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Marx, Engels and Metabolic Rift – Part One

Originally published: Rebel News on October 20, 2020 (more by Rebel News)  |

In contrast to the misconception that Marx and Engels were only concerned about economics, in this first of two articles, Mark Walsh highlights how they in fact had plenty to say about environmental degradation, focusing in particular on thier notion of a metabolic rift.

Let us not, however, flatter ourselves too much on account of our victories over nature. For each victory nature takes its revenge on us.”–Dialectics of Nature, Friedrich Engels.

Despite our assumed position as Earth’s dominant species, we have seen our society effectively shut down by a virus. Friedrich Engels’s caution against hubris, written over a century and half ago, seems particularly apt. And while we grapple with one monster, the far deadlier beast of climactic catastrophe grows ever more menacing. Despite our scientific knowledge and technological prowess, one thing remains clear. We are not the masters over nature. We are part of nature. And the idea that we can view ourselves and our economy, as existing independently of the natural world, could be the end of us.

There are some who argue environmental destruction is an inevitable consequence of human existence. A cursory glance at our recent history might seem to support this. Indeed, some environmentalists argue that seven and half billion humans is simply too much. This view is both dangerous and deeply misleading. For one thing, it is precisely the countries with the highest birth rates which consume and pollute the least. Thus, if the poorest half of humanity disappeared in the morning, it would do virtually nothing to improve the situation.

Human Nature

Moreover, while blaming humanity or human nature might feel like an explanation, it does not really get us anywhere. The human species in its current form, Homo Sapiens, has existed for about two hundred thousand years. For much of that time, human interaction with nature was more or less harmonious. So, what changed? Is it simply that there are far more of us, or that we have the knowledge and capability to produce and consume so much? Or is there something else, perhaps rooted in the way our society is organized that is driving us to the precipice?

One person who thought deeply about this problem was Engels’ lifelong friend and collaborator, Karl Marx. This is not well known–with many, even sympathetic to Marx, assuming he had little to say on ecological matters. This assumption goes that Marx saw worker’s control of production and in turn, of nature, as the key to creating a better world. Thus, nature was simply a resource to be exploited.

This view, which is sometimes described as “productivist” or “Promethean” (after Prometheus who stole fire from the Gods and gave it to mortals), is a distortion, obscuring what is actually a rich source of environmentalist thought. Far from being ambivalent about nature, Marx and Engels had in fact a profoundly nuanced and holistic understanding of humanity’s place in the natural world.

The Metabolic Rift

Central to this understanding is the notion of metabolic rift, a term coined by University of Oregon academic John Bellamy Foster to describe one of Marx’s key insights. This notion was based on cutting edge developments in the new science of metabolism and in particular the work of German organic chemist Justus von Liebig. Marx’s writings on this topic provide a detailed analysis of the way in which capitalist cycles of extraction and production with their incessant and growing rapidity, were driving a rift in our relationship with nature and its ancient cycles and timelines.

The essential idea is as follows. The natural world is filled with cyclical processes which have emerged and stabilized over deep time. One example is the Carbon Cycle which involves the flow of carbon dioxide between the atmosphere and the oceans and plays a vital role in regulating the Earth’s temperature. Another involves the returning to the soil in the form of plant and animal waste the nutrients necessary for further plant growth. Indeed, the basic fact learned by every school child that carbon dioxide is exhaled by animals as waste but is absorbed by plants, is part of exactly such a process.

The more general phenomenon of one species’ excretions providing nutrients for another is ubiquitous in nature and allows for the continued recycling of essential elements. For instance, without such recycling the Earth’s vegetation would absorb virtually all atmospheric carbon in a few thousand years.

A metabolic rift is, in essence, the disruption of one of these cycles. Thus, the separation of animals from vegetation can lead to a rift if the animal manure does not reach the soil of the plants. The manure in turn becomes a pollutant while the plants require synthetic fertiliser. This latter example describes a break in the cycle. Alternatively, a cycle may become overloaded. Consider the Carbon cycle. Carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere traps heat. As the atmospheric temperature increases, more and more of this CO2 is absorbed into the oceans. When the atmosphere cools, this is reversed.

Over millions of years this process has stabilized in such a way as to keep the Earth’s temperature within a narrow range, one conducive to our needs. It keeps Earth from being too cold like Mars or too hot like Venus. In the last couple of centuries however, through the burning of fossil fuels, enormous quantities of carbon which were buried underground, and therefore disjoint from the cycle, have been injected into the atmosphere. This recent overloading, which is already evident in ice core data, is destabilising a vital regulatory system with potentially catastrophic consequences for life on Earth.

Nature as cyclical processes

The notion that nature is filled with cyclical processes is not a new one. At an intuitive level, at least, it has been known for millenia. The Roman philosopher Lucretius, who Marx admired, conveyed this concept in his great poem De Rerum Natura:

Things do not utterly perish. Since nature recruits one thing from another nor suffers anything to be produced unless its production be furthered by the death of another…

However, it was not until the mid-nineteenth century and the work of the Justus von Liebig that these ideas began to be made concrete and scientifically rigorous. Liebig pioneered the study of metabolism (which he called Stoffwechsel, literally stuff-change), the analysis of the material cycles which are essential to life.

At the time, the problem of declining soil fertility was leading to a serious crisis in food production all over Europe. Liebig demonstrated that the transport of food from the countryside to distant towns was preventing the return to the soil of vital nutrients such as Nitrogen, Phosphorous and Potassium contained in food waste, animal excrement etc. This was leading both to major pollution problems in the cities and a long-term fertility crisis in the land.

In his copious scientific papers, Liebig eloquently explained the principle of re-cycling:

All of the innumerable products of vitality resume, after death, the original form from which they sprung… the complete dissolution of an existing generation becomes the source of life for a new one.

Liebig’s work and the new agricultural chemistry had a tremendous influence on Marx which he described to Engels as being “…more important for this matter than all the economists put together.”

Scientific Developments

Before discussing this further it is important to realise that Marx and Engels were greatly influenced by all of the science of their day; Engels in particular read omnivorously and demonstrated in his writings an astute understanding of the nature of scientific development. Of particular interest to both Marx and Engels were the discoveries of Charles Lyell in Geology and Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace in Biology. This work undermined the idea that the Earth was a static backdrop on which human affairs unfolded.

Instead, it had a deep history and was ever changing. Human beings, like all other organisms, were not placed on the Earth fully formed but arose gradually from much simpler organisms by a process of evolution through natural selection, forming the tip of one branch of a great tree of life.

Following from Darwin’s work, we now know that not only are we part of nature, we have co-evolved with it. This evolutionary process has taken place over an unimaginably long time period, something which our local intuition finds very difficult to grasp. The world around us, along with its many cycles and restorative processes, was not created to suit our needs or the needs of any other organism.

Adaptation and Co-evolution

Instead we have adapted to it. Those organisms which did not adapt, perhaps because change came to rapidly, went extinct. The fact, for example, that we use oxygen to release energy from our food, arises from adaptations made by ancient organisms to cope with increasing amounts of oxygen in the Earth’s early atmosphere, a by-product of photosynthetic bacteria. For those organisms which did not make such adaptations, this increasingly prevalent oxygen was a poison.

Over time, certain natural cycles develop which on the scale of a human lifetime may seem stable and unchanging but over longer (epochal) time periods, may not be. Change in nature is often non-linear. Indeed, nature is full of “tipping points”. What might begin as a gradual incremental process, the melting of an icecap in response to a slight increase in temperature say, may turn into a self-feeding cycle as the lack of reflective ice allows more heat to be trapped. Given the inter-connectivity of the Earth system, the induced ripple of change begetting change has myriad consequences: ocean acidification, release of methane from formerly frozen tundra further raising temperature, disruption of ocean currents etc.

Thus, what begins as a gradual quantitative change can lead to dramatic qualitative change.

Change is universal

This notion of change is central to Marx’s ideas. While observing the rapid growth of the capitalist system all around him, Marx saw that the political and economic structures of our society were not permanent fixtures. Instead they had a history.

Different social structures came and went. Capitalism was just the latest one, emerging from the decaying feudal order. Various naive idealistic explanations existed: that this was part of a divine plan or an upward march of reason. Just as Darwin’s theory had dispensed of these sorts of teleological explanations of the history of the natural world, Marx sought to do likewise at the level of human society.

More than this, Marx realized that human society could not be understood in isolation from nature. This is in contrast to most of mainstream economic theory which sees the economic sphere as existing independently of the natural sphere and unconstrained by scientific laws. This artificial separation allows many economists to regard economic growth as inconsequential to the external world, treating the economy as a sort of “perpetual motion machine” and flouting fundamental physical principles such as the laws of thermodynamics.

Marx grounded his theory in the material world, realizing that before humans could pursue politics, art, literature or anything we would call culture, they must first interact with nature to provide food, shelter, clothing etc. Generalising Liebig’s work, Marx saw this interaction as a form of social metabolism. In Capital, Marx studied in depth the effects that the priorities of capitalism were having on this metabolic interface. Regarding the crisis in soil fertility, he wrote:

Capitalist production collects the population together in great centres… disturbing 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.

He went on to say that:

Capitalist agriculture produces conditions that provoke an irreparable rift in the interdependent process of social metabolism, a metabolism prescribed by the natural laws of life itself.

A System of Robbery

Marx described European farming as a “robbery system” whereby not only were agricultural workers and small tenant farmers robbed of the fruits of their labour through exploitation and oppressive rental schemes, the very nutrients were robbed from the soil. Nowhere was this truer than in Ireland where, as Marx observed, British imperialism had held back virtually all attempts at industrial development and made the country almost purely agricultural. The result of Ireland’s role as breadbasket for the British Empire was a long-term depletion in the fertility of Irish soil. As Marx wrote:

England has indirectly exported the soil of Ireland without even allowing its cultivators the means of replacing the constituents of the exhausted soil.

Marx and Engels paid a great deal of attention to Ireland and its suffering under British imperialism. They studied the effects of colonialism at every level, the economic, the social and especially the ecological, creating detailed statistical reports. Interestingly, Engels wrote extensive notes for a History of Ireland which contained detailed ecological and geological descriptions of the land and climate. Unfortunately, the work was never finished.

All of this has been extensively studied (and made accessible) by the Maynooth sociologist Eamon Slater and anyone interested in this topic can find a plethora of fascinating research articles on Slater’s own site.

Irish soil

Marx saw what he described as the colonisation of the Irish soil as unfolding over two stages separated by the Great Famine. In the pre-Famine years, those working the land were usually cottiers who lived on small rented holdings. Commodity crops like grain were grown for sale in order to pay rent while, on what land remained, potatoes provided subsistence. Such workers had some interest in maintaining the fertility of the soil they worked using methods like animal manuring.

However, the precarious nature of their tenure and the level of exploitation they were under meant that such measures as they could implement were at best temporary. Often their position was at the bottom of a chain of landlords and middlemen. The compound effect of this was staggeringly high rents which usually forced the renter, on top of an already gruelling existence, into providing extra labour for landowners as a means of subsidy. Marx described this process as “rack-renting”, likening it to a medieval torture device. What is worse, the profits extracted from such rental schemes were rarely put back into the land but were invested overseas.

Rack-renting to the Famine

Whatever little small holders and cottiers were able to provide in maintaining soil nutrition during this period evaporated during the Great Famine as a large proportion of this population starved to death or emigrated. The forced dependence of so much of the population on one crop meant that when a fungal blight ravaged potato harvests, the effects were catastrophic.

In turn these effects were greatly exacerbated by the indifference and cruelty of the British government’s market-based response. From the 1840s onwards, amid the wholesale clearance by landlords of peasants and cottiers from their estates, the rate of soil deterioration accelerated far beyond the pre-famine levels. Writing in the 1860s Marx noted that:

Since the exodus, the land has been underfed and over-worked partly from the injudicious consolidation of farms, and partly because, under the [previous] system, the farmer in a great measure trusted to his labourers to manure the land for him. Hence, sterilisation (gradual) of land, as in Sicily by the ancient Romans (Ditto in Egypt).

Marx went on to observe the criminal irony that a country that had been forced into an almost entirely agricultural state was rapidly losing the ability to feed even its own (substantially reduced) population.

Though the situation in Ireland was rather extreme, the general crisis in soil fertility was the subject of huge public debate throughout Europe. Leibig argued in favour of healing this metabolic rift (and the chronic pollution problems in the cities) by establishing schemes to return human waste to the land. As this would likely involve serious economic and social reconfiguration, it was deemed cheaper and easier to simply dispose of waste in the sea and import South American bird guano to provide much-needed Nitrogen for the soil. This was not a long-term solution and by the 1890s these sources were running out.

Part two of this article, explores how such solutions have developed on the basis of capitalist priorities and in the process threatens global environmental disaster and increasing exposure to deadly pandemics for humanity.

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