Marxism has an ecological heart

Credit: Galen Johnson/Canadian Dimension.

By Ash Pemberton

August 13, 2011 -- Green Left Weekly -- We all know there’s a big problem with the environment and it needs drastic action to fix it. So does a Marxist analysis of the problem bring anything new to the table?

Marxism redefines the terms of the mainstream environmental debate. Instead of seeing the problem as one of humans versus nature, the problem is framed as one where humans and nature are intrinsically linked and ecological crises arise in which the relationship between the two is thrown into imbalance.

I think a Marxist analysis best describes the connection between human society and the rest of nature in a historical perspective. From this we can better understand the current crises and humanity’s task for the foreseeable future.


First, a few things to keep in mind about capitalism. Under the laws of the capitalist system, profits must continually expand or the system will collapse. This expansion has taken new forms over history, involving different combinations of exploitation of people, the environment and a fair share of economic trickery and speculation.

Capitalists treat the environment as a free bounty to exploit for resources and a free dump for material wasted in the production process. Indeed, if these costs were fully factored in, most big capitalists would be bankrupted.

Also, the history of capitalism shows that whenever a more efficient technology is invented, what follows is an expansion in production as capitalists take advantage of their new ability to produce more with the same amount of inputs. For this reason, technological fixes under capitalism often make environmental problems worse rather than better.

The traditional view of Marxism and ecology is that Marxism is distinctly anti-environment and “Promethean”, a theory that holds that humanity can control and shape nature to its own will.

Soviet 'Marxism'

This view is largely shaped by what happened in the Soviet Union, where the environment was trashed to develop the economy.

Soviet Marxism was reduced to a crude, unscientific version of itself, where nature was considered a resource to be exploited in the bid to out produce the capitalist world. Many scientists and intellectuals who held true to Marxism’s ecological insights and resisted this trend were jailed or killed.

Many European “Western Marxist” intellectuals of the 20th century reacted against the Soviet debasement of Marxism, but went too far in the other direction. They interpreted Marxism as a theory of human history, but downplayed Marx’s insistence that human society cannot be separated from the natural world.

So in the east and the west, the ecological core of Marxism went missing for most of the 20th century.

In the past two decades several scholars have gone back to the writings of Marx and other early socialists. They have found that humanity’s relation to the planet’s ecology was a key element to a Marxist analysis of political economy.

Marx's studies of ecology

Marx himself studied natural science intensely in the later years of his life, especially concerning himself with soil chemistry and agriculture.

Following the findings of prominent scientists, he noted that natural systems worked independently of, but also in a relationship with, human activity and operated in a way that allowed for the continuance and regeneration of the system.

That is, there is a kind of metabolism — a mutual exchange — between human societies and the rest of the environment. A healthy relationship between society and nature allows for the reproduction of the conditions needed to sustain society.

Marx observed that a rift had developed in the metabolism regulating the nutrient cycle — the cycle that allows us to produce food and also regenerates the biosphere. This rift was the biggest environmental crisis of 19th century.

Marx said the nutrient cycle had been broken by the capitalist mode of agriculture.

To understand this, we need to examine the origins of capitalism, which came into full effect in Europe roughly between 1780 and 1850 with the advent of liberal political revolutions and the industrial revolution.

Before this, most of Europe’s population were peasants who lived off the land in a relatively self-sufficient way. With the rise to power of the capitalist class and the decline of monarchies and nobilities, huge amounts of common land used by peasants for centuries was acquired by private owners.

Driving this process was the availability of new technologies that allowed more efficient and profitable farming techniques. The peasants were systematically forced off the land, either through economic means or by force.

These people had little choice but to move to the cities to find work in the new capitalist factories.

This process — which alienated greater numbers of people from the land — had a big impact on the environment fairly quickly.

Soon, the quality of the soil became degraded. Most of the product of the land was now being transported far away to the cities, taking with it the important nitrates and phosphates that were previously returned to the soil.

In the cities, the waste accumulated and damaged the urban environment and the health of the urban population.

Crop yields began to decline and farming profits began to drop. The capitalists’ solution to this was to import fertilisers from other parts of the world. The main source of this was guano from Pacific islands.

When this ran out and the ecosystems of those islands were ruined, capitalists looked to artificial fertilisers to solve the soil problem.

Each of these adjustments was associated with an expansion in production as the capitalists took advantage of the increased capacity to produce brought about by the new technologies.

Crisis point

Today, the crisis has reached a point where the world agricultural system has been remade in the image of a capitalist factory, except for the fact that it is highly dependent on immediate environmental conditions.

Overall, agricultural yields have risen sharply since the 1970s. But this has come at the cost of using ever-higher amounts of artificial fertilisers and pesticides, which have huge environmental costs.

More recently, capital has been trying to increase yields with yet another technological fix — genetically modified crops. We have little idea of what effects these will have on the environment in the long term.

Agribusiness giants have also embraced the use of biofuels — that is, turning food into fuel. Ironically, the biofuel industry threatens a return to another ecological crisis that arose before the use of fossil fuels: the fuelwood crisis.

The fuelwood crisis ran parallel to the 19th century soil crisis. During the transition from pre-industrial/feudal to industrial/capitalist forms of production, the primary fuel source was still wood from forests.

As demand for heavy industry and transport expanded, so did the demand for timber. Relatively quickly, a crisis developed in which entire forests were being depleted — fed into furnaces for energy.

A short-term solution was found by developing technology to make coal (and later oil) the standard fuel to replace timber. Fossil fuels have much more latent energy than timber and allowed for a huge expansion of production.

So one crisis was averted in favour of another, much more devastating one — the climate crisis we face today.

The forms of metabolic rift have changed many times over the course of history.

Many people point to the industrial revolution as the starting point of the destruction of the environment. But it is more useful to view the industrial revolution as a resolution of a previous environmental crisis, and the detonator for new, much bigger crises today.

The history of humanity is filled with these rifts and shifts. The shifts to new technologies or new geographical locations can initially liberate the process of accumulation, only to eventually generate self-limiting contradictions that end in new ecological bottlenecks.

From this point another shift takes place and the cycle starts again, on a larger scale than before, amplifying the underlying contradiction between the environment and the reproduction of society. In essence, it has been an ongoing process of deferring crises.

We have to recognise that the metabolic rift was not an invention of capitalism. But under capitalism the scale of the rift has become a worldwide threat. To fully understand this we have to view nature in a different way than we are used to.


Usually, nature is seen as something humans act upon and destroy. This is wrong. Humans act through nature; human society is impossible without it and we are entirely dependent on it.

Human society and natural processes are interdependent — so much so that they co-evolve. Both are in an ongoing, complex and dynamic co-existence and are changed by internal and external forces.

I mentioned before that a kind of rift had also existed before capitalism. There were numerous local environmental crises in these periods, but far and away the most common symptom of the metabolic rift was famine. In these cases the relationship was such that humans could not produce enough food crops to sustain their society.

That is, the rift works both ways — it is a crisis in the relationship between society and the environment. Objectively, the natural world can take any form — no specific type of environment has intrinsic value. However, human society can exist only within certain conditions.

Capitalist development for profit can take no account of natural needs. From here we can guess the task of repairing the damage will occupy humanity for probably the next couple of centuries — if indeed society is to survive that long.

Future generations will need to take on the profound task of repairing the metabolic rift and developing a sustainable relationship between human society and the planet. This would require a new kind of society, driven not by the profit motive but by the goal of sustainable human development for all.

[This article first appeared in Green Left Weekly, Australia's leading socialist newspaper.]