‘Man is the Loneliest Animal’: Socio-Ecological Metabolism in All That Breathes

Trey Taylor
1st May 2023

In All That Breathes, things are not working. A meat-grinder sputters out; the lights cut off; the basement floods; fights erupt; lungs heave - and birds plummet from the sky. While this last phenomena gives the documentary its narrative focus - tracking the Sisyphean attempts by two brothers to save the Black Kite from New Delhi’s rampant pollution - it is clear that these are not discrete incidents. ‘Our fights, don’t think that they are because of petty financial reasons’, the younger brother, Mohammad, reflects after one particularly tense argument. ‘Or that it’s an ego thing, or an emotional issue. The real reason’s up here. What’s happening with the birds, the air, the sky. Our fights’ - and to this we can add all the other interruptions and failures that continually incur on their mission - ‘are just a symptom of something much larger.’ 
Avoiding the temptations of both didacticism and psychologism, the film prefers instead to treat the tribulations of the two brothers as the refraction of a breakdown in what Marx called the human ‘metabolism’ (Stoffwechsel) with nature: the ‘fact that human being is a moment of a material totality, an organism indissolubly inscribed in a flow of matter, just like plants, bacteria, or other animals’ [1]. Entrapped by the laws of capitalism, however, this metabolism is disrupted; and thus emerges a world-historic ‘metabolic rift’, a term Marx coins in Vol.3 of Capital to describe the processes by which capital abstracts social processes of production, now governed by the insatiable imperative to accumulate, from the underlying logic of stable ecological reproduction. Following the work of German chemist Justus von Leiberg, Marx sees this in the exhaustion of soil perpetrated by nascent British industrial agriculture. But it also reappears in New Delhi’s slow asphyxiation of its inhabitants, human and non-human alike, in which the toxic effluents of globalized commodity production overload the air. What is crucial in this notion of metabolism is a conception of society and nature as both radically alike and unlike; that human society, whilst irrevocably part of the material flows of nature, nevertheless possesses a unique capacity to reconfigure the form of this metabolism - our ways of living with each other and with nature - for better or for worse. It is the great merit of All That Breathes that it does not conceal the complexity of this relation but precisely traverses its tensions, producing a profound account of the whole by a delicate observation of one particularly crisis-ridden part.

In the first case, the film’s title foregrounds its refusal of a strict break between the natural and the social. In the shared miasma of New Delhi’s smog, in which lung cancer multiplies just as much as the Kite’s wings falter, a continuum is asserted upon a mutual vulnerability: a dependence on a metabolism whose capacity to successfully reproduce life is increasingly threatened. This erasure of difference at the level of the corporeal, at the level of suffering and death, is the basis of an ethical imperative which drives the brothers noble attempts to stem the tide. But this is an ethic which does not assert itself by the total assimilation of the animal: their fascination with the Kites comes as much from an obsession with their otherness - ‘When we got our first Kite’, Mohammad recalls, ‘It looked like a furious reptile from another planet’ - as their sameness. While young Mohammad indulged reveries of experiencing the world as a bird - of fully crossing the gap to the Other; feeling his wings and his talons and his beak - the older Mohammad cannot but recognise the opacity, the inscrutability, of the Kite. ‘No matter how much you care for an animal, love it ... you can never claim to understand it,’ he cautions; ‘man is the loneliest animal.’ It is significant that this maintenance of a certain kind of Otherness is presented not as extraneous but essential to their relation to the Kites. And on this count, the film compares favourably to another animal-centred Oscar-nominee - Jerry Skilomowski’s EO - which manipulates the audiences understanding of cinematic semantics to impute a strained personhood to its titular donkey, succeeding only to evacuate the non-human of its intrinsic worth and abolish what John Berger calls the ‘parallelism of separate lives’ [2]. By contrast, All That Breathes’ acknowledgement of the gap between human and animal enables an ‘intimacy that is predicated upon distance and alterity’, [3] one more capable of preserving their freedom than an attempt to make them dance to our tune.

‘This erasure of difference at the level of the corporeal, at the level of suffering and death, is the basis of an ethical imperative which drives the brothers noble attempts to stem the tide.’ 

Nevertheless, the film's treatment of the socio-natural metabolism extends far beyond the ethics encapsulated in its title. Of particular importance here is its capacity to map the economic level through the elder brother, Nadeem, responsible for the financial flows through which their makeshift veterinary practice, bundled into a basement alongside workers producing soap-dispensers, is reproduced. The repeated visual framing of these two forms of labour right next to each other, separated by a wall - one that, we can only assume, directly valorises value; the other which does not - is reflected in the tension of the two brothers. Nadeem’s time is almost entirely exhausted by attempts to solicit funding from domestic and international sources, cycling between applications for various grants (“Darwin and Newton used to be my heroes”, he laments. “Now I’m on Excel sheets all day”). As the mediating link between the economic forces necessary to keep the practice afloat - sometimes literally, as sewage water bursts under the garage door from the monsoon - and the non-’productive’ labour of ecological reproduction, Nadeem is no less essential than his brother, but feels his work is ‘invisibilised’ by him. It is this peculiar localised inversion of the usual problem of capitalism’s relation to ecology, in which the task of natural reproduction is disavowed vis a vis the economic, that simmers beneath their bickering: in their mission to save what they can of nature, the brothers cannot ignore the immediate challenge of reproduction under capitalist laws of exchange. The severe precarity of their financial metabolism, then - which appears in power-outages, broken-machines, and flooded premices - is an implicit critique of the primacy of profit-making under the rule of capital. Hanging by a thread, their lifeline appears in the form of a New York Times article, which propels them to a limited international fame, finally precipitating the approval of one of Nadeem’s funding requests.

By the time the film ends, Mohammad and Nadeem have appeared to have muddled-through. Philanthropic largesse has, for now, guaranteed them more years of practice, adapting to a niche within the ecology of nonprofits and research institutions - itself a niche within the mad totality of capitalist production and consumption, simultaneously at a distance from, and thoroughly conditioned by, its contradictions. Indeed, this theme of adaptation is a central one in the film, and risks dislodging its more critical implications. ‘Evolution favours adaptation’, Mohammad observes of the Kites, whose submission to the urban environment spurred experimentation with ‘new behaviours’, such as using cigarette butts as parasite repellents. And this improvisation is not unique to the Kite: ‘every life form adjusts to the city’. We see this in the brothers' capacity to make-do, both ecologically and economically: unable to afford new premises, they place bricks, strides-apart, to cross the flooded ground; with income dwindling, they request a reduction in prices from a vendor of meat with which to feed the birds. Such forms of creative problem-solving under duress, of strategizing to reproduce oneself, is the condition of all agents made peripheral by capital; and it is indeed a capacity shared by non-human animals.

But a certain organicist conception of society emerges here (if only in description), in which agents adjust to the prevailing norms in order to guarantee their, and its, reproduction. Healthy functioning is thus a matter of forging some kind of homeostasis or equilibrium, an essentially conciliatory or impotent conception visible in Nadeem’s characterisation of “the city as the stomach”, with the “kites as the microbiome of the gut.” “Nature will always find a way to absorb waste”, he tells the younger assistant, Salik. But as CO2 levels and industrial extraction continue to overwhelm the capacity of natural carbon sinks (soils, rainforests, mangroves, etc) to sequester it, this bromide reaches its limit-point. And yet: the brothers are too sharp for this resignation. They have no illusions about the scale and recalcitrance of the problem, and this extends to a clear-sighted recognition of the limits of their own little improvisations: “Delhi is a gaping wound. And we’re a tiny band-aid on it.”

Ultimately, All That Breathes avoids the risk of unduly naturalising social relations by subtly thematising the political level: our distinctly human capacity to not only adapt ourselves to a wider environment but precisely to transform it; to struggle over the very terms of our relations and to reconstruct the context in which we operate. As the film progresses, its narrative purview widens to include the Indian state’s metastasizing intolerance towards Muslims: in the background of the brothers home, a news presenter questions the constitutional legitimacy of a targeted immigration law; over dinner, the family, themselves Muslim, reflect on its consequences for their own safety. It is not through the brothers that the political level truly emerges, however, but through Mohammad’s wife, who insists on the need to attend the demonstrations against Modi’s ruthless sowing of division. In response, Mohammad closes the door - previously ajar, through which the camera watched them - and restates his commitment to the Kite’s: the protests are important, but so too are the birds, and no-one else is doing anything. It is the actions of the protestors, then - whose practical critique discloses the ability to change things; whose very act of making demands attests to the malleability of a world without which the act itself would make no sense - that restores to the film an acknowledgement of the specificity of human praxis within the socio-ecological metabolism. To put it differently, the Black Kite cannot object to the conditions that smother it, and it is in this sense that man truly is the loneliest animal. All That Breathes thus finally hints beyond the noble stoicism of the brothers. If their work is but a sticking-plaster, what might heal the wound?

1. S. Mau, Mute Compulsion: A Marxist Theory of the Economic Power of Capital (Verso: 2023), 91

2. J. Berger, ‘Why Look at Animals?’ (1977), in About Looking (Bloomsbury: 1980)

3. R. Nimmo, ‘From Over the Horizon: Animal Alterity and Liminal Intimacy Beyond the Anthropomorphic Embrace’ in Otherness: Essays and Studies, 5,2 (2016)

The splinter in your eye is the best magnifying glass.