Marx’s Ecology and its Historical Significance

Marx’s Ecology and its Historical Significance,” in Michael Redclift and Graham Woodgate, ed., International Handbook of Environmental Sociology, second edition (Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar, 2010), 106-20.

(Revised, updated, and expanded version “Marx’s Ecology in Historical Perspective.”)

John Bellamy Foster Introduction For the early Marx the only nature relevant to the understanding of history is human nature . . . Marx wisely left nature (other than human nature) alone. Lichtheim (1961: 245) Although Lichtheim was not a Marxist, his view here did not differ from the general outlook of Western Marxism at the time he was writing. Yet this same outlook would be regarded by most informed observers on the Left today as laughable. After decades of explorations of Marx’s contributions to ecological discussions and publication of his scientific–technical notebooks, it is no longer a question of whether Marx addressed nature, and did so throughout his life, but whether he can be said to have developed an understanding of the nature–society dialectic that constitutes a crucial starting point for understanding the ecological crisis of capitalist society.

Due to mounting evidence, Marx’s ecological contributions are increasingly acknowledged. Yet not everyone is convinced of their historical significance. A great many analysts, including some self-styled ecosocialists, persist in arguing that such insights were marginal to his work, that he never freed himself from ‘Prometheanism’ (a term usually meant to refer to an extreme commitment to industrialization at any cost), and that he did not leave a significant ecological legacy that carried forward into later socialist thought or that had any relation to the subsequent development of ecology. In a recent discussion in the journal Capitalism, Nature, Socialism, a number of authors argued that Marx could not have contributed anything of…

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