Marxist Ecology

The four laws of ecology and the four anti-ecological laws of capitalism

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The ever-growing conflict between ecology and capitalism reflects the startling degree to which profit-making has become the primary and most powerful connection between human beings and between human beings and nature.

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by John Bellamy Foster

Climate & Capitalism is pleased to publish, with permission from John Bellamy Foster and Monthly Review Press, this excerpt from Chapter 6 of The Vulnerable PlanetIn the first part of the chapter, Foster discusses the “qualitative transformation in the level of human destructiveness” that characterized capitalist production after World War II. This transformation included massive increases in the use of synthetics that could not be readily reabsorbed by nature, accompanied by a radical expansion in the use of all forms of energy, particularly fossil fuels. These changes in the patterns of production, he writes, are “the chief reason for the rapid acceleration of the ecological crisis in the postwar period.”

In the rest of the chapter, published here, he discusses the factors that underlie capitalism’s ever-growing conflict with nature.


Four laws of ecology

In order to understand the ecological impact of these trends, it is useful to look at what Barry Commoner and others have referred to as the four informal laws of ecology:

  1. Everything is connected to everything else,
  2. Everything must go somewhere,
  3. Nature knows best, and
  4. Nothing comes from nothing.

The first of these informal laws, everything is connected to everything else, indicates how ecosystems are complex and interconnected. This complexity and interconnectedness, Haila and Levins write, “is not like that of the individual organism whose various organs have evolved and have been selected on the criterion of their contribution to the survival and fecundity of the whole.” Nature is far more complex and variable and considerably more resilient than the metaphor of the evolution of an individual organism suggests. An ecosystem can lose species and undergo significant transformations without collapsing. Yet the interconnectedness of nature also means that ecological systems can experience sudden, startling catastrophes if placed under extreme stress. “The system,” Commoner writes, “is stabilized by its dynamic self-compensating properties; these same properties, if overstressed, can lead to a dramatic collapse.” Further, “the ecological system is an amplifier, so that a small perturbation in one place may have large, distant, long-delayed effects elsewhere.”[1]

The second law of ecology, everything must go somewhere, restates a basic law of thermodynamics: in nature there is no final waste, matter and energy are preserved, and the waste produced in one ecological process is recycled in another. For instance, a downed tree or log in an old-growth forest is a source of life for numerous species and an essential part of the ecosystem. Likewise, animals excrete carbon dioxide to the air and organic compounds to the soil, which help to sustain plants upon which animals will feed.

Nature knows best, the third informal law of ecology, Commoner writes, “holds that any major man-made change in a natural system is likely to be detrimental to that system.” During 5 billion years of evolution, living things developed an array of substances and reactions that together constitute the living biosphere. The modern petrochemical industry, however, suddenly created thousands of new substances that did not exist in nature. Based on the same basic patterns of carbon chemistry as natural compounds, these new substances enter readily into existing biochemical processes. But they do so in ways that are frequently destructive to life, leading to mutations, cancer, and many different forms of death and disease. “The absence of a particular substance from nature,” Commoner writes, “is often a sign that it is incompatible with the chemistry of life.”[2]

Nothing comes from nothing, the fourth informal law of ecology, expresses the fact that the exploitation of nature always carries an ecological cost. From a strict ecological standpoint, human beings are consumers more than they are producers. The second law of thermodynamics tells us that in the very process of using energy, human beings “use up” (but do not destroy) energy, in the sense that they transform it into forms that are no longer available for work. In the case of an automobile, for example, the high-grade chemical energy stored in the gasoline that fuels the car is available for useful work while the lower grade thermal energy in the automobile exhaust is not. In any transformation of energy, some of it is always degraded in this way. The ecological costs of production are therefore significant.[3]

Four laws of capitalism

Viewed against the backdrop offered by these four informal laws, the dominant pattern of capitalist development is clearly counter-ecological. Indeed, much of what characterizes capitalism as an ecohistorical system can be reduced to the following counter-ecological tendencies of the system:

  1. The only lasting connection between things is the cash nexus;
  2. It doesn’t matter where something goes as long as it doesn’t reenter the circuit of capital;
  3. The self-regulating market knows best; and
  4. Nature’s bounty is a free gift to the property owner.

The first of these counterecological tendencies, the only lasting connection between things is the cash nexus, expresses the fact that under capitalism all social relations between people and all the relationships of humans to nature are reduced to mere money relations. The disconnection of natural processes from each other and their extreme simplification is an inherent tendency of capitalist development. As Donald Worster explains,

“Despite many variations in time and place, the capitalistic agroecosystem shows one clear tendency over the span of modern history: a movement toward the radical simplification of the natural ecological order in the number of species found in an area and the intricacy of their interconnections…. In today’s parlance we call this new kind of agroecosystem a monoculture, meaning a part of nature that has been reconstituted to the point that it yields a single species, which is growing on the land only because somewhere there is a strong market demand for it.”[4]

The kind of reductionism characteristic of “commercial capitalism,” Indian physicist and ecologist Vandana Shiva states, “is based on specialized commodity production. Uniformity in production, and the unifunctional use of natural resources, is therefore required.” For example, although it is possible to ‘use rivers ecologically and sustainably in accordance with human needs, the giant river valley projects associated with the construction of today’s dams “work against, and not with, the logic of the river. These projects are based on reductionist assumptions [of uniformity, separability, and unifunctionality] which relate water use not to nature’s processes but to the processes of revenue and profit generation.”[5]

All of this is reflects the fact that cash nexus has become the sole connection between human beings and nature. With the development of the capitalist division of nature, the elements of nature are reduced to one common denominator (or bottom line): exchange value. In this respect it does not matter whether one’s product is coffee, furs, petroleum, or parrot feathers, as long as there is a market.[6]

The second ecological contradiction of the system, it doesn’t matter where something goes unless it re-enters the circuit of capital, reflects the fact that economic production under contemporary capitalist conditions is not truly a circular system (as in nature) but a linear one, running from sources to sinks-sinks that are now overflowing. The “no deposit/no return” analogue, the great ecological economist Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen has observed, “befits the businessman’s view of economic life.” The pollution caused by production is treated as an “externality” that is not part of the costs to the firm.[7]

In precapitalist societies, much of the waste from agricultural production was recycled in close accordance with ecological laws. In a developed capitalist society, in contrast, recycling is extremely difficult because of the degree of division of nature. For instance, cattle are removed from pasture and raised in feedlots; their natural waste, rather than fertilizing the soil, becomes a serious form of pollution. Or, to take another example, plastics, which have increasingly replaced wood, steel, and other materials, are not biodegradable. In the present-day economy, Commoner writes, “goods are converted, linearly, into waste: crops into sewage; uranium into radioactive residues; petroleum and chlorine into dioxin; fossil fuels into carbon dioxide…. The end of the line is always waste, an assault on the cyclical processes that sustain the ecosphere.”[8]

It is not the ecological principle that nature knows best but rather the counter-ecological principle that the self-regulating market knows best that increasingly governs all life under capitalism. For example, food is no longer viewed chiefly as a form of nutrition but as a means of earning profits, so that nutritional value is sacrificed for bulk. Intensive applications of nitrogen fertilizer unbalance the mineral composition of the soil, which in turn affects the mineral content of the vegetables grown on it. Transport and storage requirements take precedence over food quality. And in order to market agricultural produce effectively, pesticides are sometimes used simply to protect the appearance of the produce. In the end, the quality of food is debased, birds and other species are killed, and human beings are poisoned.[9]

Nature’s bounty is a free gift to the property owner, the fourth counter-ecological tendency of capitalism, expresses the fact that the ecological costs associated with the appropriation of natural resources and energy are rarely factored into the economic equation. Classical liberal economics, Marx argued, saw nature as a “gratuitous” gain for capital. Nowhere in establishment economic models does one find an adequate accounting of nature’s contribution. “Capitalism,” as the great environmental economist K. William Kapp contended, “must be regarded as an economy of unpaid costs, ‘unpaid’ in so far as a substantial portion of the actual costs of production remain unaccounted for in entrepreneurial outlays; instead they are shifted to, and ultimately borne by, third persons or by the community as a whole.” For example, the air pollution caused by a factory is not treated as a cost of production internal to that factory. Rather it is viewed as an external cost to be borne by nature and society. [10]

By failing to place any real value on natural wealth, capitalism maximizes the throughput of raw materials and energy because the greater this flow-from extraction through the delivery of the final product to the consumer-the greater the chance of generating profits. And by selectively focusing on minimizing labor inputs, the system promotes energy-using and capital-intensive high technologies. All of this translates into faster depletion of nonrenewable resources and more wastes dumped into the environment. For instance, since World War II, plastics have increasingly displaced leather in the production of such items as purses and shoes. To produce the same value of output, the plastics industry uses only about a quarter of the amount, of labor used by leather manufacture, but it uses ten times as much capital and thirty times as much energy. The substitution of plastics for leather in the production of these items has therefore meant less demand for labor, more demand for capital and energy, and greater environmental pollution.[11]

The power of profit

The foregoing contradictions between ecology and the economy can all be reduced to the fact that the profit-making relation has become to a startling degree the sole connection between human beings and between human beings and nature.

This means that while we can envision more sustainable forms of technology that would solve much of the environmental problem, the development and implementation of these technologies is blocked by the mode of production-by capitalism and capitalists. Large corporations make the major decisions about the technology we use, and the sole lens that they consider in arriving at their decisions is profitability.

In explaining why Detroit automakers prefer to make large, gas-guzzling cars, Henry Ford II stated simply “minicars make miniprofits.” The same point was made more explicitly by John Z. DeLorean, a former General Motors executive, who stated, “When we should have been planning switches to smaller, more fuel-efficient, lighter cars in the late 1960s in response to growing demand in the marketplace, GM management refused because ‘we make more money on big cars.'”[12]

Underlying the general counter-ecological approach to production depicted here is the question of growth. An exponential growth dynamic is inherent in capitalism, a system whereby money is exchanged for commodities, which are then exchanged for more money on an ever increasing scale.

“As economists from Adam Smith and Marx through Keynes have pointed out,” Robert Heilbroner has observed, “a ‘stationary’ capitalism is subject to a falling rate of profit as the investment opportunities of the system are used up. Hence, in the absence of an expansionary frontier, the investment drive slows down and a deflationary spiral of incomes and employment begins.”

What this means is that capitalism cannot exist without constantly expanding the scale of production: any interruption in this process will take the form of an economic crisis. Yet in the late twentieth century there is every reason to believe that the kind of rapid economic growth that the system has demanded in order to sustain its very existence is no longer ecologically sustainable.[13]

From The Vulnerable Planet: A Short Economic History of the Environment. Monthly Review Press, 1999. Published with permission from the author and publisher.

John Bellamy Foster is editor of Monthly Review. His recent books include The Ecological Revolution: Making Peace with the Planet and (with Fred Magdoff) What Every Environmentalist Needs to Know About Capitalism.


[1] Commoner, The Closing Circle, pp. 29-42; Edberg and Yablokov, Tomorrow Will Be Too Late, p. 89; Haila and Levins, Humanity and Nature, pp. 5-6. Although Commoner refers to the fourth law as “there’s no such thing as a free lunch,” the Russian scientist Yablokov has translated this more generally as “nothing comes from nothing.”

[2] Commoner, Closing Circle, pp. 37-41; and Making Peace with the Planet, pp. 11-13. Commoner’s third law should not be taken too literally. As Haila and Levins write, “The conception that ‘nature knows best’ is relativized by the contingency of evolution.” Haila and Levins, Humanity and Nature, p.6.

[3] Ibid., pp. 14-15; Herman E. Daly and Kenneth Townsend, eds., Valuing the Earth (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1993), pp. 69-73.

[4] Donald Worster, The Wealth of Nature (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), pp. 58-59.

[5] Vandana Shiva, Staying Alive (London: Zed Books, 1989), pp. 23-24, 186.

[6] Haila and Levins, Humanity and Nature, p. 201.

[7] Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, The Entropy Law and the Economic Process (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971), p. 2.

[8] Commoner, Making Peace, pp. 10-11.

[9] Haila and Levins, Humanity and Nature, p. 160.

[10] Georgescu-Roegen, Entropy Law, p. 2; K. William Kapp, The Social Costs of Private Enterprise (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1971), p. 231.

[11] Chandler Morse, “Environment, Economics and Socialism,” Monthly Review no. 11 (April 1979): 12; Commoner, Making Peace, pp. 82-83; and The Poverty of Power (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1976), p. 194.

[12] Ford and DeLorean quoted in Commoner, Making Peace, pp. 80-81.

[13] Robert Heilbroner, An Inquiry into the Human Prospect (New York: W.W. Norton, 1980), p. 100.