Capitalism and the Metabolic Rift Between Social and Ecological Systems

Myriad notable thinkers, especially from the 18th and 19th centuries onwards, have fiercely critiqued the social and environmental depravities of industrial capitalism- a rapacious socioeconomic system predicated on endless growth and profit maximization through ever-increasing levels of production and consumption, regardless of environmental or social costs. Offering prescient observations on the tendency for the overriding maxim of profit maximization to utterly obscure any notions of intrinsic value, Henry David Thorough wrote in his classic work, Walden: “I respect not his labors, his farm where everything has its price, who would carry the landscape, who would carry his God to market, if he could get anything for him…on whose farm nothing grows free, whose fields bear no crops, whose meadows no flowers, whose trees no fruits, but dollars; who loves not the beauty of his fruits, whose fruits are not ripe for him till they are turned to dollars”. Echoing Thoreau’s sentiments while also shedding light on the destructive expansionary nature of capitalist production and its violation of natural principles such as the law of sustainable yield , Marxist philosopher István Mézáros stated that, “the innermost determination of the capital system is expansion-oriented and accumulation-driven, which pushes it to subsume the entire world to its logic of accumulation,” within which “everything must prove its productive viability and its ability to generate profit…in order to be seen as useful” (Foster & Clark).

Karl Marx’s theories of alienation, contradictions between use and exchange value, and his classic theory of metabolic rift are among the most illuminating for assessing the impacts of capitalism on the man-nature relationship, offering profound insights on the historical, structural, and ideological forces that have gradually lead to a “vampire-like” relationship between capitalism and the natural world. In Volume I of Capital, Marx sheds light on the socio-historical and spatial transformations that took place from the 19th century with the industrial revolution and the spread of industrial capitalism. Most notably, the migrations of human populations to urban centers due to the increasing concentration of land and the means of production in private hands as modern capitalism took shape effected profound changes in the ways humans interacted with one another and with their life support systems.

The term “metabolism” in biological and ecological discourse refers to material exchanges and interrelations within organisms or between components of natural systems, involving processes of biological growth, decay and exchange. Marx’s usage of the term, however, involves more socio-ecological undertones, as it refers to complex interchanges between humans and the land, and between social and natural systems, primarily through the labor-production process. It is through labor that man “mediates, regulates, and controls the metabolism between himself and nature” (Foster and Clark), whereby mankind shapes the natural conditions of the earth and is in turn shaped by them. As Marx poignantly elucidates, “Man lives from nature, i.e. nature is his body, and he must maintain a continuing dialogue with it if he is not to die. To say that man’s physical and mental life is linked to nature simply means that nature is linked to itself, for man is a part of nature” (Marx, 1974).

The private appropriation of land, the dispossession of workers from rural to urban centers, and the consequent division between town and country initiated a divide between humans and the natural conditions for their survival, preventing the “return to the soil of its constituent elements consumed by man in the form of clothing” that was once achieved though more traditional production processes of working intimately with the land. This marked a fundamental historical disruption or ‘rift’ in the relationship between humans and their natural support systems. More fundamentally, the development of capitalism and its overriding goal of profit maximization entailed a shift in emphasis from production for the provision of use value to that of exchange value. Whereas the production of goods in previous epochs and alternate socioeconomic arrangements was centered around use value, or the satisfaction of human needs, under capitalism the primary focus of production became the enhancement of exchange value, or the amount of profit that could be generated from a particular commodity. Thus, the earth itself, as Marx observed, was transformed into a “reservoir, from whose bowels the use-values were to be torn.” Production, in other words, became a mere means for the accumulation of wealth through commodification rather than for the provision of real human need and the enhancement of societal wellbeing.

Thus, the concept of a metabolic rift refers to not only a physical divide between humans and the natural world but also an ideological divide, whereby an artificial man-nature dichotomy takes root, fueling the idea of nature as the external “other” that is to be conquered and exploited, as well as the illusory notion that nature and man are separate entities. This ideological dualism is a key aspect of what Marx referred to as alienation, initiated by man’s physical displacement from rural to urban locations where crucial metabolic interactions with the land were severed, and reinforced by the ruthless emphasis on profits at the expense of all else. Humans, nature, and animals, objectified and bereft of intrinsic value, became mere cogs in the overarching machine of capitalist competition, production and consumption, and thus alienated from one another, from the work process, and from the very sources of life itself, the natural world.

As noted previously, another ecologically antagonistic feature of capitalism is its needs for endless growth. A system that recognizes no limits while being nestled within an environment that is strictly governed by limits is a dangerously unsustainable contradiction. Ours is a finite planet composed of intricately balanced relationships among organisms, and governed by key operating principles such as the law of sustainable yield, reciprocity, balance, and the perpetual recycling of elements. Shedding light on the paradoxical and self-destructive nature of capitalism, David Pepper states that the system has “brought the depletion of natural resources which are necessary for the maintenance of the capital accumulation process”. In a curious twist of irony, capitalism systematically erodes the very foundations that are essential for its own survival, a phenomenon that should serve as a source of contemplation over whether or not such a system can continue in the long run.

Marx envisioned systemic change in the prevailing socioeconomic order as the only viable solution to mending the rift that has emerged between man and the environment. While one can only speculate as to exactly what form future socioeconomic systems may take, what is undeniably clear is that our current system is fundamentally flawed and must be supplanted by one that above all regards human and environmental wellbeing, not profit, as its primary objective. What is needed is a system wherein individuals and the natural world are not treated as mere commodities to be bought and sold for profit but where the intrinsic value of all of life is recognized as a priceless and inviolable  treasure. We need to make it so that the sole aims of production are to provide for need, not greed, as this is what the physical reality of our life support systems dictates. As Clark and York presage, “Refinements in the operations of capitalism will not mend the metabolic rift…the transcendence of the growth driven, capitalist system is necessary if ecological sustainability is to be obtained”. Indeed, nothing less will suffice.

Content by Heather Alberro


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