Marxist ecology

The ecosocialist views of Karl Marx – An interview with Kohei Saito

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The winner of the 2018 Deutscher Prize discusses Karl Marx’s radical understanding of capitalism’s deadly disruption of the universal metabolism of nature.

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The winner of the 2018 Deutscher Prize discusses Karl Marx’s radical understanding of capitalism’s deadly disruption of the universal metabolism of nature.

Kohei Saito is an associate professor of political economy at Osaka University and author of Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism, winner of the 2018 Deutscher Memorial Prize. He is also an editor of the Marx-Engels-Gesamtausgabe (MEGA), which includes many of Marx’s previously unpublished notebooks on natural science.


You write in the introduction to your book, Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism, that for many years, environmentalists — and even many Marxists — believed that Marx held a Promethean viewpoint and that he was uncritical of the technology developed under capitalism. Where did this idea come from, and why has it persisted until recently?

One obvious reason is that Marx did not finish Capital. Marx eagerly studied natural sciences in his late years, but he was unable to fully integrate his new findings into Capital. Although he planned to elaborate on ecological issues in volume 3, especially in rewriting his theory of ground rent, he never made it very far, and even volume 2 of Capital was not published during his lifetime. Instead, Marx left only a number of notebooks on natural sciences. Unfortunately, no one really paid attention to them—and not many people read them today either—and they were not even published for a long time, although now the Marx-Engels-Gesamtausgabe (MEGA) publishes them in its fourth section.

Why did this neglect happen? I think that so-called traditional Marxism treated Marx’s materialist project as a closed dialectical system that explains everything in the universe, including human history and nature. In this sense, Marxists did not pay enough attention to his economic manuscripts and even less to his notebooks, which document the incomplete character of Marx’s Capital.

Of course, there were Marxists who rejected this omnipotent reading. They are known today under the banner of “Western Marxism.” When they rejected traditional Marxism, however, they harshly reproached Engels as the misleading founder of traditional Marxism, who wrongly expanded Marx’s dialectical critique of capitalist society to the scientific system of the universe. Consequently, when Western Marxists expelled Engels and his dialectics of nature, they also excluded the sphere of nature and natural sciences from their analysis. Consequently, Marx’s serious engagement with natural sciences was ignored by both traditional and Western Marxists.

But today, no one really believes in this all-encompassing omnipotence of Marx’s theory, and the MEGA makes Marx’s engagement with natural sciences clearly visible. Thus, we need to find an alternative approach to Marx’s texts, and it is a chance to utilize the openness of Marx’s project in a productive way with new materials. In other words, by looking at his economic manuscripts as well as his notebook on natural sciences, we can learn from Marx how to develop ecological critique of capitalism in the 21st century. This is an urgent practical and theoretical task for today’s left, as humans are now facing a serious global ecological crisis under neoliberal capitalism.

Your book is dedicated to rescuing Marx’s ecological critique of capitalism, continuing the work undertaken by ecosocialists like Paul Burkett and John Bellamy Foster. Why do you think Marx’s ecological analysis is so important to the left and to environmentalists today?

Yes, my approach is a clear continuation of the “metabolic rift” theory advocated by Foster and Burkett, and one of the aims of my book is to defend the concept of metabolic rift against recent criticism raised by Jason W. Moore. It is quite apparent today that mass production and consumption under capitalism has tremendous influence upon global landscape and causes ecological crisis. Marxist theory thus also needs to respond to the situation with a clear practical demand to envision a sustainable society beyond capitalism. Capitalism and material conditions for sustainable production are incompatible. This is the basic insight of ecosocialism.

I think Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything has provided a very convincing and concrete analysis of how the regeneration of the Marxist idea of metabolic rift can open up new imagination for an ecosocialist project in the 21st century. She shows that such radical movements are already emerging, and their goals are actually worth striving for. As she argues, it is necessary to reduce a large amount of carbon emission every year starting from now on in industrial countries, if increase of average global temperature in 2100 should be contained within 2 degrees Celsius. But it is not possible for capitalist global elites and companies to accept this demand because they know that such project is incompatible with necessary conditions of capital accumulation.

This is why the Paris agreement is insufficient to achieve the required reduction of carbon emissions, but Trump cannot accept even that level of carbon reduction. We have been too often witnessing global elites’ total incompetence to take any serious measure against climate change in the last decades. We should realize that the problem is not simply neoliberalism but capitalism as such. This is why Klein also now clearly advocates ecosocialism, “a new form of democratic eco-socialism, with the humility to learn from Indigenous teachings about the duties to future generations and the interconnection of all of life, appears to be humanity’s best shot at collective survival.” The antagonism between red and green needs to be dissolved.

The first half of your book focuses on Marx’s idea of a metabolism between human beings and nature. Can you tell us about how ecosocialists are applying the theory of metabolic rift to the various ecological crises we are currently witnessing? How does Marx’s theory differ from other strains of ecological theory?

Marx clearly and critically recognized the destructive power of capital and argued that disruptions in the universal metabolism of nature inevitably undermine material conditions for free and sustainable human development. The robbery character inherent to the capitalist development of productive forces does not bring about progress that leads to the future society.

Marx attempted to analyze how the logic of capital diverges from the eternal natural cycle and ultimately causes various disharmonies in the metabolic interaction between humans and nature. Famously enough, he analyzed this point with reference to Justus von Liebig’s critique of modern robbery agriculture — Raubbau — which takes as much nutrition as possible from the soil without returning it. Robbery agriculture is driven by profit maximization, which is simply incompatible with the material conditions of the soil for sustainable production. Thus, there emerges a grave gap between the logic of capital’s valorization and that of nature’s metabolism, which creates metabolic rifts in human interaction with the environment.

Though Marx in Capital mainly discusses this problem of metabolic rift in relation to soil exhaustion, it is not at all necessary to limit the scope to it. In fact, Marx himself also tried to apply this theoretical concept to various issues in his late years, such as deforestation and stock farming. Therefore, Marx would be happy to see that today there are various attempts to apply this theoretical framework as a tool to analyze ongoing environmental crisis. To name a few, Longo on marine ecology, Ryan Gunderson on livestock agribusiness, as well as Del Weston on climate change are excellent examples for ecosocialist application of Marx’s theory of metabolic rift.

One obvious difference between the ecosocialist approach and that of other strands of ecological theory is the insight that as long as the capitalist system persists, there is an inevitable tendency toward the degradation of material conditions of production. In other words, the market cannot function as a good mediator for the sustainable production in contrast to the persistent liberal belief that green capitalism is somehow possible in the near future. The time left for us is very short.

Under these conditions, liberals’ hope that carbon trade or other market transactions can solve climate change only functions as an ideological tool to distract us from confronting the real danger and threat, as if the market could automatically solve the problem without our conscious engagement to radically change the existing mode of production. Liberals are very dangerous in this sense.

The second part of your book focuses on Marx’s view of the possibilities of achieving “rational agriculture” under capitalism and how that view changed over time as he continued his research. Did Marx conclude that the ecological destruction caused by capitalism cannot be resolved within the limits of capitalism?

Young Marx was still quite optimistic about the capitalist development of technologies and natural sciences. Thus, he thought that it would prepare conditions for sustainable agriculture in socialism. However, as he was writing Capital, he started to emphasize that the main aim of capitalist production is not sustainable production but the valorization of capital. Marx realized that, ultimately, it does not matter even if a large part of the planet becomes unsuitable for life, as long as capital accumulation is still possible.

Correspondingly, Marx realized that technological development is organized as “productive forces of capital,” which lead to the full realization of negative aspects of technologies, so they cannot function as a material foundation for socialist society.

The problem is discernible in the fact that capital can profit even from environmental disaster. This tendency is clearly visible in what neoliberal “disaster capitalism” has done in the last decades, as Klein documents in detail. If this is the case, then it is wrong to assume that the end of cheap nature would impose a great difficulty on the capital accumulation, as James O’Connor indicated with his theory of the “second contradiction of capital.”

Consequently, capital can actually continue to make profit more from the current ecological crisis by inventing new business opportunities, such as geoengineering, GMOs, carbon trade and insurances for natural disasters. Thus, natural limits do not lead to the collapse of the capitalist system. It can keep going even beyond those limits, but the current level of civilization cannot exist beyond a certain limit. This is why a serious engagement with global warming simultaneously requires a conscious struggle against capitalism.

You point out that, toward the end of his life, Marx became aware of the danger of climate change as a result of society’s irrational management of nature — an incredible insight given that he was writing a century and a half ago. How did Marx understand climate change?

Foster argues that Marx might have attended John Tyndall’s lecture on the greenhouse effect, so he knew about the cause of today’s global warming. My argument is somewhat different, as there is no direct evidence to prove Marx’s familiarity with this topic. Rather, I examined his notebook on Carl Fraas’s Climate and Plant World over Time, which Marx read in the beginning of 1868. The book discusses climate change, as a result not of greenhouse gas emissions but of excessive deforestation, which changes the local air circulation and precipitation. Fraas’s analysis expanded Marx’s interest in the robbery character of capitalist production beyond soil exhaustion, and in some sense, he evaluated Fraas’s theory even more than Liebig’s.

Even if Marx did not know the exact causes of today’s global warming, it is not a major deficit because Marx did not claim to have explained everything. Until the last moment of his life, he was very eager to integrate new findings in the natural sciences into his analysis of metabolic rifts. He was unable to fully achieve this aim, and Capital remained unfinished. But his critique of political economy is elastic enough to incorporate recent scientific progress.

Since his critique of metabolic rift provides a methodological foundation for a critical analysis of the current global ecological crisis, it is our task today to substantiate and update Marx’s ecology for the 21st century by developing the synthetic analysis of political economy and natural sciences as a radical critique of capitalism. This is exactly what people like Brett Clark and Richard York as well as other people already mentioned are conducting now.

Using the example of the exhaustion of Irish soil due to British colonialism, Marx showed how the expansion of capital around the world is directly linked to ecological crisis in the colonial countries. What lessons can we draw from this example, and what does it tell us about overcoming the worldwide ecological crises today, which are far greater in scale?

In the key passage to the concept of the metabolic rift, Marx wrote that the capitalist mode of production “produces conditions that provoke an irreparable rift in the interdependent process between social metabolism and natural metabolism prescribed by the natural laws of the soil. The result of this is a squandering of the vitality of the soil, and trade carries this devastation far beyond the bounds of a single country (Liebig).” With an expansion of capitalist accumulation, the metabolic rift becomes a global issue.

Marx’s theory proves correct, as this is exactly what we are witnessing today, especially with climate change. As I said, climate change will not put an end to the regime of capital. In any case, capitalism is much more elastic in that this social system is likely to survive and continue to accumulate capital even if ecological crisis deepens to destroy the entire planet and to produce a mass environmental proletariat all over the world.

Rich people would probably survive, while the poor are much more vulnerable to climate change, even though they are much less responsible for the crisis than the rich. The poor do not possess effective technological and financial means to protect themselves from the catastrophic consequences of climate change to come. Fighting for climate justice clearly includes a component of class struggle, as was the case in British colonialism in Ireland and India.

While climate change could change everything about our life, changing climate change will change capitalism. This is how ecosocialism comprehends ecological crisis and metabolic rifts as the central contradiction of capitalism. Marx was one of the first ecosocialists, since he recognized this point when he found a “socialist tendency” in Carl Fraas’s warning against excessive deforestation and climate change. Thus, to overcome alienation from nature is a central task for both red and green, which can be realized only beyond capitalism, and not within “green capitalism.”

1 Comment

  • What a wonderful interview! I agree entirely, but I would like to offer a clarification on one subject.

    Did Marx attend Tyndall’s lectures on the greenhouse effect? Of course we can’t know for certain whether Marx was there at the crucial point, but we do know that he frequently attended scientific talks in London at the time, including some of Tyndall’s lectures when he was addressing the greenhouse effect and issues of solar radiation more generally. So in some of my writings I offered this as a historical possibility, and as an interesting (even symbolic) way of highlighting how abreast Marx was of the science generally, of which there are many indications.

    I did not say that Marx “knew about the cause of today’s global warming” because at the time no one, including Tyndall himself, imagined that the greenhouse effect would lead to anthropogenic global warming.

    I have written elsewhere about Marx’s and Engels’s thoughts on Carl Fraas’s arguments on anthropogenic climate change since ancient times, including “Capitalism and the Accumulation of Catastrophe”, published eight years ago in Monthly Review.

    Of course Kohei Saito’s knowledge of Fraas is much greater than mine. His magisterial book is the definitive work on Marx’s study of the natural-ecological sciences in the period following the publication of Capital based on a meticulous study of Marx’s excerpt notebooks, and I am very pleased that it is getting the recognition it so much deserves.