April 17, 2016
I spent most of the beautiful afternoon weather we had yesterday sitting within four walls at the Kellogg Center listening to Brett Clark talk about “the metabolic rift.” Like most academic outings and too many Thornapple Blogs, the conversation drifted into overly fine attempts at correction and counter-correction. But I think I’ll resist the temptation to indulge in a satire of our fumbling disputations and just try to say something about the metabolic rift.
This has just got to be extremely obscure terminology for almost anyone, but the core idea is not that tough. First, you’ve got to latch on to the fact when Brett talks about metabolism, he is not constructing a metaphor. He is talking about the biochemical interactions that occur within our bodies when, on the one hand, we do some work, while on the other, we have dinner. When we work, we expend energy (again in a deadpan literal sense). There are biochemical transformations taking place that yield muscle power, and these transformations literally consume or “use up” the physical materials from which our bodies are composed. We are able to do this as living beings because when we eat something, other biochemical processes convert the peas, beans and potatoes we are eating into fat, blood and muscle tissues that replenish the materials that were used up when we worked. So this does have something to do with food ethics.
Brett’s also pointing out that the peas, beans and potatoes are available for us to eat because a different set of biochemical transformations fueled by energy from the sun converted physical materials in the soil into peas, beans and potatoes. More metabolism, in other words. But the soil itself is a metabolic system where microorganisms fueled by the energy in rotting plant matter and animal manure convert inert matter from rocks into the physical materials that eventually show up on our plates. Still more metabolism, and even closer ties to food ethics. And oh yes, all this needs water. This system of metabolism can reproduce itself over and over as long as the sun keeps shining and there are inert bits of the earth for microorganisms to convert into fertile soils. “As long as” isn’t forever, but it is a long time. We might call this a sustainable system.
Now for the rift part. The links in this system get broken when the animal manures don’t get returned to the soil. Pardon me for once more bringing up the subject of poop in a family blog, but this does have something to do with food ethics. So ask yourself whether your poop from the stuff you ate produced in Iowa, Chile or China is likely to get back there in order to replenish the soils, and as you ask this question you are beginning to get some idea of what Brett meant by “the metabolic rift”. There’s a gap in the system, and we can ask ourselves “Is it still sustainable?”
Now here my penchant for honesty compels me to say that not everyone has the same answer. What we do in real facticity is use fossil energy to convert air into nitrogen fertilizers, which farmers apply to the soil, allowing it to keep on keeping on with its little metabolic thing. This ends up with a supply of peas, beans and potatoes (not to mention ribeyes and airline chicken breasts) that seems to run on forever. We have plenty of air, but the fossil fuel thing may be a bit of a problem. There’s also the way that this complication of the basic system creates sinks of the poop that should be going back to Iowa, Chile and China, while also pumping out emissions that are screwing up a totally different system (e.g. the climate). I don’t think of the climate problem as metabolic, but Brett’s point is that this gap we noticed in the previous paragraph may actually be pretty dang big, e.g. a rift.
Now being of the Marxist persuasion, Brett is strongly inclined to blame all these complications that create gap after gap in our metabolic system (resulting in a metabolic rift) on profit seeking. But here I’m already softening his Marxism because what he would and did say is that this kind of system breakdown is just what we should expect from the infusion of capitalist social relations into our potentially metabolically sustainable world. And once we’ve gone down the Marxist road that far, why not add the observation that our difficulty in perceiving this metabolic rift is what we mean by alienation.
But once he did that, the card-carrying Marxists in that room at the Kellogg Center started accusing him of trying to reassert Engels’ discredited claims about the dialectic of nature, and we were right back into academic lala land. So forget that I mentioned it.
Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University