Marxist Ecology

Metabolic Rift and Ecological Value: the Ecosocialist Challenge

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

To understand what ecological restoration will involve, we need to see clearly what is happening, what processes are taking place, what is irreversible, what can be refused, what can be overcome.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Gordon Peters is a member of Green Left and of the Red-Green Study Group. He was a parliamentary candidate for the Green Party of England and Wales in Hornsey and Wood Green in the 2015 UK general election. He presented this paper at the Historical Materialism Conference in London in November 2016. It is republished with permission, from London Green Left Blog.

by Gordon Peters

In this short paper I am taking as a starting point the ecological rift, or metabolic rift in Marx’s own phrase, at the heart of the way in which capitalism appropriates the natural world and alienates humanity from its species being and from nature in the process. This is elaborated at considerable length by John Bellamy Foster and Brent Clark (but not exclusively by them) and what I hope to do here is while accepting their recovery of ecological balance and its disturbance in Marx, give an overview of an ecological praxis related to that theorization. What does restoring ecological value look like?

In their article in Monthly Review, Bellamy Foster and Clark mention—although they do not explore—two useful concepts to challenge the metabolic rift and the separation of humanity from nature, accelerating as it is with capital accumulation and reproduction.[1]  One is metabolic restoration and the other is sustainable co-evolutionary ecology. I think it is worth exploring the social and political interventions which are called for by these concepts. To do so we need to see clearly what is happening, what processes are taking place, what is irreversible, what can be refused, what can be overcome.

I want to look at four important tendencies in modern capitalism and what can constitute ecological challenges which are not themselves already determined by capitalist relations, or are likely to be re-shaped in managing capitalism to maintain its power or hold.  These are:

  1. Automation and precarity
  2. Despoliation and species reduction
  3. Commodification and fetishism –reification
  4. Ecological debt and unequal exchange

They are discussed only in broad outline as there is vast empirical evidence now in many places, and the point here is to orientate a praxis.

Automation and precarity

The labour saving aspects of technological innovation may be seen as positive and the value adding as negative, albeit that the exchange relationship demanded by capitalism appropriates huge surplus profit from new technological applications and makes more workers redundant or precariously self employed. There are now various projections of how far automated labour processes will go, and how far professional, middle class as well as conventional working class jobs will be lost and lives will change (e.g. Snricek and Williams [2]), Standing .[3] For this purpose I think it is safe to say that the world of waged and salaried work is changing to an extent that most livelihoods based on paid work will become precarious, middle as well as working class people will suffer emisseration, and ever more unequal concentrations of wealth [and absence of wealth] will form, geographically uneven within countries and between countries.

Where family wage, job security and increasingly the social safety net for periods of worklessness and ill health are less and less viable, or in any sense dependable [and the decline of social democracy in government or as a main opposition to rampant capitalism confirms this] then the demand for basic or citizens income becomes not just a ‘left field’ or idealistic one but potentially central to a social discourse, and politics, which seeks to establish and protect rights of ordinary wellbeing and human dignity.

There are numerous technical approaches to basic income, depending partly on different elaborations of welfare state or their absence, and what transitional arrangements will look like and affect groups of people, but essentially they take away the dependence on the exchange relationship of work and its extraction of surplus value to maintain the livelihood of people, fit or unfit, young or old, and replace that with a guarantee of sustainability of the means of life with no-one denied, and rights to earn or accumulate beyond that which may then be regulated (or not) according to prevailing circumstances.

The argument about distribution of surpluses then remains but is no longer linked to peoples very survival. In more immediate and practical terms, the fight against discrimination and benefits capping and for a real living wage, and supporting trade unions in this is linked to the argument for citizens or basic income as the medium to longer term way of dealing with such discrimination and poverty.

The fight for decent work standards, and against zero hours precarity such as that taken up by Deliveroo workers in the UK, or the Walmart $15 hour campaign in USA, is one ecosocialism has to be allied to in challenging the way in which capitalism depends on further exploitation and denial of basic rights to its workforce. Minimum wage and employment rights, coupled with a social safety net, may be increasingly undeliverable by neo-liberal capitalism and to the extent that is the case, unifying the interests of those in low paid work and those unemployed, or periodically and unsustainably employed, is a vital transitional task in building demand for an alternative.

Complementary to a basic income approach, restoring ecological value envisages not only protecting but celebrating the commons.

Mutual aid and networks of skills exchange can make the limited applications of time banking possible within capitalism into a social norm of the use value of work, freely exchanged and not part of the commodity form. The uncompensated work of informal care in the political economy of welfare [currently estimated to involve over six million people in UK either part time or full time as carers] can be recognized as economic and social value.  Voluntary commitments of solidarity and support for the health and wellbeing of all as well as work to establish plant and animal preservation and balanced urban environments which recognize the biosphere as primary, not secondary, consideration to living well can be established as ecological value.

The extent to which surplus value extraction from labour power continues, from those with capacity and willingness to engage in amassing some wealth—in its exchange value form—is of course very much a matter of how far anti-capitalist struggles go and balance of forces pertaining in any time and place.

Despoliation and species reduction

As Bellamy Foster[4] has long been at pains to point out, Marx was anything but dismissive about the exploitative and potentially and increasingly actual ruinous effects of capital accumulation on the natural world. Rather the reverse, that the metabolic rift was central to capitalism’s mode of production and as explained by Marx in Capital on the denuding of soils and the strong link between that denudation and the guano and fertilizer trade.

Despoliation has of course now gone much further, with extinction of species, acidification of oceans, toxic wastes dumping and entering food chains, plastic molecular interference with life, air pollution, massive mineral and oil extraction, particularly fracking, and climate warming and its ramifications. Many of these processes are not new—oil extraction from shale sedimentary strata for instance was pioneered by ‘Paraffin Young’ in West Lothian in the mid nineteenth century. What is new is the much accelerated pace to meet the worldwide extension of commodification and the rise in population with demands for inclusion within that commodification and reproduction of a capitalist mode.*

While global warming may now be inevitable by at least 2 degrees C this century, and CO2 parts per million irreducible below 450 (ICPCC, Stern, McKibbin) [5]  mounting evidence says such capital extraction and energy generation is extending the metabolic rift to a catastrophic conclusion for many and a denuded future for all humanity, even those with amassed wealth in secluded places.

In this situation, a refusal strategy—no more fracking, keeping oil in the ground, the stranding of fossil fuel assets, i.e. a general policy of carbon sequestration has to be allied to a viable energy transition towards renewable resource dependence. Much of this is even accepted within the recent Paris Agreement, even though the pace necessary and sanctions to achieve a turnaround are quite lacking.

The ownership and control of investment remain largely untouched, though there are community owned outliers such as The Cochabamba Project in Bolivia and community energy generation projects of considerable size in Germany, and still at a micro level in the UK.

McKibbin reckons that there are seventeen years left in the USA in which to get alternative renewables up and running as main sources of power generation, before the worst effects for the rest of the century are made irreversible by fossil fuel extraction and its consequences. And he takes as confirmation the US Government report of the OCI.[6]

The means of production of capitalism have not yet been altered significantly in the energy sphere. But they are not immune to oppositional pressure. Divestment demands and policies introduced into pension funds or other large investors, through Keep It In The Ground and through ethical policy demands, have sequestered billions of pounds of assets [Carbon Tracker, 2013.[7] Divestment, Boycott and Sanctions are clearly useful weapons of political economy as witness the current Bill of the UK Government to outlaw local authorities from attempting to change their pension fund investments from corporate entities whose policies they oppose to ones of which they approve.

The way in which jobs are traditionally defended, and trade unionism tied up (or bundled, see below) with the latest requirement of monopoly capitalism, for instance Unite supporting Trident on the Clyde or the Hinckley B nuclear power plant investment, would seem to work against a class-based opposition. But just as the Lucas Aerospace workers challenged war production forty years ago, a green investment policy [TUC’s one million jobs[8]) and climate unionism are emerging to provide an alternative—‘’the rise of climate unionism offers a new direction for the labour movement’’ [Sean Sweeney, US). In the UK there is a growing, if still embryonic, movement of trade unionists for carbon reduction.

Community energy generation and municipally owned power distribution networks, along with house insulation and maximizing solar cell installation, will combat fuel poverty and bring control of energy policy back to its use value rather than exchange value for profit making from a common or public good. Even within capitalist relations, the extent of such in Germany suggests it is already a viable proposition.

Commodification and fetishism

De-commodifying is trickier to find instrumental ways of changing and of transitioning. Dealing with more people made surplus to capital’s requirements and out of work and with increasingly unhealthy environments has more obvious traction than challenging methods of consumption, and the value and price correlation of a world in which commodification is a universal norm.

Food sovereignty  The definition by Global Justice of this is: ‘’It could create a food system that is designed to help people and the  environment rather than make profits for multinational corporations. The food sovereignty movement is a global alliance of farmers, growers, consumers and activists’’[9]

Moves towards more locally grown, organic and sustainably managed food as both healthier for people and for the biosphere can help challenge commodification linked to the need to stem air pollution [over 9,000 Londoners per year now die prematurely from the consequences of nitrogen dioxide and particulate inhalation) and awareness of what corporate expansion and sovereign wealth funds are doing through mass monoculture in countries of the South, depriving local farmers and forcing a ruinous commodification on whole swathes of land and population. The struggle against corporate seed control (e.g. Monsanto GM policies) and vast distributional network control (such as by Cargill) is a struggle to maintain both biodiversity and livelihood, in the South and North.

Bellamy Foster and Clark excoriate Jason Moore[10] for his monistic approach to modern capitalism, a social determinism which sees capitalism and the modern Anthropocene taking all before it in ‘’bundles’’ which erase any basic nature. For Moore it’s as if now that it is difficult to talk of unspoiled nature or wilderness, as capital has so obviously spread everywhere, then it is hopelessly ‘dualist’ to consider nature as separate. The human and extra-human may be bundled up in many ways now, but that in no way should deny the fundamental given of the natural world.

Foster and Clark go on to suggest that seeing nature as internalized by society (e.g. Neil Smith[11]) or appropriated ‘’all the way down’’ (Moore) is deterministic hubris, and a denial of a dialectic. We could also add that flash flooding on an epic scale, excessive hurricane occurrences and certain volcanic reminders are a kind of ‘return of the repressed’ or empirical disproof of Moore et al.

Where Moore talks of bundles, it might be more useful to use the term tangles. With bundling, capitalism wraps things up, but if the natural and the social – and what’s in-between –  are entangled, then things are unresolved. There is a dialectical space for antagonisms to play out. The geographer, Paul Routledge, refers to a politics of entanglement,[12] of different social forces at work in particular environments.

It is proposed here then that in discussion of capitalism and its Anthropocene manifestations the notion of tangles is more grounded, descriptively accurate, and allows for thinking about unraveling. Think of salination in the Ganges-Meghna delta through the spread of shrimp farming and resistance of traditional fishers and rice growers, or the Great Pacific Garbage Patch round Midway in the Pacific.[13] Or encroachment on the Green Belt driven by property prices and desire for space in a countryside setting, and resisted by various interests with commons preservation at heart.

A further danger of the discourse of people like Moore, and ‘hybridists’[14] , is that class conflict seems overcome. The forward march of labour [Hobsbawm) may have been halted some time ago, but then neo-liberal capitalism and its global expression, following the 2007-8 crises, are now facing setbacks and inducing turmoil. And war economy persists, with its own despoliation and effects on biodiversity.  Accelerating inequality, displacement and migration  do not fit much of the conventional narrative of class conflict, and indeed tend to fuel right wing, populist demagogy which preys on a wider precariat, not any recognizable class alliance. But it is precisely at this point that Marx’s concepts of alienation and reification need recovering.

The alienation from the product of work through the exchange relationship of capitalism is ever more elaborated through the satisfaction of manufactured wants. And these wants are more and more controlled in their satisfaction by corporations, and internet monopolies, or cartels, who devise the very algorithms to complete the individual’s ‘lifeworld’ (to adopt Habermas’s term for what goes on in reality distinct from what is discursive knowledge). Commodity fetishism drives much behaviour and takes up increasing leisure time.

Reification, or becoming absorbed in the thing in itself, takes over more and more time—from ‘the medium is the message’ [McLuhan0 to ‘the app is the message’. But things break down, debt is accumulated, possessions are re-possessed, much of the commons are lost, and addictions, severe stress and mental illness multiply. Meanwhile the society of the spectacle throws up projected demagogy—real life spectres like Trump and Farage as reified answers to the hard felt alienation of many.

Disentangling this alienation in its many different and uneven forms is itself a multi-faceted industry and the life work of much informal care. To the ‘free gift’ to capital of land and nature as seen by classical value theory [15], and as criticized for that by Marx, we can add the free gift of domestic and informal care, subsidizing profit taking and rentier capitalism. The under estimation of care work, and emotional labour, is a direct concomitant of exchange value trumping use value.

The return of use value is the answer to alienation (if only it were that simple, as a politically engaged psychoanalyst might say).

But if  ‘’rationally regulating the social metabolism of nature and society…. in the service of advancing human potential’’ (Foster and Clark) is the ecosocialist aim where associated producers are relied on to restore the balance, then undoing commodification of all that exists must be part of the process. Transitional policies such as  reducing to thirty, then twenty, hour working weeks for those in waged work, and co-operative production and distribution networks, including common source and open space on the internet, can be part of such an approach.[16] Allied to moves to basic income, more food sovereignty and community or municipal energy generation we have the engendering of an ecosocialist value system and a workable alternative to capitalism.

Ecocentric production and prefigurative practice, in Koel’s phrase, within existing capitalism, are both possible and necessary as transitional means to a more steady state. Without scaling up in global terms plus new community and inter-regional transactions which can negate corporate growth, state supported divestment, climate unionism as a mass not marginal activity, and reduced consumption they will not be sufficient.

Ecological debt and unequal exchange

An ecosocialist practice should recognize that disastrous situations for populations across the world are in significant measure the result of what Hannah Holleman[17] calls ecological imperialism. The global South has been made dependent on the global North – and theories of imperialism from Marx to Gunder Frank have set out to explain this dependency.

Ecological imperialism specifies the unequal ecological exchange which has taken place, and is ever intensified, and explains why looking to technological fixes, fair trade and greener agreements between global elites cuts off significant segments of the ecological movement ‘’from those with the greatest interest in transforming the system, the global working and dispossessed class.’’[18] There is an elite, or class-based, and racialized, ‘’division of nature and humanity at the heart of the ecological rift of capitalism.’’[19] There is an under-compensated transfer of  ecological wealth which maintains the ‘’cycle of poverty, debt and ecological destruction’’[20] and the sum of this is the ecological debt owed by the global North to the global South.

Ecological solidarity then is with those** engaged in ‘’active struggle to protect land, livelihoods, and indeed lives in the face of the encroachment of capital.’’[21]


* It would be interesting to consider how far population rise, uneven and unequal as it is, and the demands arising, contribute to formations of capitalism as much as capital determining the nature of population growth, but that is another discussion – which it has to be said is much neglected on the left, thereby leaving population pressure theorizing too much to neo-Malthusians such as Population Matters.

** It may be worth noting the Cochabamba Declaration of 2010, in Bolivia, as a first attempt to make a global challenge to the privileges of capital encroachment by declaring the sanctity of natural and human rights. And this led by a national government in the global South. Of some relevance to this discussion is the fact that it is the organized campesinos and indigenos in Bolivia who have kept the Morales government to its stance against rapacious wealth extraction, and it is the organized campesinos and agricultural and forest workers in Ecuador who continue to fight for the policy of keeping oil in the ground now that Correo, the Ecuadorian president has capitulated to big oil interests in part if not completely in the Yamani national park.

  1.  John Bellamy Foster and Brett Clark, “Marxism and the Dialectics of Ecology” in Monthly Review, Vol.68, Issue 05, 2016
  2. N. Snricek and A. Williams, Inventing the Future:Post capitalism in a World without Work, Verso [ 2015. Also Paul Mason, Postcapitalism – A Guide to Our Future, London, 2015
  3. Guy Standing, The Precariat, Blackwells, 2014
  4. John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark and Richard York, The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Earth; Monthly Review Press, 2010. Other writers who have worked to ‘rehabilitate’ the ecological insights in Marx for too long neglected by Western Marxism are Joel Kovel, The Enemy of Nature, Zed Books, 2002, and Martin Empson: Capitalism and Ecology, Socialist Worker pamphlet
  5. Bill McKibbin in -climate-math. Damian Carrington, The Guardian, 0ctober 27, 2016 in on ten years after the Stern Report
  6. “Expansion of existing fossil fuels amounts to climate denial,’’  Report of  Oil Change International, 22 September, 2016
  7. Carbon Tracker Initiative and Grantham Research Insitute, LSE on the 2 trillion dollars of stranded assets in Unburnable Carbon, 2013.
  8. See for instance Mike Hales: Living Thinkworkwhere do labour processes come from? CSE Books, 1980. It is now (November 2016) the fortieth anniversary of the Lucas Aerospace Combine Shop Stewards Report, on The Lucas Plan and the campaign round that. In Birmingham on November 26, 2016 there is a day anniversary event. See also the review of 22 January, 2014 in . The TU report on One Million Climate Jobs supported by PCS, CWU, UCU, TSSA, Unite:
  9. Jason W. Moore, Capitalism and The Web of Life, Verso, 2015 and The Capitalocene, Part 1, 2014 in
  10. Neil Smith, Uneven Development in Socialist Register 2007
  11. Ibid
  12. J.P. Sharp, P. Routledge,  C. Philo, R. Paddison, eds, Entanglements of Power, Routledge, 2000.
  13. See and the vimeo – A Message From the Gyre on the Midway Island land pollution.
  14. Hybridism can be a useful concept to challenge essentialist discourse, but in the context of  political economy and ecology, Foster and Clark cite Erik Swyngedouw, “Modernity and Hybridity” in Annals of the Association of American Geographers as an example of the monist or undialectical approach in hybridist theorizing.
  15. Bellamy Foster and Clark [ibid.] point out Marx’s exposition of the Lauderdale Paradox in classical value theory where the Earl of Lauderdale wrote that the amassing of private wealth was at the expense of public good and led to monopoly and scarcity.
  16. The much reduced working week, and choice of period of years in which to perform an allotted amount of wage work, was proposed by Andre Gorz in the 1970s (Ecology as Politics, South End Press, 1979), and has been re-introduced to the discourse on economic and social policy by Anna Coote for the IPPR and more recently with the New Economics Foundation 
  17. Hannah Holleman: Interview in Left Voice, October 16, 2016 at  and The Ecosocialist Alternative in , October 16, 2016
  18. ibid.
  19.  ibid.
  20. ibid.
  21. ibid.