Treadmill of Production Theory


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


Treadmill of production theory was introduced by Allan Schnaiberg in his 1980 book, The Environment: From Surplus to Scarcity (Oxford University Press; see also Gould, Pellow and Schnaiberg, 2004). It is a political economic approach for understanding environmental ecological disorganization, environmental destruction and harm in the Post World War II era. It is considered a specialized approach within environmental sociology. More recent applications of this view, however, have incorporated treadmill of production theory more directly into ecological Marxism (Clausen and York, 2008; Foster, 2005; Jorgenson and Clark, 2009; Jorgenson and Rice, 2005) and most recently into criminological theory, and in particular green criminology (Jarrell, Lynch and Stretesky, 2013; Long et al., 2013; Lynch et al., 2103; Stretesky, Long and Lynch, 2014, 2013a, 2013b). Buttel (2004) calls treadmill of production theory ”the single most important sociological concept and theory to have emerged within North American environmental sociology.”

To begin to understand the basic assumptions of treadmill of productions theory (often abbreviated as ToP), it is necessary to begin by defining some of that approaches key terms. At the core of ToP is the idea that capitalism is an ecological destructive means of production, and that the processes of producing and consuming goods generates ecological disorganization (an idea Foster [2000, 2002, 2007] and Burkett [2006] expand on in ecological Marxism when they describe the inherent contradiction between capitalism and the ecosystem consisting of ecological destruction, and the fact that capitalism must destroy the eco-system to expand and grow). Capitalism’s ecologically destructive tendencies are seen in the processes of ecological withdrawals and ecological additions. Ecological withdrawals are defined as the resource harms capitalism produces in the process of extracting raw materials. In the post-World War II era, these resource withdrawal processes have been driven by a chemically intensive segment of the treadmill of production along with intensive mechanization of ecological withdrawals. These chemical and technological innovations in the withdrawal portion of the treadmill of production process intensifies the withdrawal process or speeds it up while requiring reduced labor input, thus accelerating the potential for capital accumulation. Moreover, this intensification of the ecological withdrawal process accelerates ecological disorganization by increasing the destruction of nature. Thus, there is a contradiction between capital accumulation and ecological destruction under capitalism.

Ecological additions consist of the emission of pollutants into the ecosystem. Over time as the treadmill of production accelerates, it generates larger quantities of ecological additions, and emits increased quantities of pollution which may also be more concentrated with respect to toxicity. These ecological additions also produce ecological disorganization by changing nature and accelerating other ecologically destructive tendencies (e.g., the acceleration of climate change in response to ecological additions).
ToP theory also draws attention to the ways in which the state, the private sector and labor interact to facilitate ecological disorganization under post World War II capitalism. Schnaiberg argued that each of these sectors has an interest in increasing ecological disorganization for its own benefit.

In short, ToP explains how the political economic organization of capitalism and the chemical/technological innovations in the post-World War II capitalist treadmill of production accelerates ecological disorganization. Theoretically, as the treadmill of production expands and ecological withdrawals and ecological additions accelerate, so too does ecological disorganization.
Further Reading


Burkett, Paul. 2006. Marxism and ecological economics: Toward a red and green political economy. Boston: Brill Academic.

Buttel, Frederick H. 2004. The Treadmill of Production An Appreciation, Assessment, and Agenda for Research. Organization & Environment 17, 3: 323-336.

Clausen, Rebecca, and Richard York. 2008. Global biodiversity decline of marine and freshwater fish: a cross-national analysis of economic, demographic, and ecological influences. Social Science Research 37, 4: 1310-1320.

Foster, John Bellamy. 2007. The Ecology of Destruction. Monthly Review 58, 9 : 1-14.

Foster, John Bellamy. 2005. The Treadmill of Accumulation Schnaiberg’s Environment and Marxian Political Economy. Organization & Environment 18, 1: 7-18.

Foster, John Bellamy. 20002. Ecology Against Capitalism. New York: Monthly Review Press.

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

Kenneth A Gould, David N Pellow & Allan Schnaiberg.2004. Interrogating the treadmill of production: Everything you wanted to know about the treadmill but were afraid to ask. Organization & Environment, 17, 3: 296-316.

Jarrell, Melissa L., Michael J. Lynch and Paul B. Stretesky. 2013. Green Criminology and Green Victimization. In B. Arrigo and H. Bersot (eds) The Routledge Handbook of International Crime and Justice Studies. London: Routledge.

Jorgenson, Andrew K., and Brett Clark. 2009. The economy, military, and ecologically unequal exchange relationships in comparative perspective: A panel study of the Ecological Footprints of nations, 1975–2000. Social Problems 56, 4: 621-646.

Jorgenson, Andrew K., and James Rice. 2005. Structural dynamics of international trade and material consumption: A cross-national study of the ecological footprints of less-developed countries. Journal of World-Systems Research 11, 1: 57-77.

Long, Michael A., Paul B. Stretesky, Michael J. Lynch and Emily Fenwick. 2012. Crime in the Coal Industry: Implications for Green Criminology and Treadmill of Production Theory. Organization & Environment 25,3: 299-316.

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.

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. 2013a. The Treadmill of Crime: Political Economy and Green Criminology. UK: Routledge.

Stretesky, Paul B., Michael A. Long and Michael J. Lynch. 2013b. Does environmental enforcement slow the treadmill of production? The relationship between large monetary penalties, ecological disorganization and toxic releases within offending corporations. Journal of Crime and Justice 36, 2: 235-249.

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