Metabolic rift

Online now: Cesspools, Sewage, and Social Murder

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Ian Angus examines how the 19th century metabolic rift in agriculture that so concerned Karl Marx triggered a pollution crisis in the world’s largest city

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Ian Angus examines how the 19th century metabolic rift in agriculture that so concerned Karl Marx triggered a pollution crisis in the world’s largest city

“Liebig rightly criticizes the senseless wastefulness which robs the Thames of its purity and the English soil of its manure” (Karl Marx)

Excuse me if I brag, but I’m very proud of this.

C&C previously reported that the latest Monthly Review “is a special double issue devoted to explaining and expanding the ecological critique embodied in Marx’s theory of metabolic rift.”

I’m pleased and honored that the editors chose to include my new article, Cesspools, Sewage, and Social Murder: Environmental Crisis and Metabolic Rift in Nineteenth-Century London.

It’s the longest piece so far in my series of articles on metabolic rifts, the result of months of research into a subject that has not been much discussed in modern ecosocialist analysis: how the 19th century metabolic rift in agriculture, which so concerned Karl Marx, caused an unprecedented environmental crisis in London, killing tens of thousands of working people and shortening the lives of many more.

The solution that was finally adopted, one of the largest engineering projects the world had seen until then, only shifted the crisis out of sight. London’s solution was copied by most major cities in Europe and the Americas, setting the stage for even greater crises in our time.

Unlike many other journals, Monthly Review makes its articles available to readers who are unable to afford or access the print edition, posting them online in the weeks following print publication. Effective today, Cesspools, Sewage, and Social Murder appears in full on the MR website. Click here to read it now.

As always, your comments, criticisms and corrections are more than welcome.






  • Thanks for this very interesting essay, which provides a political context for reading accounts such as The Great Stink of London.

    Of course, the article raises loads of issues, which require further elaboration. One is how to implement what I consider to be the alternative to Bazalgette-derived sewage systems, namely composting toilets. Collecting and distributing the product (no longer “waste”) would be a major undertaking in a big city, let alone in an ecosocialist society where there was “no distinction between town and country”.

    A few anecdotes

    I heard from a relative that spoils collection was still done in some places in central London even after WWII.

    About 15 years ago, I wrote an article for a socialist paper in which I advocated composting toilets. It was rejected, I think on the grounds that they thought I must be some kind of hippy eco-warrior.

    Joseph Bazalgette’s great-great grandson Peter is responsible for probably as much ecological destruction as his predecessor. He devised the lifestyle TV programmes Ground Force,cwhich persuaded millions of people to install decking and hard surfaces in their gardens I stead of plants, and Changing Rooms, which promoted frequent redecorating and extensive “home improvements”, usually using damaging resin-sodden materials like MDF, now a ubiquitous non-recyclable building material. Also Big Brother.

  • Congratulations on the wonderful essay. This issue of MR is excellent and your contribution is the most informative and incisive contribution. It can’t be over-praised.

    I hope most readers of this site will get a copy of the July-August Monthly Review and study it. The issue is very educational and class aware and essential reading.

    Best wishes and Thanks!