Deepening, and repairing, the metabolic rift

Schneider, Mindi; McMichael, Philip


This paper critically assesses the metabolic rift as a social, ecological, and historical concept describing the disruption of natural cycles and processes and ruptures in material human-nature relations under capitalism. As a social concept, the metabolic rift presumes that metabolism is understood in relation to the labour process. This conception, however, privileges the organisation of labour to the exclusion of the practice of labour, which we argue challenges its utility for analysing contemporary socio-environmental crises. As an ecological concept, the metabolic rift is based on outmoded understandings of (agro) ecosystems and inadequately describes relations and interactions between labour and ecological processes. Historically, the metabolic rift is integral to debates about the definitions and relations of capitalism, industrialism, and modernity as historical concepts. At the same time, it gives rise to an epistemic rift, insofar as the separation of the natural and social worlds comes to be expressed in social thought and critical theory, which have one-sidedly focused on the social. We argue that a reunification of the social and the ecological, in historical practice and in historical thought, is the key to repairing the metabolic rift, both conceptually and practically. The food sovereignty movement in this respect is exemplary.