The metabolic rift and the ecological-economic crisis

Climate change, environmental destruction and the COVID-19 pandemic have all combined to drive home the importance of understanding ecology – human societal interaction with and impact upon the natural world – with renewed ferocity. Searching for a framework with which to understand the current compound crises, and navigating a way out of them, requires an anticapitalist and ecosocialist perspective.

Let’s elaborate this multifaceted subject.

We can make some relevant observations which contribute to a wider national conversation on tackling the intertwined problems of environmental damage and capitalist-economy-induced runaway climate change.

Not everyone can be a full time scientist, but everyone can achieve scientific literacy, if only for the purpose of making informed decisions about policies when dealing with the ecological crisis. The ongoing economic downturn cannot be separated from the wider ecological destruction engulfing greater portions of the planet. It is equally true that the ecological crisis cannot be solved without addressing the socioeconomic inequalities. In fact, ecological destruction must be stopped by addressing the economic structures that generate ecologically destructive practices.

Economically driven incursions into previously undisturbed natural environments is increasing the likelihood and frequency of transmission of zoonotic pathogens to humans, and associated pandemics. The COVID-19 pathogen was first detected in China, though that does not mean it necessarily originated there.

Barry Commoner stated, cited by John Bellamy Foster that “if the environment is polluted and the economy is sick, the virus that causes both will be found in the system of production”. How ironic that a zoonotic virus has been effective at exposing the structural weaknesses of the original economic virus, the rapacious expansion of the capitalist mode of production.

Environmental destruction and ecological disruption are not inevitable consequences of human existence, but rather the product of specific socioeconomic activities. It is the economic and consumption patterns of the affluent that have the most harmful impact, not the nations with higher birth rates. Much-hyped panic about overpopulation, while providing a simplistic explanation, distract us from the real causes of environmental destruction – the consumerist affluence of the wealthy and the industrial practices they sustain.

Pandemics will become more frequent with runaway climate change. The economic activities that exploit and destroy greater parts of the natural environment are also the socioeconomic practices that drive climate change. The intensification of mass agribusiness, deforestation, overfishing marine resources – not only contribute to the increasing levels of carbon emissions, but also increase the likelihood of zoonotic transmission of viruses as we encroach further into natural habitats.

It is not only a case of geographic proximity to natural environments. As humans upend forests and enter marine areas, the capitalist mode of production disrupts and demolishes ecosystems, exploiting the natural resources. The defences that these ecosystems have which prevent diseases from spreading are also undermined. The decrease in biodiversity has adverse impacts on human life.

What is the metabolic rift?

Marx employed the words ‘metabolism’ and ‘metabolic’ in the same way that we use the word ‘ecological’ today. The term ‘ecology’ was not coined until the 1860s. However, Marx spoke of the rift – the breakdown – of the relationship between humans and the natural world in the 1840s. He wrote:

Humans live from nature, ie: nature is our body, and we must maintain a continuing dialogue with it if we are not to die.

To say that humanity’s physical and mental life is linked to nature simply means that nature is linked to itself, for humans are part of nature.

The capitalist mode of production, and its inevitable class inequalities, was creating a breakdown in the natural cycles of human-nature interaction. Marx’s use of this concept – humans and nature forming a social metabolism – was cutting edge science in his time. We usually think of Marx and Engels as economic thinkers – and is correct. However, to limit ourselves to an understanding of Marxian political economy leads us to sadly ignore the crucial insights that Marx and Engels were also ecological thinkers.

Marx was responding to Malthus, the populationist pastor, who sought to exclusively blame the rising numbers of poor and unemployed for environmental problems. But he was also highlighting the inevitable disruption between the natural and social worlds that capitalism was producing. While human economic activity was portrayed at the time as ‘conquering nature’ – think of the conquest of the Australian continent by English imperialism – nothing could be further from the truth.

As humans exploit nature, our mode of production undermines the very basis of our material existence. We disrupt the earth’s natural cycles – it was in the 19th century that the greenhouse effect and its harmful impact on the climate were first beginning to be elaborated. As greater numbers of people live and work in cities, we have not only lost contact with nature, but are also ignoring the deleterious impacts our affluent consumptive is having on nature.

We have constructed an artificial dichotomy between ecology and the economy – what is generally simplified as ‘jobs versus environment‘. This false dichotomy stands exposed in 2020 – climate change, biodiversity loss and pandemics cannot be cordoned off into a separate subject-area called ‘the environment’, distinct from the subject of ‘jobs’.

No economic system is worth saving if it is destroying the ecosystems that sustain life on earth. There is much more to be said on this topic in the future. For now, let’s make one recommendation – for further information on this topic, read John Bellamy Foster’s book, The Ecological Revolution.

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