © Tom Hegen, 2019

Figure 1 Aerial photograph of a coal mine in Germany. The Coal Mining Series II. 

A second characteristic of exosomatic evolution is that it is inexorably accompanied by social conflicts. For Georgescu-Roegen, the division into social classes is the result of a process of production that divides people into “governors” and “governed” and of a process of distribution in which the benefits of the production and enjoyment of these exosomatic organs favor those who have the most.

The True Limits of Growth

For the Romanian economist, the great failure of neoclassical economics has been to consider mineral and energy resources as something given and theoretically unlimited. He blames orthodox economists for considering the market to be a mechanical relationship of supply and demand that can be mathematically balanced (Figure 2). If this were so, how is it possible that economists fail so blatantly in predicting crises? Bioeconomics continually reminds us of the biological basis of the economic process subject to qualitative changes difficult to predict with analytical tools alone; and it shows that humanity depends on a limited stock of mineral resources, unequally localized and violently appropriated (Georgescu Roegen, 1977).

Source: © Simona Popova, 2022

Figure 2 Classical equilibrium in supply and demand economics. 

In the wake of the energy crisis of the 1970s, some authors proposed to mathematically incorporate these resources into the aggregate functions of production (Daly, 1997) as a way to solve the dilemma highlighted by the report The Limits to Growth (Meadows et al., 1972), to which Georgescu Roegen (1979:97-98) objected that no economic agent could create or destroy the materials with which it works, in this way capital cannot create the substance from which it is formed.

Several features of thermodynamics such as qualitative change, irreversibility, indeterminacy, and real scarcity oppose the mechanical model of economic progress. And they actually produce a radically different picture than the one shown in the supply and demand diagrams. Entropy measures the unavailable energy of a system, i.e., the energy that cannot be recycled at all and is dissipated as waste heat. But above all, it shows us the irreversibility of material flows. It is practically impossible to recycle them 100% because it would require immense energy inputs that, in the case of fossil fuels, would come from the same material base (Figura 3). In this way, humanity has the distinction of being currently the greatest cause of the entropic degradation of the planet due to the increasing rates of extraction of natural resources and the dumping of waste into the environment. In short, we produce better objects but also better waste.

Source: Hammond & Winnett. “The Influence of Thermodynamic Ideas on Ecological Economics: An Interdisciplinary Critique”. Sustainability, vol. 1, no. 4 (2009).

Figure 3 Simplified version of energy and material flows through the biosphere and the economic system. 

The blind faith of the human being in the mantra of growth and in the belief that technology can optimize the use of resources indefinitely is striking. Before both, one could ask oneself together with Óscar Carpintero (2006:207):

Why haven't the significant increases in resource efficiency not translated into decreases in environmental impact? Why, in a scenario of low population growth in rich countries and significant technological progress, has the ecological deterioration of the planet on a global scale and of national economies in particular accentuated?

For Georgescu-Roegen (2010 (1972):17-18) “What matters (...) it is not only the impact of technological progress on resources per unit of GDP (Gross Domestic Product) but especially the increase in the rate of resource depletion that is a side effect of that progress.” This description coincides with the so-called rebound effect that the economist William Stanley Jevons (1865) already warned about in The Coal Question, which contradicts the belief that improving efficiency allows using less quantity of a resource, since it really encourages greater consumption.

Architecture: An Extractive Activity

The flow of material resources on which Georgescu-Roegen focused his scientific concern is what makes all architectural activity possible. Despite this, our discipline deals with materials from an aesthetic and static perspective, focused on extolling their authentic use based on their physical characteristics. However, little or nothing is said about architecture as another agent in the process of extraction, transformation, and relocation of materials and energy. Our activity contributes to the increase of environment entropy since it depends on abundant mineral resources; stones, sands, plaster, gravel, cement, steel, wood, and glass to which indirect uses such as machinery and information technologies are joined with their huge consumption of minerals. The processes that allow the availability of building materials are rarely taken into account in the planning and design phases (Malterre-Barthes, 2020).

We start from the premise that the materials are available and that the last barriers to using them are having enough capital to acquire them as well as the technology to extract, transform and transport them to the site. Sustainability concerns prioritize energy consumption (which indeed has a material basis) and have reduced the material dimension to a market for certificates that seemingly guarantee recyclability or minimal environmental impact. Certify that, and we are content, without questioning the certification policies and the hidden metabolism in the manufacturing and recycling processes. Each design decision, each constructive solution, has an effect on the flow of materials that come from the Earth's crust, that is, it affects not only the place of implantation but also the extraction site itself.

The forms of extraction and exploitation of resources are actually violent and, in the place of origin, affect human and non-human beings. It is no coincidence that many of the claims of racialized populations denounce the dispossession of land, destruction of biodiversity, contamination of aquatic systems, and deterioration of food sovereignty, which in contrast allow economic growth in other latitudes (Chávez, 2018).

Faced with this reality, some architectural practices work in the search for new models of action. Their proposals are still anecdotal within the dominant architectural discourse and, with some indifference, are considered “something minor,” just like Georgescu-Roegen’s postulates. His ideas vary from proposing a steady state, a moratorium on construction activity, not demolition but the reuse of everything that is already built, or the dismantling of construction excesses.

Historically, we can place them as continuators of a line of thought that warns of the biophysical limits of the planet and the extractive voracity of capitalism (Figure 4). Practices such as those of the Belgian collective Rotor,3 which since 2005 focuses its activity on the systematic registration and reuse of materials from the construction industry - in line with the ideas of Lacaton & Vassal -, or the Madrid studio n’UNDO (2017) who with their careful assertion “From Subtraction,” make a call to pause, for restraint; “the good work from not building.” In the same vein, we can place the work of Charlotte Malterre-Barthes, who from the academic world proposes a global moratorium on construction, or Space Caviar studio and their research on the possibility of a non-extractive practice (2021), or Marina Otero, Susana Caló, Anastasia Kubrak, and Godofredo Pereira, exploring the desires and compulsive processes of extraction,4 which directly connects them to one of the fundamental pillars of Georgescu-Roegen’s bioeconomic ideas on the irreversibility of entropic wear and tear of materials, and the economics of biological processes (1996:41).

Source: © César Reyes, Simona Popova, 2022.

Figure 4 Degrowth. A timeline of thought. 

It is still uncertain whether such initiatives will be able to add enough critical mass for a non-extractive or decrecentist architectural practice to spread, or whether, on the contrary, as the brilliant Romanian economist said, we will continue without questioning growth, “determined to lead a short but extravagant life” (Georgescu-Roegen, 2007:51).


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César Reyes Najera

Co-founder of dpr-barcelona an architectural research practice dealing with critical publishing, research and curating. He is postdoctoral researcher in Urban Regeneration at the University of Luxembourg. His work explores urban social dynamics and degrowth strategies to critically update the notion of sustainable development.

Simona Bozhidarova Popova

Architect, University of the West of England, Bristol. Msc Architect, University of Luxembourg. Her interests move around concepts of biomimicry in architecture and multidisciplinary approaches to the architectural practice. Her Master thesis deals with Non-Extractive Architecture and the environmental, geographical and economic impacts of Construction and Demolition Waste, and strategies on how to deal with them.

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