Academic journal article Canadian Journal of History

The Social Metabolism: A Socio-Ecological Theory of Historical Change

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of History

The Social Metabolism: A Socio-Ecological Theory of Historical Change

Article excerpt

The Social Metabolism: A Socio-Ecological Theory of Historical Change, by Manuel Gonzalez de Molina and Victor M. Toledo. Environmental History. New York & London, Springer International Publishing, 2014. xxiv, 355 pp. $129.00 US (cloth).

This book emphasizes two themes often evident in environmental history scholarship: relevance to environmental concerns, and application of scientific evidence and techniques. Manuel Gonzalez de Molina and Victor Toledo, scholars from Spain and Mexico, believe that industrial civilization faces a profound crisis and that the value of history lies in its capacity to guide our response. Historical guidance, they argue, may be found in a "scientific" approach: a general theory of history grounded in physical reality and an understanding of energy and information, as described by the principles of thermodynamics.

Central to their perspective is the concept of social metabolism: an analogy employed to describe the flows of matter, energy, and information between society and nature. The authors also advance an evolutionary model of history, according to which all societies have progressed through three stages or metabolic regimes: the cinegetic (hunting, gathering, and fishing), organic/agrarian, and industrial. Contemporary society can be understood in terms of the "great transformation" from organic to industrial metabolism, which through changes in technology, economic activity, energy, and human population produced new social relations (markets, property, free trade, individual freedoms), and the definition of growth as the ultimate good.

Another concept essential to their view of history is also borrowed from the physical sciences: entropy--the tendency toward disorder. Societies, to exist, must defend themselves against this tendency. Wealthier societies have done so by securing a flow of materials and energy from the environment (and from poorer countries) that compensates for the disorder brought about by social inequality. Social inequality is therefore, they argue, at the root of the ecological crisis.

In presenting this framework the authors invoke Karl Marx--the only writer, they suggest, that has understood the full meaning of the relations between biological and social phenomena. They also draw on contemporary work on social metabolism, particularly in Portuguese and Spanish literature. And they conclude that radical change is needed in how a society transforms, circulates, and consumes material. …

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