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Marx and nature: Why we need Marx now more than ever

Originally published: International Socialist Review (ISR) on Issue #109, 2018 by Elizabeth Terzakis (more by International Socialist Review (ISR))  | (Posted Jun 06, 2018)

At the end of January 2018, the rollercoaster ride that is the Trump presidency took another unexpected turn: the leader of the free world claimed that the United States could reenter the 2015 Paris climate agreement—if the U.S. were given a “completely different deal.” As Trump told ITV host Piers Morgan, “I believe in clean air. I believe in crystal-clear, beautiful . . . I believe in just having good cleanliness in all. Now, with that being said, if somebody said go back into the Paris accord, it would have to be a completely different deal because we had a horrible deal.” Trump also stated his (factually incorrect) opinion that polar ice caps are at “record levels.”(1)

As if having an ignoramus for a president were not enough, the Paris accord, which currently has two hundred signatories and was heralded as “a victory for all of the planet” when it was signed in 2015, is foundering. The (voluntary and unenforceable) pledges made by the accord’s signatories “cover no more than a third of the emission reductions needed” to keep global temperatures from rising above 2 degrees Celsius. Instead, Climate Action Tracker predicts “a jump of 3.2 degrees before the end of the century”—with or without U.S. cooperation.(2)

Meanwhile, the impacts of climate change are becoming a daily reality for ordinary people around the globe, in the form of a seemingly unending round of extreme weather events that range from record snow to total drought, cyclones to nor’easters, catastrophic flooding to frozen canals.(3)

Why is it so difficult for governments and their representatives to deal with this issue? The answer is simple: while the ruling class can imagine an end to the world, neither they nor many ecologists can imagine an end to capitalism. For this reason, all of their solutions must fall within the bounds of the market system. But the market system, with its need for constant growth and its inability to see the natural world as anything other than an exploitable resource, is in direct and inherent antagonism to the preservation of nature. Consequently, there is no solution to the problem of climate change without an end to capitalism, a fact that becomes very clear when we examine Karl Marx’s writings on nature.

Marx—for real

Marx’s analysis avoids some of the traps inherent to other approaches to ecology, for example, the basically Malthusian belief that people have always and will always have a destructive relationship to nature, that “true” nature existed at some point in a pure state beyond human interaction, and that the goal of ecology is to return nature to that state of idealistic purity by removing as many humans as possible.(4)
Marx’s breakdown of capitalism can also gird us against the belief that market mechanisms could ever promote a healthy relationship between humans and the environment.(5) For these reasons alone, Marx deserves the serious attention of ecologists.

However, as John Bellamy Foster in Marx’s Ecology and Paul Burkett in Marx and Nature note, ecologists often dismiss Marx for one or all of the following reasons: (1) “Marx’s ecological statements are . . . ‘illuminating asides’ that have no systematic relation to the main body of his work”; (2) these statements “arise disproportionately from his early critique of alienation, and are much less evident in his later work”; (3) “Marx . . . ultimately failed to address the exploitation of nature [by neglecting] to incorporate it into his value theory, [adopting] instead a ‘Promethean’ (pro-technological, anti-ecological) view”; (4) “in Marx’s view, capitalist technology and economic development had solved all problems of ecological limits” making it unnecessary “‘to take seriously the problem of the allocation of scarce resources’ or to develop an ‘ecologically conscious’ socialism”; (5) Marx took “little interest in issues of science or in the effects of technology on the environment and hence had no real scientific basis for the analysis of ecological issues”; and finally, (6) Marx was “‘speciesist’, radically disconnecting human beings from animals, and taking sides with the former over the latter.”(6)

These characterizations of Marx are simply inaccurate, and the fact that people can make such assertions without being roundly denounced for misrepresentation is a sure sign of how little Marx is actually read by the people who need to read him most. In fact, Marx’s conception of the “metabolic rift”(7) that capitalism imposed between humans and nature is central to his critique of capitalism, and the ecological insights that his critique allows are vital both to current fights for reforms and for envisioning a future in which we are able to establish a healthy relationship with nature that might serve to save the planet.

Marx’s definition of labor

The first two mischaracterizations listed above—the idea that Marx’s mentions of nature are occasional, superficial, and limited to his early writing—are patently false. Nature is crucial to Marx’s conception of labor. As Foster explains, “For Marx, all human activity has a basis in nature. . . . Labor and production constitute the active human transformation of nature, but also of human nature, the human relation to nature and human beings themselves.”(8)

That is, as we interact with nature we change it, but we are also, at the same time, changing ourselves. For Marx, our relationship with nature when not distorted by capitalism, is closely interwoven. Marx wrote: “Nature is man’s(9)inorganic body, that is to say, nature in so far as it is not the human body. Man lives from nature . . . 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.”(10) This conception of humans and nature as parts of a single totality, from one of the 1844 manuscripts, can be found throughout Marx and Engels’s work. Marx writes in Capital, for example, of labor as a process “by which man, through his own actions, mediates, regulates, and controls the metabolism between himself and nature. He confronts the materials of nature as a force of nature.”(1)

Marx thus defines human labor as a metabolic exchange between human beings as nature and nature in general, between our organic bodies—that is, what is attached to us—and our inorganic bodies—that is, nature as it exists apart from our bodies. Nature supplies our needs: food, clothing, and shelter, certainly, but also air, water, and sunlight. We cannot live without these things, yet they are external to us, and according to Marx, the way that we supply our organic bodies with these necessities taken from our inorganic body, nature, is the basis of our labor.

The relationships of precapitalist societies (both communal and feudal) to nature were shaped by subsistence needs. Most human relationships with nature were direct, involving either gathering supplemented by hunting, or hunting and gathering supplemented by agriculture, or agriculture for subsistence and for rent to a lord supplemented by hunting and gathering. In this sense, before capitalism, the peasants of Europe and the Indigenous peoples of the Americas and other continents had relationships to nature that were both similar in important ways and much less alienated than they were about to become.

The metabolic rift

Capitalism destroyed this relatively unalienated metabolic relationship between human beings and nature through what Marx called primitive accumulation. Because of the appropriation of land through its enclosure and conversion to private property, most humans no longer have a direct relationship to the means of subsistence, with the result that we experience a four-fold alienation: (1) we are alienated from the products of our labor—that is, they do not contribute directly to the satisfaction of our needs; (2) we are alienated from the labor process itself, and since labor is one of the things that makes us distinctly human, we are thus alienated from ourselves, what Marx called our human species-being; (3) we are alienated from each other, because rather than engaging in a communal project to satisfy our needs as human beings, we are forced into competition with each other to secure access to the means of production from capitalists and labor for their profit, and because we are by nature social, we are thus once again alienated from ourselves; and (4) we are alienated from nature—our inorganic body.(12) So the alienation of humans from their labor is, according to Marx, inseparable from the alienation of human beings from nature—what Marx called the metabolic rift.

Under feudalism in Europe, agricultural production was carried out by peasants in the service of feudal lords, who owned the bulk of the land. Over time, feudal fealty was replaced with a system of rents, and common lands were increasingly enclosed, leading to the eventual ending of a direct relationship with the land for the majority of people. You can see this in Europe by looking at legal records. An intellectual turning point for Marx was when he discovered that five-sixths of prosecutions in Prussia in the early 1840s concerned wood—the taking of wood for personal use from forests that recently had been privatized. In the run-up to capitalism, although most land was owned by feudal lords and worked by peasants for their own subsistence and tributes, pasture lands and forests were open to common use; peasants could graze their cattle or gather wood or hunt for rabbits or do whatever else they needed to do to supplement their farming. With the rise of capitalism, this changed. Even the gathering of cranberries, a traditional activity of children, was made illegal. “The poor were thus denied any relation to nature—even for their survival—unmediated by the institutions of private property.”(13)

The fact that there were so many prosecutions for “stealing” wood, picking cranberries, and poaching rabbits demonstrates that the common people of Europe resisted this change—just as the Indigenous peoples of the Americas did—sometimes as individuals and sometimes in an organized way:

In the village of Buckden . . . where the Bishop of Lincoln had enclosed land, “hundreds of women and boys, armed with daggers and javelins, in a very tumultuous and riotous manner, entered upon the grounds, threw open the gates, and broke down the quicksets [hedges] of the said enclosure, and turned in great herds of cattle.”(14)

Ultimately, however, this resistance was brutally crushed.(15)

With the enclosure of the common lands and their transformation from a collective resource into a site for ruling-class hunting parties,(16)“sheep-walks,” and other experiments in luxury and raw material generation for the rich, peasants who could no longer maintain themselves were forced off the land.(17) Although the rift between the majority and the land began under feudalism, it was not completed until the advent of capitalism. This alienation of people from the land led many to be concentrated in towns, while those who stayed in the countryside became workers in a system of commercial agriculture. In both the towns and the countryside, workers were alienated in the four ways mentioned. They were, as Marx sardonically put it, made “free.”(18)

For agricultural workers, this freedom meant that they were socially and intellectually deprived. By “the idiocy of rural life,” Marx and Engels had in mind the isolation that comes from limited social contacts as well as a lack of opportunity to develop intellectually—broad and diverse social contact and intellectual stimulation being two of the things that Marx saw as crucial to the full development of human beings.

For workers in the towns, this freedom meant a “freedom” from what had previously been considered basic human needs. As Marx put it, in such large towns,

Even the need for fresh air ceases to be a need for the worker. Man reverts once more to living in a cave, but the cave is now polluted by the mephitic and pestilential breath of civilization. Moreover, the worker has no more than a precarious right to live in it, for it is for him an alien power that can be daily withdrawn and from which, should he fail to pay, he can be evicted at any time. . . . Light, air, etc.—the simplest animal cleanliness—ceases to be a need for man. Dirt—this pollution and putrefaction of man, the sewage (this word is to be understood in its literal sense) of civilization—becomes an element of life for him. Universal unnatural neglect, putrefied nature, becomes an element of life for him.(19)

Marx’s conception of human needs—those that are naturally produced and those that are socially produced—is complex and will be discussed in more detail below, but suffice it to say that since capitalism’s inception, in town or country, on commercial farms or in mechanized factories, the needs of the vast majority of people are not being met in ways that allow them to reach their full potential as human beings.

The divide between town and country, another aspect of the metabolic rift, is a major issue for both Marx and Engels. In previous social organizations, nutrients taken from the soil were directly replaced either by animal manure or human waste. This kept the soil fertile and gave the waste a good place to go. The separation of town and country interrupted this phase of the metabolism of humans and nature. Rather than returning it to the soil as a nutrient, the waste generated in the cities was either left to pollute the living areas of working-class people (while the ruling class occupied carefully manicured parks at a certain remove) or dumped on some other element of nature. As Marx put it:

Natural human waste products . . . are the refuse of consumption. The latter are of the greatest importance for agriculture. But there is a colossal wastage in the capitalist economy in proportion to their actual use. In London, for example, they can do nothing better with the excrement produced by four and a half million people than pollute the Thames with it, at monstrous expense.”(20)

This contamination of the Thames River can be seen as an example of what is euphemistically called the “externalization of costs.” The waste that is a by-product of the gathering of workers in cities to labor for capitalist profit is disposed of in a way that is free to the capitalist but very costly to society and nature—both in terms of the actual costs of collecting and moving the waste or building a sewer system (as eventually happened), and in terms of the opportunity costs of contaminated water, murdered plant and animal life, and human immiseration.

Meanwhile, the monstrously expensive process that polluted the Thames was also responsible for soil depletion. Marx condemned capitalist agriculture’s prioritization of short-term fertility over long-term sustainability:

All progress in capitalist agriculture is a 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 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.(21)

This particular aspect of the metabolic rift, the separation of town and country and the interruption of the replenishment of the soil, was to generate many consequences—consequences that Marx understood due to his fascination with the work of German agricultural chemist Justus von Liebig. Von Liebig’s research confirmed what Marx suspected was happening with the depletion of the soil. In what some agricultural historians called the “second agricultural revolution” of the mid-to-late 1800s, new understanding of plant growth allowed for the artificial introduction of compounds that formerly had been returned to the soil as part of the human-nature metabolism. According to Foster, it also led Marx to “a growing recognition of the extent to which the new methods . . . only served to rationalize a process of ecological destruction.”(22)

The next step in this process of destruction was the discovery of the role that nitrates and phosphates play in restoring depleted soil, as well as the discovery of guano as a plentiful source for them. These discoveries helped to create yet another rift, between imperialist and colonized countries––the global expression of the town and country divide. Guano, or seabird excrement, was available in enormous quantities, built up over centuries on some islands off the coast of Peru. European capitalists soon realized that they could use guano instead of freely available human waste to restore the fertility of the depleted soil and turn it into a profit-producing industry. Chinese workers, deprived and made desperate by the Opium Wars, were transported, enslaved, and worked to death gathering guano. The natural resources of multiple South American countries were devastated and their economies brought into ruinous relationships with European states, millions of seabirds were killed, and proxy wars were fought, all in the service of restoring the productivity of European farmland through the fertilizer industry.(23)

After all this destruction, further scientific progress led to the artificial production of nitrates, putting the guano extractors out of business. It also increased the possibility of further unforeseen consequences. The advent of industrially-produced chemical fertilizers generated nitrogen and phosphorous runoff, leading to the contamination of ground water and lakes with excessive nutrients creating algae blooms and hypoxic dead zones.(24)

Like Marx, Engels was quite aware of the unforeseen, environmentally destructive consequences of “production and exchange” in which “only the nearest, most immediate results must first be taken into account”:

Let us not . . . flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human victories over nature. For each such victory nature takes its revenge on us. Each victory, it is true, in the first place brings about the results we expected, but in the second and third places it has quite different, unforeseen effects which only too often cancel the first. . . . When the Italians of the Alps used up the pine forests on the southern slopes, so carefully cherished on the northern slopes, they had no inkling that by doing so they were cutting at the roots of the dairy industry in their region; they had still less inkling that they were thereby depriving their mountain springs of water for the greater part of the year, and making it possible for them to pour still more furious torrents on the plains during the rainy seasons.
. . . Thus at every step we are reminded that we by no means rule over nature like a conqueror over a foreign people, like someone standing outside nature—but that we, with flesh, blood and brain, belong to nature, and exist in its midst, and that all our mastery of it consists in the fact that we have the advantage over all other creatures of being able to learn its laws and apply them correctly.(25)

Why is capitalism inherently abusive of nature? Value and accumulation

So far we have seen that nature is crucial to Marx’s definition of labor, and that the disruption of the human relationship with nature is an integral feature of capitalism. I want to turn now to the question of value theory and argue that rather than neglecting nature as some ecologists have claimed, Marx’s theory of value helps us to understand why capitalism is inherently abusive of nature. As Paul Burkett convincingly explains,(26) it is not Marx but capitalism that downgrades and excludes the contribution of nature to production. Marx wrote:

The use values . . . of commodities, are combinations of two elements—matter and labor. If we take away the useful labor expended upon them, a material substratum is always left, which is furnished by Nature without the help of man. . . . We see, then, that labor is not the only source of material wealth, of use values produced by labor.(27)

However, in his labor theory of value Marx is not laying out the way he thinks the world should be or what he thinks is valuable in terms of human need. He is describing economic behavior as it is under capitalism. It is not Marx, but capitalism, that equates only abstract socially necessary labor time with value—that is, value under capitalism is determined by exploited labor (labor expended over and above its own cost) because exploited labor is the source of profit.

Use values—those things provided to us by nature to meet our natural needs—are not valued by capitalism: use values are irrelevant to capitalism except inasmuch as they are “vendible”; that is, only if they have exchange value, which allows for the realization of surplus value or the portion of socially necessary labor time that goes into the production of commodities over and above what the worker needs for the reproduction of her or his labor, which, when realized through exchange, becomes profit.

Marx’s discussion of rents is key to understanding this attitude to nature, as well as to understanding what Marx means when he writes about use values being “free gifts” from nature to capitalism. Because no exploited labor goes into the production of, say, a naturally occurring forest, when a capitalist monopolizes that forest and charges rent for its use, there is no increase in capital to the system as a whole. That is, no labor has gone into producing the forest, so no surplus value can be extracted from it. Nor has it taken up any investment of capital. What’s more, all the conditions that make labor possible—land, air, water—are, at the outset at least, free gifts of nature. This is perhaps why they are also the targets of capitalism’s “externalization” of costs.(28)

The fact that value under capitalism is inextricably tied to exploitation is one obstacle to capitalism having a nonexploitative relationship with nature. Another is the competitive drive for accumulation. Under feudalism, there was a practical limit to exploitation: “Once the lord’s needs had been satisfied, his conspicuous consumption paid for, there was no real need for further exploitation.”(29) But capitalism is different. Just as its dynamics are independent of the needs of the workers, they are also independent of the needs of the capitalists. Capitalism has its own needs. Because production is organized on the basis of competition, investment of capital by one firm must be matched by competing firms making the same product or they risk going bankrupt.

This system of competitive investment, the constant drive to accumulate wealth or value, is central to capitalism. According to Martin Empson, it is “the centrality of the accumulation of wealth in this way that is of greatest importance to understanding the ecological relationship between capitalist society and the natural world. It is because of this dynamic that capitalism relates to nature completely differently to previous human societies.”(30)

Let’s go back for a minute to the fertilizer discussion. Before capitalism, farmers maintained the fertility of the land through natural fertilizers (human and animal waste), crop rotation and polyculture (planting different crops in the same field), leaving fields fallow, slash-and-burn, and “slash-and-char.”(31) But under capitalism this changed. For not only does the scientific knowledge exist to use something other than human waste or animal manure to fertilize fields, but an industry can be made out of it—two industries, in fact: the waste disposal industry and the chemical fertilizer industry, and one provides, at least initially, for the possibility of international expansion. Both of these industries allow plenty of room to exploit labor—much more than letting your cows wander around in the fields for a few days or letting a well-planned and controlled fire redistribute some carbon. And since capitalism’s motivating force is the drive for accumulation, decisions about how fields should be fertilized and how wastes should be disposed of are made with profit, not conservation or sustainability, in mind.

Capitalist competition also leads to “capital’s tendency to accelerate throughput beyond its natural limits,” which is “not just a source of materials shortages and accumulation crises; it is also an integral element in the process of ecological degradation produced by the capitalist division of town and country.”(32) This drive for accelerated throughput has many aspects: increased productivity of labor speeds up the consumption of raw materials, the investment of more capital into machinery requires the increased use of fuels to run the machines, and “competition compels the replacement of the old instruments of labor by new ones before the expiration of their natural life.”(33) And the fact that all this investment goes on without attention to human needs means that there is always a possibility that the commodities produced will not be consumed.

The upshot is that capitalist competitive accumulation is an engine for endless expansion and it necessarily comes into conflict with nature, which has limits. It also leads to the short-termism noted above—that is, the making of decisions about how to allocate resources and interact with nature based on the ability to secure profits rather than on the safeguarding of human lives, the environment, or the coevolution of both. It is not the case that capitalists cannot plan ahead. They are not incapable of setting up future profits. But planning to protect the environment or the people who must live in it is not at the top of their agenda. This is expressed quite clearly by Engels:

As long as the individual manufacturer or merchant sells a manufactured or purchased commodity with the usual coveted profit, he is satisfied and does not concern himself with what afterwards becomes of the commodity and its purchasers. The same thing applies to the natural effects of the same actions. What cared the Spanish planters in Cuba, who burned down forests on the slopes of the mountains and obtained from the ashes sufficient fertilizer for one generation of very highly profitable coffee trees—what cared they that the heavy tropical rainfall afterwards washed away the unprotected upper stratum of the soil, leaving behind only bare rock! In relation to nature, as to society, the present mode of production is predominantly concerned only about the immediate, the most tangible result; and then surprise is expressed that the more remote effects of actions directed to this end turn out to be quite different.(34)

The charge of Prometheanism

Those who charge Marx with Prometheanism or “productivism” insist that Marx was so enamored with capitalism’s capacity to increase productive forces through technology and neutralize the threat of scarcity that he thought (1) that socialism and then communism would leave the capitalist system of production intact, and (2) that socialism and communism would have no need to consider the problem of limited resources. A typical statement of this charge comes from John P. Clark:

Marx’s Promethean and Oedipal “man” is a being who is not at home in nature, who does not see the earth as the “household” of ecology. Rather, he is an indomitable spirit who must subjugate nature in his quest for self-realization. . . . For such a being, the forces of nature, whether in the form of his own unmastered internal nature orthe menacing powers of external nature, must be subdued.(35)

This claim is based on a series of selective quotations, and the specifics of Clark’s selections are revealing; he notes that Marx celebrated the “mastery” of nature through science:

Marx is quite frank in his description of what is left of nature after all “mystical veils” [mythologies explaining nature] are stripped away—and his vision is far from ecological. “For the first time, nature becomes purely an object for humankind,purely a matter of utility; ceases to be recognized as a power for itself; and the theoretical discovery of its autonomous laws appears merely as a ruse to subjugate it under human needs, whether as an object of consumption or as a means of production.”

Clark argues in a footnote that “it is unconvincing and undialectical to interpret this passage as being merely a negative criticism of capitalism. Marx’s point is that despite capitalist abuses there is a true Aufhebung(36) present in which the disenchantment and objectification will be preserved and developed in higher social formations, rather than being annulled.”(37) While it is certainly reasonable to suggest that Marx valued science over the “mystical veils” of mythology, to treat this passage as a blueprint for “higher social formations” seems completely unjustified—especially when one considers that Clark leaves out both the sentence that precedes the passage: “Capital creates the bourgeois society, and the universal appropriation of nature,” and the ones that follow:

In accord with this tendency, capital drives beyond national barriers. . . . It is destructive towards all of this, and constantly revolutionizes it, tearing down all the barriers which hem in the development of the forces of production, the expansion of needs, the all-sided development of production, and the exploitation and exchange of natural and mental forces.(38)

Taking into account the passage above, which Clark saw fit to leave out, as well as the many other passages demonstrating Marx’s concern over soil depletion, water pollution, and other forms of environmental destruction that have been quoted throughout this article, it is not only “unconvincing and undialectical” but also disingenuous to try to reduce Marx’s attitude toward nature to his description of its treatment under capitalism. Even if we stay within the bounds of Clark’s selection, it is difficult to see anything celebratory in Marx’s statement that “the theoretical discovery of [nature’s] autonomous laws appears merely as a ruse to subjugate it under human needs.” To me, this suggests, on the contrary, a much more progressive aim: the discovery of nature’s “autonomous laws”—no longer a ruse—geared toward liberation rather than subjugation. That is, what science would look like if it were not manipulated in the interest of capital.

Clark’s interpretation seems to stem from his compounding of Marx’s ideas with distortions of Marxism that accompanied the rise of Stalin and the defeat of the Russian Revolution, an elision made evident in the following passage:

Most Marxists [fail] to address the question of productionist ideology. Any political regime that legitimates itself on the basis of fulfilling “human needs” through “development ofproductive forces” has an enormous incentive to expand and manipulate material consumptionist needs as a means of social control.(39) There is no reason to think that a system of centralized state socialism (or state capitalism, which is, in fact, what orthodox Marxism advocates) would fulfill “real” needs, rather than creating artificial ones,(40) or that it would resolve the contradiction between the industrial and technological system and “the system of nature.”(41)

If Marx were alive today, Clark’s conception of an “orthodox Marxism” that “advocates” for “state capitalism” would likely cause him to repeat his famous statement: “What is certain is that I myself am not a Marxist.”(42) Far from state capitalism, Marx advocated a society in which the “associated producers”—the majority of society—voluntarily and democratically decide the direction of the economy in the interest of human need rather than of profit, with statelessness as one ultimate goal. Stalin’s anti-Marxist conception of “socialism in one country,” the Soviet Union’s consequent rapid industrialization, and the environmental destruction accomplished through decades of state capitalist competition with the United States(43) have nothing to do with Marx’s vision of humanity’s progressive future. As Chris Williams has argued, in all the so-called socialist societies of the world,

The interests of the ruling Soviet elite became associated with the interests of a state in economic and military competition with the West. . . . In other words, the same factors that propel capitalist production—the need to compete and drive out the competition—reigned within these regimes. Flowing directly from this came the need of each of these one-party states to constantly raise productivity and dispense with any environmental, democratic, or labor concerns in the manic drive toward economic and technological parity with the Western powers. It was the severe lack of power of the working class in the “socialist” countries, not its untrammeled freedom, which created the conditions for the extreme ecological vandalism seen there. As Stalin commented, what took the West one hundred years to accomplish, the Soviet Union would do in ten.(44)

Clark’s critique of Marx illustrates why it is important to read Marx for yourself. One reason for this is the specific nature of Marx’s perspective—not only or even primarily his perspective as a unique human being, but also and more especially the era in which he was writing: a perfect storm of intellectual ferment, the relative freshness of the transition from feudalism to capitalism, and the incidence of repeated revolutionary uprisings. Such critiques also point to the need to closely interrogate the perspectives of those who attempt to interpret Marx.(45) We can all selectively quote Marx until the cows come home, with Clark, Andrew McLaughlin, Wade Sikorski, and others insisting that the weight of Marx’s writing tends toward a devaluation of nature while Foster, Burkett, Williams, and others, including myself, insist that this is wholly inaccurate.

The bottom line is that Marx offers an explanation of and a solution to ecological crisis: capitalism prefigures ecological doom and must be abolished. Clark’s critique fails to take on Marx’s core premise and offers no alternative solution, which brings to mind “Thesis 11” of Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it,”(46) and suggests a revision: “Some ecologists have only interpreted Marx, in various ways; the point is to change the world.” Are we looking at Marx’s writings from a vantage point of identifying those ideas most likely to lead us to a plan for progressive change in the world, in this case, environmental sanity? Or are we attempting to establish a dogma, a “true” interpretation that trumps all others, and if so, to what purpose? Is it in defense of nature or capitalism?

As the discussion of capitalist value and competitive accumulation in the previous section might lead one to expect, Marx’s vision of socialist humanity has nothing to do with subduing either humans or nature. When Marx wrote that capitalism’s development of productive forces made socialism possible, he did not write that they made socialism. He said, in fact, that the entire system—not just the system of distribution but also the system of production—would need to be revolutionized once it was taken in hand by the associated producers.

According to Marx, it is not just the development of technology but also the socialization of production accomplished by capitalism that sets the stage for socialism by removing “prior class-based restrictions on human development.”(47) That is, before capitalism the means of production could only provide enough means of subsistence to allow a minority to develop themselves intellectually, the bulk of the population being taken up with producing for their basic needs. Therefore, capitalism was progressive—momentarily—in that it allowed for humanity to be free from want: the “development of productive forces . . . is an absolutely necessary practical premise [of communism], because without it privation, want is merely made general, and with want the struggle for necessities would begin again, and all the old filthy business would necessarily be restored.”(48) But it is not just this ramping up of the means of production that is important. What is also crucial about the socialization of labor is that it transformed labor from an individualized process into a collective process. This collective process of production has come progressively into conflict with private extraction of profits. And it is the contradiction inherent in capitalism’s capacity to produce to meet human needs and its simultaneous failure to do so because of the demands of competitive accumulation that prevent capitalism from being a progressive system pretty much as soon as it comes into being, which is why it not only needs to be overthrown politically but reorganized economically.

Marx’s idea about what constitutes the full development of human nature is crucial to understanding what he felt the human metabolism with nature would look like once it was in the hands of the associated producers. It also important to understand what Marx meant by human needs; he not only had a critique of capitalist production but also of capitalist consumption. He did not think that after the revolution people would be jonesing to participate in a bacchanal of unrestrained of consumerism—that is, a general amping up of the genesis of needs and the means of production to fulfill them until nature is destroyed. Quite the contrary. Marx believed that one of the human needs not being met by capitalism was the need for a direct and appreciative relationship with nature and a whole lot more free time through which to develop it.

Human liberation as the completion of ourselves as human beings

One of the things that Marx is not often accused of saying is that we should all go back to nature. However, I want to argue that this is, in fact, exactly what Marx had in mind—but not in the way that a return to nature is usually conceived; that is, I don’t think that we can draw from Marx that the solution to our alienation is to eschew technology, give up flush toilets, and eat raw food. Marx and Engels did talk about removing the divide between town and country by distributing people more evenly over the land. But, more basically, a postrevolutionary “return” to nature would consist of the collective, democratic, and informed involvement of workers in the rational planning of our labor and of our relationship to nature. It would mean democratically reorganizing production to satisfy human needs and reclaim our place in nature, with nature being the collective “property” of the people rather than the private property of a small minority. Marx was clear about this and the fact that his conception of “collective property” had nothing to do with how property and ownership are currently conceived:

From the standpoint of a higher socio-economic formation, the private property of particular individuals in the earth will appear just as absurd as the private property of one man in other men. Even an entire society, a nation, or all simultaneously existing societies taken together, are not the owners of the earth. They are its simple possessors, its beneficiaries, and have to bequeath it in an improved state to succeeding generations.(49)

Like much of his thought, Marx’s conception of human needs is often distorted, either by bourgeois ideology about human nature or the realities of the so-called socialist societies that have existed to date. But if you actually read the body of Marx’s work, you will find that his vision of communism has nothing to do with an orgy of consumerism, as some imagine based on capitalism, or a drab uniformity of deprivation based on existing so-called socialist states. Marx’s requirements for the full development of human nature are quite high, encompassing not only freedom from physical want, access to physical health, and the ability to directly coevolve with nature, but also the higher development of the sensual, intellectual, and creative faculties—that is, the fullest development of our human nature. As he writes in the Communist Manifesto, under communism, “in place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.”(50)

That is, as human beings, it is true, we experience needs that necessitate or constitute our metabolic relationship with nature. However, and Marx is clear about this on the first page of the first chapter of the first volume of Capital, over time these needs are socially transformed as the development of the productive forces allows us to more fully develop ourselves as human beings. For example, we get hungry, we want to eat, and nature provides us with certain things, like those cranberries that the German peasant children used to collect before the forests were privatized. But as human beings we are also capable, in eating those cranberries, of saying to ourselves: You know, these cranberries could use a little something. I think that boiled in a pot with some water and sugar, sprinkled with a flour and butter crumble, baked for 25 minutes at 350 degrees, and topped with vanilla cream sauce, these cranberries could be really excellent.

Just as it is a part of human nature to eat, it is a part of human nature to imaginatively conceive of how to make things better and then to be able to fully appreciate them when we do. This is not only true for food, but for music, visual arts, poetry, history, science, and nature. We have the capacity to understand, appreciate, and transform nature in a way that other animals can’t—ever wonder why your dog will happily eat its own vomit? Its taste buds are different from yours. And it is our duty to ourselves and to our inorganic body, nature, to develop our human capacities to the fullest. “‘It is therefore not only in thought but through all the senses that man is affirmed in the objective world. . . . The cultivation of the five senses is the work of all previous history.’ Emancipation from the alienation of private property is for Marx also ‘the complete emancipation of the human qualities and sense.’”(51)

In order to accomplish this, Marx thought that what was most necessary was not a further ramping up of production but an increase in free time. In fact, Marx went so far as to believe that under communism, value should not be determined by the so-called socially necessary exploited labor, but rather by leisure. Think of the impact of increased leisure time on our organic bodies, how much better we would be able to develop ourselves if we had more of it. Think of the impact of increased leisure time on our inorganic body, on nature. If we are not producing, we are not exploiting our relationship with nature. Immediately, the pressure begins to ease.

Marx’s understanding of the human relationship with nature and his conception of the full development of human nature go far beyond labor and are, to me, the most exciting and inspiring positive aspects of his theory because of the power they have to overcome the many rifts produced as a result of or at least simultaneously with the metabolic rift of primitive accumulation: the split between human beings and nature, between mind and body, between natural and human science, and between natural and human history.(52)

That is, rather than seeing human nature as opposed and antagonistic to nature more broadly conceived, Marx recognized that since the beginning of our history, human beings have coevolved with and transformed nature, just as nature has transformed us. It is also important to note that both before and during capitalism, the transformations that humans have worked on nature have not always been negative, as Charles Mann in 1491 and the many contributors to The Social Lives of Forests make clear.(53) In fact, discounting the healthy, biodiversity-increasing effects of fire in forest stewardship by the Indigenous peoples of the Americas is one of the ways that capitalist society continues to promote racism and suppress Native American cultures. Short of the extinction of the human race, which unfortunately is not an impossibility, there will be an ongoing social transformation of nature and a natural transformation of society. The question is, what kind of relationship will it be?

Those who claim that Marx was enthusiastic about increases in productive capacity made possible by technological advances under capitalism are correct; he was. But Marx was not a proponent of technology for technology’s sake. He recognized that investment in technology is a requirement of capitalist competition. Without this requirement, we are significantly unbound. We can choose to use technology when it aids our harmonious coevolution with nature and reject it when it doesn’t. We can also return to Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) that is in the hands and minds of Indigenous societies. Currently, TEK is seen primarily as a threat to capitalism, as is made obvious in Chris Williams’s article about water use in Kenya:

Pastoralism in arid and semiarid lands is the most ecologically sustainable method for surviving in a water-stressed environment. This is why so many people in East Africa are pastoralists, and have been successful at it for so long. Despite official rhetoric to the contrary, pastoralism plays little role in Kenyan government thinking about the future of Kenya—other than as something to eradicate because certain powerful forces consider it “backward.” No government wants 18 percent of its people wandering around independently sustaining themselves, their very mode of life offering a subliminal challenge to capitalist standards of land-use and private property norms, in relative autonomy from central state control, often with grazing ranges across the borders of other states.(54)

Marx, according to Foster, also recognized the importance of TEK:

The most important problem facing the society of associated producers, Marx emphasized again and again in his work, would be to address the problem of the metabolic relation between human beings and nature, under the more advanced industrial conditions prevailing in the wake of the final revolutionary crisis of capitalist society. To this end, it was clearly necessary to learn more about the human relation to nature and subsistence, through the development of property forms, over the great span of ethnological time. Marx was thus driven back, by the materialist precept of his analysis, to a consideration of the origins of human society and the human relation to nature—as a means of envisioning the potential for a more complete transcendence of an alienated existence.(55)

Note that in this vision there is not a jettisoning of technology but an effort to use technology in a way that is more in keeping with a healthy relationship with nature through an understanding of how that relationship was mediated before capitalism. There are those who discount traditional knowledges of all sorts because they claim they are unscientific. I disagree. I think that such dismissals are based on an overprivileging of written history and understandings of science that are circumscribed by capitalist priorities. In any case, we also don’t have to jettison Marx to study and advocate for the preservation of certain Indigenous or traditional approaches to nature because that is precisely what Marx was doing towards the end of his life.

In addition to organizing production and thereby constructing our relationship with nature on the basis of human need rather than profit and accumulation, in a socialist society our decisions must also be, according to Marx, truly democratic. The democratic decision-making of associated producers, the increased availability of scientific information, and the progressive development of human intellectual faculties allowed through an increase in free time—all of which Marx saw as some of the defining attributes of socialism—would mean more people participating in a more informed way in decisions around our relationship to nature.

In charging Marx with Prometheanism and anthropocentrism, critics often point to statements Marx and Engels made about the “subjection of nature’s forces to humanity” and their positive response to the idea of “clearing whole continents for cultivation” because they were more concerned with preventing famine than preserving the wilderness.(56)</supWhile I hope I have made clear that such apparently anti-ecological statements need to be contextualized, I also want to stress that real democracy is central to Marx’s conception of a future society and that Marxism is a living theory—that is, it is a method, not a dogma. As the cultivators of that theory, as eco-socialists, we get to decide which of Marx’s treatments of nature we think need to be carried forward and which left behind.

Can capitalism improve its relationship with nature?

I want to end by going back to the beginning. At the start of this article I mentioned that Marx’s analysis of capitalism could help to save us from two traps that ecological thinkers and the environmental movement have fallen into in the past—a faith in and a commitment to the greening of capitalism and the projection of a purified, abstract nature that has no relationship to human beings and is better off that way. I want to point out that these two views are not incompatible, nor are they progressive.

Can environmental degradation be effectively avoided and biospheric destruction through human activities be realistically prevented under capitalism? As John Bellamy Foster puts it, the empirical evidence is not good. Despite the dire predictions of the vast majority of the world’s scientists that human-produced climate change is threatening our continued existence on the planet, capitalism is nowhere close to taking any steps that might make a significant difference. According to some environmentalists, this is because the market has everything under control. As Foster points out:

Ecological modernization theorists, such as Arthur Mol, do not view environmental degradation as an inherent characteristic of capitalist development. They remain zealous socio-techno-optimists, believing that the forces of modernization will lead to the dematerialization of society and the decoupling of the economy from energy and material consumption, allowing human society, under capitalism, to transcend the environmental crisis. Some proponents of this position, such as Charles Leadbeater, argue that as the economy develops, it is producing a weightless society that is more knowledge based and less reliant on natural resources.(57)

It is Leadbeater and Mol who should be critiqued for their productivism, not Marx—especially since the weightless, dematerialized society they “describe” is a complete myth. As Sara Volle points out in her review of Frank Webster’s Theories of the Information Society:

It is in fact still impossible to live on thin air. And yet that is precisely what an “information” or “post-industrial society” (PIS) feigns to do. The reality, of course, is a far less tidy one—a world inconveniently occupied by sweatshop labor, polluted rivers, credit default swaps, melting polar ice caps, etc., etc.—those familiar yet often sanitized casualties of the “more for less” ethos of a “post-industrial” society.(58)

Compared to this, Marx’s vision of a society of associated producers with scads of free time and a healthy relationship with both nature and technology developing our abilities to touch, taste, smell, see, feel, hear, think, love, and dream to their fullest seems infinitely more attractive and, more importantly, possible. This vision—along with an understanding of why environmental degradation is built into capitalism—is what Marx’s ideas can contribute to the movement against ecological destruction.


  1. Graham Ruddick, “Donald Trump Says U.S. Could Re-Enter Paris Climate Deal,” Guardian (US), January 29, 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018….
  2. Eoghan Macguire, “Paris Agreement Two Years On: Who is Taking the Lead on Climate Change?” CNN, December 19, 2017, https://www.cnn.com/2017/12/12/world/cli….
  3. Tamsin Green, “World Weatherwatch: From Drifts in Paris to Drought in Cape Town,” Guardian, February 14, 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/world/natura….
  4. For a critique of these positions, see Ian Angus and Simon Butler, Too Many People: Population, Immigration, and the Environmental Crisis (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2011).
  5. John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark, and Richard York, The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Earth (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2010), 19-20. See also Chris Williams, Ecology and Socialism (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2010), 117–124.
  6. John Bellamy Foster, Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Nature (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2000), 9–10, and Paul Burkett, Marx and Nature: A Red and Green Perspective (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2014), xxix.
  7. See explanation of metabolic rift later in this essay.
  8. Foster et al., Ecological Rift, 228.
  9. Marx and Engels follow nineteenth-century anthropologist Lewis Morgan in using the terms savagery, barbarism, and civilization as descriptors of different moments of the development of the human relationship to nature. They also mention the “idiocy of rural life” and refer to humanity as “man.” I don’t use these terms as part of my own narrative, but since they will come up in quotations, I want to note that while I recognize them as problematic as they are understood today, these terms did not mean to Marx and Engels what they mean to us. In some instances, they are the product of inaccurate translation: “isolation” better captures what is commonly translated as “idiocy,” and the German word that is translated as “man” in most English editions, mensch, is actually gender neutral.
  10. Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, in Marx and Engels Collected Works (hereafter MECW), vol. 3 (New York: International Publishers, 1975), 276.
  11. Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 1 (New York: Vintage Books, 1977), 283.
  12. Foster, Marx’s Ecology, 72.
  13. Foster, 66–67.
  14. Martin Empson, Land and Labour: Marxism, Ecology, and Human History (London: Bookmarks, 2014) 104.
  15. Empson, Land and Labour, 108.
  16. Empson, 105.
  17. At first this meant adopting alternative forms of subsistence: Marx relates that in the early nineteenth century, the Duchess of Sutherland forcibly replaced the entire population of Sutherland county in Scotland with 131,000 sheep. “Between 1814 and 1820 these 15,000 inhabitants . . . were systematically hunted and rooted out. All their villages were destroyed and burnt, all their fields turned into pasturage. . . . It was in this manner that this fine lady appropriated 794,000 acres of land which had belonged to the clan from time immemorial.” At the end of this process, “the remnant of the original inhabitants, who had been flung onto the sea-shore, tried to live by catching fish.” See Marx, Capital, vol. 1, 891–92.
  18. See Marx, Capital, 874.
  19. Marx, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, 308.
  20. Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 3 (London: Penguin, 1991), 195.
  21. Marx, Capital, vol. 1, 638.
  22. Foster, Marx’s Ecology, 149, 249.
  23. Empson, Land and Labour, 150–151; Foster et al., Ecological Rift, 352–371.
  24. Foster, Marx’s Ecology, 253.
  25. Frederick Engels, “The Part Played by Labor in the Transition from Ape to Man,” in MECW, vol. 25 (New York: International Publishers, 1987), 460–61, 463. Given the charge that Marx and Engels’ interest in ecology was relegated to their early collaborations, it is worth nothing that this passage was written in 1876.
  26. Burkett, Marx and Nature, 79–80.
  27. Marx, Capital, vol. 1, in MECW vol. 35 (New York: International Publishers, 1996), 53.
  28. Burkett, 74–75.
  29. Empson, 209.
  30. Empson, 210.
  31. Charles C. Mann, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, 2nd ed. (New York: Vintage Books, 2011), 356.
  32. Burkett, 108.
  33. Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 2 in MECW, vol. 36 (New York: International Publishers, 1997), 173.
  34. Engels, “The Part Played By Labor in the Transition from Ape to Man,” 463.
  35. John P. Clark, “Marx’s Inorganic Body.” Environmental Ethics 11 (Fall 1989): 243-258, http://www.academia.edu/ 2903908/_Marxs_Inorganic_Body_. The charge that Marx is “Oedipal” as well as Promethean seems like a rhetorical flourish gone awry, muddling as it does the action of Aeschylus’s tragedy (Oedipus killed his father, not his mother) to explain Marx’s supposed hatred of Nature as a mommy issue. Clark also quotes Marx’s early poetry, which just seems like a cheap shot.
  36. Oxford English Dictiona ry definition of Aufehebung: “In Hegelian philosophy: the process by which the conflict between two opposed or contrasting things or ideas is resolved by the emergence of a new idea, which both preserves and transcends them.” https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/defini….
  37. Clark, “Marx’s Inorganic Body,” footnote 48.
  38. Karl Marx, Grundrisse (New York: Penguin Books, 1993), 409–410.
  39. Clark seems to be describing here what capitalism does in the interest of profit rather than what socialism might do in the service of human need. See Chris Williams’s Ecology and Socialism, 124-127.
  40. Again, Clark seems to be describing market capitalism.
  41. Clark, “Marx’s Inorganic Body.”
  42. The remark, quoted by Engels in a letter to Eduard Bernstein, can be found in MECW, vol. 35, 388.
  43. Ankit Panda, “How the Soviet Union Created Central Asia’s Worst Environmental Disaster,” The Diplomat, October 3, 2014, https://thediplomat.com/2014/10/how-the-… -central-asias -worst- environmental-disaster/; Armine Sahakyan, “The Grim Pollution Picture in the Former Soviet Union,” Huffington Post/World Post, https://www.huffingtonpost.com/armine-sa….
  44. Chris Williams, “Marxism and the Environment,”International Socialist Review 72 (July 2010), https://isreview.org/issue/72/marxism-an….
  45. Foster et al., The Ecological Rift, 215.
  46. Karl Marx, Theses on Feuerbach, Thesis 11, in MECW, vol. 5 (New York: International Publishers, 1976), 5.
  47. Burkett, 199.
  48. Marx and Engels, The German Ideology, in MECW, vol. 5, 49.
  49. Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 3 (London: Penguin Books, 1991), 911.
  50. The Communist Manifesto, 71.
  51. Marx quoted and glossed in Foster et al., The Ecological Rift, 231.
  52. Foster, Marx’s Ecology, 210, 229.
  53. Susanna B. Hecht, Kathleen D. Morrison, and Christine Padoch, The Social Lives of Forests: Past, Present, and Future of Woodland Resurgence (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013).
  54. Chris Williams, “Damming the Future: The Struggle to Protect Kenya’s Ewaso Ngiro River,” Truthout, June 17, 2015, http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/31316….
  55. Foster, Marx’s Ecology, 221; emphasis added.
  56. The Communist Manifesto, 46.
  57. Foster et al., The Ecological Rift, 254.
  58. Sara Volle, “The Heaviness of a Weightless Society,” The Politics of Information, September 25, 2012. https://thepoliticsofinformation.wordpre….
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