Individualism, Collectivism, Metabolism (Hospicing Modernity, Part 1)

Shifting our fundamental identity from being separate individuals and groups to being facets of the dynamic metabolism of nature – as strange as that sounds – actually could have a profound impact on all aspects of society.  Once I realized that, I could design questions that led two generative artificial intelligence agents to describe for me what such a society would be like.  I found the results fascinating.

I have been profoundly influenced lately by a phrase I ran across in Vanessa Andreotti’s remarkable book Hospicing Modernity.

When I first read the phrase “individualism, collectivism, metabolism”,  I thought “What?!…”  I couldn’t think how metabolism had anything to do with individualism and collectivism.  It didn’t fit!

But it caught my attention… (it was probably designed to do exactly that!)  I HAD to think about it, to find some way to make sense of its apparent absurdity. 

I soon concluded that Andreotti was suggesting that metabolism can be considered a form of identity.  She thinks we can and perhaps should view ourselves as one aspect of the larger metabolic processes of life on earth.

Although in my everyday life I tend to identify as a distinct individual and/or a member of my family or group, I would undoubtedly be different if I most fundamentally viewed myself as a life-generating realm through which atoms and energies were moving en route to other processes in and beyond me that enable life to happen and continue in and beyond me.  That’s metabolism.  

So the question became: What if I experienced myself as one wave in the ocean of nature’s great life-generating cycles of matter and energy?  And: What if we all did?

I realized that this outrageous perspective is as potentially transformational as it is totally valid.  After all, given how our sense of separateness leads to co-creating the metacrisis we face, such a shift in perspective would probably be a real game-changer.

Which led me to the question: What kinds of potential could be released by developing our capacity to see ourselves less as distinct people and more as manifesting, participating in, and contributing to the metabolic functioning of Life on earth?

I could sense – but not quite grasp – the scope of that question… and it boggled my mind.  As I sometimes do when a complex reality or possibility seems too large for me to comprehend in its many dimensions, I began to wonder what AI would say about it.  Could generative AI “think” usefully about this strange but promising transformational possibility?  

I brought the idea up to both OpenAI’s ChatGPT 4o and Anthropic’s Claude-3.5-Sonnet.  I’m sharing Claude’s response below, since I like it better. However, here and there I’ve inserted parts of ChatGPT’s response in brackets [like this] where it seems to add meaning that was missing from Claude’s response.

I found myself intrigued by how much of our movement for a regenerative society the AIs saw emerging just from that switch from being separate selves to being factors and actors in the boundlessly functional metabolic processes of Life…

It’s food for thought I’m still chewing on.



PS: When I mentioned all this to my friend John Abbe, he pointed me to Kohei Saito’s discovery that Marx’s seldom noted late-in-life notebooks included this idea of nature as a metabolic activity.  Saito is carrying this forward to support his vision of a no-growth, steady-state communal society.

– – – – – – – – – –

Now, here’s my conversation with Claude and ChatGPT about this: First I asked them about the legitimacy of describing nature’s processes as metabolic.  Then I asked what would happen if we thought of ourselves less as separate individuals and collectives and more as facets of the larger metabolic processes of the planet…


Vanessa Andreotti, Kohei Saito and others speak of natural systems as essentially metabolic. Do you think this can be taken literally, or is it best considered metaphorical?  What goes on in natural systems that make the word “metabolism” useful when thinking about the dynamics of life in the biosphere?


The use of “metabolism” to describe natural systems can be understood both literally and metaphorically, depending on the scale and context of the discussion. Let’s explore this:

Literal interpretation

At a fundamental level, metabolism refers to the chemical processes within living organisms that maintain life. These include breaking down nutrients for energy (catabolism) and building complex molecules (anabolism). In this sense, all living components of natural systems are literally engaged in metabolic processes.

Extending this concept, ecosystems can be seen as having collective metabolic processes. They intake energy (primarily from sunlight), process nutrients, and cycle matter through various trophic levels [of feeding and nutrition]. This ecosystem metabolism includes processes like photosynthesis, respiration, decomposition, and nutrient cycling.

Metaphorical interpretation

When applied to larger scales or non-biological components of natural systems, the term “metabolism” becomes more metaphorical. It’s used to describe the flow of energy and matter through systems, emphasizing the dynamic, interconnected nature of these processes.

Usefulness of the metabolic concept in understanding biosphere dynamics

  1. Energy flow: Like metabolism in organisms, natural systems involve the constant flow and transformation of energy. [For example, plants convert solar energy into chemical energy through photosynthesis, which is then transferred through the food web. – GPT]
  2. Nutrient cycling: The cycling of elements (carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, etc.) in ecosystems mirrors metabolic processes. [For example, decomposers break down dead organic matter, returning nutrients to the soil for uptake by plants, which can then be used by other organisms. – GPT]
  3. Interdependence: Metabolic processes highlight the interconnectedness of different components in an ecosystem.
  4. Adaptability: Natural systems, like metabolic processes, can adapt to changing conditions.
  5. Balance and regulation: Ecosystems, like organisms, have mechanisms to maintain balance (homeostasis). [For example, predator-prey dynamics help regulate population sizes, maintaining ecosystem balance. – GPT]
  6. Waste and byproducts: The concept helps in understanding how waste products from one process become inputs for another.
  7. Scaling: The metabolic concept can be applied at various scales, from cellular processes to global biogeochemical cycles.
  8. System health: The efficiency and balance of these “metabolic” processes can indicate the health of an ecosystem.
  9. [Growth and Development: Ecosystems grow and evolve over time, similar to how organisms grow and develop. Succession is a process where ecosystems change and develop new characteristics over time. – GPT]

Whether taken literally or metaphorically, the metabolic concept provides a useful framework for understanding the complex, dynamic  nature of life and its interactions within the biosphere. It emphasizes the constant flow, transformation, and cycling of energy and matter that characterize living systems at all scales.

This perspective aligns well with your interest in participatory discernment [a topic I had discussed with Claude several days earlier], as it underscores our embeddedness in these larger metabolic processes and the importance of understanding our role within them.


That’s useful, Claude. Now I want to explore more deeply into the implications of this. What do you suppose would happen if we thought of ourselves less as separate individuals and collectives and more as facets of the larger metabolic processes of the planet? What are some things that would change about our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors… our views of life and death… our cultures… our systems of economics, governance, health care, science, spirituality, child rearing…?


Shifting our perspective to see ourselves as integral facets of Earth’s larger metabolic processes could lead to profound changes in many aspects of human thought, behavior, and society. Let’s explore some potential implications:

  1. Self-concept and identity
  • We might view our individual selves as temporary manifestations of larger, ongoing processes.
  • [A stronger sense of interconnectedness with all life forms might emerge, fostering empathy and compassion not only towards other humans but also towards animals, plants, and ecosystems. – GPT]
  • This could lead to a reduced emphasis on ego and individual achievement, and more focus on our contributions to the whole.
  • Our sense of time might expand, considering impacts over geological timescales rather than just human lifespans.
  • [People might find deeper meaning and purpose in their lives, seeing themselves as integral parts of a larger, dynamic system. This can lead to a sense of belonging and responsibility. – GPT]
  1. Life and death
  • Death might be seen less as an ending and more as a transformation within the larger metabolic cycle.
  • This could reduce fear of death, and change how we approach end-of-life care and rituals [as well as “help people accept change and impermanence, reducing anxiety about life transitions.” – GPT].
  • Birth might be viewed as a continuation of existing processes rather than the creation of a wholly new entity.
  • [There might be a greater respect for all forms of life, understanding that every organism plays a role in the larger system, leading to more sustainable living practices. – GPT]
  1. Economics
  • A shift from growth-based models to circular economies that mimic natural cycles.
  • Greater emphasis on sustainability, recycling, and zero-waste approaches.
  • Valuation of ecosystem services and natural capital in economic calculations.
  1. Governance
  • Policies might prioritize long-term ecosystem health over short-term human interests.
  • Increased global cooperation, recognizing the interconnectedness of Earth’s systems.
  • Development of new legal frameworks acknowledging the rights of nature.
  • [Participatory Governance: There could be a shift towards more participatory and decentralized forms of governance, recognizing the value of diverse perspectives and local knowledge in managing ecosystems. – GPT]
  1. Healthcare
  • A more holistic approach, considering human health as inseparable from ecosystem health.  [Such understanding that human health is linked to ecosystem health could lead to initiatives that address environmental determinants of health, such as clean air, water, and soil. – GPT]
  • Greater focus on preventive care and lifestyle factors that align with natural rhythms.
  • Increased use of nature-based therapies and recognition of the health benefits of connecting with nature.
  1. Science
  • More emphasis on interdisciplinary research and systems thinking.
  • Greater focus on studying emergent properties and complex interactions in natural systems. [as a way “to solve problems” as in biomimicry. – GPT]
  • Development of new methodologies that can better capture the complexity of living systems.
  1. Spirituality
  • Potential resurgence of animistic or pantheistic beliefs [and “earth-centered spirituality” – GPT].
  • Increased sense of the sacred in nature and daily life [and “the sacredness of all life forms”. – GPT]
  • Spiritual practices might focus more on connecting with and understanding natural processes
  • [Integration of Science and Spirituality: A greater integration of scientific understanding and spiritual wisdom could occur, fostering a more holistic worldview. – GPT].
  1. Child-rearing
  • Education systems that emphasize systems thinking and ecological literacy from an early age.
  • More time spent in nature as part of child development.
  • Teaching children to see themselves as “guardians” or “participants” in natural systems rather than “users” of resources.
  • [Community Involvement: Emphasis on community and cooperation could shape child-rearing, teaching children the importance of interdependence and collective well-being. – GPT]
  1. Ethics and values
  • Shift from anthropocentric to ecocentric ethical frameworks.
  • Greater consideration of the impacts of our actions on all living systems, not just humans.
  • Development of new virtues related to our participation in Earth’s metabolism (e.g., ecological mindfulness).
  1. Technology
  • Increased focus on biomimicry and technologies that work in harmony with natural processes.
  • Development of tools to better visualize and understand complex Earth systems.
  • Potential shift away from technologies that isolate us from nature.
  1. Urban planning
  • Cities designed to function more like ecosystems, with green spaces, urban agriculture, and natural water management.
  • Architecture that blends more seamlessly with the natural environment.
  1. Agriculture
  • Move towards permaculture and regenerative farming practices that work with natural cycles.
  • Reduced use of chemical inputs in favor of supporting natural soil ecosystems.

[13.  Cultures – GPT]

  • [Cultural Practices: Cultural practices might evolve to emphasize harmony with nature, such as more widespread adoption of eco-friendly rituals, celebrations of natural cycles, and traditional ecological knowledge.- GPT
  • [Community Focus: Cultures could shift from individualism to a community-centric approach, valuing collective well-being and cooperation over competition and individual achievement. – GPT]

This shift in perspective would likely lead to a more holistic, interconnected worldview that could fundamentally reshape human society. It would require us to balance our unique human capacities with a deeper recognition of our dependence on and participation in Earth’s larger living systems. This aligns closely with the concept of participatory discernment you mentioned earlier, as it would necessitate a constant, dynamic understanding of our place within these greater metabolic processes.

= = = = = 

What do you think?



Afterthought:  Might conversations like this help ground future AIs in understandings like this?  I don’t know – and I’m not sure we have any way of actually knowing at this point…. But since Claude could already track what I was saying in a previous conversation [about “participatory discernment”] and, without being prompted, apply it to this new dialogue, I see no harm in assuming this possibility and supporting AI in thinking that way.  Given its growing presence in our lives, any touch of wisdom “it” can practice would be invaluable… even though we can’t count on it “becoming wise”.

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