Marxism, capitalism, and nature-society relations: An introduction

Oct 12, 2021

Source: Wikicommons.


Environmentalists have long stressed limits to human interaction with nature. It’s commonly argued that transgressing “natural limits” caused the environmental crises we face today. While this sentiment might direct our attention to the severity and scale of destabilizing contradictions in our relationship with nature, its underlying analysis is unable to grasp and overcome the root cause of these contradictions: capitalist production. A deeper and more critical understanding of society’s relation to nature under capitalism is needed.

This article introduces Marxist conceptions of the relationship between capitalism and nature. It begins by examining the words “nature” and “production” and the different meanings and functions those terms serve, before turning to two different Marxist approaches to capitalism and nature: the metabolic rift and the production of nature. At the end, we emphasize how and why such approaches must inform organizing for environmental justice.

Beyond Malthus and “natural limits”

The modern concern with “natural limits” can be traced back to the 18th century British political economist, Thomas Malthus. Malthus argued that without any checks on population size, nature would eventually be unable to supply enough food, among other resources, to meet the growing demands of society [1].

Marxists reject Malthusian rhetoric by demonstrating how ecological limits are not inevitable or natural, but relative and specific to different modes of production. In the first volume of Capital, Marx writes that Malthus’ theory of overpopulation is not premised on any “eternal laws of nature” but rather on “the merely historical laws of the nature of capitalist production” [2]. No such eternal laws exist; rather “every particular historical mode of production has its own special laws of populatoin, which are historically valid within that particular sphere” [3].

Marx furthermore points out that Malthus’ ideas serve the interests of the ruling classes. This is because Malthus’ theory of overpopulation and natural limits rationalizes wage suppression, austerity, artificial scarcity, and unemployment as necessary “checks” on the environmental footprint of the working and oppressed. Yet, as an Oxfam report on carbon inequality from 2020 indicates, the richest 10 percent of the world’s population is responsible for 52 percent of cumulative carbon emissions, whereas the poorest 50 percent of people in the world are only responsible for 7 percent of emissions [4].

It’s not enough to note the inequality in consumption and environmental pollution between classes. We must seek to better understand issues like carbon inequality with respect to the whole of capitalist production. As geographer Matt Huber makes plain, “what rich people do at home or in their car or on their private jet pales in comparison to the exploitation of labor and the wrecking of the earth that generates the money they enjoy” [5].

Inequality, environmental degradation, scarcity, and hunger are not external to capitalism. They are, on the contrary, internal and integral features of the system. As Marxists, we understand that capitalism produces such realities through society’s ever-evolving interactions with nature. But what does this process look like? And can we go further with this analysis? How might we explain nature itself as internalized and produced under capitalism? Two influential Marxist understandings of nature-society relations under capitalism–the metabolic rift and production of nature–help us answer these questions.

Nature and production: Words and ideological functions

Before tackling either approach, it’s helpful to examine the meanings of the central terms of the discussion: “nature,” and “production.” Raymond Williams famously remarked that nature “is perhaps the most complex word in the [English] language” [6]. “Nature” can be used as a noun, verb, adverb, and adjective, and its multiple meanings include, “environment,” “essence,” “force,” “biology,” and “earth,” to name a few. In so far as there is an overarching understanding of the term, nature is commonly conceived of as a physical landscape or set of resources that exists “out there,” somehow external to the hustle and bustle of society. At the same time, nature also suggests something more primordial in this conception. Nature is understood as an all-encompassing and timeless “order of things,” which determines who and what we are as well as our place on earth in relation to our surroundings [7].

The complexity of “nature” as a term, however, is not merely linguistic but is also a product of the word’s social and ideological functions. Environmental scholar Margaret Fitzsimmons writes that “nature” holds a “mystifying role and power in our social and intellectual life” under capitalism [8]. Neither conception of nature as external nor as primordial have any fundamental scientific or historical basis. But, as Fitzsimmons contends, these ideas nevertheless provide “a source of authority to a whole language of domination,” premised not only on the “domination of nature, but also the domination of human reality by nature” [9]. For capital, “nature” is not only something to be controlled and dominated, but serves the ideological function for why control and domination are justified.

Georg Lukács relatedly argues that the societal category of nature has always been wielded as “an ideological weapon of the bourgeoisie” [10]. “For the latter,” Lukács continues, “it is a matter of life and death to understand its own system of production in terms of eternally valid categories” [11]. As previously mentioned, Marx sharply critiques political economists like Malthus, Adam Smith, and David Ricardo for presenting and defending the capitalist social order as upheld by mythologized “eternal laws of nature and man,” rather than the system’s actual historical foundations: violent expropriation, colonization, slavery, and ecological destruction. Truly, capital emerges into the world “dripping from head to toe, from every pore, with blood and dirt” [12].

Still, recognizing the ideological function of nature is not to say that nature is simply imagined. Ideology is dialectically intertwined with material life and practice. And it is through a given mode of production that ideas and consciousness are limited, pressured, and directed [13]. To better understand how ideas of nature relate to society’s material interactions with nature, we have to better understand what is meant by “production.”

In Capital, Marx offers two interdependent understandings of production with respect to nature [14]. The first concerns the ways in which human labor transforms raw materials provided by nature to produce commodities and value. Interactions with nature through capitalist production are defined not by the fulfillment of use-values or social needs in general but by the fulfillment of exchange-value, profits, and the “the abstract laws, needs, forces, and accidents of capitalist society” [15]. The second and more expansive understanding of production concerns both commodity production and the ways in which nature-society relations as a whole are produced and reproduced—that is to say, how the relation between nature and society develops over time. Under capitalism, this relationship unfolds in contradictory ways. However, discerning these contradictions can often be challenging given that the “secrets” of profit making and capitalist production tend to operate “above our heads and behind our backs” [16].

The metabolic rift

Marx highlights a primary contradiction of capitalism and nature in the Grundrisse, where he explains:

“It is not the unity of living and active humanity with the natural, inorganic conditions of their metabolic exchange with nature, and hence their appropriation of nature, which requires explanation or is the result of a historic process, but rather the separation between these inorganic conditions of human existence and this active existence, a separation which is completely posited only in the relation of wage labour and capital” [17].

In other words, the unity of humanity and nature, which Marx describes here and elsewhere in his work as a “metabolic exchange,” is undermined by a “separation” posed by capitalist relations. We can interpret this in two different ways.

On the one hand, we can read “separation” under capitalism as a fundamental disruption in the concrete processes of production by which humans alter and reorganize their environments, drawing materials from nature to satisfy their needs and returning other materials back to nature. As Marx highlights in his analysis of capitalist agriculture, any advances in agricultural productivity are often made at the cost “not only of robbing the worker, but of robbing the soil” [18]. In the case of the latter, this means ruining long lasting sources of soil fertility.

On the other hand, we can also read a “separation” under capitalism as a profound alienation of society from nature in that the vast majority of humanity has neither control over how and for what purpose commodities are produced from nature nor do they have control over the means by which the ecological degradation emerging from this production is meaningfully addressed and repaired.

These two readings comprise the analytical foundation of what many Marxist scholars in the social sciences have referred to as the “metabolic rift” thesis. Extending Marx and Engels’ work on the metabolism of nature and society, proponents of this approach contend that capitalism in its “narrow pursuit of profit—and on ever-greater scales—increasingly disrupts the fundamental ecological processes governing all life, as well as social reproduction” [19]. John Bellamy Foster and Brett Clark argue that capitalist production has consequently crossed “major planetary boundaries” which has resulted in ecological crises and catastrophes of increasing severity (e.g., global climate change, loss of biodiversity, destruction of various ecosystems, etc.), bringing to the fore questions about capitalism’s “absolute limits” [20].

Conceptually, this argument mirrors those made by earlier Marxist theorists on the “second contradiction of capitalism”—an ecological theory of crisis which explains that “environmental conditions are not just a limit to economic production, but that the pollution of nature by capitalist enterprises also threatens the health and well-being of the Earth and the workers who live on it” [21]. Moreover, by reiterating that capitalism is as much a system defined by instability as it is about appropriating and commodifying nature in search of profit, the metabolic rift theory offers a useful illustration of the incredible shortsightedness of capitalist production. In the “Dialectics of Nature,” Engels explains:

“As individual capitalists are engaged in production and exchange for the sake of the immediate profit, only the nearest, most immediate results must first be taken into account…In relation to nature, as to society, the present mode of production is predominantly concerned only about the immediate, the most tangible result; and then surprise is expressed that the more remote effects of actions directed to this end turn out to be quite different…[and] that the harmony of supply and demand is transformed into the very reverse opposite” [22].

But just as we might be inclined to see ecological crises as limits or as the “revenge” of nature, we should remember that “it may be perfectly possible for capital to continue to circulate and accumulate in the midst of environmental catastrophes. Environmental disasters create abundant opportunities for a ‘disaster capitalism’ to profit handsomely” [23]. Here the question becomes less a matter of determining the “absolute limits” to capitalism and social reproduction (an exercise that comes dangerously close to bourgeois and Malthusian rhetoric) but more a matter of uncovering how capital seeks to overcome limits and barriers posed by the contradictions of its own production. We can, for example, find evidence of this in efforts by finance capital to profit off “market solutions” to climate change and ecosystem conservation. The production of nature approach helps us to understand these elements of capital’s reproduction.

The production of nature

The production of nature thesis emerges from the work of Marxist geographers, for whom nature has been a longstanding focus of critical attention. In particular, the approach is closely associated with the work of the geographer Neil Smith, who threads together and expands upon Marx’s writings around production in general. As Marx observes, production itself is the production of nature: “animals and plants which we are accustomed to consider as products of nature, may be, in their present form, not only products of, say, last year’s labour, but the result of a gradual transformation continued through many generations under human control, and through the agency of human labour” [24].

In Uneven Development, Smith argues that what makes capitalism unique from other modes of production is that “for the first time human beings produce nature at a world scale” [25]. He explains, “no part of the earth’s surface, the atmosphere, the oceans, the geological substratum, or the biological superstratum are immune from the transformation by capital. In the form of a price tag, every use-value is delivered an invitation to the labor process, and capital… is driven to make good on every invitation” [26].

To say that nature is produced may seem to many a questionable claim. Indeed, as Smith acknowledges, “nature is generally seen as precisely that which cannot be produced; it is the antithesis of human productive activity” [27]. But the production of nature approach can be conveyed quite simply: capitalism does not just appropriate and commodify nature. Nature is made and remade to accommodate further appropriation and commodification. And through this material transformation, nature is increasingly subsumed and internalized under the totality of capitalist relations. Citing genetic engineering, new chemical compounds, and massive environmental modifications including the rapid creation of new urban ecosystems, David Harvey puts it this way: “many organisms actively produce a nature conducive to their own reproduction and humans are no exception. Capital, as a specific form of human activity, does the same, but increasingly in the name of capital and not of humanity” [28].

While capitalism produces nature on a global scale, it does so in ways that are far from uniform. For this reason, we ought to think of the production of natures in the plural as these processes occur at particular times and in relation to particular places and environments [29]. Here, we can call to mind issues of environmental injustice. From lead poisoning in Flint, Michigan or Syracuse, New York, to e-waste dumpsites in Accra, Ghana, to oil drilling in the Ecuadorian Amazon and Niger River Delta, poor and disempowered communities the world over are disproportionately exposed to the environmental and social devastation of natures intentionally and unintentionally produced by capital.

Key to the production of nature approach’s understanding of such environmental degradation is that crises don’t “spring from the interface between society and an external nature but from the contradictions at the heart of the social production process itself” [30]. Put differently, environmental crises emerge not as indicators of the inevitable limits of a natural system but as products of our social system.

Organizing for a different future

Far from complete theories, the metabolic rift and production of nature approaches are only that: approaches. And as with any theoretical approach, they have their proponents and critics. While spirited debates between the two may have their place in the academy, they often represent little more than petty disputes to those seeking not only to understand the world but to take power and change it in the process. Still, by drawing from both approaches and taking seriously their central arguments, one is afforded valuable explanatory frameworks that help to strengthen an environmental movement in the struggle for socialism.

For instance, by focusing attention on capitalist production through either approach, we are better able to communicate our understanding of nature as Marxists. Capital sees nature as nothing more than a store house of exchange values and potential profits, but this is not the Marxist position. As Marxists, we recognize that however many meanings “nature” conveys—environment, earth, biology, etc.—we cannot know nature as something outside ourselves. As Engels states, “at every step we are reminded that we by no means rule over nature like a conqueror over a foreign people, like someone standing outside nature—but that we, with flesh, blood, and brain, belong to nature” [31]. Nature cannot therefore be understood in an absolute sense as an independent “thing in itself,” but only relationally to society and the mode of production in which relations are produced and reproduced.

This is not to say, though, that nature does not surprise, challenge, and redirect society. Indeed, through production itself, nature and society are mutually transformed in a metabolic process. Rather, it is to assert that with a clear understanding of our relation to nature under capitalism, the ecological terms of our struggle become clearer. A common refrain among environmentalists has been the call for a “return to nature.” But in response, we can reasonably ask: where is this pristine or original nature that we ought to return to? As Marx writes, “to be radical is to grasp matters at the root. But for man the root is man himself” [32]. We must acknowledge that given the sheer scale of capitalism’s imprint on the planet, the idea that we can return to nature is implausible and stands in the way of more serious discussions of how to confront and overcome capitalist production and decide what our metabolic relation to nature ought to look like.

Smith writes, “through human labor and the production of nature at the global scale, human society has placed itself squarely at the center of nature. To wish otherwise is nostalgic” [33]. It is precisely this centrality in nature that compels capital to control nature, he continues, “but the idea of control over nature is a dream. It is the dream dreamt each night by capital and its class, in preparation for the next day’s labor” [34]. The socialist struggle is not one of controlling nature, but of controlling our production of and interaction with nature. It is the struggle to “determine what is and is not socially necessary…[and] to judge necessity according not to the market and its logic but to human need” [35].

We not only have a world to win, but a better one yet to build and produce.


[1] Thomas R. Malthus, An Essay on the Principle of Population (New York: Dover, 1789/2007).
[2] Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy (Vol. 1), trans. B. Fowkes (New York: Penguin, 1867/1990), 666f7.
[3] Ibid., 784.
[4] Oxfam, “Confronting Carbon Inequality: Putting Climate Justice at the Heart of the COVID-19 Recovery,” Oxfam Media Briefing,21 September 2020. Available here.
[5] Matt Huber, “Rich People are Fueling Climate Catastrophe—but not Mostly Because of their Consumption,” Jacobin, 05 May 2021. Available here.
[6] Raymond Williams, Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 164.
[7] Another way to think about this second conception of nature as primordial is to imagine the ways in which capitalist ideologues erroneously claim that greed and self-interest are simply “human nature.” Or the ways in which the colonial and imperialist projects have been upheld by the racist and demonstrably false view that Europeans are somehow made more “industrious” by their natural surroundings as compared to peoples of other regions of the world. The idea conveyed in this second example is also known as environmental determinism.
[8] Margaret Fitzsimmons, “The Matter of Nature,” Antipode 21, no. 2 (1989): 106
[9] Ibid., 109, emphasis in original
[10] Georg Lukács, History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1971), 11, emphasis added.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Marx, Capital (Vol. 1), 926.
[13] Derek Ford, “What is Ideology? An Introduction to the Marxist Theory of Ideology,” Liberation School, 07 September 2021. Available here.
[14] Commenting on the role of technology through different modes of production, Marx for example writes “technology reveals the active relation of man to nature, the direct process of production of his life, and thereby it also lays bare the process of the production of the social relations of his life, and of the mental conceptions that flow from those relations.” Marx, Capital (Vol. 1), 493f4.
[15] Neil Smith, Uneven Development: Nature, Capital, and the Production of Space (Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 2009), 87.
[16] Derek Ford and Mazda Majidi, “Surplus Value is the Class Struggle: An Introduction,” Liberation School, 30 March 2021. Available here.
[17] Karl Marx, Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy (Rough Draft), trans. M. Nicolaus (New York: Penguin, 1939/1973), 489.
[18] Marx, Capital (Vol. 1), 638.
[19] John Bellamy Foster and Brett Clark, “Marxism and the Dialectics of Ecology,” Monthly Review 68, no. 5 (2016): 2. Available here.
[20] Ibid., 5.
[21] Paul Robbins, John Hintz, and Sarah A. Moore, Environment and Society: A Critical Introduction, 2nd Ed. (UK: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd., 2014), 106.
[22] Friedrich Engels, “Dialectics of Nature,” in Marx & Engels Collected Works (Vol. 25): 1873-1883 (New York: International Publishers, 1925/1987), 463-464.
[23] David Harvey, Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 249.
[24] Marx, Capital (Vol. 1),287-288.
[25] Smith, Uneven Development, 77.
[26] Ibid., 79.
[27] Ibid., 49
[28] Harvey, Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism, 247.
[29] Noel Castree, “Marxism and the Production of Nature,” Capital & Class 24, no. 3 (2000): 30.
[30] Smith, Uneven Development, 84.
[31] Engels, “Dialectics of Nature,” 461.
[32] Karl Marx, Critique of Hegel’s ‘Philosophy of Right,” trans. A. Jolin and J. O’Malley (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970), 137.
[33] Smith, Uneven Development, 91.
[34] Ibid.
[35] Ibid., 89.

Socialism an integral part of U.S. labor history

Socialism an integral part of U.S. labor history

In celebration of International Workers Day or May Day Liberation School is republishing "Socialism an integral part of U.S. history" by Eugene Puryear. Originally published in 2010 as a response to the mobilization of anti-communist propaganda against Obama to paint...

Socialism an integral part of U.S. labor history

Socialism an integral part of U.S. labor history

In celebration of International Workers Day or May Day Liberation School is republishing "Socialism an integral part of U.S. history" by Eugene Puryear. Originally published in 2010 as a response to the mobilization of anti-communist propaganda against Obama to paint...