2023 San Francisco Dialogue: The Metabolic Rift
Breakthrough Dialogue 2023: The Metabolic Rift
It is not a stretch to suggest that two biogeochemical transformations have underpinned all of global modernity - the movement of enormous amounts of fossilized carbon from the terrestrial Earth into the atmosphere and enormous amounts of nitrogen from the Earth’s atmosphere into terrestrial environments.
Industrialization required the use of power at levels far beyond that which animal metabolism could provide and in locations distant from easily captured wind and water power. Urbanization concentrated large populations in numbers that could not be fed locally and from which nutrients could not be easily returned to the sites of food production. Only with fossil fuels and industrial fertilizers were such social and economic transformations possible.
Fuel and fertilizer decoupled the provision of food, energy, and materials from the biomass based economy, liberating human societies from the malthusian limits that had theretofore constrained both the size of human populations and the material conditions in which they could live and allowing for extraordinary improvements to living standards and flourishing of both individual and collective human possibilities over the last 150 years.
The notion of the metabolic rift owes its provenance to Marx, who described a disruption in the “metabolic interaction between man and the Earth.” But it speaks to foundational questions about humans and the earth that are arguably more contested today than they were in Marx’s time. Can high energy societies of billions be sustained? Can we survive the loss of biodiversity and build up of waste and pollution that industrial modernity has wrought? Does the human future depend upon maintaining fragile ecosystems or robust human capabilities to remake our environments?
That none of these debates can actually be resolved prospectively speaks to broader questions still. Are humans masters of the Earth or servants, fundamentally Earthbound beings or capable of transcending the limits of Earthly chemistry, biology, and physics? Must we colonize other worlds to assure the survival of the species? Might we transform ourselves, our anatomy, biology, and cognition into higher, perhaps eternal forms? Are we already doing so or do such claims reflect a denial of the fundamental human condition?
The edge cases frame the underlying political and philosophical commitments, how we orient ourselves towards change, uncertainty, human nature and human possibility. To celebrate the metabolic rift is to believe in material abundance as a normative end, a practical possibility, and a necessary precondition for humans to reach their full potential. To condemn it is to believe that the human spirit can only be authentically expressed when it is grounded, constrained, and tied to the Earth. In this Breakthrough Dialogue we explore the outer edge of these debates in order to sharpen our thinking about the central arguments and use the reductive and ad absurdum to help us think about how to navigate the emergent complexity that is the human present and future.