by Dorothy C. Gull

“All the planned action of all animals has never succeeded in impressing the stamp of their will upon the earth. That was left for man.” (Engels 1876)

"Comrades, let us urgently save everything that we breathe and live by" Maystrovsky 1989

Climate change, biodiversity loss, desertification, rainforest destruction, pollution of oceans and rivers, ozone depletion, land degradation, and a host of other environmental problems have two major things in common: they are intrinsically social problems with social causes and social consequences, and they are contributing to immanent ecological crisis. The aim of this essay is to use the Marxian theory to illuminate how the structure of our society promotes the destruction of our shared environment. Although Karl Marx is not known for theory on environmental sociology, he—along with his colleague Friedrich Engels—did contribute a handful of important concepts and thoughts that are still quite relevant to today’s discussions of global warming and environmental degradation. Furthermore, their writings and theory on society and capital help to understand the root causes of contemporary environmental issues.

In addition to the basic conditions of capitalism, three facets of capitalism outlined by Marx and Engels—industrialization, globalization, and alienation—help to explain how the socioeconomic system drives environmental degradation worldwide. The capitalist system is predicated on the idea of infinite growth. As many have observed, notably scholar James O’Connor, this is problematic—if not impossible—on a planet with finite resources (cited in Foster 2002). However, to the capitalist, the earth appears to be seen as an infinite well of resources to exploit—similar to the pool of labor

aat their disposal. The following sections explain, using Marx and Engels’ theory, how

capitalism is predicated on the notion of infinite growth, and how three facets of capitalism—industrialization, globalization, and alienation— contribute to environmental



In order to explain how capitalism is fundamentally based on the notion of infinite growth—and how infinite growth leads to environmental degradation and destruction—, this section begins by noting the two basic aims of capitalist enterprises. It goes on to illustrate how the infinite growth of production uses up ever-increasing amounts of raw materials in an unsustainable way. The section concludes with a brief discussion of overpopulation as a potential aim of the capitalist.

The first of the basic aims of the capitalist is “to produce a use-value that has a value in exchange, that is to say an article destined to be sold, a commodity,” and the second is “to produce a commodity whose value shall be greater than the sum of the values of the commodities used in its production, that is of the means of production and the labor power” (Marx and Engels [1867] 1978:351). In producing a commodity that has a net positive exchange value, the capitalist is producing what Marx and Engels called “surplus value.” The point of surplus value is to provide more capital to allow for more production, which in turn creates more surplus value triggering more production. In a sense, this is a positive feedback loop with no natural mechanism to curb the ever-increasing production.

Marx and Engels described this phenomenon. Capitalists must also continually reinvest and exchange money to increase their capital, for instance by buying a raw material or other commodity, increasing its value through labor, and then selling the finished product at a higher price. Marx and Engels ([1867] 1978) explained that “the circulation of money as capital is… an end in itself, for the expansion of value takes place only within this constantly renewed movement. The circulation of capital has therefore no limits” (p. 333). The very structure of capitalist production requires capitalists to continue increasing their capital through the process of extraction, production, and exchange, with the capitalist profiting while the earth and the laborer suffer. This phenomenon is further evidenced in Capital, Volume I, where Marx and Engels ([1867] 1978) wrote that “based on the very nature of manufacture... the minimum amount of capital, which is bound to be in the hands of each capitalist, must keep increasing” (p. 397). This infinite growth of capital is the key component of success as a capitalist. Capitalism’s basis in constant increases in production produces constant increases in wealth for the capitalists.

Raw materials, like metals, minerals, fibers, petroleum, agricultural products, other fuels, and more, must constantly be extracted from the earth at greater and greater amounts to allow for this perpetual growth. According to Marx and Engels ([1867] 1978), a raw material is already a “subject of labor” which has been “filtered through previous labor… such as ore already extracted and ready for washing” (p. 345). In Capital, Volume 1, Marx and Engels (1867) explained that inputs of raw materials must constantly increase, even at a faster rate than the labor that produces the commodities: “With the division of labour in manufacture, and with the use of machinery, more raw material is worked up in the same time, and, therefore, a greater mass of raw material and auxiliary substances enter into the labour process” (Ch. 25, Sec. 2). In these passages, Marx and Engels were mostly describing the process of constantly using more raw materials, but they did not comment on the impact of this practice. The rate of raw material use has increased dramatically since the time of Marx and Engels’ writings. Today, the impacts of the constant need for more raw materials to sustain capitalist production is a much more pressing concern. Not only does society run the risk of running out of certain vital raw materials, but producing raw materials such as corn or cotton on such a large scale threatens the long-term vitality of the soil and its potential to regenerate and continue providing a growing medium to supply food to the ever-increasing human population. Indeed, Marx and Engels ([1867] 1978) noted in Capital, Volume I that “capitalist production… develops technology, and the combining together of various processes into a social whole, only by sapping the original sources of all wealth—the soil and the laborer” (p.417). The authors were aware that the capitalist mode of production was unsustainable, both for the planet and for the laborers.

Capitalist production increases not to serve the increasing population but to ensure the proliferation of profits for capitalists themselves. Furthermore, this increasing population is an effect of capitalism itself, as the system requires fewer laborers than there are available, which benefits the capitalists as it serves to keep labor costs low. Capitalism effectively creates a surplus population, which Marx and Engels ([1867] 1978) termed the “Industrial Reserve Army” (p. 422). The Industrial Reserve Army, or the population of un- or under-employed laborers, increases “yet more rapidly than the technical revolution of the process of production,” and the population must be larger than what is required for bourgeois production because “the pressure of the unemployed compels those that are employed to furnish more labor” for the benefit of the capitalists (Marx and Engels [1867] 1978:425). The excess population created by capitalist accumulation becomes part of the pauper class, as there is insufficient employment to sustain the masses (Marx and Engels [1867] 1978:429). This mass of population must continually expand to allow for the expansion of capitalism itself. Moreover, the increasing population requires yet more resources to be sustained, consuming greater and greater quantities of finite raw materials. Ultimately, capitalism necessitates the expansion of capital—through production and exploitation of labor power—to sustain itself, and this has detrimental effects on the environment (Marx and Engels [1867] 1978:397; 1894: Ch. 15, Sec. 3).


Perpetual capitalist growth has been accommodated by the rise of industrialization, modern machinery, and factory production (Marx and Engels [1867] 1978:403-4). Mechanization made it possible for capitalists to extract more relative surplus value by “increasing the productiveness of labor;” thus allowing for the rise of capitalism to its current state (Marx and Engels [1867] 1978:403-4). This section discusses the importance of industrialization for allowing capitalism to proliferate to the degree that it now threatens the sustainability of life on earth as well as some of industrialization’s own environmental impacts. In the next two sections, globalization and alienation are discussed as important effects that stem from industrialization and have further negative impacts on the environment.

Mechanization and the rise of industry allowed the bourgeoisie to be “constantly revolutionising the instruments of production,” a necessary condition for the perpetuation and expansion of the capitalist system (Marx and Engels [1848] 1978:476). Industry flourished because novel machinery promoted the conditions of ever greater capitalist growth by lowering the expenses associated with manufacturing goods, namely the labor power involved in commodity production (Marx and Engels 1867: Ch. 15, Sec. 2). The addition of machinery to industrial factories also allowed capitalists to employ fewer laborers, thus lowering the cost of producing goods over time and helping to create the Industrial Reserve Army, as discussed above (Marx and Engels 1867: Ch.15, Sec. 6; see also Sec. 1).

Marx and Engels were careful to note that the steam engine was an important part of the development of industrialization. However, it was not the steam engine itself that gave rise to industrialization; rather, the conditions of capitalism required the steam engine to promote industrialization, as well as to promote globalization, as discussed in the next section. As Marx and Engels (1867) explained:

The steam-engine itself… during the manufacturing period at the close of the 17th century, and such as it continued to be down to 1780, did not give rise to any industrial revolution. It was, on the contrary, the invention of machines that made a revolution in the form of steam-engines necessary. (Ch. 15, Sec. 1)

Industrialization proliferated the steam engines, which—by way of manufacturing and transportation uses of the steam engine—contributed to air, water, and pollution through the burning of fuels to create steam to power the engines. Moreover, capitalism needed the steam engine and the concurrent massive industrialization in order to become the dominant economic system of the world system. While the steam engine gave rise to the use of machinery in factories that paved the way to modern industry, it also helped lead to the development of modern globalization by making international travel faster, which in turn facilitated the international distribution of goods, ideas, and people.


Globalization, a key facet of modern capitalism, has encouraged international trade and development for the benefit and profit of the capitalist. It has also had the effect of displacing untold quantities of raw materials and humans from their native lands. Although the impacts of globalization are not all bad, mobility certainly comes with a price; fuel emissions from the transport of goods and people locally and around the world are major contributors to global warming, which has triggered many environmental concerns from ocean acidification to extreme weather events. This section focuses on the ways that capitalism encouraged the rise of globalization and explains some of its subsequent environmental impacts.

It is not that international trade and travel were undiscovered at the advent of capitalism, but rather, capitalism encouraged the unprecedented growth of global trade and eventually globalization as known in the twenty-first century. The feudal economic system gave way to the capitalistic social and economic structure which spurred the rise of globalization.  In the Manifesto of the Communist Party, Marx and Engels ([1848] 1978) described some of the areas in which globalization and capitalism overthrew the feudal economic order:

The discovery of America, the rounding of the Cape, opened up fresh ground for the rising bourgeoisie…. [T]he increase in the means of exchange and in commodities generally, gave to commerce, to navigation, to industry, an impulse never before known, and thereby, to the revolutionary element in the tottering feudal society, a rapid development. (P. 474)

New markets and new raw materials were catalysts of change from a feudalist to a capitalist system, in part because the new industrial capitalists displaced the feudal lords as “the possessors of the sources of wealth,” and perhaps also because the old economic system was not equipped to manage the production and movement of such volumes of goods around the world (Marx and Engels ([1867] 1978:432-3). Marx and Engels ([1848] 1978) noted that as capitalism grew—and globalization was well underway—, capitalists exploited new raw materials from exotic places and new markets in faraway destinations:

… [T]hrough [the bourgeoisie’s] exploitation of the world market… all old-established national industries… are dislodged by new industries … that no longer work up indigenous raw material, but raw material drawn from the remotest zones; industries whose products are consumed… in every quarter of the globe. In place of the old wants, satisfied by the production of the country, we find new wants, requiring for their satisfaction the products of distant lands…. In place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, universal interdependence [sic] of nations. (P. 476)

One of the long-term effects of globalization has been the increasing “interdependence [sic] of nations” and the creation of the duality of “civilized” and “barbarian” countries—known today in many ways: core and periphery, developed and developing, and global north and south—which makes the latter set of countries dependent on the former (Marx and Engels [1848] 1978:476-7).

This imbalance of power among developed countries and developing countries has had negative impacts on the environment as well. Developing countries are often rich in resources but poor in international power and capital. Developed countries have the power to exploit these countries, resulting in what some scholars have termed “unequal ecological exchange.” Lacking the ability or resources to enforce strict environmental regulations, developing countries’ resources are unsustainably extracted (often by transnational companies [capitalists] based in developed countries), resulting in pollution, biodiversity loss, and destruction of natural landscapes (for example, see Jorgenson 2007; Jorgenson, Dick, & Austin 2010; Shandra et al. 2009).

Marx and Engels also discussed the impact of transporting goods from the countryside to the city with a concept that contemporary scholar John Bellamy Foster termed the ‘metabolic rift’ between humanity and nature. Globalization exacerbates this phenomenon. The metabolic rift is the concept that people remove matter from the soil, which is then moved around the world without returning the waste of that original matter to where it began, so it disrupts the natural cycle of matter. Chronic overworking of the soil has caused depletion of nutrients vital to future food security (Foster et al. 2010:124). Marx and Engels ([1867] 1978) mentioned this very issue, although it was in its nascent state at the time of their writing:

Capitalist production, by collecting the population in great centres, and causing an ever-increasing preponderance of town population, on the one hand concentrates the historical motive power of society; on the other hand, it disturbs the circulation of matter between man and the soil, i.e., prevents the return to the soil of its elements consumed by man in the

form of food and clothing; it therefore violates the conditions necessary to

lasting fertility of the soil. [emphasis added] (P. 416)

Marx and Engels expressed concern here that long-term soil health was threatened by

the practices necessary for capitalist production. Other passages that mention the use

of guano fertilizer make clear that the authors knew of the environmental impacts of

capitalist production.  Of course, Marx and Engels (1967) focused primarily on labor

issues, but they linked the exploitation of the laborer to that of the soil: “the limiting of

factory labour was dictated by the same necessity which spread guano over the English

fields. The same blind eagerness for plunder that in the one case exhausted the soil,

had, in the other, torn up by the roots the living force of the nation” (Ch. 10 Sec. 2).

Massive industrial monocropping today has proven their concern about soil health and sustainability. The metabolic rift has continued through globalization on an astounding scale with many commodities that start from cheap raw materials in the poorest countries to transition countries with huge populations of “surplus labor” that cheaply manufacture goods to the wealthiest countries for consumption at the highest exchange value. Capitalism not only robs the soil of its fertility in the rural areas and depletes natural stores of minerals, it promotes pollution of urban areas and the global ecosystem through fuel emissions while transporting products and the buildup of waste in the cities. These effects of globalization and urbanization intensify the metabolic rift and accelerate destruction of the environment.


According to a Marxian framework, humanity’s alienation from nature is one of the reasons humanity continues to harm the environment which sustains it. This section explores some of Marx and Engels’ ideas about nature and alienation while linking them together to help explain how capitalism provides the conditions for mass environmental destruction.

The idea of nature comes up in several of Marx and Engels’s works, but it rarely comes with a straightforward definition. That could be because, as he wrote: “Nature as nature…—nature isolated, distinguished from… abstractions, is nothing,” meaning that “nature fixed in isolation from man” has no relevance to humanity (Marx and Engels [1844] 1978:124). Therefore, in attempting to define or understand nature abstractly, one must consider humanity’s relation to it and thoughts about it.  Therefore, one of Marx and Engels’ ([1844] 1978) best conceptualizations of nature comes from his Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844—at its foundation, it describes nature as all that is external to the human:

The abstract thinker recognizes at the same time that sensuousness… is the essence of nature. But he expresses this contrast in such a way as to make this externality of nature… its defect, so that inasmuch as it is distinguished from abstraction, nature is something defective. (P. 125)

Marx and Engels point out one of the key conflicts between humanity and nature: the externality of nature as perceived by humanity. Because people see nature as something external and not intrinsic to themselves, they can lose sight of the fact that “Nature is man’s inorganic body” and that “Man lives on nature” (Marx and Engels [1844] 1978:75). Another important aspect of nature is that it is distinct from society, which is a human construction; as Marx and Engels ([1844] 1978) wrote, “human objects are not natural objects” (p. 116). Indeed, they defined the relationship that humanity has with nature as social, because it is through society that humanity has separated itself from nature (Marx and Engels [1844] 1978:85). Despite Marx and Engels’s multi-faceted conception of nature, the bases of their idea include nature’s externality from humans and society as well as the fact that nature is the root source of all wealth—along with labor (Marx and Engels [1867] 1978:417; [1875] 1978:525).

Marx and Engels recognized that nature provides all that is necessary for humanity and other life on earth to exist. They were well ahead of their time, according to David John Frank (1997), who affirms that “At the beginning of the period [of 1870-1990], nature was noticeable to humans mainly for instrumental (primarily economic) reasons. By the end of the period, nature was conceived as the biogeophysical undergirding of human life itself” (p. 412). The following passage clearly demonstrates Marx and Engels’ understanding of nature as the most important aspect of humanity’s sustainability:

But just as nature provides labor with [the] means of life in the sense that labor cannot live without objects on which to operate, on the other hand, it also provides the means of life in the more restricted sense, i.e., the means for the physical subsistence of the worker himself. (Marx and Engels 1844: Sec. 23)

At a fundamental level, nature is the source of all wealth because it provides everything necessary to sustain life on earth. Marx and Engels contended that because nature is necessary for survival, the maintenance and use of nature should be a responsibility and a right of all.

Indeed, Marx and Engels conceived that people have a basic right to nature because of the inherent necessity of nature for survival. This is evidenced in their distress that peasants were being prosecuted for ‘stealing’ dead, fallen wood from forests which belonged to “landed proprietors;” using the dead wood, which would otherwise rot on the forest floor, was historically part of the “customary rights of the poor in order to maintain their families” (Marx and Engels [1859] 1978:3; Foster 2000:67). The law about stealing wood signaled the changing relations of society and nature around that time (the 1840s) from the view of nature as an implicit right of individuals in order to sustain themselves to nature as an economic commodity, which could be bought, sold, and even stolen. The theft of wood is just one instance of the correlation of capitalism’s rise and human antagonism with nature, which includes ownership of nature. Marx and Engels summarized this position: “man from the beginning behaves towards nature… as an owner, treats her as belonging to him,” rather than treating nature as a part of life to be commonly shared and enjoyed (Marx and Engels [1875] 1978:526). Regardless of humanity’s reliance on nature as the provider of all life, society views it as another commodity to be owned. This idea of nature as a commodity or something to be owned, along with the notion that nature is extrinsic to humanity and society, shed light on the conundrum of why humanity continues to damage nature in spite of our categorical need to maintain it in order to reap sustenance from it.

From a Marxian perspective, humanity’s alienation from nature also helps to make sense of this conundrum. Capitalism has had the effect of alienating laborers from their own selves and from nature, thus further allowing people to view the natural world as external to their own lives (Marx and Engels [1844] 1978:175). To begin to understand Marx’s conception of alienation, one must return to the laborers and the products of their labor.

Essentially, alienation of laborers from the products of their labor has its roots in the ostensible paradox that “[t]he worker becomes all the poorer the more wealth he produces” (Marx and Engels 1844: Sec. 22). That fundamental disconnect between the labor and the products of that labor causes the workers to detach from the products of their labor. Such products are seen as alien, disconnected from the labor which brought them into existence. That same alienation causes the workers to be alienated from their own labor and themselves because “the life which [the worker] has conferred on the object confronts him as something hostile and alien” (Marx and Engels 1844: Sec. 22). The labor is not part of the worker’s “intrinsic nature;” the labor itself does not belong to the worker, but rather to the capitalist (Marx and Engels 1844: Sec. 23).

Marx and Engels (1844) equated this relation between the workers and their own labor to their “relation to the sensuous external world, to the objects of nature, as an alien world inimically opposed to [them]” (Sec. 23). The chasm between the workers and their own labor is one of the elements that is the foundation of people’s alienation from nature. This fracture between nature and humanity changed how people consider the importance of maintaining the earth. The fracture was created by capitalism’s view of nature as a commodity and the relocation of people from the land to the cities.

The alienation of humanity from nature is central to the reason for “the expropriation and commodification of land and nature” (seen in previous sections regarding raw materials and the theft of wood), as well as “an internalized rift in our cognitive and experiential understanding of ourselves as functional organisms existing as a part of a larger ecosystem” (McClintock 2010:201).  The cognitive rift discussed by McClintock (2010) is caused by a lack of human contact with nature—a lack of, for instance, “physically labouring the soil, sowing seeds, cultivating, harvesting and preparing food,” which can lead to a closer relationship with nature, maybe even contributing to “the de-alienation of humans both from the fruits of our labour and from the natural or biophysical world” (McClintock 2010:202).

The removal of the people from the land and the migration of the majority of the population from country to town, is one of the defining factors in alienation and the cognitive rift between humanity and nature. The laborer first was detached from nature before and during the transition from feudalism to capitalism, which caused their subsequent alienation via capitalist modes of production. As Marx and Engels ([1867] 1978) wrote: “the laborer could only dispose of his own person after he had ceased to be attached to the soil and ceased to be the slave, serf or bondman of another…. only after they had been robbed of all their own means of production” (p.433). Essentially, a precondition for the alienation discussed above is “the expropriation of the great mass of people from the soil, from the means of subsistence, and from the means of labor” (Marx and Engels [1867] 1978:437). Marx and Engels (1844) explained:

… the more the worker by his labor appropriates the external world, sensuous nature, the more he deprives himself of the means of life in two respects: first, in that the sensuous external world more and more ceases to be an object belonging to his labor – to be his labor’s means of life; and, second, in that it more and more ceases to be a means of life in the immediate sense, means for the physical subsistence of the worker. (Sec. 23)

Clearly the separation of the great majority of people from the land is one of the primary explanations of the alienation of humanity from nature. That aids in the understanding of why Marx and Engels define nature as external, rather than fundamental, to humans and how the degradation of the environment goes on virtually unchecked.


This essay has explored the environmental impacts of the reigning social and economic system of capitalism. The capitalist fails to see that the earth provides for both the resources and labor that they require for their enterprise, and that therefore the environment must be maintained. The capitalist sees that their enterprise necessitates infinite growth of production but fails to see that because of this, capitalism itself is simply unsustainable on a planet with finite resources. As more and more raw materials are worked up, some may be completely exhausted, and the vitality of the soil and natural landscapes are increasingly threatened.

Industrialization has contributed immensely to the proliferation of capitalism as the worldwide social and economic system, promoting increasing pollution through raw material extraction, manufacturing and transportation. Globalization has also contributed extensively to the grip of capitalism worldwide and the power imbalances that go along with it. Furthermore, globalization has promoted international power imbalances that lead to ecologically unequal exchange. These relations produce pollution and go hand in hand with the environmental issues of the metabolic rift.

Marx and Engels explain that society generally sees nature as extrinsic to humanity and its social relations. Nature is viewed by capitalists as a commodity rather than the provider of all life, labor, and raw materials. This view contributes to the alienation of humanity from the earth, and it also helps to explain how humanity can come to terms with destroying that which sustains it. Because people are not related to the product of their labor or the soil, nature is seen as external and disposable.

Humanity needs to reconnect with nature in order to stem the global environmental degradation occurring today at an alarming rate. By re-establishing the bond between people and what sustains us, the importance of maintaining the earth will be more clear. Capitalists must also change their modes of production. Industry, agriculture and commerce all contribute to the ecological problems of the twenty-first century. Overuse of the natural resources of the planet must be brought to a sustainable level, which would likely include a shift on the part of the consumers as well as the capitalists to be more content with less stuff. Drastic measures will be necessary to combat the looming ecological crisis, including a complete cultural overhaul which would change the foundations of the global economic, political and social order.


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