Metabolic Rift

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1. McKenzie Wark:

"Marx was reading the emerging soil science of his time, and took an interest in the way nitrogen and phosphorus compounds ended up being extracted from the soil in growing cereal crops, which fed an increasingly urban workforce, but where a lot of those soil nutrients ended up being peed down the drain rather than returning to the soil. He generalized that into a theory of metabolic rift, where some break occurs in the passage of some molecule or other through the modern capitalist economy. I would suggest that carbon compounds are, likewise, a subject of metabolic rift. Capitalism — the world-conquering economic system in which we live — runs on carbon extracted from the ground, but which ends up in the atmosphere and oceans. That’s a potentially disastrous metabolic rift." (

2. Becky Clausen on Ariel Salleh:

"Salleh presents a clear and consistent materialist argument, stating that the day-to-day experience of negotiating humanity-nature relations is a “standpoint grounded in labor—not for instance, an ideological or sociobiological argument about women being closer to nature or better than men.” This materialist foundation allows her to circumvent such essentialist ecofeminist arguments and offer an extension of Marx’s concept of metabolism. Salleh successfully describes how the social relations of subsistence can provide an alternative to metabolic rift.

Metabolic rift, as introduced by Marx and expanded by John Bellamy Foster, is created through capitalist exchange as biogeochemical cycles are severed and workers become disconnected from the natural cycles of production. By building off these theoretical developments in eco- Marxism, Salleh introduces the concept of metabolic fit for discussion and debate." (


Interview of John Thackara undertaken by John-Gordon Farleigh for STIR magazine. Context is the book by John Thackara, How To Thrive in the Next Economy, and who then discusses the landmark book by Jason Moore, Capitalism in the Web of Life:

* JGF: Could you explain more about what the metabolic rift is?

JT: It’s not that our brains lack processing capacity—more, that they’re preoccupied by the wrong inputs. A combination of paved surfaces and pervasive media has shielded us from direct experience. Material progress itself has distracted us from the health of the natural living systems upon which we still depend—and, indeed, are a part. If you put it to someone—as I have done—that, without soil, humanity will quickly starve, they usually agree, nod sagely—and wait for me to change the subject. Few of the city-dwelling people I know ever touch, feel, taste or smell the stuff—healthy or otherwise. Our children are not taught about it at school. It’s the same with climate change, the loss of biodiversity, deforestation; or dying seas: Out of sight, out of mind. Why would we care?

The ways we understand the world are shaped by the political and economic system. As Jason Moore explains in his book Capitalism in the Web Of Life, the metabolic rift is not a regrettable side-effect of the modern economy; it’s written into its DNA. Our present economy has to grow in order to survive, and ceaseless growth entails ever-larger inputs of external resources and energy. Our problems started when we first travelled across the world to take other people’s minerals and resources—and that was 500 years ago. This is where the richness of the so called developed nations originates. The Spanish plundered wood from the Baltic region to build the ships in which they sailed off to the West Indies to bring back spices, and so on. A hundred million kilos of silver from Latin America provided much of the capital for Europe’s industrial revolution. Our bad behaviour dates back a long way!

* JGF: Your book suggests that organising the world around bioregions is one way to close the metabolic rift?

JT: The notion of a bioregion appeals to me for a specific reason: Telling city people to take better care of nature has been one of my many failures as a writer. Intellectually, city folk buy the argument that growth should mean soils, biodiversity and watersheds getting healthier, and communities more resilient. But in the absence of positive feedback from some distant place called Nature, people just don’t connect with my exhortations. I realised that a more compelling story, and a shared purpose, were needed. So I started asking people two questions: “Does your city know where its lunch is coming from? And is that place healthy—or not?”

With the prospect of missing lunch as motivation, I’m finding that the idea of a bioregion is an appealing way for city people to reconnect with living systems, and each other, through the unique places where we live. It acknowledges that we live among watersheds, foodsheds, fibresheds, and food systems—not just in cities, towns, or ‘the countryside’. The idea is culturally dynamic, too—far more than abstract words like sustainability, or resilience, or transition. A bioregion is about unique geographic, climatic, hydrological and ecological qualities. These can be the basis for meaning and identity, and people get that.

But beyond the idea in general, what most turns people on—especially designers and artists—is the sheer variety of work to be done in bringing a bioregion to life. Maps of a bioregion’s ecological assets are needed: its geology and topography; its soils and watersheds; its agriculture and biodiversity. The collaborative monitoring of living systems, the interactions among them, and the carrying capacity of the land, needs to be designed—together with feedback channels. Spaces and places that support collaboration need to be identified and, where needed, adapted—from maker spaces to churches, from town halls, to libraries. New collaboration and peer-to-peer platforms are needed to help people to share resources of all kinds—from land, to time and knowledge. New economic and business models need to be adapted and deployed, such as peer production, commons economics, and open value accounting. Novel forms of governance and discussion must also be designed that enable collaboration among diverse groups of people and enterprises. Every bioregion will need its own identity, too—what the bioregion looks like, and feels like, to its citizens and visitors." (