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Marx and ecology

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Karl Marx’s analysis of the environment under capitalism shows how saving the planet is inextricably linked to transforming our society, writes John Bellamy Foster
Issue 2080
How not to go green - impoverished Mexicans help the environment by recycling household waste by hand on a landfill site near Mexico city. Hundreds of people live and work on the dump making a few dollars a day by collecting plastic cardboard and metal

How not to go green – impoverished Mexicans help the environment by recycling household waste by hand on a landfill site near Mexico city. Hundreds of people live and work on the dump making a few dollars a day by collecting plastic cardboard and metal

Ecology, the study of the interaction between living organisms and their environment, is often seen as a recent invention. But the idea that capitalism degrades the environment in a way that disproportionately affects the poor and the colonised had already been expressed in the 19th century in the work of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels.

Their discussions of ecology went well beyond the general understanding of their time.

Today the ecological issues that they addressed – even if sometimes only in passing – read like a litany of many of our most pressing environmental problems, from the division of town and country right through to climate change and famine.

In 1867 Marx published the first volume of Capital, his central work exploring the laws of capitalism. This included a section on England’s ecological imperialism toward Ireland, where he stated, “For a century and a half England has indirectly exported the soil of Ireland, without even allowing its cultivators the means for replacing the constituents of the exhausted soil.”

Here Marx was drawing on the work of the German chemist Justus von Liebig. In 1862 Liebig had argued that “Britain robs all countries of the conditions of their fertility” and singled out Britain’s systematic robbing of Ireland’s soil as a prime example.

For Liebig a system of production that took more from nature than it put back could be referred to as a “robbery system”, a term that he used to describe industrialised capitalist agriculture.

Following Liebig and other analysts of the 19th century soil crisis, Marx argued that soil nutrients – nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium – were being sent to the cities in the form of food and fibre.

Here, instead of being recycled back to the land, these nutrients ended up the polluting the urban centres, with disastrous results for human health.


Meanwhile, faced with an increasingly impoverished soil, Britain imported bones from Napoleonic battlefields and from Roman catacombs, together with guano from Peru, in a desperate attempt to restore nutrients to the fields.

Later on the invention of synthetic fertilisers helped close the nutrient gap. But this led to additional environmental problems, such as nitrogen runoff – where excess nitrogen from the fertiliser drains into and pollutes the surrounding environment.

In addressing these environmental issues Marx described the ecological contradiction between nature and capitalist society as “an irreparable rift in the interdependent process of social metabolism”. He took this concept of metabolism or “Stoffwechsel” from Liebig.

“Capitalist production,” Marx explained, “only develops the techniques and the degree of combination of the social process of production by simultaneously undermining the original sources of all wealth – the soil and the worker.”

This rift in the metabolic relation between humanity and nature could only be overcome, Marx argued, through the systematic “restoration” of the metabolism between humanity and nature “as a regulative law of social organisation.”

But this required the rational regulation of the labour process by the associated producers in line with the needs of future generations.

The labour process itself can be defined as the metabolic relation of human beings to nature.

“Even an entire society, a nation, or all simultaneously existing societies taken together,” Marx stated, “are not owners of the earth. They are simply its possessors, its beneficiaries, and have to bequeath it in an improved state to succeeding generations.”

Marx saw the materialist conception of history as related to the materialist conception of nature, the science of history as related to the science of nature.

He filled his natural science notebooks with studies of geology, chemistry, agronomy, physics, biology, anthropology and mathematics.


He attended lectures by the Irish-born physicist John Tyndall at the Royal Institution in London.

Marx was fascinated by Tyndall’s experiments on radiant heat, including the differentiation of the sun’s rays.

It is even possible that he was in the audience in the early 1860s when Tyndall presented results of his experiments demonstrating for the first time that water vapour and carbon dioxide were associated with a greenhouse effect that helped to retain heat within the planet’s atmosphere.

Of course, no one at that time suspected that the greenhouse effect interacting with carbon dioxide from the human burning of fossil fuels might lead to human generated global climate change.

This hypothesis was first introduced by the Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius in 1896.

Today the dialectical understanding of the interactions between nature and society that Marx and Engels embraced is increasingly forced on us all as a result of an accelerating global ecological crisis, symbolised above all by global warming.

Climate change

Recent research in environmental sociology has applied Marx’s theory of metabolic rift to contemporary ecological problems such as the fertiliser treadmill, the dying oceans and climate change.

Writing on the social causes of the contemporary “carbon rift”, stemming from the rapid burning up of fossil fuels, Brett Clark and Richard York have demonstrated that there is no magic cure for this problem outside of changes in fundamental social relations.

Technology is unlikely to alleviate the problem substantially since under capitalism gains in efficiency lead invariably to the expansion of production, accompanying increases in the throughput of natural resources and energy, and more strains on the biosphere.

This is known as the “Jevons Paradox”, after the economist William Stanley Jevons who described it in his 1865 book The Coal Question, which considered the gradual exhaustion of Britain’s coal supplies.

“Technological development,” Clark and York therefore conclude, “cannot assist in mending the carbon rift until it is freed from the dictates of capital relations.”

The only genuine – which means sustainable – solution to the global environmental rift requires, in Marx’s words, a society of “associated producers” who can “govern the human metabolism with nature in a rational way, bringing it under their collective control instead of being dominated by it as a blind power; accomplishing it with the least expenditure of energy and in conditions most worthy and appropriate for their human nature.”

The goals of human freedom and ecological sustainability are thus inseparable and necessitate for their advancement the building of a socialism for the 21st century.

John Bellamy Foster is professor of sociology at the University of Oregon, and editor of the US socialist magazine The Monthly Review. He has written many books and articles on political economy and ecology – see below and »

Further reading

Marx’s Ecology by John Bellamy Foster is an ideal introduction to Marx’s often neglected writings on ecology, covering capitalist agriculture and soil ecology.

Foster’s Ecology Against Capitalism takes up debates in contemporary ecological politics.

Grundrisse by Karl Marx includes his writings on the impact of capitalism on nature and the changing relationship between human beings and their environment.

Ecology and Historical Materialism by Jonathan Hughes deals with criticisms of Marx’s theory of history put forward by environmental theorists.

These books are available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. To order copies phone 020 7637 184 or go to »

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