Marxism and Nature: The Metabolic Rift

Rebecca Heyer | Ecology & Sustainability | Analysis | January 18th, 2018

This article is intended to be the first in a series that will provide an introduction to some of the concepts that provide the foundation for ecosocialism, a movement that develops and applies socialist solutions to the challenges of climate change and the environment. All of these will be an attempt to introduce the reader to the subject matter.

Many readers find the original works that have helped define the movement to be difficult to follow. Academics such as John Bellamy Foster and Ian Angus are highly respected, but use a language that many socialist organizers find somewhat inaccessible. I highly recommend their writing to anyone who wants to take the time and effort to read and understand them. I will not come close to their rigor and attention to detail here. I hope to inspire all people interested in building a socialist future to investigate further.

Marx's View of the Relationship between Humans and the Environment

Marx and Epicurean Philosophy

Karl Marx spent much of his life considering the relationship between the human race and the world they live in. He excelled in the study of philosophy, history and the natural sciences. Marx's world view was grounded in philosophy, particularly that of the ancient Greeks. The subject of his PhD thesis was a comparison of philosophy of two of the classic Greek scholars, Epicurus and Democritus. Both of them were materialists, in contrast to Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle who were idealists. Idealism had dominated western thought for centuries and provided a foundation for much of Christian theology. The Enlightenment marked a revival of the materialist school. Marx saw the relationship between humans and the environment in materialist terms and saw humans as part of the world they live in. Marx's world was not populated by ideal forms. It was made up of matter, time and space. It existed independently of any deity, and humans did not govern it or maintain it as agents of God. They interacted with their environment in a dialectical relationship, with all participants affecting all other participants.

Labor as a Natural Process

Marx saw labor as a process that connected humans with their environment. In Volume I of Capital, Chapter Seven, Section One, he wrote:

" Labor is, in the first place, a process in which both man and Nature participate, and in which man of his own accord starts, regulates, and controls the material re-actions between himself and Nature. He opposes himself to Nature as one of her own forces, setting in motion arms and legs, head and hands, the natural forces of his body, in order to appropriate Nature's productions in a form adapted to his own wants. By thus acting on the external world and changing it, he at the same time changes his own nature. He develops his slumbering powers and compels them to act in obedience to his sway. We are not now dealing with those primitive instinctive forms of labor that remind us of the mere animal. An immeasurable interval of time separates the state of things in which a man brings his labor-power to market for sale as a commodity, from that state in which human labor was still in its first instinctive stage. We presuppose labor in a form that stamps it as exclusively human. A spider conducts operations that resemble those of a weaver, and a bee puts to shame many an architect in the construction of her cells. But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is this, that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality. At the end of every labor-process, we get a result that already existed in the imagination of the laborer at its commencement. He not only effects a change of form in the material on which he works, but he also realizes a purpose of his own that gives the law to his modus operandi, and to which he must subordinate his will. And this subordination is no mere momentary act. Besides the exertion of the bodily organs, the process demands that, during the whole operation, the workman's will be steadily in consonance with his purpose. This means close attention. The less he is attracted by the nature of the work, and the mode in which it is carried on, and the less, therefore, he enjoys it as something which gives play to his bodily and mental powers, the more close his attention is forced to be."

Labor is a dialectical process where humans impact the environment, but at the same time the changes in the environment made by humans impact humans.

The Metabolic Rift and Fertilizer

Marx and the Soil

Marx recognized the fundamental role of the soil in the labor process. He viewed agriculture as the basis for an economy. He included the following in the section of Capital cited above.

" The soil (and this, economically speaking, includes water) in the virgin state in which it supplies man with necessaries or the means of subsistence ready to hand, exists independently of him, and is the universal subject of human labor. All those things which labor merely separates from immediate connection with their environment, are subjects of labor spontaneously provided by Nature. Such are fish which we catch and take from their element, water, timber which we fell in the virgin forest, and ores which we extract from their veins. If, on the other hand, the subject of labor has, so to say, been filtered through previous labor, we call it raw material; such is ore already extracted and ready for washing. All raw material is the subject of labor, but not every subject of labor is raw material: it can only become so, after it has undergone some alteration by means of labor."

The transition from feudalism to capitalism was marked by a change in the relationship between humans and the soil.

Capitalism in Europe began to develop in the fourteenth century with the rise of capitalist agriculture. Feudal Europe had few cities or towns and agriculture was distributed across a multitude of feudal estates. Most were largely self-sufficient and trade was not a significant factor. As the population grew cities and towns became more important. This led to the practice of tenant farming and the development of markets for agricultural products. In Chapter Twenty-Nine of Capital, Volume I, Marx writes:

" Now that we have considered the forcible creation of a class of outlawed proletarians, the bloody discipline that turned them into wage laborers, the disgraceful action of the State which employed the police to accelerate the accumulation of capital by increasing the degree of exploitation of labor, the question remains: whence came the capitalists originally? For the expropriation of the agricultural population creates, directly, none but the greatest landed proprietors. As far, however, as concerns the genesis of the farmer, we can, so to say, put our hand on it, because it is a slow process evolving through many centuries. The serfs, as well as the free small proprietors, held land under very different tenures, and were therefore emancipated under very different economic conditions. In England the first form of the farmer is the bailiff, himself a serf. His position is similar to that of the old Roman villicus , only in a more limited sphere of action. During the second half of the 14th century he is replaced by a farmer, whom the landlord provided with seed, cattle and implements. His condition is not very different from that of the peasant. Only he exploits more wage labor. Soon he becomes a metayer, a half-farmer. He advances one part of the agricultural stock, the landlord the other. The two divide the total product in proportions determined by contract. This form quickly disappears in England, to give the place to the farmer proper, who makes his own capital breed by employing wage laborers, and pays a part of the surplus-product, in money or in kind, to the landlord as rent. So long, during the 15th century, as the independent peasant and the farm-laborer working for himself as well as for wages, enriched themselves by their own labor, the circumstances of the farmer, and his field of production, were equally mediocre. The agricultural revolution which commenced in the last third of the 15th century, and continued during almost the whole of the 16th (excepting, however, its last decade), enriched him just as speedily as it impoverished the mass of the agricultural people."

The Metabolic Rift

The development of capitalist agricultural alienated farmers, both from the soil, which was the source of their productivity, and their produce, which was the fruit of their labor. Marx did not call this alienation a "metabolic rift" but later writers have used this term to refer to the disruption of the relationship between humans and the environment described in Capital Volume I, Chapter 15, Section 10.

" Capitalist production completely tears asunder the old bond of union which held together agriculture and manufacture in their infancy. But at the same time it creates the material conditions for a higher synthesis in the future, viz., the union of agriculture and industry on the basis of the more perfected forms they have each acquired during their temporary separation. Capitalist production, by collecting the population in great centers, and causing an ever-increasing preponderance of town population, on the one hand concentrates the historical motive power of society; on the other hand, it disturbs the circulation of matter between man and the soil, i.e., prevents the return to the soil of its elements consumed by man in the form of food and clothing; it therefore violates the conditions necessary to lasting fertility of the soil. By this action it destroys at the same time the health of the town laborer and the intellectual life of the rural laborer. But while upsetting the naturally grown conditions for the maintenance of that circulation of matter, it imperiously calls for its restoration as a system, as a regulating law of social production, and under a form appropriate to the full development of the human race. In agriculture as in manufacture, the transformation of production under the sway of capital, means, at the same time, the martyrdom of the producer; the instrument of labor becomes the means of enslaving, exploiting, and impoverishing the laborer; the social combination and organization of labor-processes is turned into an organized mode of crushing out the workman's individual vitality, freedom, and independence. The dispersion of the rural laborers over larger areas breaks their power of resistance while concentration increases that of the town operatives. In modern agriculture, as in the urban industries, the increased productiveness and quantity of the labor set in motion are bought at the cost of laying waste and consuming by disease labor-power itself. Moreover, all progress in capitalistic agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the laborer, but of robbing the soil; all progress in increasing the fertility of the soil for a given time, is a progress towards ruining the lasting sources of that fertility. The more a country starts its development on the foundation of modern industry, like the United States, for example, the more rapid is this process of destruction. Capitalist production, therefore, develops technology, and the combining together of various processes into a social whole, only by sapping the original sources of all wealth - the soil and the laborer."

Soil Depletion and the Use of Fertilizer

Capitalists often attempt to address problems created by a metabolic rift through technical changes in production methods. Marx was familiar with the attempt to mitigate soil depletion through the use of fertilizer. He was fascinated by the work of organic chemist Justus von Liebig on the subject of nutrients needed by plants. In large part due to Liebig's discoveries, the use of fertilizer in both Europe and America exploded during the nineteenth century.

The best available fertilizer available at the time was guano, the accumulated droppings of sea birds. Islands on the west coast of South America had an abundant supply. Demand for guano from Peru soared during the mid nineteenth century and the major agricultural producers of the time fought to control these resources. This led to the Chincha Islands War of 1864-1866. Marx saw this conflict as an example of the way imperial powers enter into conflict for the control of natural resources.

As is often the case, this metabolic rift led to another, as the capitalist system attempted to correct the problem by using new technology. Guano was carried from Peru to agricultural centers in Europe and North America by clipper ships. About the same time as the Chincha Islands War, shipping technology changed from wind driven vessels to steam driven vessels powered by coal. The mining and shipping of coal created a new, even more serious metabolic rift. Fossil fuels such as coal represent energy that was captured long ago by plants and has been sitting underground for millions of years. Plants use energy from solar radiation to convert carbon dioxide into other carbon compounds. This energy is stored in fossil fuels such as coal, petroleum, and natural gas. The stored energy is released when fossil fuels are burned, but at the same time carbon dioxide is also released. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas which, when released into the atmosphere, causes environmental systems like the oceans to retain heat and become warmer. The current warming trend that is driving global climate change began in the mid-nineteenth century and can be in, at least in part, traced back to the chain of metabolic rifts that was initiated by capitalist agriculture.

The Metabolic Rift Today


The chain of metabolic rifts in agriculture has continued. By the end of the nineteenth century, deposits of nitrates such as guano were becoming depleted. Capitalist agricultural, now dependent on nitrate fertilizer, needed a new technology. In 1909 an artificial way of fixing nitrogen from the atmosphere, called the Haber Process, was discovered. The Haber Process is still the dominate way of producing nitrates, which are used in the production of munitions and explosives as well as fertilizer.

The Haber Process is energy intensive, uses natural gas as a source of hydrogen and consumes three to five percent of the world's production of natural gas. Capitalist agricultural is also heavily dependent on the use of powered equipment, such as tractors, trucks and harvesters, which are also fueled by petroleum products. Although agricultural consumption of petroleum is dwarfed by other economic sectors such as transportation, according to the US Energy Information Administration about half a trillion BTU of petroleum is consumed by agricultural production in this country alone.


No where is a metabolic rift more apparent than in the capitalist production of energy. Fossil fuels such as coal, natural gas and petroleum represent solar radiation received by plants millions of years ago and captured through the process of photosynthesis which converts carbon dioxide and water into other hydrocarbons. Burning fossil fuels releases both energy and carbon dioxide. After almost two hundred years of burning fossil fuels, accelerated by capitalist agriculture and manufacturing processes, the portion of the atmosphere made up by carbon dioxide has gone from less than three hundred parts per million to over 400 parts per million. Changes of this magnitude typically take millions of years.

Manufactured Goods

In the same way that the globalization of agriculture creates metabolic rifts, the globalization of the production of manufactured commodities creates additional rifts. These may not be connected directly to the soil, but they still impact the connection between humans and environmental systems. In a globalized economy the sources of raw materials, the sites of manufacturing facilities and consumers are usually separated by large distances and national borders. The most obvious impact on environmental systems comes from the need to transport huge quantities of commodities and materials. Most of these are moved by cargo ships and most of these ships are powered by a petroleum product known as bunker fuel, the residual that is left after gasoline, kerosene, diesel oil and other lighter distillates are extracted. Bunker fuel is relatively inexpensive, but burning it emits large amounts of carbon dioxide compared to the amount of energy produced. The transportation of goods and materials needed to support a globalized economy contributes heavily to greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and thereby to global climate change.


I hope this article has given the reader some idea of the meaning of the term metabolic rift and its place in the Marxian critique of capitalism. Metabolic rift is a key concept within ecosocialism and the understanding of how capitalism is responsible for global climate change.

This article originally appeared on the Socialist Party USA's official publication, The Socialist .

Rebecca Heyer graduated from Rice University with a BA in economics in 1977. Based in Texas, she worked as a systems analyst and consultant for 23 years, specializing in the management of very large data sets. Starting in 2000, she became active in politics, holding a county office in the Green Party and lobbying the Texas Legislature. She relocated to northwest Florida in 2006 where she served on the City of Pensacola Environmental Advisory Board. After the 2016 election she left the Green Party and joined the Socialist Party USA as an at large member. She currently serves on the Ecosocialist Commission. At the age of 62, she still enjoys the punk scene and living on the Gulf Coast.


Marx's Ecology: Materialism and Nature by John Bellamy Foster

The Ecological Rift: Capitalism's War on the Earth by John Bellamy Foster, Robert York and Brett Clark

The Difference Between the Democritean and Epicurean Philosophies in General - Karl Marx's Doctoral Thesis


, Volume I by Karl Marx