| | MR Online

The coral atoll and the iPhone

Originally published: Workers’s Liberty on October 19, 2021 by Stuart Jordan (more by Workers’s Liberty) (Posted Oct 26, 2021)

At every step we are reminded that we by no means rule over nature like a conqueror over a foreign power like someone standing outside of nature–but that we, n flesh blood and brain, belong to nature and exist within its midst, and that all the mastery of nature consists in the fact that we have the advantage over all other creatures of being able to learn its laws and apply them correctly.”

– Engels, The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man

I think Matt Cooper takes a too narrow definition of “metabolism” as a rather dull process of material exchange that occurs within a cell. From my reading, as a non-specialist, Marx was using the term in a broader sense as the material and ultimately purposeless means by which complex order emerges from disordered matter. A “metabolic process”, in this sense, describes not simply the movement of matter or “Stoff”; it is the movement and transformation of matter in a way that creates complex order and allows complexity to accumulate through time.1

Organised complexity requires some explanation. We live in a universe that follows the second law of thermodynamics: entropy (disorder) increases with time. Yet the surface of the Earth is teeming with ordered complexity. Physicist Erwin Schrodinger explains “How does the living organism avoid decay? The obvious answer is: By eating, drinking, breathing and (in the case of plants) assimilating. The technical term is metabolism. The Greek word (μεταβάλλειν) means change or exchange. Exchange of what? Originally the underlying idea is, no doubt, exchange of material. (E.g. the German for metabolism is Stoffwechsel.)

That the exchange of material should be the essential thing is absurd. Any atom of nitrogen, oxygen, sulphur, etc., is as good as any other of its kind; what could be gained by exchanging them?…What then is that precious something contained in our food which keeps us from death? That is easily answered. Every process, event, happening–call it what you will; in a word, everything that is going on in Nature means an increase of the entropy of the part of the world where it is going on.

Thus a living organism continually increases its entropy–or, as you may say, produces positive entropy–and thus tends to approach the dangerous state of maximum entropy, which is death. It can only keep aloof from it, i.e. alive, by continually drawing from its environment [free energy]. Or, to put it less paradoxically, the essential thing in metabolism is that the organism succeeds in freeing itself from all the entropy it cannot help producing while alive.2

All life on Earth is dependent on the carbon atom.3 The Earth’s core is mostly composed of silicon but the crust is the domain of carbon.4 The carbon atom is capable of joining and combining with itself and many other elements to create all the complexity of pulsating life. Metabolism describes the basic biological process that allows the complexity of Carboniferous life to emerge in a universe of ever-increasing disorder.

There are some forms of complex matter that have no metabolism. Viruses, for instance, have no metabolism. They get their energy from directly from their environment. Viruses are basically large crystals but self-replicating crystals. Scientists are still debating the origins of life but it is known that both clay (silicon) and carbon-based molecules can achieve non-metabolic, self-replicating complexity. This in turn allowed the conditions for metabolic life to evolve in the form of the first simple prokaryotic cells.

Once there is a means to generate ordered complexity against the slow grind of entropy,ever greater complexity becomes possible: self-replicating crystals, prokaryotic cells, eukaryotic cells, multicellular plants, fungi and animals all evolving in a proliferation of organised complexity. We see this complexity accumulate in a 4.5 billion year history that has involved periodic reversals in the form of mass extinctions. The geologic record tells us that the tree of life grows and then collapses in abrupt mass extinctions. For example, the Permian-Triassic extinction 250 million years ago came close to wiping out all multicellular life.5 Volcanic eruptions, meteors, course of the Earth’s journey through the cosmos, the evolution of life itself, all destabilise the climate and reduce organised complexity to disorder. Then the metabolic process of accumulating complexity begins afresh from whatever remains.

Since the last mass extinction 66 million years ago, this “metabolic process” of ever-growing complexity has resulted in a form of life–us – capable of discovering and discussing these secrets of the deep past. Humans take this complexity generation beyond carbon to fashion complexity from all the elements we find on Earth. Our social relations, our art forms, our labour and all that entails in terms of our deep exploration of the nature may be considered further examples of organised complexity. The process of complexity accumulation does not stop at material forms but extends into the conscious life of human minds and our civilisation of nearly 8 billion individuals.

Human civilisation has been able to grow in complexity because we have enjoyed a relatively stable climate and a fixed coastline. The “natural” changes in the Earth’s climate and by extension sea level are rapid and extreme. 22,000 years ago we were in the middle of an ice age and the sea was 120m below where it stands today. According to what we know about the Earth’s journey through the cosmos, the Earth is overdue a new ice age. Some scientists now believe that human activity in the form of deforestation and tillage released a critical amount of atmospheric carbon to delay this ice age.6 But whatever the cause, without this happy accident none of this would be here.

Human activity since the dawn of capitalism has been set in motion a wild dynamic of innovation, an explosion of human culture and exploration. But the unplanned and unequal organisation of human work is destroying the ecological basis upon which our whole civilisation depends. Who now can seriously look into the future and see capitalist progress? Serious people now discuss the real possibility of human extinction. The “metabolic process” that has run since the last mass extinction event 66 million years ago now looks likely to unravel into disorder: a “metabolic rift”.

It is possible to see how this metabolic rift in the capitalist production process. The rule of profit means that all human labour is organised to minimise costs and maximise turnover. Any metabolic process produces waste energy and matter but capitalist production is structured to be especially wasteful. The wastefulness of capitalism can be seen not only to the production of a wide variety of pollutants including GHG emissions, but also built-in obsolescence, the lack of standardisation, a whole “industry” dedicated to creating new desires for commodities, the inefficiencies of global trade, exhaustion of renewable resources (soil depletion, the immiseration and exhaustion of workers etc.), species extinction and biodiversity loss. There are also more perverse market-driven dynamics of human culture that lay waste to our world. For example, competition for rare meat has created an “extinction vortex” where the price tag of soon-to-be extinct species sky-rockets as the rich compete to fill their bellies with the last ever live specimen. It is not difficult to see how the metabolism between humanity and nature, human work, could be organised so that it is less wasteful. Capitalism has the appearance of creating complexity, but take a step back and it is a force that accelerates decomposition and disorder.

Two examples of complexity might serve to illustrate this point. The smartphone is one of the most complex objects in the known universe. We can create smartphones by careful manipulation and placement of rare earth metals, plastics etc. But capitalism demands the raw materials for these phones are assembled in sweatshops, and are designed with built-in obsolescence. The rare earth metals are mined by child labour and extraction carried out with a carelessness and at a pace that drives species extinctions and poisons water supplies. The discarded obsolescent phones fill landfill leaching their poisons into the soil and generating cancers for the workers and poor who live near the dumps. Whole industries are geared towards creating desires for new phones to speed up and increase this waste.

Compare this to the careful composition and decomposition we observe in the natural world. Charles Darwin marvelled at the astonishing diversity we see on coral reefs. Coral reefs exist in open ocean, the coral atoll grows towards sunlight on the decaying remains of inert submarine volcanoes. Coral reefs are believed to have the highest biodiversity of any ecosystem on the planet. Although they cover just 1% of the ocean floor, coral reefs support 25% of marine life. How is such life sustained in the watery desert of the open ocean? The answer is that each species has evolved to find an ecological niche so that the waste materials of one is utilised by another in complex cascades of recycling. This carefully balanced conservation of energy and complexity gives rise to ever greater diversity and complexity. It is perhaps no surprise then that the most complex and diverse ecosystem on Earth is likely to be the first major ecosystem to disappear from anthropogenic ocean acidification and similar causes. The capitalist mode of production lays waste to complexity. It is an entropy accelerator.

Under capitalism, the innate human capacity for collective work is placed under the direction of capital-our life’s work is not our own, it belongs to capital. The profit motive dictates what we do and how we do it. The capitalist mode of production precludes human planning. It prevents us from directing human work in towards rational human and ecological ends.

Unlike those early farmers who unwittingly stabilised the climate or the hunter-gatherers who drove the extinction of the Earth’s megafauna, we now understand the processes that would allow complexity to thrive or be destroyed. We know in some detail how to accelerate the destabilisation of the biosphere and risk population collapse and war. Conversely, we know how to halt climate change, slow species extinction and create the conditions necessary for the “metabolic process” of complexity accumulation to continue. We know in some detail the human work that needs to be completed and those areas of work that need to be halted and phased out. We know this work has to start quickly and the longer we delay the more difficult it will become and the less resources there will be to address the escalating problems we face. We know that the technology exists to complete this work. What we lack is a form of social organisation capable of organising and directing this work.

Our scientific understanding suggests that essential human work should be organised according to a plan to restabilise the climate. The plan should outline what work needs to be done, who is needed to do that work and how they are trained up and have the equipment they need to complete their tasks. A non-exhaustive list of the tasks include the building of sea defences, food production and distribution, freshwater collection and distribution (flood defence), health and social care, education, the organised resettlement of climate refugees and planning to move our cities to respond to rising sea level, drawdown of atmospheric carbon, the transition to carbon-free energy sources, the creation of a zero-carbon public transport network, the building of climate resilient housing and infrastructure, the expansion of recycling processes, the redesign of current production processes to minimise waste, reforestation.

The capitalist mode of production has unleashed the potential of humanity’s inquisitiveness and sociability whilst simultaneously precluding our capacity to plan. To allow the “metabolic process” of human civilisation to continue, to progress to ever greater heights of complexity requires that we realise the full potential of our innate capacity to plan. Rational democratic planning must replace the profit motive as the organising force of human work. It is only in this way that human society can behave like a coral atoll rather than an iPhone.


  1. See chapters 4 and 8 of Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, Dennett, D.
  2. What is Life?, Schrodinger, E. (Schrodinger was criticised for introducing a concept of “negative entropy” which he later conceded was better described as “free energy”. I have made this correction in the text)
  3. There is some debate among cosmologists about whether other elements could form the basis of life. Carl Sagan calls those who insist that only carbon could form the basis of complex life “carbon chauvinists”.
  4. The Long Thaw, Archer, D.
  5. The Sixth Extinction, Kolbert, E.
  6. Chapter 5, The Human Planet, Lewis, S.L. and Maslin M.A. There is some debate about this (see chapter 12, The Great Thaw, Archer, D. for a different view. Archer concludes “At any event, [we] agree that humankind has the potential to take control of the ice ages of the future.”
Monthly Review does not necessarily adhere to all of the views conveyed in articles republished at MR Online. Our goal is to share a variety of left perspectives that we think our readers will find interesting or useful. —Eds.