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  • The Social Metabolism: A Socio-Ecological Theory of Historical Change by Manuel González de Molina and Victor M. Toledo
  • Stephen Bocking
The Social Metabolism: A Socio-Ecological Theory of Historical Change, by Manuel González 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 González 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. Only a more equal society can hope to be truly sustainable, because only equality will correct the unequal exchange between society and nature.

The arguments summarized above require significant effort to decipher. The problem can partially be attributed to language barriers. Although there is no translator listed, it seems that the text was translated from [End Page 655] Spanish, apparently by a non-native English speaker. Many sentences are oddly constructed or populated by obscure terms, such as “infectious focus” (p. 13). Many passages are abstract to the point of impenetrability. Typical examples include the explanations that “the rupture of cognitive parceling has not occurred as a self-conscious and generalized process, but as a spontaneous, multipolar, and asynchronous trend” (p. 11), and that “inequality between social groups is a socially established mechanism of transference of entropy, which may generate more entropy if not counterweighed by more energy and materials from the environment or by socially constructed negentropic structures” (p. 277).

A more substantial problem is that the authors do not present any insights regarding environmental history beyond the rather obvious and trivial. This reflects the limits of what is (as the authors themselves seem to acknowledge) a crudely reductionist and materialistic approach to history, in which human relations with nature are reduced to physical terms, missing both social complexities and local details. While the authors seem to indicate that they are aware of these complexities and details, they do not know what to do with them. Instead the analysis of social systems ignores everything that cannot be reduced to physical terms, resulting in unhelpful observations such as that the “function of political institutions is to control and minimize metabolic and social entropies by means of flows of information, but also by means of managing its own internal entropy” (p. 291). Much is lost in translating generalizations about industrial and economic change into...


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