The concept of metabolic rift is a powerful frame through which to understand the history of relations between people and nature, especially to highlight a contrast between the modern industrial era and a more organic past. I will primarily use the example of agriculture—the growing of food, feed, fiber and fuel to use for human purposes—to explain this frame.
Metabolic rift draws a metaphor from biology and the metabolism of living organisms. Metabolism refers to the chemical and physical processes by which a living being breaks down some substances to produce energy and uses that energy to produce other substances. The complex flows of energy and materials across ecosystems can similarly be thought of as metabolism on a larger scale. If human societies are included in these systems of exchange, the concept of metabolism as applied to something like agriculture begins to make sense.
We should keep in mind that in order to think about there being a rift, or a break, in this metabolism, we must first assume that there used to be an unbroken cycle of material and energy flows. Frequently, this assumption is justified by reference to ancient or “traditional” societies. For example, in their article Breaking the Sod: Humankind, History, and Soil,[i] scholars J.R. McNeil and Verena Winiwarter write of an organic nutrient cycle maintained by people living thousands of years ago:
Neolithic farmers, in southwest Asia and elsewhere, depleted soils of their nutrients by cultivating fields repeatedly, but they simultaneously enriched their soils once they learned to keep cattle, sheep, and goats, pasture them on nonarable land, and collect them (or merely their dung) upon croplands… When a population lived amid the fields that sustained them, the net transfer of nutrients into or out of the fields remained minor, as after shorter or longer stays in human alimentary canals and tissues, nutrients returned to the soils whence they had come.
Another example is given by environmental historian Richard White in The Organic Machine,[ii] in which he writes about the complex social and technological system by which peoples indigenous to what is now known as the Columbia River basin in the Pacific Northwest made their livelihoods from salmon:
For thousands of years Indian people had recognized and understood the blessings of a world in which small fish left the river, harvested the greater solar energy available in the ocean, and returned as very big fish. These fish always returned at the same time to the same place, and in their return they followed paths which took to the spots where human labor secured their capture.
The annual harvest of the returning salmon, rich in nutrients and calories gathered from the open ocean, supported one of the densest populations of people in North America before Europeans colonized the continent, and had done so for a very long time.
What is common to both of these stories is a narrative of cyclical flows—what leaves in one form returns in another, and that which is used in one stage is renewed in another. Along the way, people and other organisms can draw off some of the energy to make a living without interrupting the overall capacity of the cycle to bring the same benefits back the next round. Basically, this is the definition of sustainability.[iii]
However, there are many historical examples where cycles which lasted for hundreds if not thousands of years have been broken by people eager to enhance productivity (and profit) even further. In the case of the Columbia River, the wealth of salmon did not last long once white Americans began to oust indigenous peoples and collect the fish for themselves. In fact, Americans so thoroughly disrupted the cycle that had existed that, “[I]n the face of such regularity and bounty, the Americans began breeding the fish in factories and setting out to sea to catch them.”[iv] Later on, of course, the annual bounty of the returning salmon faded from the economic landscape of the Columbia, replaced by the promise of raw power in the form of hydroelectricity and irrigation.
Farming systems also experienced rifts in the metabolic cycles that had sustained agricultural productivity for thousands of years. The concern that soils were becoming “worn out” or “exhausted” was a major concern for Europeans in the 18th and early 19th centuries.[v] Observers at the time cited the physical separation of farms and cities, the sites of production and consumption respectively, as a primary cause of metabolic rift. American farmers breaking sod in the North American plains to grow grains for shipment to eastern cities such as New York or European metropolises like London were doing little more than “robbing of the earth of its capital stock”, as George Waring wrote in an agricultural census report published in the 1850s.[vi] On the other side of the Atlantic, the German agronomist Justus von Liebig, often referred to as the father of agricultural chemistry, argued fervently in the mid-19th century that selling food to distant cities, which never returned the material (i.e. as manure or “night soil”), inevitably degraded the soil.[vii] The further separation of plant crops from animal livestock into separate production systems further broke up the cycle—manure, like human sewage, was no longer being returned to renew the soil. Ironically, the buildup of human and animal waste created a new, separate problem: what to do with all the hazardous material![viii]
The Law of Return
People have long recognized the wastefulness of breaking metabolic cycles, and have often not hesitated to condemn social and economic systems that incentivize this sort of rift. One of my favorite denouncements of the emerging industrial mode of agriculture comes from the English agronomist Sir Albert Howard, writing in 1947 (note the parallels to the ways in which sustainability, and unsustainability, are discussed today, see endnote iii):
The using up of fertility is a transfer of past capital and of future possibilities to enrich a dishonest present: it is banditry pure and simple. Moreover, it is a particularly mean form of banditry because it involves the robbing of future generations which are not here to defend themselves.
Howard had a different vision for how to practice agriculture, which embraced unbroken energy and nutrient cycles as the key for land to sustain its productive benefits for people. He conducted a multi-decade study of composting practices in India that laid the groundwork for his Law of Return, which he describes eloquently in this passage from a 1947 publication:[ix]
The subsoil is called upon for some of its water and minerals, the leaf has to decay and fall, the twig is snapped by the wind, the very stem of the tree must break, lie, and gradually be eaten away by minute vegetable or animal agents; these in turn die, their bodies are acted on by quite invisible fungi and bacteria; these also die, they are added to all the other wastes, and the earthworm or ant begins to carry this accumulated reserve of all earthly decay away. This accumulated reserve—humus—is the very beginning of vegetable life and therefore of animal life and of our own being.
Any break in this intricate cyclical process would carry dire consequences for soil fertility, and by extension the health of plants, animals, and people. Howard believed that human health was linked to the condition of the soil: preserving the Law of Return and maintaining healthy soils would eliminate the source of most diseases. “Soil fertility,” he wrote, “is the basis of the public health system of the future.” For this reason his Indore process for composting is minutely concerned with recycling wastes back onto farm fields, and preserving organic material and live organisms in the final product. Howard recognized that all agriculture must be an intervention into natural processes, but he drove home that the farmer operated within limits set by the cycle of life: “The first duty of the agriculturist must always be to understand that he is a part of Nature and cannot escape from the environment.” The proper method of agriculture, in his view, involves the careful attention to and maintenance of autonomous metabolic cycles. These processes could be adapted somewhat to benefit people, but people also had to adapt to the processes.
Bandaging the Rift
However, repairing or reconnecting the broken cycles has historically not been the solution of choice for metabolic rift. Howard wrote at a time when the concept of people adapting to the metabolic rhythms of nature did not receive much public support. At the close of WWII, America was about to lead the world into a wave of agricultural development that embraced not the law of return, but the law of economies of scale. Rather than treating farms as embedded within living, dynamic systems that cycled energy and nutrients to the mutual sustainment of all, per Howard’s vision, farms would be factories,[x] a stopover on a one-way passage from mines and wells to waste dumps. Crucially, in order to transform farms to factories for food, fiber and fuel, more concentrated inputs of energy and nutrients were needed than the organic metabolic cycles could provide. By organic, I refer to those materials and energies that were wrapped up in living ecosystems, as opposed to materials and energies lying dormant in underground reserves of fossil water, fuel, and nutrients.[xi]
In his classic history, The Development of American Agriculture, the agricultural economist Willard Cochrane wrote that this transformation required a host of external inputs into agriculture. The list of industrial inputs needed to replace the organic inputs is illustrated in this passage:
The petroleum industry, the tractor and farm machinery industry, the fertilizer industry, the pesticide industry, and the livestock feed industry had to develop the production plants and distributive organization – the infrastructure – to permit and facilitate the capital transformation on farms.
The consequences of this industrial relation between people and nature can be deferred so long as people are able to fill the rift with stuff mined from the earth. However, many worry about the looming limits to these resources: it is more and more common to hear the phrases peak oil, peak phosphorous, and peak water. Meanwhile, just as city planners discovered that the buildup of human sewage in cities created a crisis to parallel soil exhaustion in the countryside, contemporary environmental scientists are discovering parallel crises to dependence on limited supplies of fossil resources. The release of vast quantities of greenhouse gases through burning fossil fuel and the unchecked runoff of vast quantities of nitrogen and phosphorous compounds into marine ecosystems, for example, threaten to exceed a “safe operating space for humanity.”[xii] Thus, framing relations between people and nature through the lens of metabolic rift alerts us to the possibility that certain long-standing problems, while temporarily mitigated, may arise again with magnified consequences.
Metabolic rift is an attractive frame in part because it effectively combines environmental, economic and moral values. Breaking soil nutrient, water, or energy cycles by importing mineral substitutes—fossil fuels, aquifers, mined phosphates, and so on—degrades ecosystems and inhibits the autonomous natural processes that provide manifold benefits to people (such as the salmon returning year after year, fattened from their time in the sea, to the same stretches of river to be harvested). People reap the surplus benefits from those ecosystem services, which form a foundation for all of our livelihoods. Metabolic rift thus also represents a break in the social and economic cycles that maintain and renew the means by which people produce goods and services. Lastly, the concept of metabolic rift is deeply infused with moral judgments about the right and the wrong way to go about making a livelihood. When 19th century observers spoke of “robbing the earth of its capital stock” or Howard called out “banditry” in the 1940s, they were pointing to the immorality of disrupting what were otherwise functional, elegant, and beneficial cycles. In other words, metabolic rift offers a powerful argument for what causes problems between people and nature and how to fix those problems that draws on both technical and moral reasoning.
It can be tempting to look back across history and read cases of metabolic rift as the parable of the goose that laid the golden egg.[xiii] In the (misguided) hope of speeding up agricultural metabolism and unleashing an even greater bounty, people broke the beneficial cycles through a reckless binge on fossil energy and mineral nutrients. Armed with hindsight and a contemporary awareness of global environmental crises, it might seem that in the process modern industrial society has killed the golden goose.
Drawing this conclusion from the metabolic rift frame oversimplifies history, however, and lends a greater continuity and uniformity than can be seen on close and careful examination. Nature, like people, is always changing, as is our relation to it. While the concept of metabolic rift powerfully reveals a number of interrelated problems and consequences at the nexus of ecosystems, economic production, and moral sensibility, it also tends to divide the world into binaries: traditional and modern, organic and industrial, closed and broken cycles, and so on. I think it’s important not to be too quick in condemning or too hasty in dismissing certain practices. The distinctions between organic and industrial, the natural and the mechanical, as Richard White makes clear in his book, are always blurred on close inspection. As is the rational or sensible with the mad or insane. I’ll close with his final observation on the collapse of the salmon cycle:
Each step of the process that led to this result was logical. It was only the result that was mad. Like many kinds of madness, this one looked quite sane from the inside. One thing followed quite understandably from another until both a kind of environmental insanity and a bitter social conflict were achieved.
[i] McNeill, J. R., & Winiwarter, V. (2004). Breaking the Sod: Humankind, History, and Soil. Science, 304(5677), 1627-1629.
[ii] White, R. (1995). The Organic Machine: The Remaking of the Columbia River. New York: Hill and Wang. p. 47.
[iii] This is a bit disingenuous, since sustainability actually doesn’t have a unique, universal definition—its meaning is constantly argued over and debated around the world. However, compare the sorts of metabolic cycles described here with the definition of sustainable development proposed by the 1987 Brundtland Commission of the United Nations in Our Common Future (one of the foundational texts for sustainability thinking): “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
[iv] White, p. 47.
[v] See for example, (1) Foster, J. B., & Magdoff, F. (2000). Liebig, Marx, and the Depletion of Soil Fertility: Relevance for Today’s Agriculture. In F. Magdoff, J. B. Foster & F. H. Buttel (Eds.), Hungry for Profit: The Agribusiness Threat to Farmers, Food, and the Environment: Monthly Review Press; or (2) Foster, J. B. (1999). Marx’s Theory of Metabolic Rift: Classical Foundations for Environmental Sociology 1. American Journal of Sociology, 105(2), 366-405.
[vi] Quoted in Foster, J. B. 1999. “Robbing the Earth of its Capital Stock”: An Introduction to George Waring’s Agricultural Features of the Census of the United States for 1850. Organization & Environment, Vol. 12 No. 3, 293-297.
[vii] “This enormous drain of these matters from the land to towns, has been going on for centuries, and is still going on year after year, without any part of the mineral elements thus removed from the land ever being restored to it… It is perfectly absurd to suppose that the loss of these matters… should have had no influence upon the amount of its produce.” Letters on Modern Agriculture. 1859.
[viii] Foster, J. B., & Magdoff, F. (2000) at note v.
[x] For more on this trend, see Deborah Fitzgerald’s Every Farm a Factory. 2003, Yale University Press.
[xi] Historian E. A. Wrigley, in Continuity, Chance and Change: The character of the industrial revolution in England, describes the transition from an organic to an industrial economy as the shift from wood and muscle to coal as the main sources of energy which people could utilize in making a livelihood. I merely expand on this observation by adding that people have also introduced other fossil fuels (which store ancient solar energy in the molecular bonds of hydrocarbons for millions of years underground), fossil water (which stores thousands of years of rainfall in underground aquifers), and fossil nutrients (underground deposits of plant nutrients such as phosphorous, nitrogen and potassium which have to be mined to made available to living ecosystems).
[xii] “Since the Industrial Revolution, a new era has arisen, the Anthropocene, in which human actions have become the main driver of global environmental change. This could see human activities push the Earth system outside the stable environmental state of the Holocene, with consequences that are detrimental or even catastrophic for large parts of the world.” Rockström, J; Steffen, W; Noone, K, et al. 2009. A safe operating space for humanity. Nature. 461(7263): 472-475.
[xiii] Interestingly enough, I found that the Wikipedia article on this fable also references another fable, The Farmer, which is quoted as reading, “A farmer, bent on doubling the profits from his land, proceeded to set his soil a two-harvest demand. Too intent thus on profit, harm himself he must needs: Instead of corn, he now reaps corn-cockle and weeds.” Thus I am not the first to make the connection between metabolic rift and killing the golden goose!