Metabolic Rift Theory


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


The concept of metabolic rift is an extension of Marx’s view on ecological crises that occur under capitalism associated with the development of that idea in the various works of John Bellamy Foster (see reference list below). It is a representation of the scientific and Marxist materialist analysis of the split between the human use and demand for energy under capitalism and how such demand and use destroys and creates imbalances in nature.

Following Foster, the concept of the metabolic rift can be traced to the transfer of energy between rural and urban areas related especially to the use and manufacture of fertilizers products to enhance soils used to grow crops for export to urban centers. In addition, this idea also applies to the metabolic rift across nations and the transfer of metabolic energy from under-developed and developing nations to developed nations. The development of this idea is also related to Marx’s theory of rent and its relationship to the development of the science of agricultural production. The metabolic rift that occurs in this case involves the transfer of nature’s nutrients and hence the depletion of nature’s resources in rural areas to produce food for the working class to facilitate its role in capitalist production. Foster, following Marx, suggests that after the emergence of agricultural sciences in the 1800s, the fertility of the soil in rural area was no longer simply a product of the natural state of things, but was manipulated by the amendment of soils with fertilizers to increase productivity. This allowed a given quantity of land to produce more food resources that it would in its natural state. To increase productivity, soil was amended in various ways, both by the exploitation of natural fertilizer resources in dependent and colonized nations, and through the scientific creation of fertilizers.

Foster’s argument illustrates how processes such as industrial pollution in urban areas can also be related to the crisis of metabolic rift. To increase soil fertility, firms began to manufacture fertilizers, producing along with fertilizer, extensive industrial waste. This waste stream, however, is no confined to urban locations, since the application of fertilizers in rural locations also promotes forms of land and water pollution associated with the application of fertilizers.

Foster and his colleagues have also applied this idea to more complex analysis of international issues related to metabolic rift including the transfer of energy across nations from soil through capitalist productive mechanisms, to marine ecological issues, climate change, and other forms of material flow analysis. For a critique of some aspects of Foster’s approach, see Moore 2000, 2008, 2011.

Further Reading


Burkett, Paul. 2001. “Marx’s ecology and the limits of contemporary ecosocialism.” Capitalism Nature Socialism 12, 3: 126-133.

Clark, Brett, and John Bellamy Foster.2010. “The dialectic of social and ecological metabolism: Marx, Mészáros, and the absolute limits of capital.” Socialism and Democracy 24, 2: 124-138.

Clark, Brett, and John Bellamy Foster. 2009. “Ecological Imperialism and the Global Metabolic Rift Unequal Exchange and the Guano/Nitrates Trade.” International Journal of Comparative Sociology 50, 3-4: 311-334.

Clark, Brett, and Richard York. 2005. “Carbon metabolism: Global capitalism, climate change, and the biospheric rift.” Theory and Society 34, 4: 391-428.

Clausen, Rebecca, and Brett Clark. 2005. “The Metabolic Rift and Marine Ecology An Analysis of the Ocean Crisis Within Capitalist Production.” Organization & Environment 18, 4 : 422-444.

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, Brett Clark, and Richard York. 2010. The ecological rift: Capitalism’s war on the earth. New York: NYU Press.

Mancus, Philip. 2007. “Nitrogen Fertilizer Dependency and Its Contradictions: A Theoretical Exploration of Social‐Ecological Metabolism.” Rural Sociology 72, 2: 269-288.

Moore, Jason W. 2011. “Transcending the metabolic rift: a theory of crises in the capitalist world-ecology.” The Journal of Peasant Studies 38, 1: 1-46.

Moore, Jason W. 2008. “Ecological crises and the agrarian question in world-historical perspective.” Monthly Review 60, 6: 54-63.

Moore, Jason W. 2000. “Environmental crises and the metabolic rift in world-historical perspective.” Organization & Environment 13, 2: 123-157.

Rudy, Alan. 2001. “Marx’s ecology and rift analysis.” Capitalism Nature Socialism 12, 2: 56-63.

Salleh, Ariel. 2010. “From Metabolic Rift to “Metabolic Value”: Reflections on Environmental Sociology and the Alternative Globalization Movement.” Organization & Environment 23, 2: 205-219.

Schneider, Mindi, and Philip McMichael. 2010. “Deepening, and repairing, the metabolic rift.” The Journal of peasant studies 37, 3: 461-484.

York, Richard, Eugene A. Rosa, and Thomas Dietz. 2003. “A rift in modernity? Assessing the anthropogenic sources of global climate change with the STIRPAT model.” International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy 23, 10: 31-51.

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