Exploring Transformative Material Processes through the Interactions between Man and Nature

Understanding human involvement in transformative material processes is one of the most crucial aspects to face the current substantial global socio-environmental transformations. The word metabolism means transformation, change of matter, thus implying the transfiguration of material elements, producing new entities that are essentially different from their original components. 

Metabolism is a powerful concept for transdisciplinary integration under a common understanding of the profound material and energy transformations performed by humans in their interaction with nature. In a context of contemporary environmental and social crisis, the metabolism concept can provide new transdisciplinary understandings to reset our exhausting relationship with nature and to overcome XX century conceptual apparatus. The metabolism concept is increasingly recognized as a powerful concept for sustainable development.

This online workshop brings together a group of selected scholars to discuss the metabolism concept under transdisciplinary approaches and feasible conceptual and operational pathways for scientific and disciplinary integration. The aim is to address transformative material processes as interactions between humans and nature. This workshop is organized in the context of the Leibniz-WissenschaftsCampus Bochum “Resources in Transformation (ReForm)”.

Speakers are invited to explore three main questions with their presentations:

  1. How metabolism can be expressed as a transformation as a change of matter, thus implying the transfiguration of material elements, producing new entities that are essentially different from their original components.
  2. How metabolism provides a transdisciplinary understanding of the profound material and energy transformations performed by humans in their interaction with nature, looking at transdisciplinary integration. 
  3. Within this overarching questions:
    1. A conceptual reflection on “resources” as a concept. A central aspect here is the eventual significance of the concept to understanding of metabolism. 
    2. What is required to make a resource? What makes a substance a resource? 
    3. Reflection on “narratives” as resources.


13 July 2021     

11:00 – 11:15 a.m.
Welcome addresses and introduction

11:15 – 11:45 a.m.
Erik Swyngedouw, University of Manchester, UK
Metabolisms: Symbolic, Imaginary, and Real

11:45 – 12:00 a.m.

12:00 – 12:30 a.m.
Alf Hornborg, Lund University, Sweden
How money obscures (and promotes) unequal exchange and the accumulation of physical capital

12:30 –  13:00 a.m.
General Discussion

15 July 2021     

15:00 – 15:15 p.m.
Welcome addresses and introduction

15:15 – 15:45 p.m.
Jason W. Moore, Binghamton University, USA
Metabolisms, Marxisms & Mindfields: World-Historical Turning Points and the Flight from History

15:45 – 16:00 p.m.

16:00 – 16:30 p.m.
Joshua Newell, University of Michigan, USA
The boundaries of urban metabolism

16:30 –  17:00 p.m.
General Discussion/closing remarks

The Talks

Introduction by Dr. Luis Inostroza
Erik Swyngedouw - Metabolisms: Symbolic, Imaginary, and Real

“… a thing cannot be understood or even talked about independently of the relations it has with other things. For example, resources can be defined only in relationship to the mode of production which seeks to make use of them and which simultaneously ‘produces’ them through both the physical and mental activity of the users’” (D. Harvey, Limits to capital, 1980: 212)

The presentation will consider how organic and non-organic ‘stuff’ is both sustained and continually transformed through metabolic processes that fuse together both physical dynamics and social relations/processes. This transfiguration of matter constitutes a socio-ecological process through which new socio-natural configurations come into being, are transformed, or disappear. This continuous enrolment of non-human matter within circulatory circuits of socio-ecological metabolism operates in conjunction with particular imaginaries and fantasies of what ‘sustains’ a given socio-ecological order. Such imaginaries or fantasies invariably dwell in the registers of ‘growth’, ‘development’, ‘progress’ or ‘sustainability’. Nonetheless, such imaginaries and their symbolic expression customarily disavow or repress the inconsistencies, conflicts, and antagonisms that run through the metabolic circuit and render it inherently unstable, contradictory and contested, and, thereby, political. The Borromean figures of the Real, the Imaginary, and the Symbolic constitution of metabolic circuits will be briefly illustrated through a rudimentary metabolic excavation of ‘the Electrical Vehicle’.

Alf Hornborg - How money obscures (and promotes) unequal exchange and the accumulation of physical capital

Georgescu-Roegen showed that economic processes simultaneously produce exchange-values and entropy, but mainstream (neoclassical) economic theory was established in Victorian Britain without any consideration of entropy and is still today unable to assimilate the Second Law of Thermodynamics. It is ironic that a discipline aspiring to emulate physics thus remains ignorant of one of its most fundamental principles. If, as Mirowski has shown, economics was conceived as social physics – and “value” as the social equivalent of energy – the notion of a quantifiable, monetary value deserves scrutiny. Money is generally understood as signifying value, but it is really the other way around: the concept of “value” refers to the convention of money. What Polanyi called “all-purpose money” is an artifact suggesting that all things and services are interchangeable in accordance with a universal metric for assessing exchange-value. As Georgescu-Roegen realized, it is misguided to propose a “theory of value” that attempts to anchor exchange-value in some objective, physical metric, such as energy. The challenge is to analytically distinguish social constructions of value from objective social metabolism, while simultaneously recognizing that metabolic flows are crucial for the accumulation of technological infrastructure, as such accumulation is based on unequal (asymmetric) transfers of material resources, obscured by the fictive reciprocity of market prices. Nature and society are thus inextricably intertwined yet must be analytically distinguished. The money artifact does not have purposive “agency”, but it shapes our behavior and thinking in unsustainable ways. It deludes us into thinking that our technology is simply a reflection of the state of engineering, rather than a means of redistributing human time and natural space in the world-system.

Jason W. Moore - Metabolisms, Marxisms & Mindfields: World-Historical Turning Points and the Flight from History

In this talk, Jason W. Moore argues for a world history of capitalism, understood as a metabolism of power, profit and life. Challenging neo-Malthusian and eco-socialist renderings of metabolism, the world-ecological alternative argues that capitalism does not “have” a metabolism; it is a metabolism. Recasting modernity’s relations of capital, class and imperialism as metabolic arrangements brings into focus successive quantity/quality transformations across successive phases of capitalist development. In contrast to approaches that argue over what metabolism is, Moore approaches the question in terms of what metabolism does for our analysis of historical capitalism. Is it merely an additive factor – as the eco-socialist orthodoxy maintains – or does it compel a dialectical rethinking of capitalism in the web of life? How does a reconceptualization of capital, class and empire as metabolic processes enable us to identify critical junctures in the history of capitalism, and to discern the epochal character of planetary crisis today? Moore proposes that the debate over metabolism cannot be resolved by theoretical fiat, but must be tested on the crucible of capitalism’s world-historical turning points: from 1492 to the twenty-first century’s unfolding planetary crisis. 

Joshua Newell - The boundaries of urban metabolism

This presentation considers the limits and potential of ‘urban metabolism’ to conceptualize city processes. Three ‘ecologies’ of urban metabolism have emerged. Each privileges a particular dimension of urban space, shaped by epistemology, politics, and model-making. Marxist ecologies theorize urban metabolism as hybridized socio-natures that (re)produce uneven outcomes; industrial ecology, as stocks and flows of materials and energy; and urban ecology, as complex socio-ecological systems. I demarcate these scholarly islands through bibliometric analysis and literature review, and draw on cross-domain mapping theory to unveil how the conceptual metaphor has become rather stagnant in each. To reinvigorate this research, the presentation proposes a political–industrial ecology, using urban metabolism as a boundary metaphor.

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