Healing the Metabolic Rift
The metabolic rift
John Thackara’s phrase, the metabolic rift, is growing with me. We don’t have any feeling for the ecosystem that supports us. We are no longer part of it in important ways. We do lots of things that result in damage that we may not even see until it is too late. In that Maturana sense of any organism being in contact with its environment — we are not — we are increasingly separated by a metabolic rift.
Metabolic because this is about the most basic and fundamental level of life processes. About breathing, about nourishment, about a zillion symbiotic creatures that we depend on in ways more complex than we will ever understand.
And rift, well, because riven — cracked, split, broken. The metabolic rift is at least economic, cultural, educational, medical, social, legal, colonial, practical, emotional, and mental.
Any life-form, from the simplest virus to complex interconnected forests to social insects to intelligent mammals, has behaviour that is adaptive. Partly, it stabilises its environment the way it needs to be and partly, it adapts to changing circumstances that cannot be stabilised. This is a many-to-many symmathesy as described by Nora Bateson. It cannot be otherwise. Creatures can and do fail to stay in contact with their environment and whole species and families of species go out of existence. Sometimes there are waves of rapid change (“extinction events”) like the one we are part of now.
The metabolic rift says we have lost this ability. We do not know how to use our supposedly superior intelligence to stay in touch with our environment. In fact, there is a widespread cultural belief that we can manage our environment for our own narrow benefit. We can’t: that is it doesn’t work at all when we try to.
History and economics
David Graeber says that the nature of neoliberalism is this: when faced with a choice between the political and the economic, it always chooses the political. It is far more important (to neoliberalism) to give the impression that it is successful, even triumphant, than it is to make the economy actually work better.
If we take a tolerably intelligent farming system like a managed rapid rotation of different sorts of animals and other stock, it is about eight to ten times more productive than the surrounding conventional agriculture. But we are told that only mechanised agriculture and monocultures are economically viable. Here is the metabolic rift at the economic level. The neoliberalism of Monsanto and government agriculture departments insists on huge scale mechanisation and depopulation of the land which produces highly inferior foodstuffs.
The immediate history of the interaction of culture, social systems, and food production centres around labour-intensive modes of food production. Instead of assuming that labour-intensive is a problem, we can ask the other question. In Miraculous Abundance by Perrine and Charles Herve-Gruyer, there are details of a properly controlled experiment to see how many people 1000 square metres of land in Normandy can support. If the health and material needs of a family of four can be met from a tiny patch of land, what is the problem actually? And if the food produced is so good that chefs come from Paris and pay premium prices, why would anyone grow monocultures and use a combine harvester? Why?
In England, prior to George III and his Enclosure Act of 1773, most land was common land, where local people had rights to various sorts of access.This system encouraged crop rotation and grazing by many species of animals and birds. In practice, it maintained the soil and the fertility of the soil. The so called British Agricultural Revolution, much celebrated by the landed gentry, raised the productivity of farms but in a way that has proved not to be sustainable. I can remember from my school days that we were supposed to be impressed by Jethro Tull and his Horse-hoeing Husbandry, but of course tilling was one of the things that eventually destroyed the soil.
The mucous membrane of the land
We have spoken before about the membrane that lines our human insides and of the mucous film that works with it. By analogy, Didi Pershouse speaks of the mucous membrane of the land, a surface layer of organic glue that holds the soil together and allows it to develop its healthy sponge-like structure. The glue comes from many soil organisms but perhaps especially from the exudates of fungi. Most of these organisms are not visible to the naked eye, but they depend on a complex cycle where plants make sugars and supply them to mycorrhizal fungi and surface plant litter supports saprophytic fungi.
Human life literally depends on this mucous membrane of the land that we cannot see and which we usually ignore and destroy. And we don’t want to know. It is the ploughing and fertilising and use of a range of biocides (weedkiller, insecticide, fungicide, etc.) that wrecks this invisible life support system. Our modern world of droughts and floods and wildfires is literally and directly a result of this wanton destruction — it is not just that we wreck our food.
We used to have a human culture that grew up protecting the source of human life over the centuries because it was focused on stewardship and maintaining an intensive local food supply in all its diversity. The labour intensive nature of this system is not accidental nor incidental. Much land at the time was not in cultivation at all: there was a necessary density of production that maintained the land in good order.
The diversity is the key. As soon as you move to a single species of animals grazing, sheep for instance, they get parasites and the pasture needs more intervention. As soon as you move to a monoculture of plants in a given field, there will be insect problems and fungal problems that need intervention in order to protect the crop. But if you maintain the diversity, these problems occur less or not at all. Multiple species of animals and birds grazing perennial plants maintains the health of soil, plants, and animals.
I think this is a neoliberal agricultural system: move to monocultures because they are mechanisable and look clean and sterile. This seems to be the technocratic future: GPS controlled mega-machinery putting exactly the right amount of fertiliser on each part of the field, etc. But it is a neoliberal lie: the way to intensive production that supports human health is in the opposite direction. It would be nice to think that agricultural production was about human health but it hasn’t been so for a long time. Even organic production is typically not sustainable.
This exactly matches Graeber’s statement about economics: the political act of seemingly intensive agricultural production that throws people off the land is much more important than genuinely intensive production that provides employment and health. And this is not an anti-industrial rant or crusade, it is proper agricultural economics on a properly social basis.
The societies that organised themselves around common land and mutual systems of using and stewarding the land were themselves sustainable. In such societies there may have been hunger and hardship but no-one starved. The workhouse for the indolent, work-shy poor was an invention of enclosure and the destruction of the commons.
James Scott in his Seeing Like a State describes how a village in Tsarist Russia threw people into starvation simply by mapping the land. The mapping required that all land had an owner, and this threw into disarray the existing customs where people had rights to different uses of the land at different seasons. This is the clearest possible pursuit of political objectives ahead of systems of human and ecosystem health.
In general, there were complex systems of craft skills that supported a local economic system for a wide range of trades. This is not simply about agriculture in the narrow sense, but about the supply chain of related services and trades. The classic text is H.J.Massingham, Men of Earth, (1943!) that celebrates a world now largely lost to a different sort of economics, that as a side effect wrecks the soil and the ecosystem.
I am hypothesising that the ecosystemic nature of the local economy is required to match the ecosystemic nature of soil regeneration if they are to thrive. We cannot have a neoliberal political system regenerating soil ecosystems and we cannot have impoverished soil ecosystems supporting a vibrant local economy. If this is true, it would be a pivotal insight into the current climate crisis. Only both ecosystems thriving together is viable and sustainable.
Two more recent vignettes. There is a first people’s tribe somewhere in the mid-west (USA) that live on and manage a small forest reservation. They maintain the forest while extracting enough timber to support the whole tribe. There are people queuing up of course to tell them how to do it properly and make more money, but increasingly there are a different sort of people queuing up to study something that they have realised they don’t know how to do for themselves.
And I am reading, because I need to learn the basics, about perennial vegetables. I am an allotment gardener and I grow the vegetables we need. There are of course things like rhubarb and asparagus that can only be grown as lusty perennial plants. But our vegetable culture revolves around digging the soil and growing annuals in the brief summer months. There are ways to have a riotous mixture of plants improving each other’s environments and soil and supplying vegetables, without that annual cycle of thinking we know better!
The Victorians in the UK, especially in the dynamic northern towns which were so enterprising in spirit, developing mutual self-help financial cultures and mechanisms that also mirror what we speak of here. The original Building Societies were just that: groups of people who came together in mutual organisations so that they had enough capital to build houses for each other. The original societies might have perhaps thirty members and disbanded again when everyone had built a house.
As with capital so with risk. There were, and actually still are, mutual insurance societies where the members jointly meet the losses of individual members. The major current example is the Strike Club which insures shipping containers and their contents as they are transported round the world. The interesting feature of such an enterprise is that it is seriously in the interest of each member, each shipping line, to limit the losses suffered by other members. Because of that, they actively share information about risks, threats, and mitigation techniques.
Throughout Africa there are mutual savings clubs. I worked with some Somalis and some Zimbabweans in London to see how these cultural institutions could be applied to their problems such as excessive credit card debt. In these clubs people contribute a weekly or monthly small amount and then the fund is applied, perhaps by a lottery or perhaps according to urgent need, to give the members access to sums of money they can otherwise never gather.
The metabolic rift
There is no future for mankind without bridging, healing, overcoming the metabolic rift. We need to live in a way that plays our role in the ecosystems of life that ARE the world, even though we have forgotten it. There are lots of places where we can see the damage caused by our forgetting, and the soil is perhaps the key one. We can see it locally in our hands when we use them and we can see it globally in terms of the billions of tons of soil that are lost each year. Remember that more weight of soil is lost than weight of crops that are grown.
It is perhaps another application of Conway’s Law that as we farm, so we reap! Our social organisations and our mental organisation are broken and blind and so we harvest a broken ecosystem in our soils and what we grow in them.
We wrote before about Robin Wall Kimmerer, herself from a first peoples tribe, teaching ecology in college in New York. All her students were keenly aware of the damage humans do to various ecosystems and to the whole planet. But when she asked them what the positive role that humans need to play in those ecosystems was, they were struck dumb. We really need to do better than dumb, in all its senses.
 You’ll recognise some of these as dimensions of what Nora Bateson calls “warm data”
 For the uninitiated, symmathesy is a learning together, “an ongoing process of calibration within contexts of aggregate interrelational variables.”
 See point 4 of Scott Alexander’s essay, which posits that we may be playing brinkmanship with a tipping point of extinction, despite the countable extinctions.
 If you immediately thought of James Scott’s Seeing Like a State, bravo! We’ll get back to that in a moment.
 Still in force today, though 223 years later, they passed the Countryside and Rights of Way Act
 Admittedly, I suspect that animals raised in computer-controlled environments have it better than the ones who are just jammed in on top of one another. I saw a Dutch documentary in which individual chickens were dosed when they seemed poorly, rather than whole-flock applications, and where cows walked themselves to the milking stations unaided, etc. But doing ‘better’ than conventional factory farms is a pretty low bar. Fun fact: tiny Netherlands is the #2 exporter of food to the world, after the USA.
 How could it be sustainable when the capitalist system demands that any product that attracts a premium price have its premium nature beaten out of it in the interests of scale and profit?
 Yes of course, it’s the Prisoner’s Dilemma all over again. But the players are in an iterated game, not fly-by-night one-shot operators.
 Excellent book on the variety and purposes of such clubs: Portfolios of the Poor