Marx’s Theory of Metabolic Rift • Philosophy 100 (Ted Stolze)
Four “Camps” regarding Marx and Ecology • Marx’s thought was completely anti-ecological and indistinguishable from later Soviet practice. • Marx provided many insights into ecology but was a kind of pro-technological “Promethean” who argued that environmental problems would automatically be eliminated as a result of postcapitalist “abundance.” • Marx provided an analysis of ecological degradation within capitalist agriculture, which remained, however, isolated from his core social analysis (of classes and periodic economic crises). • Marx developed a systematic approach to nature and to environmental degradation under capitalism (particularly in relation to the fertility of the soil) that was closely connected with the rest of his thought and raised the question of ecological sustainability. (*) (*) This is Bellamy Foster’s own position.
What is “Metabolism”? Metabolism = a complex process through which “an organism (or a given cell) draws upon materials and energy from its environment and converts these by way of various…reactions into the building blocks of proteins and other compounds necessary for growth” (p. 179).
Marx’s Concept of Social-Ecological Metabolism Bellamy Foster points out that Marx defined the labor process in general by using the concept of metabolism (p. 177): “Labor is, first of all, 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. He confronts the materials of nature as a force of nature. He sets into motion the natural forces which belong to his own body, his arms, legs, head, and hands, in order to appropriate the materials of nature in a form adapted to his own needs. Through this movement he acts upon external nature and changes it, and in this way he simultaneously changes his own nature….It [the labor process] is the universal condition for the metabolic interaction between man and nature, the everlasting nature-imposed condition of human existence” (Capital, Volume 1 [New York: Vintage, 1976], pp. 283, 290).
Marx on Unsustainable Practices • Pollution in London and poor sewage systems • Capitalist agriculture’s tendency to exhaust the soil • Squandering of coal reserves • Deforestation • Overall, Marx rejected the idea that nature is a “free gift” to capitalist production that can be ignored by economists (pp. 184-85).
Marx on Sustainability As Bellamy Foster observes, “there is no indication anywhere in Marx’s writings that he believed that a sustainable relation to the earth would come automatically with the transition to socialism. Rather, he emphasized the need for planning in this area, including such measures as the elimination of the antagonism between town and country through the more even dispersal of the population and the restoration and improvement of the soil through the recycling of soil nutrients. All of this demanded a radical transformation in the human relation to the earth via changed production relations. Capitalism, Marx wrote, ‘creates the material conditions for a new and higher synthesis, a union of agriculture and industry on the basis of the forms that have developed during the period of their antagonistic isolation.’ But in order to achieve this ‘higher synthesis’ in a society of freely associated producers, he argued, it would be necessary for the associated producers to ‘govern the human metabolism with nature in a rational way’—a requirement that raised fundamental challenges for post-capitalist society” (pp. 183-84).
An Animated Overview of Social-Ecological Metabolism Watch Annie Leonard’s video The Story of Stuff (available at www.storyofstuff.com/)