, Volume 34, Issue 4, pp 391-428

Carbon metabolism: Global capitalism, climate change, and the biospheric rift

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Abstract

There is widespread agreement in the natural sciences that observed increases in average global temperatures over the past century are due in large part to the anthropogenic (human generated) emission of greenhouse gases, primarily stemming from fossil fuel combustion and land use changes (e.g., deforestation). Many social processes have been identified for their contribution to climate change. However, few theoretical approaches have been used to study systematically the relations of the social with the biosphere. Our goal is to illustrate how the theory of metabolic rift provides a powerful approach for understanding human influence on the carbon cycle and global climate change. We extend the discussions of metabolism (the relationship of exchange between nature and humans) and metabolic rift to the biosphere in general and to the carbon cycle in particular. We situate our discussion of the metabolic rift in the historical context of an expanding, global capitalist system that largely influences the organization of human interactions with the environment. The general properties of a metabolic rift between nature and society include the disruption or interruption of natural processes and cycles, the accumulation of waste, and environmental degradation. Due to capitalism's inherent expansionary tendencies, technological development serves to escalate commodity production, which necessitates the burning of fossil fuels to power the machinery of production. As this process unfolded historically, it served to flood carbon sinks and generate an accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Technological “improvements” have actually increased the amount of resources used, since expansion in production typically outstrips gains in efficiency – a situation known as the Jevons paradox. The theory of the metabolic rift reveals how capital contributes to the systematic degradation of the biosphere.