Metabolic rift or metabolic shift? dialectics, nature, and the world-historical method

Abstract

In the flowering of Red-Green Thought over the past two decades, metabolic rift thinking is surely one of its most colorful varieties. The metabolic rift has captured the imagination of critical environmental scholars, becoming a shorthand for capitalism’s troubled relations in the web of life. This article pursues an entwined critique and reconstruction: of metabolic rift thinking and the possibilities for a post-Cartesian perspective on historical change, the world-ecology conversation. Far from dismissing metabolic rift thinking, my intention is to affirm its dialectical core. At stake is not merely the mode of explanation within environmental sociology. The impasse of metabolic rift thinking is suggestive of wider problems across the environmental social sciences, now confronted by a double challenge. One of course is the widespread—and reasonable—sense of urgency to evolve modes of thought appropriate to an era of deepening biospheric instability. The second is the widely recognized—but inadequately internalized—understanding that humans are part of nature.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Key texts include Foster 1999, 2000a, b, 2009; Foster et al. 2010; Moore 2000a; Clark and York 2005.

  2. 2.

    Representative texts include Harvey (1974), Merchant (1980), Young (1979), Watts (1983), and Smith (1984).

  3. 3.

    Foster (2013a, p. 9) presents Harvey as arguing for nature as an “outer boundary” (2013, p. 9)—a position that distorts Harvey’s actual position. Harvey holds to a strongly relational view of socio-ecological relations in which “all ecological projects (and arguments) are simultaneously political-economic projects (and arguments) and vice versa” (1993, p. 25; also 1995). An analogous misreading is found in Foster’s appropriation of my conception of epochal crisis (Moore, 2011a, b), which he describes as the “convergence of economic and ecological contradictions” (2013b, p. 1). These appropriations indicate Foster’s unwillingness to engage the relational critique on its own terms.

  4. 4.

    The critique of nature/society dualism is vast. Classic statements include Smith (1984); Plumwood (1993); Braun and Castree (1998). Descartes is simply one of several possible names for the kind of dualism that emerged with the rise of capitalism in the early modern era (Moore 2015a).

  5. 5.

    Harvey offers the clearest exposition of this critique (1993).

  6. 6.

    The term is indebted to Schneider and McMichael (2010), whose formulation is, however, distinct from epistemic rift as epistemological dualism.

  7. 7.

    My concept of ontological formation draws on James’s groundbreaking work (2015).

  8. 8.

    This socio-ecological dimension of urbanization is effectively pursued by Neil Brenner and his colleagues (2013).

  9. 9.

    We are, Foster writes, dealing with a “succession of metabolic rifts. The second agricultural revolution, however useful in understanding this process, is just one stage” (personal communication, Foster to Moore, 20 January, 2000).

  10. 10.

    Thus Clark and Foster (2010) discuss the transition from feudalism to capitalism by citing the philosopher Mészáros.

  11. 11.

    Indeed, the history of labor reserves often reveals a strikingly similar historical-geographical resemblance to the history of agro-ecological change and extraction; the two are best viewed as internally relational to each other (Meillasoux 1981; Moore 2015a, pp. 221–240).

  12. 12.

    Fundamental critiques of pristine nature in historical studies include Cronon (1995) and Williams (1980).

  13. 13.

    Here is another blind-spot emerging from Foster’s distance from geographical thought. Regional-scale socio-ecological transformations are deeply implicated in transformations of the capitalist world-ecology—not only its booms but also its slumps—something the history of commodity frontiers makes plain (e.g., Moore 2003a, 2007, 2015a). Severing geography from the general model therefore leads not only to an exaggeration of “social” over “ecological” moments but also to systemic determinism in which regional particularity and change has little analytical traction.

  14. 14.

    Ibid. Such collapsing of general categories into an even more general category, with little sense of dialectical abstraction, is a common procedure in rift analyses (see Clark and York 2013, 27ff).

  15. 15.

    On this history, see Mellilo’s exciting study (2015).

  16. 16.

    York and Clark (2010a, b) are especially relaxed about historical specificity, invoking (but little beyond) to the longue durée of historical capitalism. But the longue durée is invoked rather than integrated; it is simply a “long time” for York and Clark, not a co-produced and multi-layered temporality (Braudel 2009). In the main, Rift analyses evoke the idea of history without practicing historical analysis. My point is not topical (“they do not study history”) but rather an observation of their theoretical praxis: the investigation of historical change does not seem to alter their framework. For instance, the centrality of the “second” agricultural revolution in metabolic rift thinking has been asserted with scarcely a nod to the historiography of English agriculture in the nineteenth century. An alternative approach is Duncan’s (1996)—whose conclusions I do not share but whose engagement with history and historiography is serious and sustained.

  17. 17.

    American agriculture between 1860 and 1930, for example, saw no meaningful change in land productivity, but a galloping pace of rising labor productivity—notwithstanding an important tendency towards soil exhaustion (Kloppenburg 1988; Cunfer 2004).

  18. 18.

    Useful points of entry for these revolutions include, respectively, Hoppenbrouwers, and van Zanden (2001), Overton (1996); Post (2011), Walker (2004); Patel (2013).

  19. 19.

    The language of world-ecological fix is a socio-ecological elaboration of Harvey’s theory (1982a), extending his focus on built environments and investment flows to the town-country relation on a world-scale (Moore 2015a).

  20. 20.

    See, respectively, Moore 2010b; Thomas 1993; Kloppenburg 1988; Walker 2004.

  21. 21.

    “Before producing effects in the material realm (tools and objects), before producing itself by drawing nourishment from that realm, and before reproducing itself by generating other bodies, each living body is space and has its space: it produces itself in space and it also produces that space. This is a truly remarkable relationship: the body with the energies at its disposal, the living body, creates or produces its own space; conversely, the laws of space, which is to say the laws of discrimination in space, also govern the living body and the deployment of its energies” (Lefebvre 1991, p. 170).

  22. 22.

    Personal communication, J.W. Moore to J.B. Foster and B. Clark, November 27, 2002.

  23. 23.

    See Frame (2016) for a suggestive analysis along these lines.

  24. 24.

    This is a dialectical inflection of Lakatos’s oft-quoted observation: “A research programme … is stagnating if its theoretical growth lags behind its empirical growth” (1978, p. 112).

  25. 25.

    “Facts in science do not present themselves in a preexistent shape. Rather it is the experimental or observational protocol that constructs facts out of an undifferentiated nature. And if we do not like what we see, we can rearrange the description of nature to have a more pleasing aspect. So facts make a theory, but it takes a theory to make facts” (Lewontin 1991, p. 147, emphasis added). The celebration of “natural science” and “natural scientists” runs throughout the arguments of Foster and his colleagues and is often paired with the characterization of “social science” as comparatively uncritical and “quiescent” (see especially Foster et al. 2010, pp. 19–24).

  26. 26.

    But did not Foster invert the problem (2013)—recuperating material nature and refusing symbolic nature—in refusing the Frankfurt School’s accounting of symbolic natures, not least the latter’s elaboration of instrumental reason?

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Acknowledgements

Special thanks to Henry Bernstein, Phil Campanile, Jennifer Casolo, Sharae Deckard, Phil McMichael, Mike Niblett, Christian Parenti, Raj Patel, Alan Rudy, Dale Tomich, Richard Walker, and Anna Zalik for conversations on metabolism and dialectics. I am especially grateful to Diana C. Gildea and my students at Binghamton University (and elsewhere) for ongoing conversations about the “singular metabolism” of the capitalist world-ecology: Jay Bolthouse, Alvin A. Camba, Joshua Eichen, Benjamin Marley, Roberto José Ortiz, Andy Pragacz, Kyle Gibson, and Christopher Cox.

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Moore, J.W. Metabolic rift or metabolic shift? dialectics, nature, and the world-historical method. Theor Soc 46, 285–318 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11186-017-9290-6

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Keywords

  • Environmental sociology
  • Marx
  • Political ecology
  • Social theory
  • World-ecology