Karl Marx and the Metabolic Rift Theory

Karl Marx came up with the term "metabolic rift" to explain the crack or rift that capitalism has created between social and natural systems, humans and nature. This rift, he claimed, led to the exploitation of the environment and ecological crisis. Marx argued that we humans are all part of nature and he was also the first one who saw social societies as an organism with a metabolism similar to that of humans. In the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts from 1844, Marx wrote that:

"Man lives from nature, i.e., nature is his body, and he must maintain a continuing dialogue with it if he is not to die. To say that man's physical and mental life is linked to nature simply means that nature is linked to itself, for man is a part of nature."

The general idea is that disruptions, or interruptions, in natural cycles and processes creates an metabolic rift between nature and social systems which leads to a buildup of waste and in the end to the degradation of our environment.

As people moved into cities they lost the contact with nature, and as a result they became less likely to consider how their actions and decisions affected the environment. Marx also noted that as the income for the workers in the cities increased, capitalists searched for a cheaper workforce outside of the city. Today when half of the world's population lives in cities this is happening on a larger and more global scale. More people than ever have lost the direct contact with nature. And instead of companies and corporations looking for cheaper workers from the countryside they now look outside the nation's borders, mainly in developing nations. The developed world is performing a "brain drain" where they are literally stealing the higher educated students and people from poorer and undeveloped nations. This is turn is fueling "a vicious downward cycle of underdevelopment" in the countries affected.

An example of a global metabolic rift and its consequences can be seen in the 19th century trade in guano (bird droppings) and nitrates from Peru and Chile to Europe. In the late 1800s several agronomists and agriculture chemists, such as Justus von Liebig, warned that the transfer of food from the early industrialized agriculture farms on the countryside to the cities had resulted in a severe loss of soil nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. This threat to the food production was the result of the division between town and country. The food was now being transported to cities far away from its source. And its waste products, which before used to help replenish the soil, now ended up polluting the cities instead. So this metabolic rift between town and country resulted in the loss of soil fertility in Great Britain and other nations which in turn led to the global trade of guano and nitrates from Peru and Chile. This trade also involved transfer of labor from China to work on the guano islands in Peru under slave-like or even worse conditions. It resulted in national economies strained by a huge burden of debt, the degradation of the Chilean and Peruvian environment and even led to a war between Chile and Peru over the guano resources. Liebig has said that this hunt for guano and nitrates "deprives all countries of the conditions of their fertility" and even likened Great Britain to a vampire which is "sucking its lifeblood without any real necessity or permanent gain for itself".

Today guano is still widely sold around the world especially to countries such as France, Israel and the United States. Lately guano has also gained the status as an organic fertilizer which has helped increase the demands for it. But due to commercial overfishing as well as habitat loss and degradation the Guanay Cormorant bird has declined from its former population peak at around 60 million individuals to a slowly increasing population level at around 4 million birds today.

When it comes to anthropogenic global climate change Marx metabolic rift theory can help us to better understand and solve the biggest environmental crisis ever.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has concluded that the observed 0.6 °C temperature increases in global temperatures since the middle of the 20th century is a result of greenhouse gas emissions from human activities such as fossil fuels. So we humans have with our overdependence on fossil fuels disrupted the natural carbon cycle and earth's climate system. We are now accumulating more and more waste emissions into our atmosphere, 23 billion metric tons of CO2 every year, with no end in sight. With devastating effects this accelerating buildup of greenhouse gas waste emissions is warming up our planet and changing our climate.

Because capitalism promotes the accumulation of capital on a never-ending and always expanding scale it cannot be sustainable. So the manmade climate change we are seeing now is, according to Brett Clark and Richard York, a result of a metabolic rift created by the capitalistic world system. To be able to address and solve this carbon rift and stop the worst effects of climate change Marx metabolic rift theory shows us that a complete transformation, or revolution, of our society is needed. If we don't the carbon rift will continue to expand and we will race faster and faster towards the burning cliff.

References:

  • Hornborg, A., J.R. McNeill & J. Martinez-Alier, red. (2007)."Rethinking Environmental History: World-System History and Global Environmental Change"
  • Clark, Brett & York, Richard (2005). "Carbon metabolism: Global capitalism, climate change, and the biospheric rift"
  • Moore, Jason (2000). "Marx and the Historical Ecology of Capital Accumulation on a World Scale: A Comment on Alf Hornborg's "Ecosystems and World Systems: Accumulation as an Ecological Process.""
  • Foster, Bellamy, John (1999). "The Vulnerable Planet"
  • McMichael, Philip (2008). "Contemporary Contradictions of the Global Development Project: Geopolitics, Global Ecology and the "˜Development Climate," Third World Quarterly.


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Simon Leufstedt
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The Marx quote you posted was from 1844. Its now 2010 and we have automobiles. CO2 emissions per capita are lower in large cities than towns largely because of public transportation. As long as we are reliant on fossil fuels and automobiles, I don't believe the answer is to spread ourselves out more...

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Guest Natalie Eccleshall

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I have been studying the theories of Marx for a couple of years now at university and i have never came upon his theories about humans vs nature. It's a really interesting read.

Nat

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It has been 3 years since you have written your comment, but do you know that the main polluters are not our cars, but factories, power stations and other manufacturers industries. Our cars pollution contains just 3% of all CO2. And it is a very global problem that has to be solved, but, unfortunately, in my opinion it is impossible because of our capitalist world...

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Important clarification. Marx did not come up with the term Metabolic Rift. It was coined by John Bellamy Foster, but based on Marx's writings. Marx did argue that capitalism was ruining the metabolism of the natural systems, but "metabolic rift" were not his words.

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Important clarification. Marx did not come up with the term Metabolic Rift. It was coined by John Bellamy Foster, but based on Marx's writings. Marx did argue that capitalism was ruining the metabolism of the natural systems, but "metabolic rift" were not his words.

 

Thank you for your comment. You are of course correct, the term "metabolic rift" was coined by John Bellamy Foster. The theory itself has been developed over time by Justus von Liebig, Karl Marx, and most recently John Bellamy Foster. I should have made it much clearer in the text that I was referring to Karl Marx's concept of metabolic rift as developed by John Bellamy Foster. Although the theory has primarily been used to describe soil crises, it has been extended here to help explain the current climate crisis.

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