In Defense of Ecological Marxism: John Bellamy Foster responds to a critic

One of the most important books of Marxist theory published in recent years is Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Nature, in which John Bellamy Foster rediscovered and expanded on Marx’s understanding of the alienation of human beings from the natural world, crystallized in the concept of metabolic rift.

As a direct result of that book and Foster’s subsequent work, Marxist ecological theory has been adopted by a growing number of researchers as a framework for understanding the Earth System crisis, and has formed the basis for a resurgence of ecosocialist theory in the 21st century.[1]

But not everyone endorses the adoption of ecological Marxism and metabolic rift theory. Perhaps the most vehement critic of Foster’s views is Jason W. Moore, who promotes an alternative view he calls “world ecology.” In many essays and talks, and in his book Capitalism in the Web of Life, Moore has repeatedly accused Foster of “Cartesian dualism,” and of “emphasizing disruption and separation, rather than reconfiguration and unity.” [2]

In a recent conversation, Climate & Capitalism editor Ian Angus asked Foster about Moore’s criticisms of ecological Marxism.[3]


ANGUS: To begin, can you briefly summarize what is meant by “metabolic rift”?

Marxs-EcologyFOSTER: This is a tall order. Let me see if I can get at the main theoretical and historical points as succinctly as possible. The concept of metabolic rift is rooted in Marx’s theory of alienation: the estrangement of human beings from themselves as producing beings, from the process of production, from their species being, and from other human beings. The metabolic rift is a concrete expression of the human estrangement from the material conditions of life, from nature.

In the mid-1800s, scientists developed the concept of metabolism to describe the exchanges of matter and energy within and between organisms, and between organisms and their environments, that are essential to all life. Marx incorporated that concept into historical materialism, using the terms “social metabolism” for the labor and production process, and the “universal metabolism of nature,” for natural processes more generally. As living, objective beings, humans could only exist in a metabolic relation to the rest of nature.

In the late 1850s and 1860s serious concerns arose in Europe and North America about the loss of soil fertility. The new industrialized capitalist agriculture was rapidly depleting the soil of nutrients. Marx described this as an “irreparable rift in the interdependent process of social metabolism, a metabolism prescribed by the natural laws of life itself.”

Restoring that metabolism could only be accomplished in a socialist society capable of a rational, sustainable approach to production and hence of the human metabolism with nature. Marx insisted that sustainability — maintaining the earth for the sake of future generations — would be a defining characteristic of socialism, a society in which associated producers would rationally regulate the metabolism between themselves and nature while developing their human potential.

ANGUS: How does metabolic rift theory contribute to understanding today’s environmental crises?

FOSTER: Our whole understanding of the Earth System crisis, of the rifts in planetary boundaries, and of the economic contradictions, are greatly enhanced through an understanding of Marx’s ideas. A growing number of ecologists have analyzed metabolic rifts in a wide variety of spheres, from the soil to the climate to ocean systems, connecting these environmental crises to capitalism’s alienated social metabolism.

Marx provided the only dialectical systems view that understands the ecological problem as simultaneously economic and ecological, rooted in the capitalist mode of production. No other approach has the capacity to integrate a natural-scientific and social-scientific critique that can inform our practice in the Anthropocene.

Marx broke out of the circle of capitalist logic. For him, the importance of environmental degradation wasn’t just that it drove up capitalists’ costs and contributed to economic crises. He addressed the degradation of the ecology as a critical issue in its own right. Marx’s theory of metabolic rift enables us to understand how capitalism grows by externalizing waste and degradation on the environment, a problem that can only be surmounted by socialism, based on a rational, sustainable, relation to nature.

ANGUS: Among Jason Moore’s many criticisms of your work, the charge of “Cartesian dualism” stands out as the most frequent and, in my view, the least comprehensible. He applies that label not just to you and other ecosocialists and radical environmentalists, but also to leading Earth System scientists. Anthropocene science, he says, “is captive to the very thought-structures that created the present crisis. At the core of these thought-structures is Cartesian dualism.”

I find myself agreeing with the British environmental sociologist Graham Sharp, who, in the current issue of Capitalism Nature Socialism, says of Moore’s work, that “Anything he doesn’t agree with is dualist, all the way through the book.” What’s behind the charge of dualism, and is there any validity in it?

FOSTER: It does seem odd that Moore directs the charge of dualism at so many thinkers, even those who are explicitly dialectical, and those who utilize sophisticated systems theories.

Graham Sharp has a point, but we need to add  that what Moore “doesn’t agree with” — and what he accuses of dualism — are all those ideas, associated with the radical ecological movement, ecological Marxism, and ecological science to boot, that he sees as challenging his own conceptions. So there is a method to his madness, as the saying goes.

His criticism of Cartesian dualism is aimed at all attempts to distinguish between nature and society, even by way of abstraction. In this respect he has been influenced by radical thinkers in geography like the late Neil Smith and Noel Castree, and by constructionists like Bruno Latour, now a Senior Fellow at the Breakthrough Institute, a leading center for capitalist “ecomodernism.”

Nature, Moore says, is subsumed within society – we can only understand it as what he calls the “double internality” of “nature-in-humanity” and “humanity-in-nature.” This view, which he calls “monist and relational,” follows the pattern of a position in philosophy known as “neutral monism,” which argues that entities like mind and matter cannot be separated, even by abstraction, and in some currently fashionable versions must be “bundled” together. This position was advanced, a century ago, as a counter to materialism and idealism, and to Marxian dialectics. Moore refers constantly to “bundling.” What he calls “the web of life” or “world ecology” is characterized as a bundle of bundles. Social agency is just a bunch of “dialectical bundles.”

To avoid supposedly dualist language he employs a kind of terminological bundling, tying words together with hyphens, like “capitalism-in-nature” and “nature-in-capitalism.”

The constant references to Cartesian dualism, or what Moore calls the Cartesian binary, are extremely misleading. In his seventeenth-century rationalist philosophy, Descartes distinguished between mind/spirit on one hand, and matter/mechanism on the other. Human beings were generally associated with mind, and animals with machines. This was quite different from the distinction between society and nature that Moore calls a “Cartesian binary.”

Moore contends that the concept of metabolic rift (which he incorrectly attributes to me rather than Marx) is dualistic simply because it considers humanity/society and nature as logically distinct entities. He does not seem to understand that dialectics is all about the mediation of totality, the process that both separates and unites individuals and society, humanity and nature, parts and wholes. The social metabolism in Marx’s theory stands for the human role as a self-mediating being of nature through production. We focus on the separation of humanity and nature, on the degradation of natural processes and life, because that is the concrete reality of society, life and nature under the current alienated system of production, capitalism.

This is the whole point of the Marxian ecological critique. Dialectics is always about appearance and essence, identity in difference, the interpenetration of opposites, and the negation of the negation. It is never a choice, as Moore seems to think, between crude dualism and crude monism. There is no contradiction in seeing society as both separate from and irreducible to the Earth system as a whole, and simultaneously as a fundamental part of it. To call that approach “dualist” is comparable to denying that your heart is both an integral part of your body and a distinct organ with unique features and functions.

“Bundling” is a simplistic way of avoiding what dialectics understands, that the world is a complex, heterogeneous and changing totality, mediated in innumerable ways – an open-ended context in which human beings participate as historical beings. Our understanding of the social metabolism of humanity and nature has to be based on this broader understanding.

ANGUS: So Moore’s monism, which he also calls “singular metabolism,” stands opposed to a dialectical understanding of the relationship between society, humanity and nature. Does it go beyond that?

FOSTER: Moore attacks McKenzie Wark’s use of Marx’s metabolic rift theory, Samir Amin’s use of the ecological footprint concept, and your account of the Anthropocene. He essentially rejects all Green thought, including ecological Marxism or ecosocialism, for talking about “what capitalism does to nature” instead of “how nature works for capitalism.” For him, the central ecological problem is not the disruption of the Earth System, but the fact that natural resources have become more expensive, creating problems for the capitalist economy.

He says that this view is “more hopeful” than the “usual narratives of impending catastrophe and collapse” – apparently because it offers hope that capitalism can escape from the crises it has caused.

A while ago, the British writer Larry Lohmann criticized Naomi Klein, on one hand, and Brett Clark, Richard York, and me, on the other, for the subtitles of our books — Capitalism vs. the Climate (Klein) and Capitalism’s War on the Earth (Foster, Clark, and York). Lohmann charged that we were simply resorting to “Cartesian slogans,” and said that there was no such thing as a climate or an Earth System separate from capitalism, so our subtitles, and thus our political views, were dualist and apocalyptic! Moore promptly declared his agreement with that bizarre criticism, and incorporated it into his criticism of ecological Marxism in Capitalism in the Web of Life.

EcologicalRiftANGUS: In The Ecological Rift, you, Brett Clark and Richard York argue that ecological crises lead to what you call “rifts and shifts,” where capitalism seeks to move problems around, displacing them, but always ends up by creating cumulatively larger contradictions.

Moore adopts your phrase, although I don’t think he acknowledges the source, but then he changes it to say that “the problem is not a metabolic rift, but metabolic shift.” What is the significance of that change?

FOSTER: In Moore’s view, capitalism’s environmental problems all relate to difficulties in obtaining what he calls the “Four Cheaps” — labor, food, natural resources, and energy. There are, therefore, no ecological crises as such, only economic crises caused by ecological scarcity that can be solved by “shifts” — by obtaining resources or labor elsewhere or in other ways.

Moore goes so far as to claim that those who argue that the planet is being dangerously degraded and disrupted, using such concepts as the metabolic rift, ecological footprint, and the Anthropocene, are “vulnerable to a powerful critique” associated with the capacity of capitalism to make nature work on its behalf. He cites, as an example of such a “counterargument,” work by Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus of the Breakthrough Institute, the leading think tank for capitalist ecomodernism. This is related to similar points made recently by Castree and other left-Latourian constructionists. Latour meanwhile has emerged as a major ideologue of the Breakthrough Institute in his time as a Senior Fellow, arguing that ecological problems do not require the overthrow of capitalism. Moore’s own outlook is wrapped up (we could say bundled) in this kind of thinking.

Moore has identified much of the logic of capitalism; but his error, from a Marxian perspective, is to remain within that logic. His “world ecology” and “web of life” simply describe the capitalist world according to its own conception. His notion of the Four Cheaps of labor, food, natural resources, and energy, each of which threatens to become more expensive, is ecology seen from a capitalist perspective. Labor is put on the same level as food and natural resources as simply one of the Four Cheaps and ecological problems are reduced to the tap (or resource problem) for capitalism, downplaying or ignoring the larger problem of the sink, that is, how capitalism degrades and disrupts the entire Earth System, and imposes its wastes on it.

Moore - Capitalism in the WebANGUS: In Capitalism in the Web of Life, Moore insists that we have to stop asking “How did humanity become separate from nature?” and instead ask “How is humanity unified with the rest of nature and the web of life?” He makes the same point repeatedly: “It is not the humanity’s separation from Nature that matters. It is humanity’s place within the web of life.”

This seems to me to directly contradict Marx’s insistence that:

“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 labor and capital.” (Grundrisse p. 489.)

What does that reversal indicate about Moore’s Marxism?

FOSTER: My reaction to Moore’s statement was exactly the same as yours. He is turning Marx on his head. Moore says that it is not the alienation of nature by capitalism that we should be concerned with; rather we should focus on how capitalism unifies nature by getting nature to work for it. This is the old human exemptionalist or human exceptionalist view of capitalism that environmental sociologists have long criticized, which has been resurrected as what’s called ecomodernism.

So I would not refer at all to “Moore’s Marxism,” except ironically. The framework he has developed is anti-ecosocialist and anti-ecological. It attacks the Green movement and ecological Marxists wholesale as apocalyptic dualists for being concerned about the growing rifts in the planetary boundaries of the Earth System.

ANGUS: Moore says that your approach to Marxist ecology drives “a wedge between Marx’s historical materialism and Marx’s theory of value.” He claims that his approach is closer to Paul Burkett’s in its stress on the economic impact of environmental change. Is this correct?

Burkett-MarxandNatureFOSTER: Paul and I both rubbed our eyes in disbelief over that. The idea that we differ on value theory is absurd on the face of it, since we frequently write together on the subject, most recently in our joint book Marx and the Earth. In Marx’s Ecology I emphasized that the value analysis in Burkett’s Marx and Nature was crucial to my own analysis. In my foreword to the Haymarket edition of Burkett’s Marx and Nature I stressed that his account of Marx’s ecological value-form theory represents a crucial breakthrough in our understanding of Marx’s ecology.

Moore himself is no defender of Marxian value theory. His manipulation of the value concept in his book resembles the word games of postmodernist literary discourse, rather than the rigorous materialist method of radical political economy. He runs roughshod over crucial distinctions, such as those between value and wealth, exchange value and use value. The end result is pure idealism, as in his glorification of “the centrality of [capitalist commodity] value as a logic re/producing the flow of life.” One could expect such a statement from a Proudhon or a Dühring, never from Marx or Engels!

So what does Moore mean then by saying that I “drive a wedge between historical materialism and Marx’s theory of value”? This has to do with his claim that there can be no ecological crisis unless it is a crisis of value and therefore an economic crisis for capital. What he objects to is the view, which he associates with me (but is just as much held by Burkett, and ultimately stems from Marx) that there is more than one form of ecological crisis – and that economic crises and ecological crises do not necessarily determine each other.

There are the ecological crises that Moore himself recognizes, those related to increasing resource costs that translate into higher costs for the economy. But there are also other ecological crises — though he rejects this — caused by the fact that nature is for the most part outside capital’s value calculus, that the disruption to natural processes and even the Earth System does not enter into the system’s normal accounting. These are crises such as the destruction of species and of whole ecosystems like coral reefs, or even the anthropogenic rifts in the entire Earth System that define the Anthropocene today.

The brilliance of Marx’s analysis was that he did not confine ecological crises to ecological crises for capitalism, that is, in capitalist value terms. Indeed, he saw ecological crises such as desertification as characteristic of class societies in general, and only intensified under capitalism. The question of sustainability rather than capitalist valorization defines such ecological crises. For Moore, whose argument mirrors the viewpoint of capital, these crises are not part of value, so do not truly exist.

In Marx’s analysis such processes are elemental and need to be taken into consideration, particularly as the accumulation process under capitalism tends to degrade natural processes—this is the whole question of the metabolic rift.

To say, as Moore does, that considering natural processes on one hand and capitalist valorization processes on the other is a dangerous dualism, is to deny the fundamental nature of capitalism’s ecological contradictions. Indeed, it eliminates the very possibility of an ecological critique of capitalism.

I should also mention that Moore simply ignores Marx’s theory of rent, making his analysis of “cheap nature” completely vacuous. The whole theory of rent is an outgrowth of the tensions between value and use value, between value and the necessary material conditions of production. Paul Burkett discusses this at length in Marx and Nature.

ANGUS: You’ve written that the rediscovery of Marx’s ecological thought — particularly as developed by you in Marx’s Ecology and by Paul Burkett in Marx and Nature — led to the emergence of what you call second-stage ecosocialism. How does that differ from first-stage ecosocialism, and how does Moore’s work relate to that shift?

FOSTER: First-stage ecosocialism, as Paul Burkett and I have referred to it, involved various attempts to create a hybrid theory in which Green theory was overlaid on certain Marxian conceptions, or, more rarely, Marxism was overlaid on Green theory. It usually involved claims that Marx’s work was ecologically flawed and that Marx and Engels went overboard in their criticisms of Malthus. In first-stage ecosocialism, therefore, the broader Green view dominated.

Second-stage ecosocialism, in contrast, went back to the foundations of classical Marxism, attempting a major reconstruction (and, as it turns out, rediscovery) of historical materialism as a unique method of understanding the complex relationships and interactions between humanity, society, and nature. Second-stage ecosocialism has restored Marx’s ecological value-form analysis and the theory of the metabolic rift, and has given new meaning to the concept of the dialectics of nature.

In Marx and the Earth, Burkett and I labeled Moore’s early work as second-stage ecosocialism, and his later work as a reversion to first-stage ecosocialism. I now think we were mistaken. In his recent works, Moore has adopted positions that are opposed to ecosocialism and to the radical ecological movement in general.

To his credit, he still criticizes inequality and oppression. But what are we to think of a self-proclaimed “world ecologist” who sees ecological crises as simply a matter of nature becoming more expensive for capital, or who argues that “history is replete with instances of capitalism overcoming seemingly insuperable ‘natural limits’.” If that is so, why worry about the crisis of the Anthropocene?

What are we to say of a purported radical who counterposes the Breakthrough Institute’s Shellenberger and Nordhaus to Samir Amin of the World Forum for Alternatives, insisting that the concepts of ecological footprint and the metabolic rift address simply what capitalism “does to nature,” and not “how nature works for capitalism,” and can continue to be made to do so?

What are we to make of an outlook on the environment that essentially rejects modern science? As McKenzie Wark rightly observes, in Moore’s “world ecology,” the scientific conception of an objective world of nature, the Earth System itself, simply vanishes behind “the ‘socially constructed’ interiors of culture.”

How are we to judge an analysis that excludes the ecological movement and its perspectives, abandons Marx’s value analysis, has nothing at all to say about class struggle, and leaves humanity’s fate to the evolution of capitalism as a singular, bundled actor? I can only conclude that he has joined the long line of scholars who have set out to update or deepen Marxism in various ways, but have ended up by abandoning Marxism’s revolutionary essence and adapting to capitalist ideologies.

No doubt Moore’s work has attracted and will attract some notable scholars. But in terms of ecological Marxism it is necessary to draw a line. Moore, I am sorry to say, has moved to the other side, and now stands opposed to the ecosocialist movement and socialism (even radicalism) as a whole.

Ecosocialists, in contrast, stand with Karl Marx, who, when confronted with dire ecological problems in Ireland, declared that there could only be one answer: “Ruin or revolution!”


In all quotations, emphasis follows the original source.

[1] Foster’s major works on Marxism and ecology include: Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Nature (Monthly Review Press, 2000); The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Earth, with Brett Clark and Richard York (Monthly Review Press, 2011); and Marx and the Earth: An Anti-Critique, with Paul Burkett (Brill, 2016). He has also written many articles and essays on the subject, in particular for the journal he edits, Monthly Review.

[2] All direct quotations from Moore in this article come from Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital (Verso, 2015), and from his essays “The Rise of Cheap Nature” in the anthology Anthropocene or Capitalocene: Nature, History and the Crisis of Capitalism (PM Press, 2016) and “Singular Metabolism” in Daniel Ibañez and Nikos Katskikis, eds., Grounding Metabolism (Harvard University Press, 2014). Other essays by him are posted on his website,

[3] Angus and Foster have edited their discussion for length and clarity.

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