Social Soils and Chimerical Metabolisms

This article is part of the following series:

The metabolic rift

“All progress in capitalist agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the worker, but of robbing the soil,” Marx (1976: 637-38) wrote in Volume I of Capital. For Marx, not only was the capitalist mode of production incapable of valuing nature in its own right, but its central contradictions also left it incapable of articulating the links between ecological and social worlds. “[I]n this way,” he wrote in Volume III, capitalism “produces conditions that provoke an irreparable rift in the interdependent process of the social metabolism, a metabolism prescribed by the natural laws of life itself” (Marx, 1981: 949-50). As Foster (1999) demonstrates, Marx’s notion of social metabolism described the inextricable relationship between humanity’s social reproduction, on one hand, and our material ecological entanglements, on the other. In this view, capitalism’s metabolic rift is the foundation for the exploitation by town of country, by capital of labour, and by humanity of nature; the compound accumulation of wealth from its sources – “the soil and the worker” – leaves both depleted.

To call metabolism “social” is more than to apply a metaphor. If metabolism is the multiscalar process by which matter and energy are accumulated, expended, and exchanged in such a way as to (re)produce order at a new scale, then the social, political, and economic are each sites where the distillates of metabolism at other scales are appropriated, consumed, and transformed in ways at once semiotic and material. Marx’s concept anticipated, in its way, planet-wide rifts of resource and energy use that have had catastrophic implications for both economy and ecology. If we are to escape the worst of the looming catastrophes to come, social metabolism must therefore be one of our foremost concerns. Here, we explore the concept’s implications for an urban environmental project that works to disrupt capitalism’s metabolic rift, and the chimerical social metabolisms that arise in the course of working with, within, and against the rhythms of urban capitalism.

In his day, Marx was particularly moved by crises of soil degradation brought on by forms of rampant agrarian capitalism that are still with us. His point that the soil was no mere fact of nature, but rather a product of human social and ecological metabolism, has become even more timely. According to a UNFAO spokesperson, at existing rates of population growth and nutrient depletion, the Earth had about sixty global harvests left before its topsoils were expended in 2015. Now it’s down to fifty-six. Regardless, while we undertook this research on soil with this crisis in mind, we are also interested in soil as a curious kind of social-ecological product – one which metabolises energy, matter, and meaning. Today, even in the face of a dawning inhuman age, the rich legacy of soil as a site for the accrual of promissory potential continues. In 2017, the United Nations launched the 4 pour 1000 initiative, based on the speculation that a 4% annual growth in global soil carbon could stabilise global mean temperatures to 2°C above pre-industrial levels.[1] Soil, as one of us has argued elsewhere, is ever a frontier of promise (Granjou and Phillips, 2019).

CERES and the circular economy

We concern ourselves here with a particular urban environmental project: CERES (Centre for Education and Research in Environmental Strategies). CERES occupies almost 5 hectares of urban land bordered by residential areas and a creek (to the east) in the Melbourne suburb of Brunswick. CERES began to take shape in the late 1970s as a workers’ cooperative, and now acts as an organic market garden and a demonstration site for urban sustainability and permaculture. Part of the mandate has been restoration of the site – mined for bluestone and later used as a non-organic landfill, in earlier expressions of Melbourne’s metabolic rift (see Hayes, this collection), before CERES took over. Our interest was precisely in how this place might be read to reveal soil as a product and producer of social activity and cultivation, not a bland “natural” background. Through education and example, CERES aims to model and promote a vision of sustainable, organic urban agriculture that is, in principle, the antithesis to Marx’s metabolic rift. Labour and landscape alike enter the food, without being expended in the usual capitalist model (see Stead, this collection). Through the restoration of a previous dump site, job creation, the recycling of organic wastes into compost for onsite food production, the diversion of other solid wastes from the waste stream, the development of economic relationships with a local food web, and a network of grassroots relationships both within the organisation and between CERES and the local community, the organisation seems to articulate a more maintainable form of social metabolism. During our visits to CERES, we found its employees and volunteers were passionate about valuing both people and things, matter and relationships, as something greater than a commodity. The work of waste-saving was a shared effort to imagine a conviviality that did not pit town against country, economy against ecology, and people against profits.

So far, so optimistic. But, as Gregson et al. (2015: 218) put it, the circular economy is “more often celebrated than critically interrogated”. Aware of the almost inescapable contradictions in the phrase “urban sustainability” in industrialised cities, and the need to consider sustainability as a process rather than a finished project, we began our research suspecting that discourses of sustainability and “closed loop environmental solutions” would likely be accompanied by untracked material and immaterial flows and unreconciled externalities. We were therefore not surprised to find a deep, complex eco-social stratigraphy where visions of a zero-waste endeavour were compromised by the site’s entanglements in the city’s larger urban food systems, ecologies, and communities. Volunteers described a “front-of-the-house/back-of-the-house” nexus, for example, in which commitment to a circular metabolism was articulated simultaneously with the need to remain financially viable as a social enterprise including a commercial café, nursery, grocery retailer, and events venue. The venture relies upon an imperfectly sustainable web of producers, embedded in the economies of scale and distance that constitute Melbourne’s own eco-social metabolism and capitalist contradictions.

Organisational rifts

To make sense of these tensions, we paid attention not solely to the production of soil and site via landscaping, agriculture, and composting but also to the site’s social metabolism in terms of organisational memory, turnover, and structural differentiation. Organisations such as CERES have a throughput not only of organic matter, but of staff, volunteers, documents, funding, and even orthodoxies and organisational models, with each species of flow cycling at different rates. Like all metabolisms, therefore, CERES’ social metabolism is a multiscalar process whereby more gradual transformations in organisational identity and structure are affected by more rapid cycles of volunteer and staff turnover, which in turn are fed by the engine of CERES’ everyday cycles of materials. At each scale, with each element, we might identify disjunctures or rifts in that metabolism. What became apparent, though, is that in the roiling activity of the CERES site, there were few markers of the social histories that condition it.

We found, for example, that the metabolic stratigraphy (for example, its front-of-house—back-of-house articulations) was sustained by ephemeral and distinct organs of knowledge and leadership. This became apparent as we sifted through over fifty boxes holding an informal paper archive of the organisation’s past: funding applications, annual reports, photo albums, newsletters, budgets. These documents revealed not only details about the activity of the site as a continual material renovation but also as a reforming of organisational arrangements and values.

Consider, for example, the transformation of CERES’s guiding mission statement over time. CERES began as an anarchistic workers’ cooperative that sought out its current site as, to quote a 1984 report, “a means rather than an end”. The intent was to provide training and direction to the unemployed young people of Brunswick, whose numbers were then rising, and the site was simply a convenient wasteland with a no-rent lease where it could ground these efforts. With time, the cooperative and unstructured character experienced periodic crises; crises sometimes precipitated by changes in government, leading to changes in funding options, and sometimes precipitated by what a 1985 report called the “certain distrust and lack of communication” between the cells or nodes of the collective. Through these crises, compostings, and renewals, these cells jostled for resources, organizational and spatial power, often trying to maintain aspects of the prior arrangement.

Reading the archive, we pieced together how the site and organization went through major change in the late 1990s, much of it focused around turning CERES into a financially independent entity unchained from the donations of local and state governments. Several years later, as the redevelopment came to completion with the opening of its nursery and two cafes, a master planning document pressed for the importance of CERES maintaining its “anarchistic flavor”, while also ensuring it does not become “too disconnected”, as some zones and projects continued to be cultivated more intensively that others.

Site re/formation

Beyond the questions of organisation and division of material and cultural labour, we also found the site embedded in a set of ecological histories that pointed to larger and older metabolic exchanges with the surrounding urban ecology and economy that produced the soil in which CERES laid its roots, and that continues to undergird it. One challenge in our attempts to study CERES has been the inhuman-ness of soil itself; as Nigel Clark (2011) suggests of other natures, soil’s capacities both stretch beyond and are more limited than human expectations and understandings. When we first approached people within the organisation, many were very interested in knowing more about the soil, perhaps, in hindsight, because they lacked much of a textual or institutional record of its historical composition.

If CERES is discursively plastic, it is also physically tenacious. In an interview, one of the founders recalled the reluctance of the site to transform as planned, its resistance to human devices and desires. Cross-referencing stories of the site with the paper archive, it seems that after having served as a bluestone quarry for much of the period between 1871 and the 1940s, the property then became host to a ‘hot mix plant’ for making bitumen before, between 1972 and 1975, providing Brunswick Council with a convenient dump for cars, washing machines, and other redundant ephemera from the rapidly gentrifying inner northern suburbs. In the intervening seven years, before the CERES collective signed its lease, the site continued to be colonised by fennel and African boxthorn (Lycium ferocissimum). What followed in the early 1980s was a re-processing of the site by a multispecies ensemble, one node of which was made up of a donkey, a handful of sheep, and a goat who progressively grazed down the weedy overgrowth and transformed it into manure.

A second node in this ensemble was an endeavour, run by a tireless volunteer, who collected huge volumes of horse manure from Flemington Race Course and vegetable wastes from markets to feed them to millions of wormy companions. While the worm farming perished after a few years – another project to flourish and fall in the organisational churn – it produced the minerally-rich material substrate for the site’s vegetable gardens. Meanwhile, later attempts to insert other mammalian digestive tracts into the site’s metabolic loops were quashed; the state’s Environmental Protection Agency, for instance, disallowed attempts to process human waste through composting toilets. According to the aforementioned co-founder, a third node in the physical assembly of the site was formed with a building contractor. Through this relationship, during the first decade earth-moving equipment was lent to CERES in exchange for the ability to dump soil from development projects elsewhere in the city. Thus, given these three nodes of early formation, the CERES site bears material and immaterial markers of industrial life.


Our survey of CERES’s paper archive, itself decomposing in the ambient humidity, offered a lot of interesting data regarding human labour on the site but precious little detail about our ostensible research topic: the flows into and out of the site that produce its soil. Some of these flows are partially legible, thanks to the archive and the memories of founders who have since cycled out of the organisation, but many others are lost. In one sense, we can say that its past use as a dump for industrial rubbish and waste soil actually makes CERES an exemplary urban sustainability project, reprocessing the jetsam of industrial life into new organic life. In another sense, while CERES works against the capitalistic separations outlined by Marx, the lack of institutional memory amongst people at CERES today is a kind of rift in its social metabolism. This rift reflects not only the exigencies of such organisations, which often rely heavily on individuals making do and getting by, but also a processing of energies and materialities with externalities that are mostly unnoticed in the daily turning of calendars and soils. In the regular reappraisals of soil as a frontier of promise – whether for storing carbon or feeding the nation – we should remain alert to its sedimented meanings and social metabolisms.


[1] More recently, The Guardian reports that US Department of Agriculture staff have been directed to avoid the phrase ‘reduce greenhouse gases’ and use the phrase ‘build soil organic matter’ instead.

Works Cited

Clark, N (2011) Inhuman Nature: Sociable life on a dynamic planet. London: Sage.

Foster, J (1999) Marx and the Environment. In B. Jessop and R. Wheatley (eds.), Karl Marx’s Social and Political Thought Vol. 8 London: Routledge: 44-86.

Granjou, C and Phillips, C (2019) Living and labouring soils: metagenomic ecology and a new agricultural revolution? BioSocieties 14.3: 393-415.

Gregson, N et al. (2015) Interrogating the circular economy: the moral economy of resource recovery in the EU Economy and Society 44.2 (2015): 218-243.

Hayes, S (2019). Seeking Urban Metabolism through Archaeology. (This collection).

Marx, K (1976). Capital, vol. 1. London: Penguin.

Marx, K (1981). Capital, vol. 3. New York: Vintage.

Stead, V (2019). Who feeds (on) whom? Labour and the porosity of environments and bodies. (This collection).

Dr David Boarder Giles is a Lecturer in Anthropology at Deakin University. His work investigates urban cultural economies of surplus, scarcity, survival, and sustainability

Dr Timothy Neale is a Senior Lecturer in Anthropology and Geography at Deakin University. His primary research interests are environmental hazards, settler-colonial politics, epistemological conflicts, and the sites and contexts where those issues meet.

Dr Catherine Phillips is a Senior Lecturer in Geography at the University of Melbourne. She combines social theory with research on everyday practices and governance to better understand agrifood, biopolitics, discard cultures, and urban natures.