Contribution to GTI Roundtable "Marxism and Ecology"

Fred Magdoff

The Great Transition Initiative is a reflection of the growing understanding that the very way capitalism functions is at the center of the ecological crisis that befalls the earth and its inhabitants. For this reason, people associated with the Initiative have written that they “…envision the advent of a new development paradigm redirecting the global trajectory toward a socially equitable, culturally enriched, and ecologically resilient planetary civilization.” But why does capitalism—which I would describe as an economic system rather than a “development paradigm”—need replacing? What would a “socially equitable, culturally enriched, and ecologically resilient planetary civilization” be like?

The significance of Karl Marx for the GTI is that his work offers a comprehensive analysis and understanding of capitalism—not only as an economic system, but also in terms of its political, social, and ecological ramifications. The development of his ideas and theories did not come out of thin air. Rather, they were based on an incredible amount of hard work—detailed studies of history, economics, anthropology, science, and consultation of government documents.

As John Bellamy Foster has laid out in detail, Marx and Frederick Engels were aware of the negative effects that capitalism was having on the ecosystem. Their remarkable writings contain what can only be considered as advanced ecological concepts, very much concerned with the human interaction (metabolism) with the rest of natural world, especially in relation to the growth of capitalist economies in the nineteenth century.

Let me summarize my view of the key ideas that come directly out of the Marxist tradition as they relate to our current environmental crisis.

The “laws of motion” of capitalist economies govern the operation of the system at its most basic level and compel it to strive to attain continual growth of individual firms (with competition and buyouts destroying some in the process, leading to larger and larger companies) and the entire economy. In the process, capitalism expands geographically to become a world system—something that was evident from its very inception in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. There can be no such system as “no-growth capitalism.” For when growth falters (recessions and depressions), the system falls into economic crisis, with much human suffering. Also, there can be no such concept as “enough” in capitalist economies, because in order to accumulate ever greater amounts of capital—the driving force of the system—new products are created continually, and more of all products must be sold next year than this one. This drives a complex and multifaceted sales effort—amounting to some ten percent of the economy—to convince people that they “need” these products. Capitalists and their allies also work politically, militarily, and economically to eliminate barriers to accumulation of profits—the unstated but underlying goal of deregulation efforts, reduced taxes on corporations and the wealthy, the multilateral trade agreements such as NAFTA, the WTO, covert actions to destabilize “unfriendly” governments, and outright warfare.

As capitalism normally operates, what economists nowadays call “externalities” are created—negative social and ecological effects. Not needing to avoid or remedy the “externalities” (except for a few regulations to curb some of the excesses) is key to capitalism’s profitability. As Engels wrote in the nineteenth century,

What cared the Spanish planters in Cuba, who burned down forests on the slopes of the mountains and obtained from the ashes sufficient fertiliser for one generation of very highly profitable coffee trees—what cared they that the heavy tropical rainfall afterwards washed away the unprotected upper stratum of the soil, leaving behind only bare rock! In relation to nature, as to society, the present mode of production is predominantly concerned only about the immediate, the most tangible result.1

It is capitalism’s inability to rationally regulate the human interaction with nature and its resources that results in environmental crises (local, regional, and global) as well as depletion of resources, threatening the lives of generations to come. This is the problem addressed in Marx’s famous theory of the metabolic rift. As Naomi Klein notes in This Changes Everything, “Karl Marx…recognized capitalism’s ‘irreparable rift’ with ‘the natural laws of life itself.’…[Today] the Earth’s capacity to absorb the filthy byproducts of global capitalism’s voracious metabolism is maxing out.”2

Fulfilling everyone’s basic needs on an equitable basis so as to allow for the development of each person’s full human potential will require the conscious regulation of the interactions between humans and resources. While this does not guarantee an ecologically sound economy, attaining such a goal is inconceivable without the people who actually do the work taking into account the needs of posterity. For example, if local fisheries are under the control of people in coastal villages—rather than in the hands of large commercial trawlers owned by companies trying to maximize profits—there is the need to fish in ways that preserve the productivity (or better yet, reproductivity) of this important resource.

The only way to consciously regulate the interaction with resources is through a democratic approach that takes seriously Marx’s contention, quoted by Foster, that “[e]ven an entire society, a nation, or all simultaneously existing societies taken together, are not owners of the earth. They are simply its possessors, its beneficiaries, and have to bequeath it in an improved state to succeeding generations as boni patres familias [good heads of the household].”

1. Frederick Engels, “The Part Played by Labour in the Transformation from Ape to Man,” in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works (New York: International Publishers, 1975), vol. 25:463.
2. Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2014), 177, 186.

Fred Magdoff
Fred Magdoff is Emeritus Professor at the University of Vermont and co-author of What Every Environmentalist Needs to Know About Capitalism.

Cite as Fred Magdoff, contribution to GTI Roundtable "Marxism and Ecology," Great Transition Initiative (October 2015),

Back to Publication

As an initiative for collectively understanding and shaping the global future, GTI welcomes diverse ideas. Thus, the opinions expressed in our publications do not necessarily reflect the views of GTI or the Tellus Institute.