Metabolic Structure and Ecological Civilization

This is a long article but of some interest for pursuing a metabolic modelfor the ecology.  Certainly this isindicated by all the data that is accumulating today.

It is my opinion that it is necessary for every watershed to beecologically managed by all the stakeholders through a stakeholder’s council withthe authority to manage the ecology.

This geographic component is notaddressed in this essay but it is both ecologically important and natural butalso politically important in terms of organizing a human response.

This is still a good attempt tostructure our response to the problems of managing our world but makes theusual error of assuming top down control as useful.  A bottom up system can solve this.

Ecological Civilization

by Prof. Fred Magdoff

 Global Research,January 9, 2011

Given the overwhelmingharm being done to the world’s environment and to its people, it is essentialtoday to consider how we might organize a truly ecological civilization—onethat exists in harmony with natural systems—instead of trying to overwhelm anddominate nature. This is not just an ethical issue; it is essential for oursurvival as a species and the survival of many other species that we reversethe degradation of the earth’s life support systems that once provideddependable climate, clean air, clean water (fresh and ocean), bountiful oceans,and healthy and productive soils.

There are numerousways to approach and think about the enormous harm that has been done to theenvironment. I will discuss the following: (1) the critical characteristicsthat underlie strong ecosystems; (2) why societies are not adequatelyimplementing ecological approaches; and (3) how we might use characteristics ofstrong natural ecosystems as a framework to consider a future ecologicalcivilization.

I. Ecological Principles: Learning from Nature

The study of ecologydeveloped as scientists began to understand how natural systems functioned.Scientists quickly realized that they needed to think and study in amultidisciplinary fashion—there was no way to comprehend the full complexity ofsuch systems by focusing on one particular discipline or sub-discipline. Infact, even after intense study, it is usually impossible to understand fully ahighly complex system—with interactions and positive and negative feedbackloops—to the extent that you can accurately predict all the results that willoccur when you intervene in some way. Frederick Engels described thisphenomenon well, over a century ago in 1876:

Let us not…flatterourselves overmuch on account of our human victories over nature. For each suchvictory nature takes its revenge on us. Each victory, it is true, in the firstplace brings about the results we expected, but in the second and third placesit has quite different, unforeseen effects which only too often cancel out thefirst. The people who, in Mesopotamia, Greece, Asia Minor, and elsewhere,destroyed the forests to obtain cultivable land, never dreamed that by removingalong with the forests the collecting centres and reservoirs of moisture theywere laying the basis for the present forlorn state of those countries. Whenthe Italians of the Alps used up the pine forests on the southern slopes, socarefully cherished on the northern slopes, they had no inkling that by doingso they were cutting at the roots of the dairy industry in their region; theyhad still less inkling that they were thereby depriving their mountain springsof water for the greater part of the year, and making it possible for them topour still more furious torrents on the plains during the rainy seasons….Thusat every step we are reminded that we by no means rule over nature like aconqueror over a foreign people, like someone standing outside nature—but thatwe, with flesh, blood and brain, belong to nature, and exist in its midst, andthat all our mastery of it consists in the fact that we have the advantage overall other creatures of being able to learn its laws and apply them correctly.1

Learning to “know andcorrectly apply” the “laws” of nature has progressed greatly since Engels’stime. Although we must always proceed with caution when working with complexecosystems (as Engels warned, there may be unforeseen consequences), much hasbeen learned about how natural systems operate, about the importance of theinteractions of organisms among themselves and with theirphysical/chemical/climatic environment. There are fragile natural ecosystemsthat are easily disturbed, and may become degraded as a result of slight disturbance.However, many natural ecosystems are strong, able to resist significantperturbation and/or quickly return to normal functioning following adisturbance. Natural disturbances of an ecosystem may be sudden—a wildfirestarted by a lightening strike, huge winds generated by hurricanes, floods,etc.—or gradual, as with changes in long-term precipitation trends. Moreresilient systems are better able to adapt to long-term gradual changes as wellas sudden ones.

Metabolism and Metabolic Connections

The term metabolism is usually used inreference to the work done inside an organism or a cell as it goes about itsnormal operations: the building up of new organic chemicals and the breakingdown of others, the recovering of energy from some compounds, and the use ofenergy to do work. But a critical part of the metabolism of a cell or largeorganism is the exchange of materials with the environment and other organisms:obtaining energy-rich organic molecules and individual elements necessary tomake all the stuff of life, including oxygen, carbon dioxide, nutrients (suchas nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, and calcium), and water. Without access tothese resources outside itself, an organism would run out of energy and die.Plants and animals, as well as fungi and most bacteria, need to be able toobtain oxygen from the atmosphere or water in order to live. In addition, allorganisms must rid themselves of waste products such as carbon dioxide that canbe toxic if allowed to accumulate inside the organism. Thus, metabolisminvolves not only processes internal to the organism but also a continualexchange of materials between an organism and its immediate environment—thesoil, air, water, and other organisms. (See Figure 1.)

Almost all organismsuse the energy derived from sunlight—either producing it themselves byphotosynthesis or feeding on plant material or organisms that have themselvesfed on plant material. However, organisms, from the “simplest” bacteria tomammals, interact with one another and with the chemical and physical aspectsof their local environment. The waste of one cell—or the whole organismitself—becomes food for another. And many organisms contain other organisms,either inside or on their surfaces, most living in a mutually beneficial, symbioticassociation. The huge number of bacteria inside the human gut (as there areinside those of other animals) plays an important part in our metabolism andassists in the normal functioning of the body.

Soil is not just amedium for supporting plants so they can grow upright. It is also composed ofminerals, gases (atmosphere), water, decomposing organic material, andliterally millions of organisms such as fungi, bacteria, nematodes, earthworms,and so on, all continually interacting and providing resources to one another.There is a strong metabolic interaction between plants and soil. Plants, asthey grow, provide food for many soil organisms, as material produced byphotosynthesis in green tissue is translocated to the roots and exuded. (SeeFigure 1, which outlines some of the main metabolic connections in a naturalecosystem in which humans are part.)

Many of themicroorganisms close to roots provide organic chemicals that support healthyplant growth. All plants also take up nutrients such as potassium, phosphorus,magnesium, calcium, and nitrogen. Some plants, such as legumes, which functionsymbiotically with bacteria inside the plants, supply energy-rich products ofphotosynthesis to the bacteria, which in turn supply the plant with available formsof nitrogen. When plants or plant roots die, they become food for fungi andbacteria that then become energy sources for organisms such as nematodes thatthen become food for other organisms further up a complex metabolic foodweb oflife. (A foodweb isthe term now used in place of food chain—because organisms are connected incomplex, branching ways and not in an orderly, ladder-like chain.) Althoughplants make their own energy-rich compounds using the sun’s energy to powerphotosynthesis, the essential inorganic compounds that plants take up from thesoil also participate in the foodweb. As organisms feed on dead plant material,they use energy contained in the residue for their life processes and, at thesame time, convert nutrients in their food into forms that can be used byplants in the future.

Plants living in thesame ecosystem are frequently connected to one another metabolically. Therelease of available nitrogen from a legume can, for example, be taken up by aneighboring grass plant. The threads of fungi (hyphae) that help plants take upwater and nutrients frequently connect one plant to another. In addition, someplants provide resources and refuge to insects that attack insects that feed onother plants.

Plants and soils areimportant participants in the hydrologic cycle. Plants take up water from soiland use some for growth, while most water evaporates from leaves, returning tothe atmosphere to fall back to Earth again as rainfall. Precipitation mayfilter into the soil and be stored there for plants to use, or it may percolatedown to recharge the water table. If the soil is open and porous and has acover of organic mulch, a high percentage of rainfall can infiltrate.Conversely, if soils are compact and have no surface organic mulch and fewplants, rainfall tends to run off the land, eroding soil as it flows.
There is also anintimate and important metabolic connection between plants and higher animals,as animals feed on plants (or other animals that fed on plants), usingnutrients from the soil and solar energy that have been stored in plants. Inthe living and reproducing processes of animals, energy is used to do work, andnutrients are returned to the soil as waste materials. There are stronganimal-to-animal metabolic relationships, as carnivores, omnivores (humansincluded), parasitoids (insects that parasitize other insects), etc. go abouttheir normal lives.

Humans create forms ofmetabolic interaction with the earth in many ways—agricultural systems,fishing, mining, production and use of industrial commodities, production andutilization of transportation systems, heating homes and cooking, disposing ofsolid waste (garbage), changing the landscape to accommodate road construction,etc. However, in this section, we include only human metabolic relationshipswith the earth as they are expressed through the consumption of food andexcretion of bodily waste. This allows us to focus on what can be learned fromnatural systems.

Strong Natural Ecosystems

The continuity of thenatural soil-plant-animal metabolic connections is critical to maintainingstrong ecosystems. And within the soil, the metabolic interactions of the greatdiversity of organisms help provide the nutrients and stimulating compoundsthat are essential for growing healthy plants as well as enhancing infiltrationof rainfall and storage capacity for water for later use by plants.

A number ofcharacteristics can be thought of as pillars supporting strong naturalecosystems. These have been described as follows:
  • Diversity. A great biological diversity, both above ground and in the soil, characterizes many strong natural ecosystems in temperate and tropical regions. The metabolic connection between so many organisms provides biological synergies, nutrient availability to plants, checks on disease or insect outbreaks, etc. For example, competition for resources and specific antagonisms (such as antibiotic production by some soil bacteria) among the multitude of soil organisms usually keep soil borne plant diseases from severely damaging a natural grassland or forest. And a great diversity in species aboveground (plants and animals) and in the soil, some with overlapping niches or functions, means that if one is harmed by a disease or insect, there are frequently others that promote the continuity of ecosystem functioning.
  • Efficient Natural Cycles through Closely Linked Metabolic Relationships. Efficiency of natural systems’ natural cycles is arrived at through close biological interactions and associations and biological synergies. Tight energy and nutrient flows—with little wasted or “leaking out”—are characteristic of strong natural systems. Because of the wide variety and great populations of organisms and their many natural niches in soils and on the soil surface and the presence of significant quantities of stored solar energy in crop and manure residues, energy flows efficiently, as organisms consume organic residues and one another. Natural ecosystems with healthy soils and diverse plant species also tend to be efficient in capturing and using rainfall and in mobilizing and cycling nutrients. This efficiency in use of nutrients, energy, and water helps to keep the ecosystem from “running down” through the excessive loss of energy and nutrients (and topsoil) and, at the same time, helps maintain the quality of the groundwater and surface waters. Precipitation tends to enter the porous soil, rather than run off, providing water to plants and recharging ground water, slowly releasing water to springs, streams, and rivers.
  • Self-Sufficiency. A consequence of diversity and efficient natural cycles is that natural terrestrial ecosystems are self-sufficient—requiring only inputs of sunlight and rainfall. Natural ecosystems run on current and recently past solar energy (stored as soil organic matter). The sun’s energy, captured by green plants, is then used by many organisms, as fungi and bacteria decompose organic residues and are then fed upon by other organisms, which are themselves fed upon by others, higher up the foodweb.
Cycling of nutrientsfrom soil to plant to animal and back to soil is essential for an ecosystem tobe stable and resilient. There are low levels of nutrients, such as nitrates,that come along with rain and are deposited as dust settles. Other nutrientsthen become available as soil minerals dissolve. But, to a great extent,nutrients cycle and energy flows efficiently within the system. As organismsdecompose dead plants and animals, nutrients are recycled at the same time thatenergy stored in the food source is utilized. The essential nutrient, nitrogen,needed for making proteins, is provided by a number of species of bacteria(free living as well as those living symbiotically on or in plant roots) thatare able to convert nitrogen gas in the atmosphere into amino acids, directlyusable by plants, and to release mineral forms of nitrogen that plants can alsouse.
  • Self-Regulation. With plants and animals filling the numerous niches aboveground, many species are able to exist side-by-side, for instance, in grasslands. But they metabolically interact with one another and are intimately connected. Because of the great diversity of organisms present, outbreaks (or huge population increases) of diseases or insects that severely damage plants or animals are uncommon. For example, a particular beetle that feeds on plants may encounter numerous other species that keep its population from getting too high—“a variety of predatory bugs and beetles in the foliage of the plants, and pathogenic nematodes and fungi that inhabit the soil attack pupating adults below ground.”2
Animals have manysystems to defend themselves when under attack by other organisms, including,in mammals, their own immune systems. But plants also have a number of defensemechanisms—some stimulated or induced by soil organisms—that help protect themfrom attack by fungi and bacteria. There are also organisms that prey on (orlay their eggs in) insects that feed on plants. Amazingly, plants being eatenby plant-feeders (herbivores) send out chemical signals that recruit thespecific organism to attack the particular plant-feeders.3
  • Resiliency through Self-Renewal. Disturbances occur in all ecosystems, natural or not. The stronger ecosystems are more resistant to disturbances and are able to bounce back quicker.4 Such resiliency is the “bottom line” characteristic of strong and stable ecosystems, with other characteristics contributing to the ability for self-renewal. Seeds stored in the soil, which germinate after a fire are an example of the self-renewal of plants.
Are There Lessons to Learn from Bees?

The natural worldcontains many interesting examples that may have some analogies in humanactivity. For example, when beehives grow too large, bees swarm to a temporarylocation. Scouts go out in different directions and then report back byperforming a dance that provides information about the location scouted and itsconditions. Other bees congregate around the original scout they think hasselected the best site. When enough bees agree on one of the locations, theentire swarm then goes off to build a hive there.5

When a large enoughnumber of bees agree about a site, they end up selecting the best one. There isan analogous situation with humans. People in groups, provided with thenecessary information, tend to make better decisions than individuals makingdecisions for the group. A diversity of people (backgrounds, skills, outlooks)allows a group to evaluate issues better. Because they are, as a group,involved in the decision-making process, they feel more ownership of thedecision and a desire to help implement it.

II. Why Are Societies Not Applying EcologicalKnowledge?

With every day thatpasses we are acquiring a better understanding of these laws and getting toperceive both the more immediate and the more remote consequences of ourinterference with the traditional course of nature. In particular, after themighty advances of natural science in the present century, we are more thanever in a position to realise, and hence to control, also the more remotenatural consequences at least of our day-to-day productive activities. But themore this progresses the more will men not only feel, but also know theironeness with nature, and the more impossible will become the senseless andunnatural idea of a contrast between mind and matter, man and nature, soul andbody.

—Frederick Engels,18766

Although the scienceof ecology was born in the nineteenth century, it developed only gradually overthe years. During this process, our understanding about the functioning ofnatural systems and the interaction of organisms with the environment hasdeepened. How can we reconcile this growing knowledge with the acceleratingpace of environmental destruction? The answer is that nearly the entire worldis now part of a global capitalist system, which is, at its heart, ananti-environmental economic/social system. Having accumulation of capitalwithout end as its motivating force and only goal, capitalism createsenvironmental havoc locally, regionally, and globally.

As Engels explained:

As individualcapitalists are engaged in production and exchange for the sake of theimmediate profit, only the nearest, most immediate results must first be takeninto account. As long as an individual manufacturer or merchant sells amanufactured or purchased commodity with the usual coveted profit, he issatisfied, and does not concern himself with what afterwards becomes of thecommodity and its purchasers. The same thing applies to the natural effects ofthe same actions. What cared the Spanish planters in Cuba, who burned downforests on the slopes of the mountains and obtained from the ashes sufficientfertiliser for one generationof very highly profitable coffee trees—what cared they that the heavy tropicalrainfall afterwards washed away the unprotected upper stratum of the soil,leaving behind only bare rock!7

These words are, ifanything, more critical today than when Engels wrote them. The accumulation ofcapital, the driving and motivating force of capitalism, leads naturally tomany consequences that harm the environment. The system proceedsassuming—contrary to all evidence—unlimited resources (including cheap energy)and unlimited natural “sinks” for wastes generated.

Human activity breaksor greatly alters the metabolic connections discussed above and tends toimpoverish and weaken the ecosystem, making it function less effectively andwith less resilience. Although human-induced metabolic disturbances and riftsoccurred in the precapitalist era—for example, the cutting down of forests inthe Mediterranean region thousands of years ago led to accelerated runoff ofrainfall, soil erosion, and the drying of springs in the dry season—the logicof capitalism and the technology it developed, along with the increased numberof people on Earth, led to much greater and more intensive disruptions in thenatural cycling of matter, affecting not only local and regional ecologies, butglobal ones as well.

Recognition ofproblems that arise as metabolic rifts occur commonly brings aboutinterventions to counteract the effects, or attempts to shift the problemsaround. But the result more often than not, as Engels pointed out, is theemergence of unanticipated secondary and tertiary effects, many of which areextremely detrimental. The effects of both the ecological rifts and theirattempted remedies are local, regional, and global. Hence, there are numerousexamples of severe degradation, if not the actual breaking ofsoil-plant-animal-atmospheric metabolic relationships. (See Figure 2 for riftsduring development of cities and capitalist agriculture; Figure 3 forconsequences of interventions to try to deal with rifts; and Table 1 on theentire set of disturbances and their consequences.)

Rifts in Nutrient Cycles (see [a] in Figures 2 and 3)

A number ofnineteenth-century observers were concerned with an aspect of capitalism thatis still a problem today, though in an increasingly egregious form—the breakingof the cycle of nutrients from soil to plants and farm animals to humans andback to soil, with all its ramifications. For example, Marx wrote in Volume Iof Capital:

Capitalist productioncollects the population together in great centres, and causes the urbanpopulation to achieve an ever-growing preponderance….[I]t disturbs themetabolic interaction between man and the earth, i.e., prevents the return tothe soil of its constituent elements consumed by man in the form of food andclothing; hence it hinders the operation of the eternal natural condition forthe lasting fertility of the soil.8

Until the discovery ofphosphate deposits and the practice of making the phosphorus in them moreavailable to plants, one of the sources of phosphorus for European agriculturebecame the bones of former soldiers—which were harvested from the Napoleonicbattlefields and burial grounds. The quest for nutrients to replenish soils inthe later part of the nineteenth century led to “guano imperialism,” ascountries competed to capture islands rich in this natural fertilizer.9 Peru had theworld’s richest guano deposits and was the center of the international guanotrade.

Figure 1.Soil-plant-animal-atmosphere metabolic interactions

Imported Chinese laborers(“coolies”) worked on the guano islands, extracting this valuable fertilizerfor export to the global North. Undernourished, physically beaten, choking ondust, they labored as beasts of burden under conditions, as noted by Marx,“worse than slavery.”10 Todayhuge quantities of nitrogen fertilizer are produced by the Haber-Bosch process,while large amounts of potash and phosphorus minerals are mined and treated.The use of increasing amounts of energy (especially for nitrogen production) bythe Haber-Bosch process, as well as by mining and processing of phosphorus,causes great ecological disturbance and pollution.

The metabolic rift ofpeople removed from land that produces their food continues unabated with thetransfer of large populations from rural areas to cities. This phenomenon thatbegan in earnest with the British land foreclosures that forced peasants offthe land between the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries continues today withmodern foreclosures, as farmers in Latin America, Africa, and Asia are forcedoff the land and migrate to cities that hold few jobs for them. Most enter the“informal economy” and struggle for existence.11

In the second half ofthe twentieth century, another rupture of nutrient cycling occurred as large,integrated capitalist firms concentrated beef cattle feedlots, poultryproduction, and hog operations near slaughtering facilities. This overwhelmedthe supplies of locally grown feed sources, forcing the importation of feed,mainly corn and soy, from hundreds, even thousands, of miles away. This had twoeffects: the depletion of nutrients on grain farms (forcing them to purchase largeamounts of commercial fertilizers) and the accumulation of mountains of manureon animal farms (causing water pollution due to the excess level of nutrients).

A further accentuatingfactor was caused by a change in crop rotations. Perennial forage legumes andgrass-legume mixtures were once a central part of farm rotations. The multiyearhay and pasture crops produced numerous positive effects. One of these was thatthe nitrogen remaining from the legumes could be supplied to following crops ofgrains such as corn or wheat. Tractors replaced animal traction, beef cows wereincreasingly raised in large feedlots, and dairy cow numbers per farm grew.Many former dairy or mixed crop-livestock farms were converted to mechanizedcrop farms, often raising only grains and soybeans. These “cash grain” farmshad no use for rotations containing perennial legumes to feed as hay or topasture animals—because they had no farm animals. Nor did their neighbors.Thus, many farms stopped producing their own nitrogen (from legumes) for graincrops and were thereby compelled to purchase large amounts of nitrogenfertilizer—produced with massive amounts of energy, usually natural gas.(Although soy, an annual crop, is a legume, it leaves little nitrogen availablefor a following grain crop.)

Fiugre 2.Interferences in soil-plant-animal-atmosphere metabolic interactions

Rifts in theCirculation of Organic Matter and the Carbon Cycle (see [a] and [f] inFigures 2 and 3)

When discussing soilorganic matter, keep in mind that, as with all organic compounds, it iscomposed of carbon-rich substances. In fact, there is about three times morecarbon stored in soils in the form of soil organic matter than is in theatmosphere. Agricultural practices affect how much carbon is stored in soils asorganic matter and how much is released back into the atmosphere as carbondioxide. When forests or grasslands are converted to agricultural production,there is usually a great loss of organic matter from the soil, as plowing andother disturbances accelerate the use of stored organic matter by organisms.This accelerated microbial metabolism leads to massive carbon dioxide emissionsinto the atmosphere. Once soil organic matter is very depleted (see below), thesoil may stop being a net source of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.

In addition toinfluencing nutrient cycling, the separation of humans and farm animals fromthe land that grows their food contributes to the break in thesoil-plant-animal-human organic matter cycle. Decreased return of organicresidue to the soil means that less food is provided to soil organisms. Thisoccurs not only because manure and human waste are not returned to the fieldbut also because of the more simplified agroecosystems that eliminatesoil-building perennial hay crops from rotations. Although some crop residuesremain in the soil in these simplified systems, organic matter declines orremains low, and organisms have less food, reducing the population anddiversity of soil life.

Disruption of theHydrologic (Water) Cycle (see [d] and [e] in Figures 2 and 3)

Numerous practices ofcapitalist development—such as concentrating people in large cities, raisinganimals on factory farms, over-pumping water from aquifers for irrigation,clearcutting of forests, and mountaintop removal for coal mining—have caused asignificant alteration in the hydrologic cycle in ways that have degraded localand regional ecosystems.

The enormous amount ofwater being pumped from aquifers—mainly to irrigate crops—is having asignificant effect on the global hydrologic cycle. “People are drawing so muchwater from below [ground] that they are adding enough of it to the ocean(mainly by evaporation, then precipitation) to account for about 25 percent ofthe annual sea level rise across the planet.”12 In importantagricultural areas such as northwestern India, northeastern China, northeastPakistan, California’s central valley, and the Great Plains of the UnitedStates, waters are being pumped from aquifers in such excess that water tablesare falling rapidly, threatening continued irrigated agriculture. With much ofthe water for irrigation coming from the world’s rivers, some rarely reachtheir normal outlets—for example, China’s Yellow River, the Colorado River inthe United States and Mexico, and the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers in the MiddleEast. Although damage occurs to life in the estuaries, most of the water usedfor irrigation is transpired by plants and evaporated from soils and is thenreturned as rainfall.

As simplifiedagroecosystems develop, and less land is devoted to perennial hay/pasturecrops, less organic matter is returned to soils (see “organic matter cycleabove”). As organic matter decreases, soil structure deteriorates, and waterinfiltrates more slowly into the soil. Use of heavy equipment, especially whenthe soil is wet, causes compaction. Under these conditions, a significantportion of rainfall, especially from intense storms, runs off the land, causingsoil erosion that takes organic matter-enriched topsoil. Plants thus becomemore dependent on irrigation, even in humid regions.

Figure3. Reactiveinterventions and primary consequences

Clearcutting, thequickest way to make money from forests, leaves the soil without trees tointercept rainfall and lessen its impact. As roots die, their ability to holdonto soil decreases. Surface organic matter may also decrease, enhancingerosion. In large tropical rainforests, water vapor lost to the atmosphere bytranspiration from tree leaves travels downwind and returns to the forest asprecipitation. The loss of large areas of tropical rainforest greatly reducesthis continual cycling of water—with more running off into streams and rivers.

As cities and suburbsand shopping centers grow, and streets are paved, there is less exposed soilfor water infiltration. This results in larger runoff volumes during rains,less recharge of local aquifers, and less streamflow during periods of lowrainfall.

Rifts in theInteractions among Organisms (see [b] and [c] in Figures 2 and 3)

Simplifiedagroecosystems (few crops [with homogenous genetics], short rotations,eliminating hedge and tree rows) in place of forests and grasslands, andremoving animals from crop farms cause decreased plant/animal diversityaboveground and diversity of organisms belowground. There are fewer habitatsfor wildlife and for beneficial organisms in and around fields. Within thesoil, the decreased quantities and variety of organic matter return leads todecreased soil organic matter levels and decreased diversity and organismactivity. As plant, soil, and animal biodiversity decreases, outbreaks ofinsect pest and diseases become more common (less self-regulation), inducingthe use of increasing amounts of pesticides. (An interesting experiment in China has shownthat providing genetic diversity by growing different varieties of rice inalternating strips can help decrease disease prevalence.13)

Interventions to Try to Bridge Metabolic Rifts—OrTransfer the Problems Elsewhere

Faced with theproblems associated with severely degraded metabolic relationships, the mainresponses have been as follows (see also Figure 3): (1) transport food and feedlarge distances to cities and to where farm animals are concentrated, routineuse of antibiotics in animal feed; (2) apply large amounts of fertilizers oncrop farms to deal with the rift in the nutrient and organic matter cycles; (3)use pesticides to overcome insect, weed, disease, and nematode pests thatdevelop with simplified systems (monocultures, poor rotations, and depletedsoil organic matter); (4) use extra irrigation water to deal with decreasedability of soil to allow rainfall to infiltrate and to store water for plants;(5) transport water from water surplus regions long distances to where aquiferand river water is depleted.

The interventions thenhave the unintended effect of water pollution by nutrients and pesticides, andcontamination of farmer, farm worker, and food with pesticides and developmentof antibiotic-resistant bacteria. More and more interventions are needed toobtain reasonable crop yields from soils depleted of organic matter, with lowamounts of biological diversity, and greatly simplified abovegroundagroecosystems.

The Complexity of Ecological Disruptions

Marx emphasized theloss of “the lasting fertility of the soil” as a result of the net export ofnutrients, as people moved (or were forced to move) to cities during the earlyphase of capitalist development. This created what he called an “irreparablerift in the interdependent process of social metabolism, a metabolismprescribed by the natural laws of life itself.”14 But many of thelarge-scale agricultural systems are inefficient at cycling nutrients for otherreasons, as well. Huge amounts of nitrogen fertilizer are lost in growing cornon most farms, as nitrate leaches into ground water, which then contaminatesstreams and rivers. (Significant amounts of phosphorus also tend to be lost fromthese systems, along with sediments in surface runoff and erosion.) Excessnitrate from the corn grown in the U.S.Midwest is believed to be the primary cause of the low-oxygen (sometimes called“dead”) zone at the mouth of the Mississippi River.There are hundreds of these low-oxygen zones around the world, the largest ofwhich occurs in Europe’s Baltic Sea. Asmaller, though significant, amount of soil nitrogen is converted to nitrousoxide and diffuses into the atmosphere where it is a potent greenhouse gas, andalso destroys ozone in the stratosphere.

The need to use somuch fertilizer results from losses of nutrients in runoff, the leaching andvolatilization in inefficiently designed systems, and separation of people andanimals from the land that produces their food. One consequence of continuousloss of nutrients from soil is the need to import fertilizers on crop farms,with severe environmental cost in terms of mining disruption and energy use.Production of nitrogen fertilizer is especially energy intensive. Approximately1,200 m3 of natural gas is needed to produce one metric ton of anhydrousammonia fertilizer (equivalent to about 1,700 kg of N).15 Approximately onethird of the energy used to grow a crop of corn in the U.S. Midwest isused to produce, ship, and apply nitrogen fertilizer. And every ton ofphosphorus as fertilizer, after acid has been added to the rock to make it moresoluble, results in five tons of waste, which contains radioactive substancesand leaches highly acidic water. In addition, the world may be close to “peakphosphorus” extraction, after which phosphorus will be more expensive anddifficult to obtain. The lack, or prohibitively high cost, of phosphorusfertilizers may turn out to be one of the largest disruptions in the world’sagriculture.

As discussed above,the changes in agricultural practices accompanying agricultural intensificationgo far beyond the issue of the depletion of soil nutrients and suggestramifications for other metabolic connections.

Another critical issueis the abysmal treatment of labor in capitalist agricultural systems. Migrantworkers, especially those from other countries, have few rights and arefrequently treated as virtual slaves. Farm laborers and their families are alsocommonly heavily contaminated with pesticides. Conditions of labor on largeagricultural plantations, mainly in Africa, Latin America, and Asia, are usually the most exploitative. Workers are paidvery low wages, violence or immediate firing is used to stop unionization, andpesticides (many banned in the rich countries) are used freely, with severehealth effects.

Groundwater may becontaminated with pesticides, as well. For example, Costa Rica’s coordinator for thePesticide Action Network told a news reporter that the pineapple plantations“use organophosphates, organochlorines, hormone disruptors, chemicals that areknown to cause cancer, chemicals that are reproductive toxins.”16 And it is not justthe workers and local water that are contaminated—so is the produce that peopleeat. Some 94 percent of the pineapples imported to Britainfrom Costa Ricacontained “residues of the fungicide triadimefon, a reproductive toxin andsuspected hormone disruptor.”17

The Wider Metabolic Rifts Engendered by IndustrialProduction/Consumption

We have discussedalmost exclusively natural systems and the causes and consequences of disturbedmetabolic relationships that have occurred with the introduction and growth ofcapitalist agriculture. A full discussion of degraded metabolic relationshipsand other problems associated with the industrial/service economy in general isbeyond the scope of this paper. However, we must at least note that industrialmining and refining of raw materials and production of commodities, with profitas the sole aim, result in significant environmental problems, such as: (1)numerous toxic chemicals are used (polluting human bodies and the rest of theecosystem); (2) carbon dioxide and other pollutants are emitted by power plantsand oil refineries; (3) nonrenewable resources are depleted and renewable resourcesare undermined and even depleted; (4) the land itself is destroyed in suchventures as “mountaintop removal” in the mining of coal; (5) the massiveproduction of unneeded commodities for a small minority of the world’spopulation (and persuading them to buy them), while not meeting the basic needsfor a larger portion of humanity.

The characteristics ofcapitalist economies derive from the motive force—the accumulation of capitalwithout end.18 AsRichard Levins has explained, “Agriculture is not about producing food butabout profit. Food is a side effect.”19 The same could besaid about the production of almost anything, or the provision of any servicein a capitalist system. Capitalism, in its pursuit of accumulation of capitalas means to further accumulation, “ad infinitum,” engages in extreme forms ofboth the division of labor and the division of nature. The result is tosimplify and degrade them both, creating metabolic disturbances and riftsbetween human beings and nature and rupturing the entire social metabolism.
Table 1. Consequencesof Degradation or Rift in Metabolic Relationships

III. Creating an Ecological Civilization

Capitalism isincompatible with a truly ecological civilization because it is a system thatmust continually expand, promoting consumption beyond human needs, whileignoring the limits of nonrenewable resources (the tap) and the earth’s wasteassimilation capacity (the sink). As a system of possessive individualism itnecessarily promotes greed, individualism, competitiveness, selfishness, andan Après moi le déluge philosophy.20 Engels suggestedthat “real human freedom” can be achieved only in a society that exists “inharmony with the laws of nature.”21

Although it isimpossible to know what future civilizations will be like, we can at leastoutline characteristics of a just and ecologically based society. As a systemchanges, it is the history of the country and the process of the struggle thatbring about a new reality. However, in order to be ecologically sound, acivilization must develop a new culture and ideology based on fundamentalprinciples such as substantive equality. It must (1) provide a decent humanexistence for everyone: food, clean water, sanitation, health care, housing,clothing, education, and cultural and recreational possibilities; (2) eliminatethe domination or control of humans by others; (3) develop worker and communitycontrol of factories, farms, and other workplaces; (4) promote easy recall ofelected personnel; and (5) re-create the unity between humans and naturalsystems in all aspects of life, including agriculture, industry,transportation, and living conditions.

An ecological societyis one that will need to be the opposite of capitalism in essentially allaspects. It would: (1) stop growing when basic human needs are satisfied; (2)not entice people to consume more and more; (3) protect natural life supportsystems and respect the limits to natural resources, taking into account needsof future generations; (4)make decisions based on long-term societal/ecologicalneeds, while not neglecting short-term needs of people; (5) run as much aspossible on current (including recent past) energy instead of fossil fuels; (6)foster the human characteristics and a culture of cooperation, sharing,reciprocity, and responsibility to neighbors and community; (7) make possiblethe full development of human potential; and (8) promote truly democraticpolitical and economic decision making for local, regional, and multiregionalneeds.

When considering thecharacteristics of strong ecosystems to explore those of strong economic/socialsystems, there will be overlap—some vital traits clearly belong to more thanone “characteristic” or “pillar.” Nevertheless, the analytical separation ofthese traits/characteristics helps provide a basis for organizing our thoughtson the issues involved. An ecological civilization will depend on creatingappropriate human social-ecological metabolism, so that society can perpetuallymeet human and environmental needs. The discussion below is not meant either tobe a complete outline or a blueprint, but rather to stipulate some of thecrucial characteristics of an ecological civilization.


Decisions are made—toas great an extent as possible—at the level where the effects will be mostfelt. Self-regulation in this sense is democratic self-governing and needs tooccur at the workplace, community, multi-community, regional, and multiregionallevels, so that major political and economic decisions are in the hands of anempowered populace. A system of economic and political democracy providesbetter identification of, and solutions to, problems. This system will requirea public that is well educated, informed about alternative possibilities,interested, and encouraged to participate in making decisions. Although localinhabitants know their area and needs best, people must have the knowledge andanalytical skills to make informed decisions. An embryonic example of this isthe system of community councils in Venezuela in which one hundred tofour hundred families participate in making decisions regarding investmentneeds in their communities and are provided resources to implement thesedecisions.

The labor andproduction process governing the human-social metabolism with nature iscollectively organized and controlled. Farmers and workers in factories andoffices—together with their local communities—control their workplace. Peoplewill be encouraged to participate in leadership, while a system also needs tobe established for regular review of persons in authority at all levels ofsociety—and easy removal, if necessary. All decisions will take into accountthe meeting of basic human needs and the allowance for the full development ofhuman potential, while maintaining or recreating the healthylocal/regional/global environment essential for healthy humans and the rest oflife.


It comes in manyforms—diversity of opinions and talents (because people have differentbackgrounds and experiences). It can also apply to the details about howcommunities and regions are organized—as long as all are dedicated to similargoals. Diversity provides significant strengths and security, and adds to thecommunity socially and culturally, as well as economically. Better decisionsare made by taking into account the thoughts of people looking at the sameissues through different lenses. Diversity of opportunities for education,recreation, development of particular interests strengthens the community andsociety. Biological diversity is encouraged through more complex agriculturecropping systems that emphasize building healthy soils, and through betterintegration of less disturbed (“natural”) areas within agricultural and urbanlandscapes.

Efficient Natural Cycles through Closely LinkedMetabolic Relationships

The concept ofcapitalist efficiency—simplification of production processes, producing withthe least amount of (and most unskilled) labor possible, lowering labor andother costs to reap maximum profits, using less gasoline to travel more milesin your car—will be replaced by ecological concepts of metabolic efficiency inthe cycling of materials and energy that permit the sustainability of thecivilization. These rely on synergies that develop among people living incooperation with each other (instead of in competition and individualistisolation) and with nature (instead of attempting to overwhelm and dominateit). Social metabolism, or human interactions with each other, is analogous tothe metabolic interactions among nonhuman organisms (microorganisms, plants,insects, other animals) in natural systems. Working fewer hours—if everyoneparticipates to produce life’s needs—means that people will have more time tospend with family and community. And stronger communities are developed whenindividualism, consumerism, and competition are replaced with cooperative tiesamong people, as the communities develop procedures and systems for meeting thebasic physical, cultural, and recreational needs for everyone.

Principles ofecological design will be used for agriculture, construction, manufacturing,and assisting recovery of damaged ecosystems. Living in cooperation with natureleads to tightly coupled nutrient, energy, and water flows, and to maintainingthe functioning of natural cycles and flows. A regenerative agriculture basedon ecological principles is an agriculture that works with nature, instead ofagainst it, to create and maintain healthy and diverse habitat in and aroundfields and in productive soils.22 Raising animals onfarms where their feed is produced allows for efficient nutrient cycling andsynergies of better crop rotations, while reducing dependence on processedmineral deposits (for phosphorus and potash) and exorbitant use of energy toproduce nitrogen fertilizers. This also provides a purpose for growingperennial forage legumes and grasses more widely as feed for ruminants. If noindustrial waste or other contaminants are allowed to degrade the usefulness ofhuman sewage, we can rely on the efficient cycling of nutrients from humanwaste back to the land that grows our food.

People will, to asgreat an extent as possible, live near where they work, use public masstransit, and eat food produced in reasonable proximity to their homes. Peoplewill work fewer hours, because, with all unnecessary jobs (for example inadvertizing and other parts of the sales effort, and much of finance, realestate, and insurance) eliminated, it will not take that much work to producethe basic needs of society. But everyone who can work will have a job.

An ecologicalcivilization cannot be based on private automobiles as the main, or even asignificant, transportation system. No matter how fuel efficient cars andtrucks become, the use of buses and trains for the main regional transportationsystems will be more energy efficient. A less car-dependent society will use upfewer materials, cause less disturbance, and use less land for roadconstruction and all the businesses connected to an automobile culture (such asMcDonald’s drive through restaurants). Luxury commodities will not be produced,and products will not come in the elaborate packaging now used, whichoverwhelms the earth’s landfills. People will live in homes designed to beattractive and comfortable but also to be energy efficient and to takeadvantage of natural heating/cooling possibilities.

Industrial productionof human needs will necessarily entail some disturbance of natural systems,just as agriculture does. But care must be taken to minimize negative effectsof such practices, along with mining. Production systems will be based on“cradle-to-cradle” concepts, where easy reuse of materials or structures isbuilt into the original product.23 Extreme forms ofboth the division of labor and the division of nature that create rifts withinlife itself will be avoided.


Completeself-sufficiency is neither possible nor desirable for all regions and allcommunities. However, self-sufficiency with regard to many needs, such as food,water, housing, and energy should be a goal toward which communities andregions strive. In this way, most of the knowledge and skills needed forproviding the basics reside within the local community or group of neighboringcommunities. Self-sufficiency may include using relatively small-scale local formsof renewable energy such as solar, wind, geothermal, or hydro instead ofrelying on energy generated at large facilities far away (“green” or not) anddepending on long-distance transmission. Community-based food systems(production and distribution) based on an agriculture that relies on ecosystemstrengths and close nutrient cycling, will run as much as possible on currentenergy.

Again, this does not mean that all communitiesand regions should be completely self-sufficient (for example, it makes no sensefor all communities to produce their own buses or refrigerators). Rather, theyshould strive toward that goal—especially for the basic foods. Redundancy inpeoples’ skills and in production facilities enhances self-sufficiency.

Resiliency through Self-Renewal

The degree ofresiliency and self-renewal depends on how well all the traits discussed abovehave been developed and incorporated into society. Community and regionalsocial structures and economies that can better withstand adverse events andrecover quickly will be more sustainable. The characteristics, or pillars,discussed above—self-regulation, self-sufficiency, diversity, and efficiencythrough closely linked metabolic relationships—all contribute to creating aresilient society. Community and regional structures and economies based onthese characteristics should be able to withstand adverse events and recovermore quickly through a process of self-renewal. Global cultural interchange andcooperation (made more viable because it will be between mutuallyself-determining communities that are not in competition with each other) alsoenhance resiliency.

It is inconceivable that capitalism itself willlead directly to an ecological civilization that provides the basic needs forall people. However, building an ecological civilization that is socially justwill not automatically happen in post-capitalist societies. It will occur onlythrough the concerted action and constant vigilance of an engaged population.

  1.  Frederick Engels, “The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man,” in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works, vol. 25 (New York: International Publishers, 1975), 460-61.
  2.  Lindsay Turnbull and Andy Hector, “How to Get Even with Pests,” Nature. 466 (July 1, 2010): 36-37.
  3.  A more detailed description of plant defense mechanisms can be found in pages 77 to 81 in Fred Magdoff and Harold van Es, Building Soils for Better Crops (3rd edition), n 
  4.  Fred Magdoff, “Ecological Agriculture: Principles, Practices, and Constraints,” Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems 22, no. 2 (2007): 109–17.
  5.  Peter Miller, “Swarm Behavior,” National Geographic, July 2007; Thomas D. Seeley, Honeybee Democracy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010).
  6.  Engels, “The Part Played by Labour,” 461.
  7.  Ibid., 463.
  8.  Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 1 (London: Penguin, 1976), 637.
  9.  John Bellamy Foster and Fred Magdoff, “Liebig, Marx and the Depletion of Soil Fertility: Relevance for Today’s Agriculture,” Monthly Review 50, no. 3 (1998):32-45.
  10.  John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark, and Richard York, The Ecological Rift (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2010), chapter 15.
  11.  George Packer, “The Megacity: Decoding the Legacy of Lagos,” The New Yorker, November 13, 2006; Patrick Barta and Krishna Pokharel, “Megacities Threaten to Choke India,” Wall Street Journal, May 13, 2009.
  12.  “Groundwater Use Increasing Sea Level Rise,” a description of Bierkens, M.F.P. et al. in “A worldwide view of groundwater depletion,” Geophysical Research Letters,
  13.  Youyong Zhu, Hairu Chen, Jinghua Fan, Yunyue Wang, Yan Li, Jianbing Chen, JinXiang Fan, Shisheng Yang, Lingping Hu, Hei Leung, Tom W. Mew, Paul S. Teng, Zonghua Wang, and Christopher C. Mundt, “Genetic Diversity and Disease Control in Rice,” Nature 406 (2000): 718-22.
  14.  Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 3 (London: Penguin, 1981), 949.
  15.  Clark Gellings and Kelly E. Parmenter, “Energy Efficiency in Fertilizer Production and Use,” Encyclopedia: Efficient Use and Conservation of Energy, vol. 2,
  16.  Felicity Lawrence, “Bitter Fruit: The Truth about Supermarket Pineapple,” The Guardian [UK], October 2, 2010.
  17.  Ibid.
  18.  For a more detailed discussion, see Fred Magdoff and John Bellamy Foster, “What Every Environmentalist Needs to Know about Capitalism,” Monthly Review 61, no. 10 (March 2010): 1-30.
  19.  Richard Levins, “Why Programs Fail,” Monthly Review 61, no. 10 (March 2010).
  20.  “Après moi le déluge! is the watchword of every capitalist and every capitalist nation. Capital therefore takes no account of the health and length of life of the workers unless society forces it to do so.” Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 1, 381.
  21.  Frederick Engels, Anti-Dühring, in Marx and Engels, Collected Works, vol. 25 (New York: International Publishers, 1975), 106.
  22.  Magdoff, “Ecological Agriculture: Principles, Practices, and Constraints.”
 William McDonoughand Michael Braungart, Cradle to Cradle (New York: North Point Press. 2002).

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