Marx on the metabolic rift: how capitalism cuts us off from nature

BY:Anita Waters| October 11, 2019
Marx on the metabolic rift: how capitalism cuts us off from nature

Although Karl Marx is not known first and foremost as an environmental theorist, in recent decades students of his work have argued that Marx had a systematic approach to environmental protection, that he recognized the key connections among labor, technology, and nature, and, according to sociologist John Bellamy Foster, that his discussions of the environment “prefigured some of the most advanced ecological analysis of the late 20th century.”   By analyzing the distorted relationship that capitalism imposes between humans and the rest of nature, Marx used developments in the agricultural science of his day to argue that by radically transforming socio-economic relations, it is possible to repair the rift between humans and nature.  A path to sustainability and environmental protection is possible.

Marx and Engels were witnesses to and keen analysts of the environmental problems inherent in nineteenth-century capitalism.  They wrote about the depletion of coal reserves, the destruction of forests, and, especially, about diminishing soil fertility, which Foster recognizes was the most pressing issue of the day.   Given breakthroughs in soil chemistry, large-scale land owners in the 1800s became aware of the value of additives like potassium salts, phosphates and guano (sea bird dung that accumulated in great quantities in South American and the Caribbean) to improve “exhausted soil.”  At the same time, farmers realized that mineral deposits that could be used for soil enhancement were expensive and in short supply.

One of the foremost agricultural chemists of his time, Justus von Liebig (1803-73), criticized agricultural practices that relied on highly limited resources like guano.  Such temporary fixes cannot restore the “conditions of reproduction” of the soil.   “Rational agriculture,” Liebig wrote in 1859, demanded a radical recycling plan that would return the nutrients of town inhabitants’ waste back into the soil of the countryside.  Only this could ensure sustainability.  Liebig called it “the principle of restitution; by giving back to the field the conditions of their fertility, the farmer insures the permanence of the latter.”

In his discussions of nature in Capital, Marx relies heavily on Liebig’s work and shows that the divide between urban and rural concerns in Liebig’s work echo the “greatest division of material and mental labor” — that is, the separation between town and country.  Capitalist production concentrates populations in cities, estranged from the natural foundations of human existence.   Capitalism, Marx wrote, “disturbs the metabolic interaction” between human beings and the planet on which they live; this is known as the concept of “metabolic rift.”  As he wrote in Capital (vol. 3):

Large landed property reduces the agricultural population to an ever decreasing minimum and confronts it with an ever growing industrial population crammed together in large towns; in this way it produces conditions that provoke and irreparable rift in the interdependent process of the social metabolism, a metabolism prescribed by the natural laws of life itself.

Here, Marx used the organic analogy of metabolism, referring to the biological systems in which an organism takes in nutrients from its environment and expels wastes, enabling it to grow and reproduce.   Metabolism can be used to describe regulatory processes of a single cell, an organism, an ecosystem, or indeed the whole planet.  Furthermore, Marx focused on social metabolism, in which the systems that connect humans with nature are mediated by productive forces.  The “metabolic rift” refers to the way human labor becomes alienated from its natural resources.

Marx here drew the parallel between capitalist exploitation of laborers in urban areas with capitalist agriculture’s depletion of natural resources like soil fertility in the countryside.  Large-scale industry impoverishes workers, and large-scale agriculture impoverishes the soil.  The metabolic rift on a global level is seen in the way imperialist nations rob colonized areas of natural resources, including depleting their soil.  Mining guano in Peru or collecting Chilean nitrates are temporary and false solutions to the problem of soil exhaustion. (In fact Liebig said English agriculture would need to find guano deposits about the size of English coalfields to use it effectively).

For Marx, the only lasting path to sustainability is the “conscious and rational treatment of the land as permanent communal property” – i.e. the abolition of private landed property.  Ecological sustainability is only a possibility in “a future society of associated producers,” a socialist society, which could bring about a new and higher synthesis, a union of agriculture and industry.

However, a transition to socialism alone doesn’t guarantee that the antagonism between town and country will be overcome automatically.  According to Foster, Marx emphasized the need for careful planning, for a more even dispersal of people over rural and urban areas, and for recycling of soil nutrients from town to countryside.     The early Soviet Union, especially during Lenin’s time, had more deliberate concern for the scientific management of natural resources and natural preservation.  Later, other priorities would cause late 20th century Soviet leaders to pursue policies that have been characterized as “ecocide,” losing sight of Marx’s argument about the metabolic rift. A better model of the potential of a society that is not dominated by huge private corporations can be found in Cuba, whose advances in coastal management, urban farming, and sustainable agriculture are well known.  These achievements are impossible when short-term profit for private owners is the primary goal.

John Bellamy Foster believes that we usually don’t see Marx as an environmental theorist because our definition of environmental thought is too narrow, contrasting ecocentrism (focusing on the natural world) and anthropocentrism (focusing on humans), while leaving out the interaction between society and the natural world.   While capitalism sees nature as something separate from humanity, something that can and should be dominated by humans and that is even a “free gift” to capital, Marx advanced a more profound viewpoint.  Even soil fertility, Marx wrote in The Poverty of Philosophy, “is not so natural a quality as might be thought; it is closely bound up with the social relations of the time.” The key to the mediation between humans and nature is found in technology, which is shaped by both natural conditions and social relations.  As Foster points out, advances in agricultural techniques created the new social relations that are inherently incompatible with sustainable agriculture.  What have to change are not more and different technical developments as much as change in the social relations themselves.

At a recent Youth Climate Strike March, a young man carried a sign that said “The only solution to the climate crisis is an end to capitalism.”  Marx would agree.  Structural change, a reining in of corporate power, will be the only effective way to protect the earth, which Engels wrote “is our one and all, the first condition of our existence.”



John Bellamy Foster. Marx’s Theory of Metabolic Rift: Classical Foundations for Environmental Sociology.” The American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 105, No. 2. (Sep., 1999), pp. 366-405.

Karl Marx and Frederick Engels. The German Ideology. New York: International Publishers, 1970 [1846]. Full text available at

Karl Marx 1981. Capital vol. 3. NY: International Publishers.


Image: Rebecca Wilson, “Ticky Tacky.” Used under CC BY-2.0.


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