Metabolism In The Social Sciences Metabolism in Social Theory

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It was Marx and Engels who first applied the term 'metabolism' to society. 'Metabolism between man and nature' is used in conjunction with their basic, almost ontological, description of the labor process.

Labor is, first of all, a process between man and nature, a process by which man, through his own actions, mediates, regulates and controls the metabolism between himself and nature. He confronts the materials of nature as a force of nature. He sets in motion the natural forces which belong to his own body, his arms, legs, head and hands, in order to appropriate the materials of nature in a form adapted to his own needs. Through this movement he acts upon external nature and changes it, and in this way he simultaneously changes his own nature . . . [the labor process] is the universal condition for the metabolic interaction [Stoffwechsel] between man and nature, the everlasting nature imposed condition of human existence. (Marx 1976 [1867], pp. 283, 290)

According to Foster (1999, 2000), and in contrast to earlier interpretations (Schmidt 1971), Marx derived much of his understanding of metabolism from Liebig's analysis of nutrient depletion of the soil following urbanization.

Large landed property reduces the agricultural population to an ever decreasing minimum and confronts it with an ever growing industrial population crammed together in large towns; in this way it produces conditions that provoke an irreparable rift in the interdependent process of social metabolism, a metabolism prescribed by the natural laws of life itself. The result of this is a squandering of the vitality of the soil, which is carried by trade far beyond the bounds of a single country. (Liebig 1842, as quoted in Marx 1981 [1865], p. 949; similarly in Marx 1976 [1867]; see also Foster 2000, pp. 155f)

According to Foster, the concept of metabolism and 'metabolic rift' provided Marx with a materialist way of expressing his notion of alienation from nature that was central to his critique of capitalism from his earliest writings on.

Freedom in this sphere [the realm of natural necessity] can consist only in this, that socialized man, the associated producers, govern the human metabolism with nature in a rational way, bringing it under their own collective control instead of being dominated by it as a blind power; accomplishing it with the least expenditure of energy and in conditions most worthy and appropriate with their human nature. (Marx 1981 [1865], p.959)

Thus Marx employed the term 'metabolism' for the material exchange between man and nature on a fundamental anthropological level, as well as for a critique of the capitalist mode of production. But the accumulation of capital has nothing to do with the appropriation of the accumulated 'wealth' of nature (for example, fossil fuels); appropriation as a basis for capital accumulation is always and only appropriation of surplus human labor, as Martinez-Alier (1987, pp.218-24) pointed out.

The writings of Marx and Engels are not the only reference to societal metabolism from the 'founding fathers' of modern social science. Most social scientists of those times were interested in evolutionary theory and its implications for universal progress (for example, Spencer 1862; Morgan 1877). Societal progress and the differences in stages of advancement among societies relate to the amount of available energy: societal progress is based on energy surplus. Firstly it enables social growth and thereby social differentiation. Secondly it provides room for cultural activities beyond basic vital needs (Spencer 1862).

Nobel Prize-winning chemist Wilhelm Ostwald argued that minimizing the loss of free energy is the objective of every cultural development. Thus one may deduce that the more efficient the transformation from crude energy into useful energy, the greater a society's progress (Ostwald 1909). For Ostwald the increase of energy conversion efficiency has the characteristics of a natural law affecting every living organism and every society. He stressed that each society has to be aware of the 'energetic imperative [Energetische Imperativ]': 'Don't waste energy, use it' (Ostwald 1912, p.85). Ostwald was one of the few scientists of his time who was sensitive to the limitations of fossil resources. According to him, a durable (sustainable) economy must use solar energy exclusively. This work provided Max Weber (1909) with the opportunity for an extensive discussion. Weber reacted in quite a contradictory manner. On the one hand he dismissed Ostwald's approach as 'grotesque' (Weber 1909, p.401) and challenged its core thesis on natural science grounds: 'In no way would an industrial production be more energy efficient than a manual one -it would only be more cost efficient' (ibid., pp. 386ff). At the same time he rejected natural science arrogance towards the 'historical' sciences and the packaging of value judgments and prejudices in natural science 'facts' (ibid., p.401). On the other hand, although he admitted that energy may possibly be important to sociological concerns (ibid., p. 399; see also Weber (1958 [1904]), he never elaborated such considerations.

Sir Patrick Geddes, co-founder of the British Sociological Society, sought to develop a unified calculus based upon energy and material flows and capable of providing a coherent framework for all economic and social activity (Geddes 1997 [1884]). He proclaimed the emancipation from monetary economy towards an economy of energy and resources. In four lectures at the Royal Society of Edinburgh, Geddes developed a type of economic input-output table in physical terms. The first column contains the sources of energy as well as the sources for materials used. Energy and materials are transformed into products in three stages: the extraction of fuels and raw materials; the manufacture; and the transport and exchange. Between each of these stages there occur losses that have to be estimated - the final product might then be surprisingly small in proportion to the overall input (Geddes 1885). Far ahead of his time, Geddes appears to have been the first scientist to approach an empirical description of societal metabolism on a macroeconomic level.

Frederick Soddy, another Nobel laureate in chemistry, also turned his attention to the energetics of society, but did so with an important twist: he saw energy as a critical limiting factor to society and thus was one of the few social theorists sensitive to the second law of thermodynamics (Soddy 1912, 1922, 1926). He thereby took issue directly with Keynes' views on long-term economic growth, as appreciated by Daly (1980). In the mid-1950s, Fred Cottrell (1955) again raised the idea that available energy limits the range of human activities. According to him this is one of the reasons why pervasive social, economic, political and even psychological change accompanied the transition from a low-energy to a high-energy society.

For the development of sociology as a discipline these more or less sweeping energetic theories of society remained largely irrelevant. Even the influential Chicago-based school of sociology with the promising label 'human ecology' (for example, Park 1936) carefully circumvented any references to natural conditions or processes. Before the advent of the environmental movement, modern sociology did not refer to natural parameters as either causes or consequences of human social activities.

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