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On the ecological critique of capitalism rooted in the concept of social metabolism. 

  • Feb 23 2022
  • John Bellamy Foster
    is editor of Monthly Review and professor of sociology at the University of Oregon. He has written widely on political economy and has established a reputation as a major environmental sociologist. He is the author of Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Nature (2000), The Great Financial Crisis: Causes and Consequences (with Fred Magdoff, 2009), The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Earth (with Brett Clark and Richard York, 2010), and The Theory of Monopoly Capitalism: An Elaboration of Marxian Political Economy (New Edition, 2014), among many others.

In “Marx’s Theory of Metabolic Rift” (1999), I argued that the widespread view on the left that Marx had adopted a Promethean (extreme productivist) view of the human domination of nature—and hence had failed to perceive the natural limits to production and ecological contradictions in general, giving them at most only marginal attention—was contradicted by his theory of the metabolic rift, which played a key role in his overall analysis.

Marx built on the German chemist Justus von Liebig’s notion of the robbery of nature, in which nutrients were systematically removed from the soil and shipped hundreds and even thousands of miles to the new urban centers, polluting the cities, rather than being returned to the soil. Based on this, he constructed an ecological critique of capitalism, rooted in the concept of social metabolism, standing for the human relation to nature as a whole through production. Capitalism’s disruption of this metabolism generated an “irreparable rift in the interdependent process of social metabolism, a metabolism prescribed by the natural laws of life itself.”

For Marx, the labor and production process constituted nothing less than the social metabolism between humanity and the universal metabolism of nature, mediating between the two. But under capitalism this had become an alienated mediation, rupturing this metabolism, which needed then to be restored under socialism, as an eternal requirement of life itself. In these terms, Marx developed a notion of sustainability, arguing that no one, not even all the people in the world, owned the earth, but rather they needed to sustain it for “the chain of human generations” as “good heads of the household.” Socialism itself was defined in Volume 3 of Capital as the rational regulation by the associated producers of the metabolism of nature and society, so as to conserve energy, and promote human development.

In short, Marx’s critique of political economy ushered in the most profound ecological critique ever developed, since it was dialectically connected to his overall analysis of capitalist production and constituting the basis of the creation of a higher society of the future. Later scientific ecology, including the concept of ecosystem, were to be developed on this same basis, with the concept of metabolism leading to systems ecology.

The power of Marx’s analysis in this respect and the depth of his understanding of natural science surprised me and forced me to rethink Marx’s entire body of work. How had he developed such a profound ecological critique? The answer had to lie in his materialism, which went much deeper than most Marxist theorists had perceived. This led me back to the very beginnings of Marx’s thought, starting with his doctoral thesis on Epicurus, the greatest materialist thinker in antiquity, and analyzing the development of Marx’s materialist and ecological perspective from that point on, including his relation to thinkers such as Liebig and Charles Darwin.


This text was published in the Extrablatt of ISSUE 19: ANTICRISTOS, a dialogue between AWC and the Deutsches Historisches Museum (DHM), in the frame of the exhibition Karl Marx und der Kapitalismus, opening on February 10, 2022.

    Kara Walker, Untitled, 2016, from the 31-part series: Only I can solve this (The 2016 Election), Ink, watercolor, and graphite on paper, 26 x 18,1 cm, Private Archive Kara Walker © Kara Walker



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