Science & Society, Vol. 60, No. 3, Fall 1996, 261-265.

Marxism and Ecology


David W. Schwartzman                          [Marxism and Ecology.doc]

Guest Editor

Sustainability is the buzz word of the 90s. Ever since the Brundtland Report (1987) injected this word into political environmental discourse, it has been used by everyone from the World Bank to Greenpeace.  All now give at least lip service to the goal of a sustainable economy preserving and protecting the global biosphere.  The reality of an environmental/ecological crisis is of course the backdrop for this phenomenon.  Its severity is a matter of debate.  Several papers in this issue touch on this question.  But arguably for Marxists the fundamental  challenge posed by the ecological question is the renovation of Marxist theory and practice in face of present and potential environmental/ecological threats to humanity’s quality of life and even future existence.

Let us begin this special issue of S&S with the following question: can capitalism be sustainable in any meaningful sense?  Its answer has profound implications to the task of renovating Marxism. Recent papers from two Marxist scholars give somewhat contradictory answers.  For James O’Connor (1994), the theorist of the second contradiction of capitalism (relations/forces versus the conditions of production, the latter comprised of the social and natural environment as well as labor power itself), the short answer is no, the longer answer is probably not (this qualification is a recognition of the primacy of the political as we will shortly see).  In contrast, Blair Sandler  (1994) argues for likelihood of the emergence of green capitalism.  Here sustainability is defined as an expanding economy into the foreseeable future compatible with the preservation, even restoration of the global biosphere.  Both are deeply convinced that widespread misery and inequality in the human population will persist in a future global system of capitalism whether or not sustainability in the above sense will be achieved.  In Sandler’s words:  Sustainability, viability, survival, are compatible with poverty, misery, death, and destruction.   However, the notion that full ecological sustainability could coexist with mass poverty is highly problematic, since the two are strongly incompatible at present (e.g., social and ecologic effects of the so-called green agricultural revolution).  In short, saying capitalism is sustainable isn’t saying it SHOULD be sustained (Doug Boucher, personal communication).

Like most contemporary Marxist commentators, O’Connor believes that expanded reproduction of capital, what Sandler calls GOD (grow or die), is necessary for the continued viability of a capitalist economy, for its sustainability in this sense.  Profit and growth are ...means and ends of one another Without profit there is no viability to capitalism.  In this assessment, Burkett (this issue) joins O’Connor in a belief in GOD.  Contrary to eco-Marxists who think Marx essentially left out nature in his political economy (e.g., Benton, 1989), Burkett argues that Marx’s value theory recognizes capitalism’s inherent tendency to despoil nature.  In Burkett’s view, the hegemony of abstract labor time in capitalist society suppresses use value, and in so doing undermines the necessary role of nature in social reproduction. Ecological and class struggles are thus united in their opposition to the valorization of social relations.

O’Connor’s pessimism with regard to plausibility of green capitalism is based on arguments from a more concrete level, the likelihood of impending global economic depression, and the weakness of the potential political coalition (i.e., environmental, labor, women’s movements etc.) that might constrain capital to act more sustainably, for example by forcing global economic management. In contrast, Sandler is much more optimistic.  The GOD position is critiqued as an example of economic essentialism.  Many eco-Marxists who support the GOD position argue that capitalism and nature are inherently incompatible since capital must grow without limit and the biosphere has limits, i.e., GOD  = GAD (grow and die) (e.g., Foster, 1994; O’Connor has a more nuanced position based on the primacy of the political).  The physical concept of entropy is often brought into these discussions of the limits to economic growth (see papers by Lovejoy and Schwartzman, this issue).

Sandler’s argument is centered on the concept of the environmental regime, which -borrowing from structualist Marxism- is the over determined complex of nature, culture, politics and economic processes relative to environmentalism.  Social constraints alter the character of capital reproduction.  For example, both Sandler and O’Connor recognize the analogy between earlier struggles to shorten the workweek, forcing capital to move to the mode of relative surplus value production, to that of the environmental movement forcing capital to utilize green modes of production.  Sandler is confident that the latter development will lead to lowering costs and increase profits, while O’Connor believes the conjuncture of foreseeable political economy makes this outcome very unlikely (e.g., with the costs of pollution control subtracting from profits). 

Sandler expects a profound restructuring of capital resulting from radical ecological reconstitution of the material infrastructure and productive technologies. Is this scenario really so far-fetched?  Apparently large sectors of finance capital now take very seriously the negative financial impact of global warming (Hertsgaard, 1996).  The environment could become the biggest market of the 21st century.  In the words of an executive from AT&T.. We are talking about restructuring the technological basis of our entire economy... integrating environmental considerations into all technology and economic behavior (Hertsgaard, 1996).  This transformation would first of all entail diverting capital from carbon to solar, a policy now apparently being seriously planned by the insurance industry, one of the few industries that is just as big as Big Oil, the latter arguably among the main obstacles to solarization.

Perhaps GOD can survive in vigorous health in a radically restructured global capitalist economy powered by the virtually limitless solar flux (a point made by Commoner, 1990; with the caveat that practical considerations will ultimately pose limits to extensive growth even for the direct collection of solar flux- see Lovejoy’s paper). Other components of this restructuring include dematerialization (doing more with less, as with many applications of computers), expanded utilization of information-intensive technology, and implementation of industrial ecology (closed cycle production/consumption flows) (see Hawken, 1993).  This theme is taken up in David Schwartzman’s paper, but in the context of extending sustainability to its full potential, fulfilling both nature’s and human needs in a future global communist civilization. 

Lovejoy in his short paper lucidly documents the limits of unsustainable capitalist reproduction imposed by the reliance on fossil fuels, and outlines a plausible scenario from UN sponsored studies of the solar alternative.  As a footnote to his paper, the latest IPCC report on global warming projects 92 million people at risk from a rise in sea level by 2100, with significant threats to human health by spread of disease (Monastersky, 1995). 

Boucher’s paper is a persuasive polemic against a green politics based on the emphasis of ecocatastrophe resulting from capitalism. A more likely scenario, he argues, would be gradual reduction in biodiversity and quality of life for the great majority of the world’s people.  However, what if there is also good evidence for impending ecocatastrophe, or at least for its plausibility based on the inherent chaotic character of natural systems being perturbed by human activity? For example, avalanche-like behavior is plausible for both global warming and ozone depletion, i.e., sudden qualitative shifts in the system (the S&S readership will recognize the dialectical nature of this conception) amounting to catastrophes (e.g. virtual depletion of ozone globally).  Boucher and Schwartzman both advocate the adoption of the precautionary principle to minimize just this kind of outcome.   

The possibility of a sustainable future that includes the goal of meeting global human needs is of course contingent on viable strategies that could radically constrain capital, perhaps to the point of constituting the transitional society defined as socialism, in classical Marxism.  O’Connor argues that this outcome (ecological socialism) is somewhat more hopeful than a sustainable capitalism.  Perhaps part of this debate is really semantic, since at what point does a society with progressively constrained capital become worthy of being called socialist?  When does radical reform become revolutionary? (Deja vu of an old debate?) In any case both Sandler and O’Connor argue for a proactive red/green movement that challenges the hegemony of capital.     

In his re-interrogation of Hardin’s notorious Tragedy of the Commons,  Vandermeer points to three potential approaches to avoiding the destruction of the commons (essentially equivalent to nature): social regulation; privatization; and elimination of private ownership and competition.  Depending on specific modalities, each or even a combination of all three could constitute elements of red-green political practice (e.g., cooperative ownership within a system of democratic management of the economy).  Burkett argues for the necessity of red-green practice contesting capitalist production relations.  My own paper advocates the building of a sustainability coalition which would include, in contradictory relations, fractions of finance capital. 

Finally, Sundararajan’s paper addresses the question of ecology’s philosophical implications to Marxism.  She emphasizes the distinction between natura naturans (constituting nature) and natura naturata  (constituted nature), concepts going back to the Renaissance. For example, the humanization of nature takes two forms: n. naturata stands for the transformative impact of human technology on nature, while n. naturans  the constitution of nature as a meaningful order. In her view  an ecological Marxism would recognize the dialectical unity of these two conceptions, as well as a non-productionist view of nature - a nature with intrinsic value. Let both Marxists and deep ecologists take note!


Benton, Ted. 1989. Marxism and natural limits. New Left Review  178 (November-December), 51-86.

Commoner, Barry. 1990. Making Peace with the Planet..  New York: Pantheon.

Foster, John Bellamy. 1994. The Vulnerable Planet. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Hawken, Paul. 1993. The Ecology of Commerce. New York: HarperBusiness.

Hertsgaard, Mark, 1996. Who’s afraid of global warming? The Washington Post, Outlook, January 21, pages C1, C4.

Monastersky, R., 1995. World climate panel charts path for action. Science News  148, 293.

O’Connor, James, 1994. Is sustainable capitalism possible? Pp. 152-175, in Is Capitalism Sustainable?, ed. Martin O’Connor,  New York: Guilford Press.

Sandler, Blair, 1994. Grow or die: Marxist theories of capitalism and the environment. Rethinking Marxism  7:2, 38-57.