The Metabolic Rift with Nature: Marx was a Green
John Bellamy Foster in his 1999 work Marx's Theory of Metabolic Rift: Classical Foundations for Environmental Sociology shows that Marx was ecologically aware and an environmentalist.
Critics say that Marx has a 'Promethean' attitude towards nature which means he is pro-technological and anti-ecological, although they admit he shows ecological sensitivity in early works such as the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts but later adopted a 'Promethean' attitude. Although, late in his life in 1880 in his Notes on Adolph Wagner, Marx was still writing about the 'material exchange between man and nature.' Marx is accused of being blind to the exploitation of nature, nature’s role in the creation of value, the existence of distinct natural limits, nature’s changing character and the impact of this on human society, and the role of technology in environmental degradation.
Foster demonstrates that this is incorrect. Marx is imbued with ecological awareness, environmentalism, he understands the impact of environmental degradation, and there is an ecological argument in Marx's volumes of Capital. Marx described the Metabolic Rift with Nature as 'an irreparable break in the coherence of social interchange prescribed by the natural laws of life', or the 'irreparable rift in the interdependent process of social metabolism.' (Capital Vol 3) The rift between humanity and the rest of nature emanates from industrial production which 'disturbs the metabolic interaction between man and the earth' (Capital Vol 1) while Engels identified that production made the 'earth an object of huckstering.' (Dialectics of Nature)
Industrialism regards the earth as a 'gift' of nature, an idea put forward by both Malthus and Ricardo, and until quite recently economic textbooks would say 'Land refers to all natural resources all free gifts of nature which are usable in the production process. Land has no production cost; it is a free and non-reproducible gift of nature.' For Marx, labour 'is not the only source of material wealth.' (Capital Vol 1) He references economist William Petty who wrote 'Labour is the father of material wealth, and the earth is its mother.' (Treatise of Taxes and Contributions)
Marx and Engels repudiated the age-old view that human beings were at the centre of the natural universe. Engels expressed 'a withering contempt for the idealistic exaltation of man over the other animals' (Engels to Marx, July 14, 1858), and in Dialectics of Nature, Engels wrote 'Let us not, however, flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human conquest over nature. For each such conquest takes its revenge on us... Thus at every step we are reminded that we by no means rule over nature like a conqueror over a foreign people, like someone standing outside nature but that we, with flesh, blood, and brain, belong to nature, and exist in its midst.' For Marx,'Even an entire society, a nation, or all simultaneously existing societies taken together, are not owners of the earth, they are simply its possessors, its beneficiaries, and have to bequeath it in an improved state to succeeding generations as good heads of the household.' (Capital Vol 3)
Marx calls for the restoration of the necessary metabolic relation between humanity and the earth, sensitivity to natural conditions, evolutionary change and the metabolic interaction of humanity and the earth. Marx sees a 'Green' future will mean 'the associated producers, govern the human metabolism with nature in a rational way.' (Capital Vol 3) Foster argues that Marx’s analysis of 'how sociology could be extended into the ecological realm... reinforces the view that ecological analysis, devoid of sociological insight, is incapable of dealing with the contemporary crisis of the earth—a crisis which has its source and its meaning ultimately in society itself.' (Marx's Theory of Metabolic Rift)
Stephen Clayton, (member of Croydon Green Party)
1 May 2016