The Deadly Metabolic Rift

Against the Current No. 211, March/April 2021

Tony Smith

The Robbery of Nature:
Capitalism and the Ecological Rift
By John Bellamy Foster and Brett Clark
New York: Monthly Review Press, 2020, 384 pages, $23 paperback.

VARIOUS CRITICAL ISSUES are examined in this collection of previously published essays, revised for this book. It won the 2020 Deutscher Memorial Prize.

Monthly Review editor and University of Oregon professor of sociology John Bellamy Foster has written several books and numerous articles, beginning with Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Nature (2000), exploring the relevance of classical Marxist thought to grasping today’s existential environmental crises. Co-author Brett Clark is professor of sociology and sustainability studies at the University of Utah.

A small subset of the authors’ main claims will be highlighted here.

(1) There is indeed “an existential crisis in the human relation to the earth.” (1) Over the last 10,000 years planetary conditions fluctuated within relatively narrow and stable boundaries. The entire history of settled human civilizations has unfolded in this “Holocene” period of our planet’s life.

This period has now concluded. In a number of areas crucially important to humanity, these boundaries have been (or are about to be) transgressed: climate change, ocean acidification, stratospheric ozone depletion, nitrogen and phosphorus cycles, global freshwater use, changes in land use, biodiversity loss, atmospheric aerosol loading, and chemical pollution. (244)

Human activity is the main causal factor explaining this development, leading earth scientists to refer to the new period as the “Anthropocene.”

The authors of an important study cited by Foster and Clark warn that if the upper-range of projections of global warming were to occur it “would severely challenge the viability of contemporary human societies.”(1) When we recall how little has been done to prevent increased global warming, and how y-it is only one of the numerous planetary transformations imposing comparable risks on human societies, talk of an “existential threat” is fully warranted.

(2) There is no “technological fix” for this existential crisis. The more intelligent representatives of capital do not deny that serious environmental challenges must be faced. For them, however, this is best done by working with capitalist markets and not against them.

A carbon tax on polluting firms would give companies a strong market incentive to lower their costs by using technologies requiring fewer carbon emissions. Having to purchase rights to release carbon into the atmosphere in carbon markets would supposedly have the same effect, in their view.

There are also calls for the state to support firms undertaking massive geoengineering projects, such as sending aerosols into the upper atmosphere to reflect away the sun’s rays before they increase the planet’s surface temperature. Another proposal is to install technologies capable of extracting and sequestering significant amounts of carbon from the atmosphere.

As Foster and Clark remind us, technological change in capitalism tends to develop “greener” technologies without any special spur. Over the course of the industrial revolution, for example, each succeeding generation of steam engines became “greener” over time, burning less coal per unit of output than the one before. The total amount of coal burned in England increased nonetheless. (245)

This “Jevons paradox” (named after the British political economist who first brought it to attention) is easily explained: the increase in the number of units produced overwhelmed the reduction of coal use per unit, leading to more coal being burned overall.

Is there any reason to think that introducing technologies “greener” than those employed today won’t have a similarly paradoxical result? Investors in the stock market, whose pricing of oil companies’ stocks assumes that the last drop of oil in the ground will be profitably extracted, do not seem to think so. (243-4)

Engineering Disaster

Regarding geoengineering projects, Foster and Clark repeat the warning of many scientists that such unprecedented technological experiments would almost surely have pernicious consequences as harmful as the harms they are supposed to alleviate. (278)

Further, their massive scale would leave few resources for other social needs. An infrastructure capable of handling annual throughput 70 percent larger than that handled currently by the global crude oil industry would be required, along with ridiculous quantities of water — 130 billion tons annually just to capture and store U.S. emissions. (280)

Far from being a step towards socialism (as some techno-utopians of the left hold), government funded geoengineering would simply solidify an environmental industrial complex alongside the military industrial complex, the pharmaceutical industrial complex, and other complexes of big capital. (281-2)

Finally, once again, climate change is only one way in which present environmental trends will soon “severely challenge the viability of contemporary human societies.” In all the other cases too the sorts of technologies that have been developed, and the ways they have been used, have been part of the story of how we got to the present “existential crisis.”

Unless we figure out why that has been the case and eliminate that reason, to think we will be saved by technologies is to indulge in fantasy.

(3) Capitalism is the fundamental cause of the existential crisis in the relation between humans and the earth. All living beings appropriate resources from their environment and all generate wastes back into their surroundings. For a species to successfully occupy an environmental niche, the rate at which it depletes resources from its ecosystem must correspond to the rate they are replenished, and the rate it generates wastes must be aligned with the rate wastes can be processed.

When the social forms of capitalism are in place, neither condition is met, creating the metabolic rift between human society and its environment.

Capitalist market societies are distinguished from other societies in that products generally take the form of commodities sold for a profit. Any capitalist producers who do not attempt to make as much profit as possible, as fast as possible, will find themselves losing market share to those who do, if not forced out of existence altogether.

Making as much profit as possible, as fast as possible, generally means producing and selling as many commodities as possible, as fast as possible. This accelerated temporality is in tension with the temporality of our environment; resources tend to be depleted at a faster rate than they can be replenished, and wastes generated at a faster rate than they can be processed.

From this standpoint the “Jevons Para­dox” is less a paradox than a general description of how capitalism works. Any environmental benefits from technologies using fewer natural resources or generating fewer wastes per unit of production necessarily tends to be overwhelmed by the increase in the number of commodities produced in response to the “Grow or die!” imperative so ruthlessly imposed by the demands of capital accumulation.

From Local to Global Destruction

In the early phases of capitalist development, environmental destruction was relatively localized. After a handful of centuries of global expansion, it has sucked in re­sources from the natural world and spewed out wastes on a global scale, creating a fundamental rift in the metabolic relationship between human beings and the earth that is our home.

The term Anthropocene might be taken to misleadingly suggest that humanity in general has pushed conditions beyond previous planetary boundaries. This is not the case. The historically specific society subjected to capital’s profit imperative bears primary responsibility.

As Foster and Clark write: “Driven to transcend its external and natural conditions of production, and treating them not as boundaries but as barriers to overcome, capital constantly seeks to expropriate what it can from its natural and social environment while also externalizing its costs onto realms outside its inner circuit of value.” (90)

And within global capitalism, some regions have played a far more pernicious role than others, benefiting from what Foster and Clark rightly refer to as “a historic system of ecological robbery”:

“The very size of the ecological footprint of a rich economy such as the United States is an indication of its heavy reliance on unequal ecological exchange, extracting resources from the rest of the globe, particularly underdeveloped countries, in order to enhance its own growth and power.” (258-59)

(4) The metabolic rift between capitalist society and its natural environment is only one of many ways human flourishing is undermined by the reign of capital. From the standpoint of capital and its representatives, nature is a source of “free gifts” — resources to plunder, sites for dumping wastes. (26, 91, 200)

Foster and Clark’s essays offer a comprehensive overview of other forms of plundering and dumping that have also been — and also continue to be — essential to capitalism’s functioning.

One obvious example was the seizing of lands and peoples. Following the English conquest of Ireland, aristocrats expropriated the best agricultural lands, lending it to Irish tenants at exorbitant rents (“rack rent”) that could only be paid by selling their crops to England.

Capitalist development in England was spurred by the income extracted by English landlords and the cheap food for English workers. When the potato famine hit, rents and crops continued to flow to England as impoverished Irish farmers starved. (72)

In the so-called “New World” Indigenous communities, overwhelmed by violence and disease, had their land transformed into vast colonial plantations, farmed by slave labor forcibly transported across the Atlantic. (25)

In the name of racist and other supremist ideologies, the colonized and enslaved were simply resources to be plundered. They may not have prospered, but capitalism did: “These expropriations enabled the launching of the Industrial Revolution and the growth of both the United Kingdom and the United States as hegemonic economic powerhouses.” (49)

A parallel dynamic accompanies capital’s relationship to households. The wage laborers upon whom capital depends are not produced by capitalist firms. They are raised and nurtured by unpaid care labor in households, most often provided by women. Capital treats this labor as yet another “free gift,” heedless of the constraints to human flourishing imposed by this gendered social division of labor.

At first glance, capital’s relation to wage laborers appears quite different from its relationship to colonized indigenous communities, enslaved populations, or those undertaking unpaid care labor. In this case, after all, isn’t there an equivalent exchange of wages for work?

But as Foster and Clark (following Marx) explain, wage laborers would not be hired by capitalist enterprises unless their efforts were foreseen to create economic value exceeding what they receive back in the form of wages.

Workers are forced to accept this arrange­ment because the goods and services they and their dependents require, as well as the means of production to produce those goods and services, generally take the form of commodities owned by others.

To obtain what they and their dependents need, money is required, and for most people, selling their labor power for a wage is the only feasible option. What on the surface seems a free agreement to exchange things of equivalent value is on a deeper examination a coerced exploiting of workers. (40)

The surplus labor producing profits is yet another “free gift” to capital. Here too what would be good for human beings is systematically sacrificed for the sake of what is good for capital:

“The exploitation at the heart of the system, whereby surplus value is extracted from labor (variable capital), can ultimately proceed only through the destruction of the life and body of the laborer.”

Marx in Our Time

(5) The work of Karl Marx remains an indispensable aid to comprehending our social world. Many progressive theorists and activists today consider Marx an outmoded 19th century thinker. Prominent ecosocialists have complained of Marx’s alleged anthropocentrism, supposedly manifested in a worldview seeing nature as there for us to dominate, and in a labor theory of value ignoring the economic contribution of natural forces.

Numerous feminists have made an analogous complaint, arguing that Marx’s focus on wage labor led him to downplay the central role of non-waged domestic labor in social reproduction.

As Foster and Clark point out, it is simply incorrect to assert that Marx held an instrumentalist view of nature as there for humans to dominate. Far too many texts from throughout his life unequivocally reject that view. (204 ff.)

As for the “anthropocentrism” critique, it is true that Marx did not see human beings as just another part of nature. He would never have agreed with those contemporary ecosocialists who insist that humans are so inseparably united with the natural world that any talk of a tension between the two is nonsense.

But neither did Marx regard nature as irredeemably “other.” As Foster and Clark rightly insist, here, as elsewhere, Marx thought dialectically, rejecting both monism (human life is simply “inside” nature) and dualism (nature is “outside” us, there to be used). He believed both that human beings are as much part of nature as any other animal, and that natural and social evolution has produced beings with the power to create a metabolic rift between their society and the natural world that envelops it. (203)

Regarding the labor theory of value, Foster and Clark rightly insist that Marx’s value theory is not a theory of the physical process whereby inputs are transformed into outputs, as it was for classical political economists. For Marx, value theory is a social theory constructed to comprehend the historical specificity of capitalism.

In stark contrast to other modes of production, capitalist production is undertaken privately by producers who do not coordinate their activities with either other producers or the users of their products.

Privately undertaken labor hired by capitalist units of production must then be validated to some degree or other as (indirect) social labor though sale. When this occurs the product acquires the “purely social” property, value (226), and the labor hired by capital to produce the product is retroactively confirmed to have simultaneously produced value to some degree or other.

Even if it were possible to reduce concrete laboring to abstract physiological units of physical and mental exertion, comparable to the units of energy of natural processes, the result would not be the abstract labor that produces value, since those units of energy could well have been socially wasted wholly or in part. As Foster and Clark note, “The economic relations of society can no more be explained by energetics than they can be explained by ‘selfish genes.’ Both are forms of reductionism that neglect the distinctive nature of historical reality.” (228)

Wage Labor and Value

Marx develops a labor theory of value in Volume 1 of Capital not because the labor of human beings is the only important force in the transformation of inputs into outputs. Nor did he focus on wage labor because he denied (or simply did not see) the incalculable importance of unpaid care labor in social reproduction. “For Marx, there is no doubt that non-commodity-producing labor (contrary to capital’s own accounting) is also social labor.” (93)

Marx stresses wage labor because his theoretical goal in Capital was to understand what capital is, and capital is defined first and foremost by an endless drive to “valorize” the monetary value initially invested in production (M) by transforming it into a greater monetary return (M’).

Wage laborers hired by units of capital are “internal” to this process. M must be invested in the purchase of their labor power, and for a monetary return to be appropriated, the production privately undertaken by wage laborers must be socially validated as (indirect) social labor through sale.(2)

When validation occurs the social relationship between capital and wage labor takes the alien form of a property of a thing, the value of a commodity. When this value exceeds the monetary value initially invested, it represents in alien form the social relationship between a class that undertook surplus labor and another that profited from it.

By definition, “free gifts” to capital like the forces of nature, unpaid care labor and so on, do not have a monetary value requiring monetary investment by capital. By definition, then, they are not “internal” to capital’s valorization process. But that is precisely why Marx “distinguished between real wealth consisting of use-values, representing what he called the ‘natural form’ within production, and value/exchange value, that is, the ‘value form’ associated with specifically capitalist production.” (220)

This distinction between value and wealth is not an arbitrary feature of Marx’s thought; capital is essentially defined by both the accumulation of monetary value and the systematic neglect of wealth.

This may be irrational, since valorization depends on the “free gifts” from nature and care labor expropriated without having to invest monetary value in their purchase. But the irrationality is capital’s, and not Marx’s:

“Capitalism’s failure to incorporate nature into its value accounting, and its tendency to confuse value with wealth, [are] fundamental contradictions of the regime of capital itself.” (163)

Foster and Clark are well aware that immensely important matters regarding the environment and domestic labor were not examined adequately (or at all) in Marx’s writings. Their essays cite a vast range of works by contemporary ecosocialists and feminists that go beyond what we find in Marx.

Yet credit must be given where credit is due. Marx’s theory goes beyond the theory of exploitation found in the first volume of Capital. It was Marx who first worked out an explicit theory of the metabolic rift between society and the environment, rooted in capital’s limitless drive to accumulate.

Marx also explicitly acknowledged how that same drive puts relentless pressure on households, leaving them bereft of the time, energy, and material resources required for properly nurturing the next generation of human beings.

In this context we also need to recall that the three volumes of Capital are only the first part of Marx’s projected system. His project included a Book on Wage Labor that surely would have examined the role of households and care labor in capitalism, had it been completed. (89)

(6) A Marxian theoretical framework is indispensable for comprehending historical developments in recent centuries.

Pointing Toward Ecosocialism

Foster and Clark discern a general pattern in the historical development of capitalist societies: capital, defined by its relentless drive to accumulate, will push any given form of exploitation or expropriation to its limits, forcing a transition to new structures and practices enabling renewed exploitation and expropriation. They in turn will then be pushed to their limits.

The history of capitalist agriculture is one illustration of this pattern discussed at length in the book. As agrarian capitalism was introduced in England and Ireland, its first colony, agricultural production intensified, greatly profiting English landowners. Capitalist development in England benefited as well from the populace in England’s industrializing cities being cheaply fed.

The more production intensified, however, the more the soil became depleted of essential nutrients, reducing yields. When disease struck potatoes, the food source workers in both Ireland and England depended upon, Ireland suffered horrific famine, food costs increased in England, and profits were threatened by prospect of wage increases to cover the higher costs.

In response to these limits the Corn Laws, imposing tariffs on agricultural imports to England, were removed. Industrial workers in England were now fed in part by imports from grain producers in the United States and continental Europe, dispersing the environmental harms of capitalist agriculture [“In effect, a large part of the British metabolic rift was transferred abroad.” (118)]

Massive quantities of guano imported from Peru provided fertilizer to compensate for lost nutrients on British farms — 12.7 million tons were exported from Peru between 1840 and 1879! (16) More macabre yet, catacombs and battlefields were harvested for human bones for use as fertilizer in England.

Many agricultural estates in Ireland and England, unable to compete with imports from more efficient crop producers, shifted to raising livestock for expanded meat consumption, forcing tenant farmers off the land. Marx spoke of a “fiendish war of extermination” against the Irish tenants by the Anglo-Irish landlord class. (75)

With the separation of livestock from the remaining land devoted to crops, the latter lost access to manure that could have helped replenish the soil. Again, an environmental limit was approached, overcome this time by synthetic fertilizers and other elements of industrialized agriculture. (103)

Today, nitrate runoffs from fertilizer use have created an oxygen-deprived “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico as big as Connecticut. It is past time to wonder whether the historical development of capitalist agriculture is fast approaching an absolute limit.

Pushing Beyond the Limits

Foster and Clark’s overview of the history of women’s participation in the paid labor force exhibits a similar general pattern. As Marx noted, a very high percentage of workers in early capitalist factories were women. (80-2)

Capital pushed this arrangement to the point where next to no time or energy remained for maintaining working class households, threatening the reproduction of the workforce capital depends upon. (96) The “family wage” system was introduced to avoid that limit to capitalist development. In principle, at least, the wage income of the male “head of the household” was sufficient to enable wives and daughters to spend their lives in unpaid domestic labor, although poorer households, especially those defined as racially “other,” did not have this option.

Arrangements in the Global South took a quite different trajectory. There “capital engaged in the superexploitation of labor and the extreme expropriation of social reproduction work, relying on the position of ‘semiproletarianized’ households, such as families with access to small parcels of land to grow food, to help meet the reproduction needs not met by wages.” (99)

In the Global North, the family wage system remained in place for many households for decades. Its limits were reached with the severe erosion of male wages with the end of the post WWII boom, and with the increasing number of women demanding to participate in economic and social life outside the house.

Capital has benefited, as two members of worker households must now put their labor power at the disposal of capital for these households to maintain their standard of living. And once again, an arrangement favorable to capital accumulation is being pushed to its limit by “declining real wages for working-class families and increasing household debt” while “working-class women are caught in the double day, whereby they bear the responsibility both for earning wages and for unpaid domestic work.” The result is a “continuing, if shifting, care crisis in the realm of social reproduction.” (100, 101)

A Movement of Movements

(7) The struggle for a world beyond the limits of capital must be a movement of movements.

Foster and Clark show that the exploitation of wage labor in the capitalist production process is essentially tied to the expropriation of the natural world, the refusal to socially acknowledge care labor as socially necessary labor, the privatization of our common cultural heritage, the treatment of non-white communities as places where the social pathologies of capitalism (unemployment, poverty, and so on) can be concentrated, and so on.

From this perspective workers, environmentalists, feminists, community activists, and anti-racists have good reason to make common cause. As they write, “the age-old revolutionary principle of the masses, ‘I am nothing and I should be everything,’ be extended to the world of life itself, merging calls for substantive equality with ecological sustainability in a universal struggle for human development.” (9)

Few books convey more clearly than Foster and Clark’s about why this is the case. And few convey more strongly why the common cause must be to construct a socialism making the flourishing of all, not profits of some, its ultimate purpose.

There is some repetition, as is to be expected in a collection of separately written essays on closely related topics. This is more a strength than a shortcoming; important points warrant repeating. And there is no more important point than Foster and Clark’s main thesis:

“Ultimately, the crucial issue today is how capital as a system engages in the creative destruction of the entirely of the social and ecological conditions sustaining human existence — including the family, the constitution of human beings (identity, the body), culture, the economy, and the environment — and how this makes the revolutionary expansion of human freedom through the reconstitution of society at large an absolute necessity for present and future generations.” (79)


  1. Rockström, John et al. 2009, “A Safe Operating Space for Humanity,” Nature, 24 September, 473, emphasis added.
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  2. The other part of M is invested in means of production, purchased from other units of capital. The privately undertaken labor that produced them has already been socially validated with that purchase. The question regarding them now is simply whether their value will be successfully maintained (when the newly produced commodity is successfully sold) or destroyed (when it is not).
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March-Aril 2021, ATC 211

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