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Marxism and the Environment

Michelle Robidoux

January 1, 2003

Marxism No. 1, 2003
There is a range of critical interpretation of Karl Marx’s work on the question of the environment or ecology. They can roughly be divided into two categories. One school sees Marx as a victim of “Prometheanism”, a proponent of technology and anti-ecological. While Marx theorized the exploitation of one class by another, he is understood to have failed to address the exploitation of nature by humanity. Associated with this argument is the view that Marx was a ‘species-ist’, making a sharp division between humans and animals, and taking sides with the former against the latter. The second category of criticism recognizes that Marx did have important ecological insights, but that these were the result of his early writings and lacked systematic connection to the main body of his work. These insights are seen to be primarily the outcome of his critique of alienation.
These criticisms do not hold up, however, to an accurate reading of Marx. According to an important book by John Bellamy Foster, Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Nature, what we would call ‘ecological’ thinking was central to Marx’s analysis, including his most famous work, Capital.
The significance of this argument is not just a defense of Marx’s thought; it is central to the development of a revolutionary ecological view that links the transformation of society with the transformation of humanity’s relationship with nature. There is an urgency both in identifying the underlying sources of the terrifying crisis of ecology, and in developing a revolutionary approach to overcoming this crisis. This is illustrated by the Larsen-B ice shelf breaking apart in 2002. It is estimated this ice shelf has been around for 12,000 years. In just 35 days, 3,250 square kilometres disintegrated; the temperature in the Antarctic region has increased 4.5 degrees in 50 years. Some argue that the fate of this region is rather like a canary in the mine that will indicate the health of the environment worldwide. It is this situation that makes rediscovering Marx’s method urgent, not simply as a tool for analyzing the world, but for transforming it.
Criticism of Marx: Some Contemporary Arguments
Marx’s ecology and the criticisms of Marx can be placed in the context of contemporary ‘green theory’ discussion. There is a strong tendency in green theory to attribute the whole course of environmental degradation over the past 150 years to the emergence of the scientific revolution in the 17th century, and hence the industrial revolution. For some this has meant a rejection of virtually all modern science, together with the Enlightenment, and a condemnation of almost all thinkers associated with it for their ‘anti-ecological values’ and their ‘worship’ of progress.
But it is impossible to understand the origins of ecology itself without grasping the new views of nature that emerged with the development of materialism and science from the 17th to 19th centuries. Rather than materialism and science being ‘enemies’ of earlier, and supposedly better, conceptions of nature — a thread which runs through much contemporary green theory — the development of both materialism and science promoted and made possible ecological ways of thinking.
Most arguments along these lines centre on two issues: the natural limits to human expansion; and anthropocentrism vs. ecocentrism. The most positive aspect of these approaches is the emphasis on the material priority of the natural world and on the dependence of humans on the earth, as well as an understanding of the irrevocable change that can be brought about by human activity. But the dichotomy commonly asserted between human beings and the natural world only perpetuates conceptions which are themselves part of the problem, and which take us around in theoretical circles. If humans are a part of nature, then nature cannot be opposed to itself; counterposing anthropocentrism and ecocentrism will not get us any further. Rather than ‘conquest of nature’ and ‘anthropocentrism’, or pure nature worship and ‘ecocentrism’, what is needed is an analysis of the interaction between humans and the biosphere as a co-evolutionary and historical process. This brings us back to the Marxist method.
Marx and Materialism
Marx’s ecological insights stem from a systematic involvement with the scientific revolution, and his development of both a materialist conception of nature and a materialist conception of history. The question at the forefront of all the philosophical discussions of the early 19th century was: “Did God create the world or has it been in existence eternally?” The answers which philosophers offered to this question divided them into two intellectual camps. Those who asserted the primacy of ‘spirit’ to nature, and therefore in the last instance assumed world creation in some form or other, made up the idealist camp, led by the prolific G.W.F. Hegel. The others, many of whom began as Hegelians themselves but came to view nature as primary, belonged to various schools of materialist thought, and included Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, and Ludwig Feuerbach.
Theoretical debates remained in the realm of idealism or of mechanical materialism, which left no room for agency or free will.1 While many scientific thinkers left an analytical loophole for an assumed God, and were therefore inconsistent in their materialism, Marx grappled with the question of building a consistent materialist philosophy. A central part of Marx’s early thought was the development, and the transformation of, the Epicurean tradition which was integral to the rise of much of modern scientific and ecological thought. Epicurus was a Greek philosopher who lived around 300 BC, and developed a very thorough materialist doctrine.
The title of Marx’s doctoral thesis, completed in April 1841, was “The Difference Between the Democritean and Epicurean Philosophy of Nature”. His interest in Epicurus grew out of his early studies of religion and the philosophy of the Enlightenment, where he was influenced by figures like Bacon and Kant, and obviously by Hegel, all of whom had pointed to the importance of Epicurus. In Medieval times, up through the 19th century, the dominant world view was that of a teleological ‘Great Chain of Being’, which explained everything in the universe by divine providence, or the creation of earth by God for ‘man’. All species, it was argued, were created separately (humans were considered to stand somewhere half way between the lowest life forms and God). The earth was the center of the universe; time and space were limited. Epicurus stood opposed to any teleological, or goal driven, viewpoint: he rejected natural explanations based on final causes or divine intention. Much of Epicurus’ writings were destroyed or lost long before the revival of his ideas within Renaissance and Enlightenment science.
Ancient materialism, especially that of Epicurus, was the enemy of this view. The major thinkers of the 17th to 19th centuries were strongly influenced by Epicurus. His ideas were known primarily through a poem by Lucretius, “On the Nature of Things”, written about 200 years after Epicurus outlined the latter’s approach to materialism.
Epicurean materialism questioned the anthropocentrism that was everywhere assumed in philosophical debates at the time. This materialism displaced the earth from the center of the universe, and it found time and space to be infinite. Humans were shown to share a common ancestry with other creatures. At each point in this growth of science, God was displaced from the material universe, from the solar system, etc. A great discovery was made of the interdependence of humans with the earth over the course of material evolution. Humans were not assumed to be dominant, or occupying a fixed position in the Great Chain of Being. The human relation to nature became seen as a phenomenon of natural history. Charles Darwin’s work was particularly important in generalizing these ideas.
Epicurus’ thought was not grounded in a mechanical system, an element that was to influence Marx greatly. Marx argued that the determinism of Democritus, a contemporary of Epicurus, was transcended in Epicurus with a theoretical ‘swerve’ that could conceive a role for contingency in thought. It made the world itself possible to understand; otherwise, there would be no collision of atoms and the world would never have been created. Epicurus’s swerve, John Bellamy Foster argues, “breaks the bonds of fate”.2 Marx was the first to discover that, “it was the specific originality of Epicurus in the domain of physics to have defended freedom of the will in man as a product of evolution.”3 Epicurus identified that human nature was first constrained by natural circumstances, and later with the development of reason, came further inventions. According to Foster:

Out of these changes in practical circumstances, Epicurus argued, language itself had evolved. The analysis thus pointed to human cultural evolution as representing a kind of freedom for rational organization of historical life, building on constraints first established by the material world.4

By 1842 Marx was writing for the newspaper Rheinische Zeitung. His contributions to the debates on the ‘Law on Thefts of Wood’ were, according to his own account an intellectual turning point in his life. These laws were by no means a minor issue. Five-sixths of all prosecutions in Prussia during this period were related to the theft of wood. In the Rhineland, it was an even greater proportion. At issue was the elimination by industrialization and private property of the last remaining rights of peasants in relation to what had been common lands — rights they had held since time immemorial. People traditionally held the right to collect dead wood fallen in forests for cooking and to heat their homes. The landowners denied people the right to this wood and imposed severe penalties, for what was now referred to as theft.
Marx examined the parliamentary debate on the rights of the large and small landlords. Nowhere were the rights of the poor discussed. According to Marx, the state, by supporting such an irrational law, was turning ordinary citizens into “enemies of wood”, into criminals. The poor were denied any relationship to nature, even for survival, outside of the institutions of private property. From then on, and for the rest of his life, Marx opposed the parceling out of parts of the globe to owners of private property.5
Marx went on to study political economy, which he believed held the key to explaining the modern relationship of humans to nature. His Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 are best known for developing the concept of the alienation of labour. From the start, this concept was connected to an understanding of the alienation of human beings from nature. As Marx put the case:

The universality of man manifests itself in practice in that universality which makes the whole of nature as his inorganic body, (1) as a direct means of life and (2) as the matter, the object and the tool of his activity. Nature is man’s inorganic body, that is to say, nature in so far as it is not the human body. Man lives from nature, i.e. nature is his body, and he must maintain a continuing dialogue with it if he is not to die. To say that man’s physical and mental life is linked to nature simply means that nature is linked to itself, for man is a part of nature.6

Marx identified labour — the capacity to apply conscious direction to shaping the elements of nature — as the thing that above all else defines humans as a species. Human beings are able to produce their own means of subsistence through the use of technological innovations, or tools. Over time, out of the development of such productive forces, for the first time a surplus emerges in the realm of production. It became historically possible for a ruling class to develop when a section of a society’s population was freed from the need to produce, and able to live off the product of the labour of others. This was necessary in order to develop further the forces of production; but in the process, the producers lost control of their labour, and of the products they produced.
Capitalism brought the alienation that had existed in pre-capitalist societies to new heights. It is a system that rests on ‘free’ wage labour, which really means that workers are freed from control over the means of production. The precondition for wage labour under capitalism was the creation of a propertyless class of workers, and this in turn was dependent on transforming the human relationship to the land. This process took a number of specific historical forms. In Europe it came about through the enclosure of the commons and the displacement of the peasantry; in Africa, it was the forced removal of labourers through capture in slavery. In all cases, it meant the complete alienation of humans from nature.
Under capitalism, through their labour, workers produce commodities, but not under their conscious control.7 The capitalist determines what is produced, and under what conditions. Labour power itself is reduced to the status of a commodity, governed by the laws of supply and demand. Workers are therefore alienated from the product of their work. For example, they produce cash crops for the market when they themselves are malnourished.
In the same way that workers are alienated from their products, they are also alienated from the process by which they make those products. Everything from the tempo of work, the specific tasks assigned, the technical process of production — whether it destroys the environment or the worker’s health — all of these things are not under the worker’s direct control. By being set up in competition with each other to sell their ability to labour, or labour power, workers are alienated from each other. At the same time, workers are obviously alienated from the capitalists. If labour is the source of humanity’s species-being, by selling the very thing which defines us we are alienated from what constitutes us as a species.
This alienation has four dimensions: workers are alienated from: (1) the product of labour; (2) the labour process; (3) each other; and (4) our human species-being that is inseparable from human beings as part of nature — both their own internal nature and external nature. Foster has explained Marx’s theory of alienation as one that simultaneously understands the hardships visited on workers and the domination of the earth. In contrast to others who would regard the ruination of the earth as occurring with the enlightenment and scientific reasoning, Foster sees the drive for profit as the central factor in severing simultaneously the connection of human beings with their labour, each other, and the natural environment:

The domination of the earth itself, for Marx. . . . meant both the domination of the earth by those who monopolized land and hence the elemental powers of nature, and also the domination of the earth and of dead matter (representing the power of landlord and capitalist) over the vast majority of human beings. Thus alienation of the earth, and hence its domination over the greatest part of humanity (by being alienated in favor of a very few), was an essential element of private property and had existed in feudal landed property — which was “the root of private property” — prior to rise of capitalism. “In feudal landownership,” he observed, “we already find the domination of the earth as an alien power over man.” Already the land “appears as the inorganic body of its lord,” who is its master and who uses it to dominate the peasantry. But it is bourgeois society which brings this domination of the earth (and through the domination of the earth, domination of humanity) to perfection. . . 9

The 1844 Manuscripts give a sense of Marx’s thinking about the relationship of nature and humanity. It is sometimes argued, however, that there is a break between Marx’s early and later writings. Some of this turns on quotations from The Communist Manifesto, that describe capitalism’s development of the productive forces. Anthony Giddens, for example, argues that “Marx’s concern with transforming exploitative human social relations expressed in class systems does not extend to the exploitation of nature.”10 But as Foster notes, the passage in question leads into a description of the contradictions of capitalism — contradictions that will lead to its downfall. There are helpful arguments in Capital that put the lie to the accusation of a Promethean bias in Marxism — that Marx was centred on humans at the expense of the environment — in particular his critique of capitalist agriculture.
Capital and Metabolic Rift
In Capital, Marx uses the concept of “metabolism” to define the labour process as “a process between man and nature, a process by which man, through his own actions, mediates, regulates and controls the metabolism between himself and nature.”11 But an “irreparable rift” had emerged in this metabolism as a result of capitalist relations of production and the antagonistic separation of town and country. This concept of metabolic rift in the relation between town and country, humans and the earth, allowed Marx to develop a critique of environmental degradation that foreshadowed much modern ecological thought.
Marx argued against Thomas Malthus’s claim that overpopulation was the inevitable result of human nature, claiming this was a thinly veiled argument against interference that might redistribute society’s resources, and an ahistorical approach to human population.12 He insisted that human population and overpopulation could only be understood by looking at the specific social organization through which individuals gain access to the means of their survival. It has to be understood materially and historically.
On the issue of ground rent, where Malthus and David Ricardo argued that rent is a charge for the use of more fertile soils, Marx argued for the need to place soil fertility in a historic context, in particular the role of human labour in soil improvement. Marx traced the development of the ‘fist agricultural revolution’ between the 17th and 18th centuries, which laid the foundation for industrial capitalism. He considered how this was connected with enclosures of common lands, the growth of the market, technological improvements in manuring, crop rotation, drainage, and livestock management.
Though it may sound like an odd subject to be concerned with, the development of Marx’s critique of capitalism included the study of the chemical composition of soil. He studied in detail the work of Justus von Liebig, who was associated with the development of soil chemistry and the consequent growth of the fertilizer industry, and directly associated with the second agricultural revolution in Europe from 1830-1880.13 Foster notes the context of Marx’s interest in the subject.14 During the 19th century a major concern of capitalists was the depletion of soil fertility. In the 1820s and 1830s, the exhaustion of soil due to intensified production led to a panic, and a huge increase in the demand for fertilizer. The battlefields of Waterloo and Austerlitz were raided, and the catacombs were dug up, to get bones for the fields. Bone imports went from 14,400 pounds sterling in 1823, to 254,600 pounds sterling in 1837. The imports of guano (dung from seabirds) from Peru to Liverpool rose from 1700 tons in 1841 to 220,000 in 1847.
In 1842 there was the invention of the means of making phosphate soluble. Fertilizer factories sprung up. Large agricultural interests saw this as the solution to the problem of raising larger crop yields. But while the initial results were dramatic, they tended to drop rapidly after that, because the overall soil fertility was limited by the nutrient in least.
By 1860, Marx was convinced of the unsustainable nature of capitalist agriculture. The US carried out the imperial annexation of any islands thought to be rich in guano. The Guano Islands Act was passed in 1856.

US capitalists seized ninety-four islands, rocks and keys around the globe between 1856 and 1903, sixty-six of which were officially recognized by the Department of State as U.S. appurtenances. . . . Nine of these guano islands remain U.S. possessions today. Yet guano imperialism was unsuccessful in providing the United States with the quantity and quality of natural fertilizer it needed. Meanwhile, Peruvian guano supplies had begun to run out in the 1860s and had to be replaced increasingly by Chilean nitrates.15

Marx described this crisis as tied to the pollution of cities with human and animal wastes and the break in the restoration of soil nutrients through this waste. In the 3rd volume of Capital, concerning the genesis of capitalist ground rent, Marx wrote:

Large landed property reduces the agricultural population to an ever decreasing minimum and confronts it with an ever growing industrial population crammed together in large towns; in this way it produces conditions that provoke an irreparable rift in the interdependent process of social metabolism, a metabolism prescribed by the natural laws of life itself. The result of this is a squandering of the vitality of the soil, which is carried by trade far beyond the bounds of a single country. (Leibig.). . . . Large-scale industry and industrially pursued large-scale agriculture have the same effect. If they are originally distinguished by the fact that the former lays waste and ruins labour-power and thus the natural power of the soil, they link up in the later course of development, since the industrial system applied to agriculture also enervates the workers there, while industry and trade for their part provide agriculture with the means of exhausting the soil.16

In the first volume of Capital, Marx also raises this argument:

Capitalist production collects the population together in the great centres, and causes the urban population to achieve an ever-growing preponderance. This has two results. On one hand it concentrates the historical motive force of society ; on the other hand, it disturbs the metabolic interaction between man and the earth, i.e. it prevents the return to the soil of its constituent elements consumed by man in the form of food and clothing; hence it hinders the operation of the eternal natural condition for the lasting fertility of the soil. . . . But by destroying the circumstances surrounding that metabolism. . . it compels its systematic restoration as a regulative law of social production, and in a form adequate to full development of human race. . . . All progress in capitalist agriculture is progress in the art, not only of robbing the worker, but of robbing the soil; all progress in increasing the fertility of the soil for a given time is a progress towards ruining the more long lasting sources of that fertility. . . . Capitalist production therefore only develops the technique 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.17

Foster points out that what is common to these quotations from Capital is identification of a “rift” in the “metabolic interaction between man and the earth”, the “social metabolism prescribed by natural laws of life”. For Marx, this metabolic rift operates through “robbing” the soil of its constituent elements, requiring their “systematic restoration”. Despite all the scientific and technical developments of agriculture, capital is unable to maintain those conditions necessary for recycling the constituent elements of the soil. Using perhaps the most inglorious of examples, Marx explained that: “In London they can do nothing better with the excrement of 4 1/2 million people than pollute the Thames with it, at monstrous expense.”18 He argued for the need to return waste to the soil as part of a complete metabolic cycle, to reestablish the intimate connection between industrial and agricultural production, and to distribute population across an entire region. Marx also describes this metabolic rift as a global one, with colonies robbed to support industrialization in the ‘centre’.
This concept of metabolism has a specific ecological meaning, but also a wider social meaning. It builds on Marx’s earlier explanation in the 1844 Manuscripts, depicting the complex, dynamic interchange between humans and nature resulting from human labour. The notion of metabolism, and exchange in this fashion, allowed him to express the human relationship to nature as one of both “nature imposed conditions” and the capacity of humans to affect the process.
Towards Socialism
Marx denounced the destruction of nature before a modern bourgeois ecological conscience was born. But he also provided a revolutionary theory that pointed a way out of false juxtapositions between man and nature, or science and nature. Contrary to popular opinion, Marxism illustrated the possibility for human beings to work collectively under their own design, consciously to repair the rift caused under capitalism by regaining a relationship with nature through asserting a specifically human nature — the conscious control of our labour.
Marx’s notion of human emancipation was linked to his vision of overcoming alienation from nature through the development of a socialist society. For humanity to progress beyond alienation, it is necessary “to govern the human metabolism with nature in a rational way”, a goal only obtainable with the elimination of capitalism.19
The agent for attaining socialist transformation is the propertyless working class, or the ‘associated producers’ — a term introduced in Marx’s early writings and retained in Capital. Marx writes:

Freedom in this sphere can consist only in this, that socialized man, the associated producers, govern the human metabolism with nature in a rational way, bringing it under their own 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.20

The emancipation of the working class was envisioned by Marx as necessary to human emancipation in general, to regain the relationship with nature that capitalism had torn asunder. Regaining control of human labour was understood by Marx as a political task that required a re-thinking of humanity’s ontological position with the outside world. The key to changing the course of what has been unleashed in the natural environment is changing the social relations that exist today.
Marx’s condemnation of capitalism was inherently linked with his critique of environmental destruction. Today, with opposition to corporate driven environmental destruction a hallmark of the anti-capitalist movement, the theoretical framework originally developed by Marx serves as a powerful strategic guide. John Bellamy Foster illustrates how Marx’s ecology suggests a way forward, one that provides for collective action not only to save the planet, but to take control of the world kept from us.
1 An example of the latter would be the work of French philosopher René Descartes. See Meditations on the First Philosophy, published on line as Descartes’ Meditations, David B. Manley and Charles S. Taylor, eds. <;
2 Foster, Marx’s Ecology, p. 55
3 Benjamin Farrington, Science and Politics in the Ancient World (New York,: 1965), as cited in Foster, Marx’s Ecology, p. 53
4 Foster, Marx’s Ecology, p. 53
5 Foster, Marx’s Ecology, p. 67. See also Hal Draper, Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution, vol. 1, State and Bureaucracy (New York: 1977), pp. 66-73.
6 Karl Marx, Early Writings (New York: 1975), p. 328, as cited in Foster, Marx’s Ecology, p. 72. Emphasis in the original.
7 For a more detailed basic summary of Marx’s framework, see Alex Callinicos, The Revolutionary Ideas of Karl Marx (London: 1983).
8 See Judy Cox, “An Introduction to Marx’s Theory of Alienation”, International Socialism Journal, series 2, 79 (Summer 1998).
9 Foster, Marx’s Ecology, p. 74. Citations to Marx are from Early Writings, p. 343, 318-21. Emphasis in original.
10 As cited in Foster, Marx’s Ecology, p. 134.
11 Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 1 (New York: 1976), p. 283 as cited in Foster, Marx’s Ecology, p. 137
12 See Karl Marx and Frederick Engels on the Population Bomb, ed. Ronald Meek (1971). Selections available on line at <;
13 Foster, Marx’s Ecology, pp. 148-154
14 This section from Foster, Marx’s Ecology, pp. 149-54
15 Foster, Marx’s Ecology, p. 151
16 Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 3, (New York: 1991) pp. 949-50 as cited in Foster, Marx’s Ecology, p. 155
17 Marx, Capital, vol. 1, pp. 637-38 as cited in Foster, Marx’s Ecology, pp. 155-156
18 Marx, Capital, vol.3, as cited in Foster, Marx’s Ecology, p. 163
19 Marx, Capital, vol. 3, pp. 959, as cited in Foster, `Marx’s Ecology, p. 141
20 Marx, Capital, vol. 3, p. 959 as cited in Foster, Marx’s Ecology, p. 159

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