Review: Paul Burkett's "Marx and Nature" and John Bellamy Foster "Marx's Theory of Metabolic Rift"

"We are a part of everything that is beneath us, and around us. Our past is our present, our present is our future, and our future is seven generations past and present."

--Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) teaching

"No system, including that of human society, can exist in empty space; it is surrounded by an 'environment,' on which all is conditions ultimately depend. If human society is not adapted to its environment, it is not meant for this world."

--Nikolai Bukharin, "Historical Materialism: A System of Sociology", 1925


Based on an review that I recently submitted to the Journal of Economic History, this post will address "Marx and Nature: a Red and Green Perspective", written in 1999 by Paul Burkett. Then it will consider an article by John Bellamy Foster that appeared in the Sept. 1999 American Journal of Sociology titled "Marx's Theory of Metabolic Rift: Classical Foundations for Environmental Sociology." Both Burkett and Foster are noteworthy for their pioneering work in establishing Marx's ecological credentials. I will conclude this piece with some thoughts on possible missing pieces in the puzzle that might help to put together the big Red-Green picture.

One of the main criticisms of Marxism from radical environmentalism is that it follows a "Promethean" logic that takes nature for granted. It sees Marxism as viewing nature as raw input to the labor process, out of which pours commodities for a ravenous consuming public. Only a philosophy that questions unconstrained industrial growth can curb such "productivist" excesses.

In "Marx and Nature", Paul Burkett takes up the arguments of Andrew McLaughlin, Enzo Mingione and Ted Benton, who feel that Marx was squarely in the Enlightenment tradition. This tradition allegedly holds that human progress hinges on the subjugation of nature to human purposes. McLaughlin states, "For Marxism, there is simply no basis for recognizing any interest in the liberation of nature from human domination." Mingione points to a rigid need to develop the forces of production in Marx, which solely can guarantee future liberation. Benton sees Marxism as sharing "the blindness to natural limits already present in . . . the spontaneous ideology of 19th century industrialism."

Burkett responds to these criticisms by first of all initially accepting their plausibility. With frequent references in Marx to the need for developing the productive forces of social labour, such a conclusion does not seem far-fetched. Digging deeper into Marx, Burkett questions support for the proposition that the historic superiority of capitalism is "based on an anthropomorphic preference for material wealth over nature." Only in comparison to precapitalist social institutions is capitalism. By removing constraints on the natural and social character of humanity, capitalism in theory offers potentially richer and more environmentally conducive values.

But even with this vision of an emancipating capitalism, Marx understood the negative dialectic that would undermine this tendency in the long run. It socializes production but only in an "antithetical form" due to the class-exploitative and alienating character of production. Although all societies are exploitative, it is capitalism alone that exacerbates environmental problems to the breaking point. By concentrating the producers and separating them from the necessary conditions of production, including natural conditions, capitalism undermines humanity's ability to develop itself.

Burkett also believes that the labor theory of value--the heart of Marxist political economy--is of utmost relevance for a socialist ecology. This seems puzzling since the labor theory of value most often comes into play within an entirely different context--to refute the claim that prices and profit are a function of supply and demand, or rewards for entrepreneurial initiative. Marxists point to labor's creation of value based on the exploitative wage relationship. Nature as such has rarely entered the picture in this ongoing debate. Burkett writes, "The notion that Marx's labor theory of value might provide an important ecological perspective might seem strange, given the popular view that this theory excludes or downgrades nature's importance as a condition of and limiting factor in human production."

The key for Burkett is nature's role in the contradiction between production of use values and exchange values. Production of use values characterized precapitalist societies, which yield to the production of exchange values in capitalist society. Use values consist solely of natural materials modified by human labor, such as the clothing and crops that self-sustaining farmers produce. Exchange values emerge from commodity circulation, where goods yield cash equivalents. Cash then becomes new commodities in a new round of exchange. Capital exploits labor to produce commodities that are greater in value than the wage of the workers who produce them. From the capitalist standpoint, this represents profit. From the Marxist standpoint, it is exploitation only of a more recent vintage than the serfdom and chattel slavery that preceded it.

Capitalist production not only exploits labor, but nature as well. Competition drives the capitalist system. Accumulation of capital requires ever-increasing demands on the worker and on nature itself. While the work-day extends, the surrounding countryside turns into a toxic dump in order to meet production quotas. Objectification of humanity and nature go hand in hand. Marx describes this process as a system of "self-estranged natural and spiritual individuality."

Although Burkett's book is an unqualified success in its stated goals, there is a critical question that requires additional discussion and clarification among Marxists searching for a combined Red and Green perspective.

This involves the relationship of a certain kind of existing precapitalist society to nature today. While capitalism has a relatively emancipatory logic vis-a-vis precapitalist social formations such as chattel slavery or serfdom, there are indigenous societies around the world under siege from multinational corporations. How do they fit into this schema?

In nearly every instance, the clash is over how to use nature. Indigenous peoples tend to value nature as a communal economic and spiritual resource, while the multinationals--in most cases, energy corporations--view it as a raw input to commodity production. Is the spread of capitalist property relations in the Amazon rainforest an advance over precapitalist modes of production?

I will return to this question after reviewing John Bellamy Foster's article, which recapitulates his research into Marx's concern with the problem of soil fertility as well as drawing some new lessons about the relevance of Marxism to ecology.

The context for Marx's examination of the agrarian question was the general crisis of soil fertility in the period from 1830 to 1870. The depletion of soil nutrients was being felt everywhere, as capitalist agriculture broke down the old organic interaction that took place on small, family farms. When a peasant plowed a field with ox or horse-drawn plows, used an outhouse, accumulated compost piles, etc., the soil's nutrients were replenished naturally. As capitalist agriculture turned the peasant into an urban proletariat, segregated livestock production from grain and food production, the organic cycle was broken and the soil gradually lost its fertility.

The need to artificially replenish the soil's nutrients led to scientific research into the problem. Justin von Liebeg was one of the most important thinkers of the day and he was the first to posit the problem in terms of the separation between the city and the countryside, what Marx characterized as an "irreparable rift." This contradiction is associated with the growth of large cities during the industrial revolution and the removal of wage earners from agrarian society.

While the research proceeded, the various capitalist powers sought to gain control over new sources of fertilizers. This explains "guano imperialism," which I referred to in my post on Peru the other day. England brought Peru into its neocolonial orbit because it was the most naturally endowed supplier of bird dung in the world. In 1847, 227 thousand tons of guano were imported from Peru into England. This commodity was as important to England's economy as silver and gold were in previous centuries.

There was also a desperate search for bones. Over a ten year period, the value of English imports rose from 14,000 pound sterling to 254,000. Raiding parties were dispatched to battlefields to scavenge bodies of dead soldiers. Their bones were desperately needed to replenish sterile soil.

The United States followed suit. There had been a big crisis in upstate NY and the mid-Atlantic states in the mid 1800s. This prompted Congress to pass the "Guano Act" of 1856, which eventually led to the seizure of 94 islands in the Pacific Ocean, rich sources of guano.

Liebeg theorized that such measures would eventually fall short. Even with such substitutes, the soil tended to lose its nutrient properties so long as the artificial divide between town and countryside was maintained. Not only was the countryside losing its productivity, the town was being swamped with human waste which was no longer being recycled. London had such a terrible problem with open sewers that Parliament was forced to relocate to a location outside the city during the summer months. The stench was unbearable.

Scientists like Liebeg, on the other hand, supported the notion of soil improvement. This meant looking at the relationship between society and nature in ecological terms. The solution to the problem was the reintegration of the town and country. This overlapped with Marx's own exploration of the problems in Capital. In volume three of Capital, the discussion of farming is framed within this general dialectic. Soil fertility could only be ensured over the long run through the abolition of the capitalist system, which would allow food production to take place along sound, ecological guidelines.

Marx viewed Liebeg's research as critical to his own attempts to frame a socialist solution to the most pressing environmental problem of the 19th century. He wrote, "I had to plough through the new agricultural chemistry in Germany, in particular Liebeg and Schöbein, which is more important for this matter than all the economists put together."

Marx's concern with the problem of soil fertility had a profound influence on the next generation of Marxist thinkers, including Karl Kautsky and Nikolai Bukharin, one of whose thoughts on the topic serves as an epigraph above.

Published in 1899, Kautsky's "The Agrarian Question" discussed the failure of fertilizers to resolve the "metabolic rift":

"Supplementary fertilisers... allow the reduction in soil fertility to be avoided, but the necessity of using them in larger and larger adds a further burden to agricultureónot one unavoidab1y imposed by nature, but a direct result of current social organization. By overcoming the antithesis between town and country... the materials removed from the soil would be able to flow back in full. Supplementary fertilizers would then, at most, have the task of enriching the soil, not staving off its impoverishment. Advances in cultivation would signify an increase in the amount of soluble nutrients in the soil without the need to add artificial fertilizers."

Other early Soviet thinkers were influenced by Bukharin's ecological writings. For example, V.L. Komarov wrote in 1935 that, "The private owner or employer, however necessary it may be to make the changing of the world comply with the laws of Nature, cannot do so since he aims at profit and only profit. By creating crisis upon crisis in industry he lays waste natural wealth in agriculture, leaving behind a barren soil and in the mountain districts bare rocks and stony slopes."

After amassing a wealth of documentation supporting the links between classical Marxism and ecology, Foster writes in his conclusion that, "The way in which Marx's analysis prefigured some of the most advanced ecological analysis of the late 20th century--particularly in relation to issues of the soil and the ecology of cities--is nothing less than startling." While I agree wholeheartedly with this, I want to suggest some other areas of research that need to initiated in order for a comprehensive Red-Green analysis to be completed.

The first of these is the question of energy and global warming, which in their own way reflect similar contradictions as those found in the agricultural "metabolic rift." Fossil fuels provide the energy to manufacturing, just as fertilizers sustain industrial farming. In either case, you are dealing with organic substances that become transformed into essential links in the overall chain of commodity production. How capitalist society deals with these organic substances reflects intractable problems that no amount of reformist tinkering can resolve.

The industrial revolution not only separated the wage earner from agrarian society, it also unleashed powerful momentums to gain control over energy sources. Rivalry over coal fields was one of the main causes of World War One, just as rivalry over oil provoked World War Two. Many scholars link the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor with FDR's decision to declare an oil embargo on Japan.

International competition between advanced capitalist countries drives the exploration for and careless exploitation of mineral resources. Strip mining, oil spills, nuclear power mishaps and air pollution are not incidental accessories to the overall capitalist mode of production, but go to the heart of it. Furthermore, global warming looms as the most serious challenge to humanity and nature, as capitalist competition proceeds unabated. While some Marxists regard global warming as some remote problem that needs to be confronted a century from now, there is evidence that climate changes are already in progress that have had a killing effect on poor and working people. Many scientists speculate that the intensity of Hurricane Mitch, which wreaked havoc in Central America two years ago, is related to a more intense occurrence of La Niña brought on by global warming.

While irrational use of energy can produce devastating side-effects in urban-based industrial societies, it as at their source where many of the most cruel and inhumane effects are being felt. I speak of the clash between indigenous peoples and multinational corporations looking to exploit oil, coal or uranium and who will murder to safeguard their profits.

Winona LaDuke's recently published "All Our Relations: Native Struggles for Land and Life", from which the Haudenosaunee saying above originates, details the impact of energy exploitation on the lives of American Indians.

In 1973, after the energy crisis began, the US government stepped up exploration for coal. Many of the US's coal reserves are found on Indian reservations and this led the powerful AMAX corporation to exert pressure on the Northern Cheyenne tribal council in Wyoming to sign an agreement that effectively ceded control to the company. The consequences have been devastating for the Indians.

That year the National Academy of Sciences issued a report that detailed the damage of strip mining, especially in arid territory like Wyoming: "Surface mining destroys the existing natural communities completely and dramatically. Indeed, restoration of a landscape disturbed by surface mining, in the sense of recreating the former conditions, is not possible." Such lands, which often are found in economically and politically marginal places like Indian reservations, should be dubbed "National Sacrifice Areas" according to the Academy. The Northern Cheyenne decided that they had sacrificed enough and launched a rebellion against the government and the coal company. It took almost 15 years for them to convince Congress to void all the coal leases and get rid of the coal company.

In addition, much of the world's nuclear industry depends on uranium that is found on or near indigenous peoples' territory. Since 70 percent of the world's reserves is found there, the clashes are frequent, whether in New Mexico with the Dineh, or in Australia's Jabulikka mines.

Forced by economic duress to sign commercial agreements with energy corporations, American Indians receive very few benefits. Instead they put up with toxic dumps consisting of the byproducts of uranium mining, while jobs in the mines often lead to radiation-related cancers. Grace Thorpe, the founder of the National Environmental Coalition of Native Americans, wrote:

"The Navajos .. were warned about the dangers of uranium. The people emerged from the third world into the fourth and present world and were.. .told to choose between two yellow powders. One was yellow dust from the rocks, and the other was corn pollen. The people chose corn pollen, and the gods nodded in assent. They also issued a warning. Having chosen the corn pollen, the Navajos were to leave the yellow dust in the ground. If it was ever removed, it would bring evil."

Finally, the most dramatic instance of a life-and-death struggle between indigenous peoples and energy corporations is taking place in Colombia today where a miniscule band of U'Wa has threatened to commit suicide en masse unless Occidental and other companies stop drilling on or near their homelands. The response of organized Marxism to the U'Wa has not been satisfactory, as the FARC guerrillas murdered 3 North American activists who were working to keep the oil companies out. While the FARC has described the murders as an unfortunate accident and brought the perpetrators to justice, it unfortunately reflects deeper problems that are not accidental. The ELN guerrillas continue to blow up pipelines that cause vast pollution problems on indigenous lands, no matter the objection of the affected peoples.

This is symptomatic of an ongoing failure of Marxism to fully respect indigenous demands. It is connected to the problems between the Sandinistas and the Miskitus and it also reflects the failure of the socialist movement historically to fully theorize the role of indigenous peoples in a schema based on the transition from "savagery" to "civilization" as Engels put it. These "stages" have more to do with Social Darwinism than they do with the emancipatory project of socialism.

But it is on the particular question of ecology and indigenous peoples that the Marxist movement needs to sharpen its analysis. There are attacks everywhere on the notion that American Indians had respect for Nature, the latest being a book written by Brown professor Shepard Krech III, titled "The Ecological Indian: Myth and History." It is a rehash of all the stale arguments about how Indians drove bison off of cliffs, leaving dead carcasses to go to waste; how they did not practice ecologically sustainable farming, etc., ad nauseum.

While indigenous peoples are small in number, their strategic location in looming battles between energy corporations and humanity as a whole demands the sharpest and clearest response from Marxists. While Marxism has to look at social relations with an objective eye, it appears that the response of Harvey and Hughes has less to do with objectivity than it does with an overall climate of hostility toward indigenous rights. If human beings first organized on this planet on the basis of communal property, then it makes sense to fight for the rights of such peoples today. It is not "progress" when capitalism destroys indigenous societies organized on the basis of communal ownership of land and other resources. Modern urban society has much to learn from people like the U'Wa. Offering solidarity to such peoples should occupy a central place in a socialist movement sensitive to Green perspectives.