II. Capitalism and Ecology: The Nature of the Contradiction

By Foster, John Bellamy | Monthly Review, September 2002 | Go to article overview

II. Capitalism and Ecology: The Nature of the Contradiction


Foster, John Bellamy, Monthly Review


The social relation of capital, as we all know, is a contradictory one. These contradictions, though stemming from capitalism's internal laws of motion, extend out to phenomena that are usually conceived as external to the system, threatening the integrity of the entire biosphere and everything within it as a result of capital's relentless expansion. How to understand capitalism's ecological contradictions has therefore become a subject of heated debate among socialists. Two crucial issues in this debate are: (1) must ecological crisis lead to economic crisis under capitalism?, and (2) to what extent is there an ecological contradiction at the heart of capitalist society?

What is at issue here can be best understood if we turn to Marx. One of the key elements in Marx's ecological analysis, as I explained in Marx's Ecology, is his theory of metabolic rift. Marx employed the concept of a rift in the metabolic relation between human beings and the earth to capture the material estrangement of human beings within capitalist society from the natural conditions that formed the basis for their existence. One way in which this manifested itself was in the extreme separation of town and country under capitalism, which grew out of the separation of the mass of the population from the soil.

Nineteenth century agricultural chemists, most notably Justus von Liebig, had discovered that the loss of soil nutrients--such as nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium--through the exportation of food and fiber to the city--was disrupting the soil nutrient cycle and undermining capitalist agriculture, while burying cities in waste. Rather than constituting a rational form of production, British high farming (the most advanced capitalist agriculture of the day) could be best described, according to Liebig, as a "robbery system" because of its effects on the soil. The historical answer of the system to this declining soil productivity was, initially, importation of vast quantities of bones from the Continent and guano (bird droppings) from Peru, and, later, the development of synthetic fertilizers. Synthetic fertilizers, however, created further problems. Thus arose an ever widening and more complex metabolic rift, leading to the severe disarticulations in the nature-society relation that characterize contemporar y agriculture and industry.

Marx recognized that this metabolic rift represented a problem of sustainability. In an oft-quoted passage he remarked that capitalism sapped the vitality of the everlasting sources of wealth--the soil and the worker. Nor was the problem of the metabolic rife confined simply to the soil. Marx developed an account of sustaiability--the conservation and if need be "restoration" of the earth so that it could be passed on in an equal or "improved" state to the succeeding chain of human generations--chat directly addressed such issues as soil nutrient recycling, pollution, sanitary conditions, deforestation, floods, desertification, climate change, recycling of industrial wastes, diversity of species, the commodification of species, and other issues. His closely related studies of evolutionary theory led him toward notions of coevolution. His conflict with Malthus forced him to consider the historical (rather than natural) sources of "overpopulation" (a term Marx used while Malthus did not). Marx's analysis of pri mitive accumulation pointed to the separation of workers from the land as the formative contradiction of capitalism. His critique of political economy highlighted the commodification of all of life and the dominant role played by accumulation without end, rooted in exchange value as opposed to use value. Quoting Thomas Muntzer, the revolutionary leader of the sixteenth century German Peasants War, Marx observed: it is intolerable that '"all creatures have been made into property, the fish in the water, the birds in the air, the plants on the earth--all living things must also become free'" (Muntzer, Collected Works, p. …

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