marx ecology

Some criticise Marx as anti-environmental, but understanding his ecology is essential to grasping his critique of capitalism, finds Elaine Graham-Leigh


Kohei Saito, Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism. Capitalism, nature and the unfinished Critique of Political Economy, (Monthly Review Press 2017), 308pp.


John Bellamy Foster and Paul Burkett, Marx and the Earth. An anti-critique, (Haymarket Books 2017), x, 316pp.

In 2001, as a Green Party candidate in the general election, I was invited onto local radio to debate with the Socialist Alliance candidate. The interviewer, as it turned out, was hoping for a no-holds-barred ideological battle and was most disappointed when we candidates found ourselves agreeing with each other on every question he put. “You’re a green and he’s a socialist” he complained. “You’re not supposed to be on the same side!”

In this, he was reflecting a view then some twenty years in the making, that socialism was inherently anti-ecological. The development of ecosocialist theory, starting in the late 1970s, took the environmentally-unfriendly character of socialism as a given, attempting to graft green ideas onto socialist ones to rectify this failing. As Bellamy Foster and Burkett point out, this ‘coincided with enhanced criticism of the environmental performance of Soviet-style societies’ (Bellamy Foster and Burkett, p.3). While it owed much to the memory of forced industrialisation and five-year plans, it also reflected a view of Marx as ‘Promethean’. Prometheus, in Greek myth, stole fire from the gods to give it to mortals, so in this context, he represents technology and the quest for scientific knowledge. The accusation against Marx was therefore that he ‘uncritically praised the progress of technology and productive forces under capitalism’, anticipating that human ingenuity would always be able to counter problems of production (Saito, p.9).

As Saito describes, this remains a dominant view of Marx in some quarters, for example in Germany. For Anglophone readers, Burkett in his Marx and Nature (1999) and Bellamy Foster in his Marx’s Ecology (2000) set out convincing refutations of the idea that Marx was uninterested in ecological issues, both of which have been important influences on the debate. The influence of these works has made it harder than it used to be to argue, in English at least, that Marx ignored ecology. There remains a sense, however, that a Marxist understanding of capitalism’s interactions with the natural world is still necessarily insufficient. Marx’s ecology may point out ‘the banal fact that capitalism is bad for the environment’ (Saito, p.12), but in some views it hardly goes beyond that.

New criticisms

Bellamy Foster and Burkett here take on the new criticisms of Marx’s ecological thought. These are various enough to give the impression, rightly or wrongly, that some have been looking for reasons to object to Marx’s ecology ever since Bellamy Foster and Burkett’s earlier works. Some appear to arise from a familiar misunderstanding of the importance of Marx’s method in analysing developments in capitalism which happened long after his death. Thus, there is a strain of argument which holds that Marx has nothing relevant to say about ecology because he did not take into account central concerns of the modern green movement such as renewable-energy sources.

Other criticisms of Marx’s ecological thinking take a different tack in trying to locate a fatal flaw in his reasoning, such as that he neglected to consider the second law of thermodynamics (that in a closed system entropy will increase over time). Despite the previous work done by Bellamy Foster and Burkett, it is notable how many of these criticisms are still based in a conception of Marx as fundamentally a productivist. Saral Sarkar, for example, argued in 2012 that many of Marx’s ‘basic positions have become indefensible’ from an ecological point of view and that his great failing was that he rejected Malthus’ ideas on overpopulation and limits to production (Bellamy Foster and Burkett, p.13).

In refuting these accusations against Marx, Bellamy Foster and Burkett give a reminder not just that Marx did indeed understand about entropy and had a considered rejection of Malthus’ anti-proletarian position, but that his analysis of capitalism was an ecological one. Marx’s analysis of capitalism shows how it is a system of value accumulation based on environmental destruction; the ‘depletion and despoliation of natural wealth’ (Bellamy Foster and Burkett, p.221). The creation of surplus value requires both labour and the natural resources on which that labour works. Accumulation is therefore dependent on the appropriation of natural resources, and capitalism’s need for constant accumulation is therefore set against the necessarily limited supply of those natural resources which are its prerequisite.

At the same time, the commodification of these natural resources leads to the metabolic rift, where nutrients are seized from one part of the world to become pollutants elsewhere. The ecological damage this causes is not an accidental product of a type of capitalist production, but as much a part of the operation of the capitalist system as is exploitation of labour. It is no more possible to have an ecologically-friendly capitalist system than it is to have one in which workers are paid the full value of the products of their labour.

Marx’s writing on ecology

The full force of Marx’s ecological understanding is deniable partly because his writings on ecology are dispersed across different works. Marx did not produce a work specifically on ecology, and Engels’ Dialectics of Nature is unfinished. Planned discussions, such as the analysis of ground rent intended for the third volume of Capital, would undoubtedly have brought together the strands of ecological thought visible in Marx’s extant works, but this again went unfinished at Marx’s death. This may have contributed to the accusations that Marx’s ecological thought was piecemeal and unsystematic.

Against this perception, Saito makes a convincing case that Marx’s ecological understanding is an indivisible part of his thought. Without the ecological element, it is not possible to understand Marx’s critique of political economy.

‘Marx does not simply claim that humanity destroys the environment. Rather, his “materialist method” investigates how the reified movement of capital reorganises the trans-historical metabolism between humans and nature and negates the fundamental material condition for sustainable human development’ (Saito, p.133).

Saito constructs his argument in part from Marx’s previously unpublished natural science notebooks, but this is not simply an instance of newly discovered works changing our understanding of an author. Some of Saito’s most telling points are rooted not in the new sources but in an understanding of Marx as a systematic thinker whose conception of capitalism as a totality meant, of course, that his ecological insights were part of that whole.

One consequence of this understanding is that it changes the timescales for the environmental damage caused by capitalist production. There can be a tendency in green thought to locate this damage at some point in the future: capitalism will destroy the planet if we don’t take action. This works fine as a slogan but, as Saito points out, it misrepresents the effect of capitalism on the environment. It is not the case that capitalism will damage the environment in the future; it was doing it in Marx’s time and it is continuing to do it now. Marx’s analysis shows that environmental degradation is not an eventual consequence of capitalism but an inevitable, present accompaniment.

Having restated the centrality of ecology to Marx’s analysis of capitalism, it might be tempting to conclude that the only disagreement between a Marxist and a green anti-capitalist position would lie in the historical misunderstandings and misrepresentations of Marx’s views. It is clear however from both Bellamy Foster and Burkett and from Saito that there remain real differences between Marxism and some green thinking.

Marx against Malthus

For Marx, human society has always managed a metabolic relationship with the natural world. Freed from the capitalist requirement for accumulation, that relationship could be managed in a sustainable way for the benefit of all. Without capitalism, as Marx wrote in the Economic and Political Manuscripts, ‘the earth ceases to be an object of huckstering, and through free labour and free enjoyment becomes, once more, a true personal property of man’ (Saito, p.43). This is an example of what some greens have called the homocentrism of Marx, as opposed to a nature-centred approach to ecological questions. For those who criticise Marx on this basis, ecological thinking is only valuable if it avoids centring human society, thus for example the approval for Rosa Luxemburg’s letter about the slaughter of the buffalo in the US in which she imagined the feelings of the buffalo (Bellamy Foster and Burkett, p.40).

One consequence of this nature-centred line of argument is that the position that individuals’ take on human questions can seem less important than their views on ecology. It is this attitude which leads green writer Daniel Worster, for example, to praise General Jan Smuts (best known, as Bellamy Foster and Burkett point out, as the man who arrested Gandhi) for ‘his appreciation of nature’s intrinsic value’, without apparently noticing that Smuts’ ecological racism served as a theoretical justification for mass killings of South Africa’s black population (Bellamy Foster and Burkett, p.49). It is also an approach which enables some greens to ignore the profoundly regressive nature of Malthus’ arguments about overpopulation – in the first edition of his essay on population, he advocated allowing the poor to go ahead and starve – in order to adopt his thinking on natural limits.

Malthus’ view was that the population, swelled by the ranks of the undeserving poor, was already reaching the absolute limit of the numbers that could be supported on the earth. Considering only numbers and not the economic systems in which those numbers lived and needed to feed themselves, he presented the existence of a reserve army of labour as the natural state of things rather than as a creation of capitalism. Marx perceived correctly that Malthus’ essay was an attack on the poor and a justification for their exploitation; a gift to the industrial bourgeoisie.

This does not mean that Marx believed that there were no natural limits to production. As Saito sets out, Marx was very much aware of the fundamental contradiction in capitalism between the need for constant accumulation and the limited resources required to achieve this. The difference between Marxism and Malthusianism here is not the concern for natural limits but the understanding of production and consumption as occurring not on a straight per capita basis but within the capitalist system. It is capitalism’s inherent tendency simultaneously to undermine both original sources of wealth, the soil and the worker, that brings it up against those limits, not the size of the population (Bellamy Foster and Burkett, p.166).

Ecological crisis of capitalism

Both Bellamy Foster and Burkett and Saito present a convincing view of Marx as intensely aware of the ecological effects of capitalism, which formed an important part of his understanding of the totality of the system. This is very far from the traditional green view of Marx as the father of Soviet-style industrialisation, but the picture of Marx the ecologist is a convincing one, from both the analyses of his works and from his notebooks and correspondence. In 1882, for example, Engels wrote to Marx that the general lesson of the metabolic rift;

‘is that the working individual is not only a stabiliser of the present but also, and to a far greater extent, a squanderer of past, solar heat. As to what we have done in the way of squandering our reserves of energy; our coal, ore, forests etc, you are better informed than I am’ (Bellamy Foster and Burkett, p.161).

This understanding of Marx comes with one final, crucial lesson. It is sometimes argued that capitalism’s environmental destructiveness will be its undoing; that if we cannot compel a more sustainable system, the system’s collapse will do the job for us. This is unfortunately not the case. Capitalist accumulation would be able to continue past the point at which ecological catastrophe would be a reality for most of us. Ecological crises are indeed crises caused by capitalism, but this gives reason and urgency to our struggle against it. It is a struggle which is necessitated by the destructiveness of capitalism, not made superfluous by it.

At the end of that radio interview, back in 2001, the Socialist Alliance candidate and I agreed, to the infuriation of the interviewer, that I was a red green and he was a green red. Uniting the red and the green like this made a nice, consensual soundbite, but there was a serious point behind it. As these important works demonstrate, if you are to be one of these, you really have to be both.

Elaine Graham-Leigh

Elaine has been an environmental campaigner for more than a decade. She speaks and writes widely on issues of climate change and social justice, and is a member of Counterfire. She is the author of A Diet of Austerity: Class, Food and Climate Change and Marx and the Climate CrisisHer sci-fi novel, The Caduca, is out now from The Conrad Press.