Ecological Marxism


By Michael J. Lynch, University of South Florida, FL


This entry examines the general assumptions of ecological Marxism. The ecological Marxist literature could be divided into schools of thought influenced by different scholars such as James O’Connor (1998), Joel Kovel (2002), John Bellamy Foster (1992, 1997, 1999, 2000, 2002, see also, Foster and Burkett, 2008; Foster, Clark and York, 2010), along with the work of other notable researchers who have engaged in empirical studies such as Andrew K. Jorgenson, Brett Clark and Richard York, and theoretical expansions of this view by Paul Burkett (2009, 2014) and views developed earlier by those associated with the deep ecology movement and social ecology. Summaries of the latter views appear elsewhere in this dictionary.

In brief, ecological Marxism offers an explanation of the ecologically destructive tendencies of capitalism. That explanation is built on what is referred to by Marxists as the contradictions of capitalism. In the case of ecological destruction, that contradiction involves the tendency for capital to destroy nature as part of the process of expanding capitalism.

The origins of ecological Marxism can be traced to O’Connor’s (1988) article, “Capitalism, Nature, Socialism: A Theoretical Introduction,” which he wrote as an introduction to the new journal he founded, Capitalism, Nature, Socialism. In setting up this argument, O’Connor referred to the 1944 book, The Great Transformation, by Karl Polanyi, who O’Connor notes examined the ways in which capitalism destroys nature as one of its inherent contradictions. Polanyi’s works points out that there are limits to economic growth attached to ecological factors, an idea that resurfaced in the 1970s in limits to growth arguments. Those ecological limits to growth are the factors that impede the relentless effort of capital to grow, and present a barrier to the ideological claim of capitalism regarding limitless growth potential.

As an economist, O’Connor well understood the traditional Marxist arguments about economic crisis and the forms in which those crises appear under capitalism. Previously, he had made significant contributions to that literature (O’Connor, 1973, 1984). In proposing an ecological Marxism, O’Connor sought to move beyond traditional crisis theories of capitalism (e.g., over-consumption, under-production, the realization of surplus value, the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, the extension of credit, wage deflation, etc.,.). While these issues remain important and useful to ecological Marxism, ecological Marxism directs attention to the “capitalization of nature” (O’Connor, 1988: 21). Part of that view relates to the ways in which the distribution of ownership in capitalist society affects access to nature and its raw materials and forces access to raw materials to become class linked. Another important aspect of this argument involves the ways in which capitalism produces adverse ecological conditions that threaten its stability along with the stability of nature. O’Connor offers examples such as climate change, the pesticide treadmill, industrial pollution and transformations in ecological space to fit the requirements of capitalist production. Each of these adverse ecological outcomes is a product of how capitalism organizes production. Another dimension of this contradiction between capitalism and nature is metabolic rift (O’Connor, 1988:24; see the meabolic rift theory entry in this dictionary), an idea Foster (1999; Foster, Clark and York, 2010) later expands. Metabolic rift analysis examines the transfer and destruction of the forms of energy nature contains under systems of capitalist production and how the structure of capitalism controls the transfer of energy and the unequal distribution of energy that results from capital’s efforts to control energy flows.

O’Connor’s argument is seen as making the important contribution of moving beyond “the first contradiction” of capitalism – that is the contradiction between the forces of production and the relations of production. This contradiction involves the ways in which the path of capitalism is affected by the interaction between how things are produced (the forces of production) and the forms of class ownership and control (the relations of production) that characterize capitalism. O’Connor posits that capitalism is also characterized by a second contradiction between the forces and relations of production taken as a whole and the ecosystem which leads capital to destroy the basis of its potential wealth by destroying the ecology and producing the second contradiction of capitalism.

In a related article in Capitalism, Nature, Socialism, Foster (1992) identified O’Connor’s arguments by calling the first type of contradiction “the absolute general law of capitalist accumulation,” and the second “the absolute general law of environmental degradation under capitalism.” Foster points out that it is impossible to eliminate the second contradiction of capitalism without first eliminating the first contradiction of capitalism, which is essentially to say that contemporary efforts to eliminate ecological destruction and to promote sustainability can only occur by transcending capitalism (see also, Foster, Clark and York, 2010). Foster suggests that the second contradiction of capitalism can be summarized as the opposition within capitalism of the accumulation and growth of capital accumulation at one end, and the accumulation of “resource-depletion, pollution, species and habitat destruction, urban congestion, overpopulation and a deteriorating sociological life-environment” at the other end. Using this contradiction, Foster propose that the greater capitalism’s expansion, the more intense its ecological demands, and the greater the level of ecological destruction it imposes. In laying out these arguments, Foster is always careful to link the origins of these observations to the work of Mar and Engels (e.g., Foster, 2000).

The extension of this argument by Foster and also by Kovel (2002) and Burkett (2009) depicts a deep seated contradiction or conflict between nature and capitalism that in the long run of history dominated by capitalist relations of production must result in the long term destruction of nature, the impairment of nature and the declining ability of nature to reproduce itself, which eventually leads to ecological collapse. Numerous examples of this process playing itself out (e.g., climate change) already exist. In this sense, the development of capitalism and its general tendency to expand and accelerate accumulation and the effect that process has on ecological degradation increasingly become evident over time as the ecological system produces barriers to the expansion of capitalism.

Foster also points out that solutions to the first contradiction of capitalism which included the tendency towards monopoly capitalism and enhanced efforts to promote consumption to solve economic crises accelerates the second contradiction of capitalism. In this sense, efforts to solve the first contradiction of capitalism contribute to the acceleration of the second contradiction of capitalism, and in its advanced stages, capitalism becomes increasingly ecologically destructive.

These observation leads Foster (1997, 2000) to further arguments concerning the contradiction between capitalism and sustainable development. Here, Foster critiques the argument that capitalism can be sustainable, and expertly illustrates how such an argument fails to take account of the second contradiction of capitalism and the opposition between the first and second contradictions of capitalism. Since capitalism cannot expand without also destroying nature, and capitalism is driven by its inherent tendency toward expansion, the concept of sustainable capitalism must be viewed with great suspicion. The critique of Foster’s argument would be that sustainable capitalism might be possible if it could recycle significant quantities of disposed consumer products and if it could re-engineer production as a zero-waste process which would include strict limits on pollution. These outcomes might be possible if capitalists invested significant resources in ecologically protective production. But, building on the second contradiction of capitalism argument, the reply to such a critique would again make reference to the physical limits sustainable capitalism would encounter. For example, recycling expended commodities would produce only X quantity of raw materials, and this physical barrier would limit the natural tendency of capitalism to expand beyond X, capping accumulation and leading to intensification of the first contradiction of capitalism and its emergence in various forms (e.g., physical limits on capital accumulation would lead to a profit crisis).

The work of ecological Marxists has become influential within green criminology in relation to the political economic analysis of green crime and justice in recent years (Lynch and Stretesky, 2014; Stretesky, Long and Lynch, 2013, 2014; Lynch et al, 2013). In part, those arguments build on the second contradiction analysis related to the ways in which capitalism destroys nature and the examination of whether those adverse ecological consequences can be interpreted as crimes. In laying out the relevant theoretical arguments, green criminologists have also drawn on the concept of environmental/ecological disorganization (see, ecological disorganization) and treadmill of production theory. In brief, those arguments explore the ways in which the development and expansion of capitalism produce ecologically destructive outcomes and the continuous acceleration of ecological destruction in ways that can be labelled as crimes within green criminology.
Further Reading


Burkett, Paul. 2014. Marx and Nature: A Red and Green Perspective. Chicago: Haymarket.

Burkett, Paul. 2009. Marxism and Ecological Economics: Toward a Red-Green Political Economy. Chicago: Haymarket.

Foster, John Bellamy. 2002. Ecology Against Capitalism. NY: Monthly Review Press.

Foster, John Bellamy. 2000. Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Nature. NY: Monthly Review Press.

Foster, John Bellamy. 1999. “Marx’s Theory of Metabolic Rift: Classical Foundations for Environmental Sociology,” American Journal of Sociology 105, 2: 366–405.

Foster, John Bellamy. 1997. “The Age of Planetary Crisis: The Unsustainable Development of Capitalism.” Review of Radical Political Economics 29, 4: 113–42.

Foster, John Bellamy. 1992. “The Absolute General Law of Environmental Degradation Under Capitalism.” Capitalism, Nature, Socialism 3, 3: 77–82.

Foster, John Bellamy and Paul Burkett. 2008. “Classical Marxism and the Second Law of Thermodynamics: Marx/Engels, the Heat Death of the Universe Theory, and the Origins of Ecological Economic.” Organization and Environment 21, 1: 1–35.

Foster, John Bellamy, Brett Clark and Richard York. The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Earth. NY: Monthly Review Press.

Kovel, Joel. 2002. The Enemy of Nature: The End of Capitalism or the End of the World? London: Zed Books.

Lynch, Michael J., Michael A. Long, Kimberly L. Barrett and Paul B. Stretesky. (2013). Is it a Crime to Produce Ecological Disorganization? Why Green Criminology and Political Economy Matter in the Analysis of Global Ecological Harms. British Journal of Criminology 55, 3; 997-1016.

Lynch, Michael J., and Paul B. Stretesky. 2014. Exploring Green Criminology: Toward a Green Criminological Revolution. Devon, UK: Ashgate.

O’Connor, James. 1998. Natural Causes: Essays in Ecological Marxism. NY: Guilford Press.

O’Connor, James. 1984. Accumulation Crisis. NY: Blackwell.

O’Connor, James. 1973. The Fiscal Crisis of the State. NY: St. Martin’s Press.

Stretesky, Paul B., Michael A. Long and Michael J. Lynch. (2014). “The Treadmill of Production, Planetary Boundaries and Green Criminology.” In T. Sapiens, Rob White and M. Kluin’s (eds), Environmental Crime and Its Victims. Devon, UK: Ashgate.

Stretesky, Paul B., Michael A. Long and Michael J. Lynch. (2013). The Treadmill of Crime: Political Economy and Green Criminology. UK: Routledge.

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