Systemic Responsibility for the Climate Crisis: Implications for Sustainable Social Systems and International Development

by Robert Hall

Abstract: Consideration of the climate crisis in relation to international development naturally raises questions about national responsibility and the role of social systems in causing the crisis. A series of key scientific facts is enumerated as the first step in the attempt to determine national and systemic responsibility for the dangerously high and ever increasing levels of greenhouse gas emissions that are the primary cause of the current climate change emergency. The facts indicate that the advanced capitalist countries bear the bulk of the responsibility for high atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases and that systemic responsibility for the climate crisis lies with the capitalist mode of production.

The question is then raised as to which specific features of capitalism make it prone to abuse of the environment. The question is answered by explication and analysis of some of Karl Marx’s major insights into the nature of capitalism as discussed in Capital, v. 1. It is explained how the nature of the commodity, capital accumulation, commodity fetishism, the status accorded nature in capitalism, the labor process, the law of value, and the basic economic law of capitalism all work in concert to promote severe abuse of the environment. In particular, it is explained how the systemic logic and fundamental characteristics of capitalism lead to environmental disasters such as the current climate crisis by disrupting what Marx called the metabolism between nature and humankind.

It is argued that mitigation of the climate crisis is a precondition of sustainable international development, but that mitigation cannot take place unless global capitalism is replaced by a sustainable social system that eliminates profit maximization and commodity fetishism, de-commodifies nature, and restricts the operation of the law of value. Such a system is identified with socialism.

Six theses are presented in an attempt to explain why socialism rather than capitalism is a precondition of sustainable international development; the bourgeois approach to sustainability is criticized, and it is concluded that mitigation of climate change and sustainable development depend on replacing the hegemony of the basic economic law of capitalism, i.e. profit maximization, with a socialist system that works to satisfy the material and cultural needs of the whole society while maintaining a healthy relationship between nature and humankind.


Any attempt to discuss the implications of the climate crisis for sustainable social systems and international development raises questions of individual, class, and national responsibility. How can we hope to mitigate the climate crisis if our mitigation efforts are not based on a rational, scientifically grounded assessment of the human actions that are responsible for the climate problem? We must be clear about culpability for those fundamental causal factors and conditions which are at the root of the crisis, such as the excessive greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that cause anthropogenic climate change, particularly the emission of carbon dioxide (CO2), which is the most important greenhouse gas. We will begin by enumerating some of the most significant scientific facts relevant to this discussion.

The Key Scientific Facts

1. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has reported that “Global atmospheric concentrations of CO2 have increased markedly as a result of human activities since 1750 and now far exceed pre-industrial values determined from ice cores spanning many thousands of years” (IPCC, 2007, p. 37).

2. From 1751 to 2007, the entire world released approximately 337 billion metric tons of fossil-fuel CO2 emissions into the atmosphere (CDIAC 2013a). The countries known today as the G-7 [1] have been responsible for releasing at least 170 billion tons of this CO2, or 50 percent of the world total; the United States alone is responsible for 93 billion tons, which is 55 percent of the G-7 emissions and 26 percent of the world total released since 1751 (Lewandowsky 2011).

3. In 2009, about 8.7 billion metric tons of carbon were released into the atmosphere worldwide (CDIAC 2013b). The G-7 countries released 2.4 billion metric tons or 28 percent of the total, and the US was responsible for 1.5 billon tons or 17 percent of the total (Boden and Andres 2012).

4. The combined population of the G-7 countries is approximately 750 million, which is about 10.5 percent of the world population of 7.1 billion; the population of the US is about 316 million (CIA 2013), which is approximately 4 percent of the world population.

5. China, the world’s leading developing socialist country and most populous country, released 2 billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere in 2009 (Boden and Andres 2012). This was the highest amount of any country in the world. But China’s population of 1.3 billion (CIA 2013) is the highest in the world and about 18 percent of the world total.

6. In 2009, per capita carbon emissions for the entire world were 1.3 metric tons; 3.2 tons per capita for the G-7, 4.8 tons for the US, and
1.5 tons per capita in China. [2]

7. In May 2013, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration of the United States announced that the CO2 concentration in the earth’s atmosphere had reached 400 parts per million (ppm), a level not seen for at least three million years (Gillis 2013).

8. The CO2 threshold for moderate climate change is 350 ppm; this level was surpassed around 1988 (CO2Now 2013). The CO2 threshold for catastrophic climate change is 450 ppm; given current levels and rates of increase, the 450 ppm threshold could be exceeded in as little as 25 years (Gillis 2013).

9. The global effects of climate change will include shortages of freshwater; declining food production in some regions; increases in coastal flooding and flooding from extreme weather events such as hurricanes and typhoons; increased morbidity and mortality from malnutrition, diarrhoeal, cardio-respiratory, and infectious diseases; and loss of biodiversity. These effects will be most severe for hundreds of millions of people in the developing regions of Africa, Asia, and Latin America—particularly those living in low-lying coastal plains and highly populated river deltas—as well as marginalized populations in the developed world (IPCC, 2007, p. 48 – 54).

10. There is strong evidence that the atmospheric lifetime of fossil fuel CO2 and the resulting climatic effects will extend not merely hundreds but rather hundreds of thousands of years into the future (Archer et al, 2009, p. 117; Inman 2008).

Implications of the Key Scientific Facts

Current atmospheric CO2 levels indicate that the world will definitely experience global warming effects of a higher than moderate level, and it is in danger of undergoing catastrophic climate change, the severity of which depends on whether and by how much CO2 levels exceed the 450 ppm threshold.

These changes will affect life on earth not merely for hundreds of years but for hundreds of thousands of years. National data on total and per capita CO2 emissions cited here show that the advanced capitalist countries, that is to say the G-7 countries, and particularly the United States, bear the bulk of historical and contemporary responsibility for the high atmospheric CO2 concentrations that are the major cause of climate change. The above-cited population data show that a small percentage of the world’s population in the wealthy countries is responsible for inflicting climate change on the vast majority of the world’s peoples who live in low to middle-income countries.

Since they bear the greatest responsibility for CO2 emissions, the advanced capitalist countries deserve the major part of the blame for anthropogenic climate change and its negative effects on people and the biosphere. These effects are being experienced now and they will be felt for many centuries to come, for climate change will indeed last for millennia. Since they bear the greatest responsibility, the advanced capitalist countries should make the greatest sacrifices in the effort to reduce GHG emissions. They should also provide financial compensation, technical assistance and other forms of relief to the countries of the developing world which are having climate change imposed upon them through no fault of their own.

This is not to imply that the developing countries should ignore their GHG emissions or allow them to grow in an uncontrolled manner. Every country’s emissions add to the total, so it is important that no other countries follow the example of the advanced capitalist countries and allow their emissions to increase to dangerously high per capita levels. Every country, whether developed or developing, should do its best to reduce emissions to the lowest levels consistent with its financial resources, technical capabilities, social welfare and developmental goals, and its responsibility to contribute significantly to climate change mitigation.

It cannot be denied that the developing countries have serious environmental problems of their own that need to be addressed. But it would be wrong to assert a false equivalence between the environmental responsibilities of the developing and the developed countries, for the problems of the developing countries do not rise to levels that threaten the very existence of civilization and the survival of life on this planet. So to claim, as some do, that the developing countries, some of which produce emissions that are high in absolute terms, are just as or even more responsible for climate change than the developed countries is an absurd false equivalence. The developed countries have grown astoundingly rich and in the process have produced high emissions for a century or more while giving little thought to the effects of their actions on the rest of the world, whereas the developing countries’ rising emissions – which are an effect of development that has lifted many hundred of millions of people out of absolute poverty – have only recently begun to equal or surpass the developed countries in absolute terms.

Even so, the per capita emissions of the developing countries are still far below those of the developed world. It should also be mentioned that the developed countries offshore significant portions of their emissions to the developed world by transferring their dirtiest industries to the developing countries. It is no exaggeration to say that some of the developing world’s GHG emissions are produced on contract with companies in the developed world, not to benefit people in the developing world but to service the decadent consumption habits of people in the developed countries. The facts cited here indicate lack of equivalence between developing and developed countries regarding responsibility for climate change. Systemic responsibility for climate change lies with the advanced capitalist countries that were early adopters of the capitalist mode of production.

This suggests that there are features of the capitalist system that encourage individual and collective behavior that produces pollutants in amounts that threaten the viability of civilization and the biosphere. This is not a claim that only advanced capitalist countries produce pollution; developing socialist countries have serious pollution problems as well, but there is a vast difference of scale in both the gross the amounts and intensity of pollution produced by the capitalist countries in comparison with the socialist countries.

For example, socialist China is doubtlessly emitting more CO2 today that at any other point in its history, but this is still only about
1.5 tons per capita, a figure that is only slightly above the global per capita figure of 1.3 tons.

By contrast, G-7 per capita emissions, at 3.2 tons, are more that twice the level of China, and the US figure of 4.8 tons is more than three times China’s level. This raises the question: Which characteristics of capitalism predispose it to produce this disproportionately large share of the world’s pollution? We will try to answer this question by examining some of Karl Marx’s most significant ideas about the nature of capitalism with attention to their significance for contemporary environmental issues.

The Nature of the Commodity and Capital Accumulation

Many people think that Marx had little of importance to say about the condition of the environment under capitalism and that Marxism yields no significant insights on today’s environmental problems, but actually the opposite is true. Some of the main subjects and theoretical concerns of Marxism are vital for understanding the environmental crisis that the world faces today, because these issues are closely linked to the nature of capitalism.

These subjects include the nature of the commodity; the general formulas for commodity exchange and capital; commodity production; commodity fetishism; the labor process; the law of value; and the status of nature in capitalism. Important discussions of these subjects can be found in Capital, v. 1. Capital is well known as a study of the laws of motion of capitalist society, and it clearly shows that capitalism is unsustainable as an approach to development and as a mode of social organization.

In explaining capitalism’s unsustainability, Capital also has some profoundly important things to say, albeit often indirectly, about capitalism’s effects on the natural environment. Indeed, Capital, v. 1, points the way towards a comprehensive answer to our question of what lies at the basis of the advanced capitalist countries’ responsibility for the planetary environmental crisis.

In the very first sentence of Capital, v. 1, Marx declared: “The wealth of those societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails, presents itself as ‘an immense accumulation of commodities’, its unit being a single commodity” (1967, p. 43). Commodities, defined as useful objects produced for sale on the market, are exchanged according to the formula C – M – C, in which the goal of the capitalist is to exchange commodities (C) for money (M), which is then used to purchase more commodities (C) for purposes of further exchange in an endless cycle of production, buying and selling of commodities (Marx, 1967, p. 108 –
118). To facilitate commodity production and exchange is a fundamental purpose of the capitalist economy.

It should be noted that given this purpose, capitalist society constantly strives to increase the size of its “immense collection of commodities” in order to maximize opportunities for commodity exchange. This situation can be represented by a modification of Marx’s formula, C – M – C´ in which C´ represents an infinitely expanding collection of commodities, for the internal logic of capitalism necessitates an unending expansion of commodity production. In practical terms this means that capitalist society will seek to commodify all aspects of the social and natural worlds in a never ending attempt to commodify everything in the world that potentially can be commodified.

Capitalism will subordinate all other interests and values to this drive towards infinite commodification and capital accumulation. Within the cycle of commodity exchange, commodities are transformed into capital. The ultimate purpose of the cycle – capital accumulation – was expressed by Marx in the general formula for capital accumulation M – C – M´ in which money (M) is exchanged for commodites (C), which are in turn exchanged for an amount of money (or capital) with an added increment of surplus value (M´), which is a result of the exploitation of labor (1967, p. 145 – 153). Thus infinite commodification, which includes total commodification of nature, is but a moment in the endless cycle of labor exploitation and capital accumulation.

Marx’s formula for capital accumulation represents an unending cycle for infinitely increasing capital. Thus the infinite expansion of commodity production serves the ultimate goal of capitalism, which is the infinite increase of capital. The implications for the natural environment are obvious: under capitalism the environment is destined to be commodified, and the human interest in living in harmony with the environment is subordinated to the capitalist’s interest in the infinite extension of commodity exchange, exploitation, and capital accumulation.

Commodity Fetishism

The first sentence of Capital, v. 1 can also be read as a succinct but terrifying description of life under the capitalist mode of production, in which the entire wealth of society is reduced to a vast conglomeration of commodities produced not to satisfy human need, but to further the goal of infinite capital accumulation. Commodification applies even to humankind’s most precious faculty—the power of human beings to satisfy their material and psychic needs through creative labor.

Man’s creativity is turned against him in that his ability to satisfy his needs is co-opted in service to capital. Humanity’s domination by commodity production illustrates the fetishism of commodities in its broadest sense: commodities and the social relations governing their production and exchange enslave human communities and control individual and social life like the terrifying fetishes and totems of primitive religions.

Marx’s views on commodity fetishism are elaborated in the section of Capital, v. 1, chapter 1. entitled “The Fetishism of the Commodity and Its Secret.” Typical explanations of commodity fetishism state that it is exemplified whenever the domination of man by changeable social relations is masked and made to appear as domination by things (Gogol, 1981, p. 38).

Focus on the commodity hides the fact that behind society’s enslavement to commodity production lies the enslavement of one class of human beings by another class—the workers by the capitalists. In a broader sense, however, commodity fetishism is the domination of humankind by a fetishized notion of value, with the capitalist class and its intellectual apologists serving as the bearers of this notion. This aspect of commodity fetishism arises from the dualistic nature of the commodity, a dualism made evident in Marx’s analysis of the commodity form (1967, p. 43 – 48).

Marx demonstrated that a commodity’s use-value—its value as a socially useful product or service—is separated from its exchange-value. Exchange value is also known as its market value, which denotes the capacity of a commodity to deliver revenue by being exchanged on the market.

This domination of society by the capitalist class is exemplified by society’s servitude to exchange value. The dualism between use-value and exchange-value allows concern for meeting fundamental human needs (producing use values) to be replaced by an idea of value focused on consumption of products that yield high revenue and maximum profit through high value commodity exchange. The goal here is to “move products,” not meet needs.

Of course, high use value and high exchange value often are not conjoined in the same commodity. In societies subject to commodity fetishism, particularly at the early stages of capitalist development, the need for a sustainable, environmentally friendly economy will generally go unrecognized due to the intensity of the focus on consumption and GDP growth.

Concern for the environment will also be ignored, if not suppressed, by the capitalist-controlled media, or paid lip service through the phenomenon of “greenwashing.” At times the need for environmental consciousness is flatly denied despite all scientific evidence to the contrary. Ignorance, denial, and repression are not the only factors that contribute to environmental degradation. As conditions mature, many people in capitalist societies become aware of environmental problems and the need to respect ecology.

These problems become known to the scientific community and the scientifically literate public, but there are many factors in commodity fetishist societies that conspire against effective action to save the environment. Environmentalist views are generally kept out of the mainstream; when allowed into the mainstream they are usually in the form of “green capitalism” in which the myth is promoted that capitalism can be made environmentally friendly, while remaining capitalistic. A river is cleaned up here and there, a few cities improve their environmental footprints, and corporations and individuals take steps to “go green,” but the fundamental problem of excessive GHG emissions, which has been known in the advanced capitalist countries since the1980s, goes unresolved. [3]

In capitalist societies the market values of commodities, in addition to the physical commodities themselves, are fetishized—one could even say “sacralized”—in comparison with the use-values of goods, services, and a clean, flourishing environment, all of which may be highly beneficial to human beings and all life, but which have exchange-values yielding low to no profitability. Commodity fetishism causes use-value, as a criterion of social utility and desirability, to be eclipsed by the fetish of market value. Market value is equated with social usefulness and desirability.

Thus capitalism emphasizes production for high, short-term profits over production for socially beneficial uses. It favors production and consumption of highly profitable but less beneficial or even harmful commodities over less profitable but socially beneficial ones. Thus capitalist societies exhibit perverse priorities in which the production, marketing, and consumption of harmful, high GHG emitting fuels and vehicles, vast quantities of military hardware, luxury goods, extravagant housing, endless shopping malls and centers, commercial stadiums and arenas, toys, games and gadgets, and all types of elaborate spectacles and entertainments takes priority—due to the ability of these commodities to generate higher profits—over production for essential but seemingly mundane human needs such as clean energy, affordable housing, healthcare, childcare, and quality education.

It is not that the denizens of capitalist societies fail to notice problems of consumerism and excessive commodification—although many who are highly susceptible to commodity fetishism, or who have a vested interest in preserving this way of life, do not perceive it as a problem—the crux of the is that the logic of the capitalist system, in defiance of individual wishes, drives decisions about the allocation of resources that favor commodity production for maximum profit instead of production for high social utility.

It is more than just fetishism of the commodity that we are dealing with. We are confronted by fetishism of the market itself. Social life is viewed as little more than a series of market exchanges among isolated individuals and the commodities they produce, buy, and sell. The market becomes more vital and significant than human beings. People lose consciousness of the historically contingent, political nature of the capitalist market system and come to view it as a product of the unalterable laws of nature.

Like medieval theologians describing the attributes of God, people suffering from the illusions of fetishized market relationships attribute knowledge, wisdom, beneficence, and reason to the market, which in turn justify the market’s (i.e. the capitalists’) authority over human beings. They believe that the market with its “invisible hand” makes correct judgments regarding value and resource allocation, and that this is indeed the eternal, natural, and most beneficent order of things (Smith, 1981, p. 456). The market becomes a divine, all-powerful, all-embracing authority, a kind of capitalist god, to which all values, including the natural environment, must be sacrificed. [4]

Market fetishism causes people to perceive their personal decisions about production and consumption as strictly individual calculations of rational self-interest in relation to market value. Cognizance of and regard for common human interests and the social and ecological significance of humanity’s economic activities is lost to social atomization and alienation. This promotes apathy by undermining the belief that society can be improved. For how can a lone individual act against the power of the market? [5]

Near the end of his discussion of commodity fetishism, Marx asserts that fetishes, be they gods or commodities, will disappear only “when the practical relations of every-day life offer to man none but perfectly intelligible and reasonable relations with regard to his fellow men and to Nature” (1967, p. 84).

Evidently Marx recognized that commodity fetishism mystifies not only class relations but man’s relations with nature as well. At the heart of Marx’s most important work is the recognition that commodity production damages the relationship between nature and man. If capitalism commodifies nature, and man’s true relationship of dependence upon nature is concealed by commodity fetishism, then capitalist man will not perceive the need for environmentally sustainable development. Marx’s analysis of commodity fetishism suggests an important conclusion regarding the characteristics of sustainable societies.

Sustainability entails acknowledgment of humanity’s real relation of dependence on nature and the need for rational management of resources and maintenance of environmental quality, while meeting human needs. It is a call for harmony between nature and humankind. In order to achieve this, resource management and production decisions must be guided by the findings of the ecological and other environmental sciences regarding the best sustainable development strategies.

This is extremely difficult to achieve in capitalist societies, because commodity fetishism ensures that decisions about resource allocation and use are made by profiteers who are blind to the need for sustainable development and whose primary motivation is production for maximum profit. Since commodity fetishism is one of the main pillars of capitalist society, environmentally sustainable development requires ending commodity fetishism and the commodification of nature.

The Status of Nature

Marx thought seriously about the relationship between human beings and nature, and his views on the status of nature are related to his thought on the nature of man. Marx had a naturalistic view of man, which considers man a fundamentally natural and material—not spiritual—being who owes every aspect of his existence to nature, and who in no sense stands above nature (Jordan, 1967, 16 – 22). Statements of Marx’s naturalism can be found as early as the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844:

“Nature is man’s inorganic body—nature, that is, insofar as it is not itself human body. Man lives on nature—means that nature is his body, with which he must remain in continuous interchange if he is not to die. That man’s physical and spiritual life is linked to nature means simply that nature is linked to itself, for man is a part of nature” (1975, p. 276).

Apparently, Marx kept this naturalistic view throughout his life. His naturalism stands in contrast to traditional religion and bourgeois idealistic ideologies that view man as a non-natural, spiritual being whose true existence lies in a separate realm above and beyond nature and whose ontological status is superior to that of nature. In Marxism, man is, in his entire being, a part of nature, and he must rely on nature for his existence and survival, as well as the realization of all of his potentialities. For Marx, nature does not depend on man, but rather man is dependent on nature.

Furthermore, in realizing his potentiality as a creative, productive being, man enters into a relationship with nature that must be based on a type of reciprocity that requires man to limit damage caused to nature by the production process and to repair such damage when it occurs. To do otherwise risks grave harm to both man and nature by destroying the reciprocal relationship that arises between them. Indeed, in Marxism to harm nature is also to harm man.

Marx construed nature as the supporting pillar of all life and the arena of all human activities, including productive labor. Nature provides man’s dwelling place and nourishment, as well as raw materials for labor. Nature is also an instrument of human labor, but despite the fact that nature is useful to man, Marx did not endorse the commodification of nature. We shall see below that Marx believed in a reciprocal relationship between man and nature that belies the owner-commodity relationship.

In Capital, v. 1, Ch. 7, Marx wrote of the various ways in which nature supplies man with useful materials: “The soil (and this, economically speaking, includes water) in the virgin state in which it supplies man with necessaries or the means of subsistence ready to hand, exists independently of him, and is the universal subject of human labour. All those things which labour merely separates from immediate connection with their environment, are subjects of labour spontaneously provided by Nature. Such are fish which we catch and take from their element, water, timber, which we fell in the virgin forest, and ores which we extract from their veins” (1967, p. 174).

Not all material for human labor is spontaneously provided by nature. Marx used the term “raw material” to denote natural articles that must be altered by human labor before they can enter into the production process: “If . . . the subject of labour has, so to say, been filtered through previous labour, we call it raw material; such is ore already extracted and ready for washing. All raw material is the subject of labour, but not every subject of labour is raw material; it can only become so, after it has undergone some alteration by means of labour” (1967, p.

In addition to supplying materials, Marx described nature as man’s “original tool house” which provides him with instruments of labor:

“An instrument of labor is a thing, or a complex of things, which the labourer interposes between himself and the subject of his labour, and which serves as the conductor of his activity. He makes use of the mechanical, physical, and chemical properties of some substances in order to make other substances subservient to his aims. . . . Thus Nature becomes one of the organs of his activity, one that he annexes to his own bodily organs . . . As the earth is his original larder, so too it is his original tool house. It supplies him, for instance, with stones for throwing, grinding, pressing, cutting, &c. The earth itself is an instrument of labour . . .” (1967, p. 174 – 175).

Thus man is completely dependent on nature both as support for life and as the field of activity in which he realizes his potential as a creative being. In serving as the material basis of human existence, nature makes available to man spontaneously provided materials as well as raw materials .

It also provides tools or instruments of labor that range from sticks and stones to the physical and chemical properties, reactions, and processes that are used in science, industry, and daily life. These roles are played by nature throughout human history and in all modes of production; thus man can never escape his dependence on nature.

In the capitalist mode of production, nature is regarded as a vast collection of commodified or potentially commodifiable objects. When nature is considered a commodity, all aspects of commodity fetishism that affect capitalist society are transferred to nature as well.

Nature is viewed as a field of objects ripe for commodification in the forms of real estate and commodified materials, properties, and processes for use in production. Parts of nature that are not commodifiable under existing technology or that do not have the potential to yield sufficient profits are used as open dumping grounds for the waste products of production and consumption.

Fetishization of nature as commodified nature causes man to ignore his utter dependence on the natural world for resources, tools, sustenance, and self-realization despite the findings of science and the warnings of ecological dissenters within capitalist society.

Capitalist man misconstrues the status of nature. Ecological science reveals nature to be an integrated system consisting of interdependent life forms, properties, processes, and natural resources, as well as the complete, irreplaceable material basis of human and other life. Capitalist man views nature as a vast supply of commodities and a limitless garbage dump, an inexhaustible collection of separate objects that exist merely to be exchanged and used by commodity producers and consumers according to the market’s dictates.

As fetishized commodities, the parts of nature that are exchanged, consumed, and polluted by man, as well as these very acts of exchanging, consuming, and polluting, are significant only as actions of isolated consumers and producers acting in accordance with market-defined notions of self-interest.

To capitalistic man, nature has no intrinsic significance as a system of living beings, natural objects, and natural processes. He is not fully conscious of the fact that the conservation and healthy functioning of nature is vital for the preservation of life and for the continuation of the very possibility of productive labor, and thus for the survival of the human race. Capitalism, in all its irrationality and heedlessness in the face of scientific discovery, refuses to acknowledge the supreme value of any natural system or collective human interest.

The Labor Process: Reciprocity between Nature and Man

Through the labor process man enters into a metabolic relationship with nature that must be cultivated if both man and nature are to thrive. Marx describes the labor process in Capital, v. 1, Ch. 7:

“Labour is, in the first place, a process in which both man and Nature participate, and in which man of his own accord starts, regulates, and controls the material reactions between himself and Nature. He opposes himself to Nature as one of her own forces, setting in motion arms and legs, head and hands, the natural forces of his body, in order to appropriate Nature’s productions in a form adapted to his own wants” (1967, p. 173).

We need not be taken aback by Marx’s oppositional language, which describes man as a force of nature that “opposes” itself to the rest of nature in order to adapt the natural world to human needs. The interaction between nature and man is not exclusively oppositional. Marx recognized that the labor process includes mutually beneficial interactions and exchanges between nature and humankind, with both sides of the relationship playing an active role.

Indeed, some scholars argue that the above passage describes the labor process as a form of metabolism between man and nature (Foster 2000, p.
157). It is true that the German term “Stoffwechsel,” which Marx used in the German edition of Capital, and which is translated into English as “material reactions” (1996), can be translated literally as “metabolism,” and it is translated as such in some English editions of Capital. For instance, Ben Fowkes translates the passage above as:

“Labour is, first of all, a process between man and nature, a process by which man, through his own actions, mediates, regulates, and controls, the metabolism between himself and nature” (Marx, 1977, p. 283).

Metabolism consists of the physico-chemical processes necessary for maintaining life. If two living things are in a metabolic relationship, the relationship will endure only if both parties remain in good health so that each can contribute, through the process of metabolic exchange, the physical substances that are necessary to maintain the other in a condition conducive to continued, mutually beneficial interaction.

If Marx conceived of the labor process as a type of metabolism in which both man and nature participate, then it follows that the process is one in which nature clearly plays an indispensable role in maintaining human life, and in turn human beings must participate in maintaining nature as a system with a sustained capability for beneficial interactions with the human race.

This interpretation accords with sections of the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts cited above, as well as additional passages from Capital. We have already examined a passage from Capital, v. 1, Ch. 7 in which Marx called nature an “organ that man annexes to his own bodily organs” (1967, p. 175). This suggests that Marx’s views are compatible with the notion that the worker (and by implication the entire working class) must take just as vital an interest in maintaining nature in a healthy condition as he would any other part of his body.

As a naturalist regarding the ontological status of humankind, as well as a dialectical materialist, Marx views man and the rest of nature as virtually two aspects of the same living body in dialectical interaction. This conclusion is reinforced by other passages in Capital, v. 1. For example, in Ch. 15, section 10, Marx presupposes the need for human care and maintenance of nature when commenting on the damage capitalism has done to the agricultural labor process, which Marx understood as a metabolic, or life sustaining, interaction between the soil and man:

“Capitalist production, by collecting the population in great centres, and causing an ever-increasing preponderance of town population, on the one hand concentrates the historical motive power of society; on the other hand, it disturbs the circulation of matter [again the operative term is Stoffwechsel, translated as “metabolism” in Marx, 1977—DSP] between man and the soil, i.e., prevents the return to the soil of its elements consumed by man in the form of food and clothing; it therefore violates the conditions necessary to lasting fertility of the soil. . . . all progress in capitalistic agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the labourer, but of robbing the soil; all progress in increasing the fertility of the soil for a given time, is a progress towards ruining the lasting sources of that fertility. . . . Capitalist production, therefore, develops technology, and the combining together of various processes into a social whole, only by sapping the original sources of all wealth—the soil and the labourer” (1967, p. 474 – 475).

Marx’s indictment of capitalist farming’s destruction of the soil can be applied to capitalist treatment of nature in its entirety. Marx’s discussion of the labor process in Capital, v. 1, shows that he viewed it as an aspect of the metabolic relationship between nature and humankind that must be kept in balance in order for the relationship to be sustained.

Agriculture is viewed as a metabolic relationship between humankind and the soil, with sustainability requiring human beings to return the life-giving nutrients that the earth originally supplied. Human life can only be sustained if man conducts a sustainable relationship with nature; man must periodically return to nature that which he has taken. He must not destroy or overtax nature’s ability to uphold its end of the metabolic relationship. Only in this way can it be assured that nature will continue to support the metabolic needs of man and all living things. Capitalism destroys this metabolism by debilitating both poles of the relationship through robbery aimed at achieving maximum profit—robbery of the worker through extraction of surplus value, robbery of the soil by depriving it of nutrients, and destruction of nature as a whole through commodification, pollution and resource depletion.

The Law of Value and the Basic Economic Law of Capitalism

We have seen that capitalist society consists of an immense collection of commodities (Marx, 1967, p. 43). The labor theory of value, which is expounded in Capital, v. 1, Ch. 1, is the basis for Marx’s conception of the role played by human labor in creating the value of individual commodities as well as the vast accumulation of commodities that constitutes the wealth of capitalist society:

“. . . that which determines the magnitude of the value of any article is the amount of labour socially necessary, or the labour time socially necessary for its production. . . . Commodities, therefore, in which equal quantities of labour are embodied, or which can be produced in the same time, have the same value. The value of one commodity is to the value of any other, as the labour time necessary for the production of the one is to that necessary for the production of the other. ‘As values, all commodities are only definite masses of congealed labour time'” (1967, p. 47).

The “law of value” refers to the objective determination of value by socially necessary labor time and the function of this law in regulating the exchange-values, or prices, of commodities. In an economy driven by the quest for maximum profit, the exchange values of commodities, that is, the potential of a particular commodity to generate profit for the capitalist by being exchanged on the market, governs production priorities and investment decisions throughout the society.

Assuming commodity production in a market economy, the exchange-values of commodities will “gravitate towards their values,” which are equivalent to the socially necessary labor time expended in producing them (Kuusinen et al, 1963, p. 216). That is, a commodity produced in 10 hours of socially necessary labor time and a commodity embodying one hour of labor time should exchange at a ratio of 10:1. In economies subject to unrestricted operation of the law of value, the equalization of supply and demand, and the tendency of commodities to exchange at prices that reflect their values, is accomplished through a process of anarchic competition with constant changes in supply and demand and accompanying price fluctuations.

During this boom to bust cycle, each commodity producer competes with other producers, all of whom have limited knowledge of actual demand. When supply is greater than demand, prices fall, and commodities exchange at prices below their real values; when demand exceeds supply, commodity prices rise above their values.

In the former instance, falling prices lead to an economic crisis characterized by decreased commodity production, increased unemployment, and an eventual rise in commodity prices to their real values. In the latter case, rising prices stimulate an economic boom marked by increased production and employment, oversupply, and a collapse of prices to levels reflecting actual values (Katikhin, 1980, p. 701).

The law of value operates under all forms of commodity production, not only capitalism, but in capitalist society the law of value is allowed to operate either unrestrained or under minimal restraint because of the basic economic law of capitalism, which is to achieve maximum profit through the exploitation of labor.

An unrestricted law of value, which means little to no societal intervention to raise wages above their market value or to subsidize production of socially necessary but low profit-yielding commodities, tends to promote maximum profits.

The drive for profit maximization stimulates maximized commodification and the universal operation of the law of value; therefore, in capitalist society there is a tendency towards the commodification of everything that has the potential to be commodified, including all useful aspects of nature.

Thus, the synergistic relationship between the basic economic law of capitalism and the law of value creates conditions that promote commodity fetishism; production for maximally profitable exchanges rather than maximum social benefits; the commodification of nature; and destruction of the metabolism between humanity and nature by capitalism’s environmentally dysfunctional, profit-centered labor process.

Conclusion: Implications for Sustainable Social Systems and International Development

The climate crisis is a result of severe pollution of the ecosystem by the free operation of the economic law of capitalism and the law of value in the global economic system, a system that has been imposed upon the world by the advanced capitalist countries over the course of many decades. The primary historical responsibility for the crisis rests firmly with the advanced capitalist countries.

This does not mean that there are no other contributing factors to the climate crisis besides capitalism or that developing and non-capitalist countries have no responsibilities toward the environment, but it is the growth and spread of the capitalist system around the world that is clearly behind the drastic increase in GHG emissions over the last 200 years. In order to make progress in mitigating the climate crisis and achieving sustainable international development, the basic economic law of capitalism (profit maximization) must be replaced on both national and international levels by the basic economic law of socialism, which requires production for the utmost satisfaction of the material and cultural requirements of human societies.

Environmental degradation caused by the socialist countries is the result of non-systemic factors which are not internal to the logic of socialist systems. These factors are therefore amenable to reform. In capitalism, by contrast, environmental degradation is a necessary effect of capitalism’s internal logic of capital accumulation and the infinite commodification of reality, a logical necessity that can only be escaped through the transformation of capitalism into a system that limits the scope of the law of value.

Unlike capitalism’s emphasis on profit maximization, socialism’s emphasis on production for the benefit of human societies does not undermine regard for the natural environment and non-human life, since a healthy metabolic relationship between humanity and nature is a precondition of a flourishing socialist society.

Socialist societies may still engage in commodity production, but unlike capitalism, socialism can permit restrictions on the law of value that are sufficient to ensure that socialist commodity production never supplants the primary goal of satisfying humankind’s material and cultural needs and that a flourishing metabolic relationship between nature and human society is maintained.

These reflections lead to the following conclusions:

1) Sustainable international development requires mitigation of the climate crisis and the prevention of future global environmental crises.

2) Mitigation of the climate crisis and prevention of future environmental crises requires restoration and maintenance of a healthy metabolic relationship between nature and human society in perpetuity.

3) The restoration of this metabolic relationship demands that nature not be treated as a mere collection of commodities or as a dumping ground for the waste products of the production process.

4) The de-commodification of nature requires an end to commodity and market fetishism, because fetishism blinds human beings to the ecological and social significance of their economic activities. It demands the end of profit maximization as the primary purpose of human society as well as restrictions on the law of value.

5) Commodity and market fetishism, profit maximization, and the unrestricted operation of the law of value are essential components of capitalism; therefore, ending them requires eliminating global capitalism and replacing it with a socialist system that elevates satisfaction of human needs and maintenance of metabolic harmony between nature and humankind to the status of primary goals of human civilization.

6) In sum, sustainable international development depends on the elimination of capitalism and its replacement by a global socialist civilization. The problem of sustainable international and human development is linked to the global environmental crisis. The health and sustainability of the natural environment cannot be maximized unless nature is de-commodified.

Likewise, human development cannot be maximized unless human labor power is de-commodified. Sustainable social and individual development requires humankind to move beyond a civilization dominated by commodity production and replace it with one in which production for the satisfaction of human needs and the needs of the natural environment take precedence over production for maximum profit.

The de-commodification of nature and the de-commodification of human beings are not separate issues, rather they are two aspects of the same progressive movement due to the fact that human beings are part of nature and in no sense separate from it, except in the alienated misconception of nature prevalent in capitalist thinking and other unscientific modes of thought.

Since profit maximization, the law of value, commodity fetishism, an unscientific view of nature, and ecologically destructive production processes are integral and essential parts of the capitalist mode of production, it is clear that capitalism cannot achieve sustainable international development.

These systemic flaws make capitalism politically, economically, and ecologically unsustainable, because the very effort to deal with environmental problems requires transformation of capitalism into an entirely different system. There can be no ecological reformation of capitalism since sufficient reformation would require the destruction of capitalism.

Capitalism must be replaced by a society in which the law of value, the status of the commodity, the treatment of nature, and the production process are brought under rational, ecologically-informed, and socialist-oriented control, exercised cooperatively by the vast majority of humanity, the working class.

For it is the working class, not the capitalists, which has a vested interest in achieving sustainable international development. In Capital, v. 1, Marx notes that commodity fetishism cannot be overcome until production is carried out by “freely associated men, and is consciously regulated by them in accordance with a settled plan” (1967, p. 84).

This statement applies not only to commodity fetishism per se, but to the problem of sustainable development in its entirety. Capitalism must be transformed into socialism, since socialism is the form of society which represents the initial stages of a fully sustainable, communist society in which commodity fetishism is eliminated and people are free to pursue sustainability through a socialist approach to management of the labor process and mitigation of the negative effects of the law of value on the use of natural resources.

To the bourgeois mind, sustainable development is a relatively shallow problem, a narrow, technical issue that can be remedied by environmental scientists, engineers, policy makers, planners, and other specialists working within the capitalist system; or else it is seen as a problem of individual choice that can be solved by encouraging consumers to choose a so-called “green lifestyle.”

But a genuine and viable solution to the crisis goes far beyond issues of reform and lifestyle choice. Bourgeois views on sustainable development are myopic and superficial because the bourgeoisie want to avoid any kind of change that would involve getting rid of or even limiting capitalism and the privileges enjoyed by their class.

For them, sustainable development is really the question of how to continue carrying out capitalist exploitation of the working class and the natural environment, how to extend this mode of exploitation throughout the world, and how to create conditions that will allow future generations of capitalists to continue extracting surplus value in perpetuity.

Capitalists are all in favor of “sustainability” as long as it means that capitalism will spread further and last longer. They want capitalism to be around not just for another one-, two-, or three hundred years, but forever. In bourgeois circles, concern about the welfare of future generations of capitalists is the real content of the oft-repeated formula “sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

The capitalist notion of sustainable development means managing exploitation in a way that preserves the absolute supremacy of capitalist society along with its very reason for being: extraction of maximum surplus value and the realization of maximum profit.

Even though capitalists can make limited adjustments to their practices when the environmental effects become intolerable even to them, an ecologically aware capitalism will still seek “the maximum capitalist profit through the exploitation, ruin and impoverishment of the majority of the population of the given country, through the enslavement and systematic robbery of the peoples of other countries, especially backward countries, and, lastly, through wars and militarization of the national economy, which are utilized for the obtaining of the highest profits” (Stalin, 1972, p. 39).

All that needs to be added to complete this formula is “the exploitation and ruin of the natural environment.” Sustainable development can be achieved by socialist society because its fundamental concern has always been “the securing of the maximum satisfaction of the constantly changing material and cultural requirements of the whole of society through the continuous expansion and perfection of socialist production on the basis of higher techniques” (Stalin, 1972, p. 40-41).

Freedom from concern for capitalist profit allows a socialist society to adapt its production decisions to the requirements of sustainable development in a timely fashion because the ability to adapt is not obstructed by the law of value. In a socialist society in which commodity production still occurs, the law of value must still be taken into account, but it is not the sole criterion of economic decision making.

The socialist economy “serves the whole people, not the profit making calculations of a minority of exploiters,” and of course socialism’s goal of serving the people includes sustainable development, because it is in line with the fundamental interests of all humanity (Mao Tsetung, 1977, p. 87-88, 107). If the Marxist tradition can teach us one essential truth in this regard, it is that the battle for sustainable development is part of the world historical conflict between socialism and capitalism.

Fundamentally, this is not a question of proper technique or individual choice of lifestyle; it is a question of political economy, of competing social systems, of class struggle. Sustainable development is in the best interests of the global working class, and it is against the interests of the capitalist class.

Sustainable development is a problem that must be tackled by the whole working class, by the vast majority of humankind, a majority which does not profit, but rather suffers from unsustainable development, and it can only be solved through the genius, creativity, and concerted efforts of the entire working class.

To view sustainability in this way is to understand that mismanagement of natural resources and the degradation of the natural environment cannot end until the capitalist exploitation and degradation of nature and humankind is replaced by a social system in which the working class is empowered to manage production and distribution in accordance with sound ecological principles that benefit humankind and enhance the well-being of the natural environment.

Ecological science comes to nothing unless humanity is free to act upon it, and this cannot happen until the working class puts an end to capitalism. Marxists must not shrink from proclaiming the view that the achievement of sustainable development hinges upon the outcome of the class struggle.


1. The Group of 7 or G-7 countries are: Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, UK and US.

2. Calculations by author from above-cited data.

3. The effects of CO2 on Earth’s climate were first investigated in the 19th century. In 1859, British physicist John Tyndall conducted a series of experiments which showed that water vapor and CO2 trapped heat in the atmosphere, resulting in the greenhouse effect. In the 1890s, the Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius estimated that a doubling of CO2 in the atmosphere would lead to a temperature increase of 5 to 6 degrees Celsius (See Black, Brian C. and Gary J. Weisel, 2010, p. 35 –

4. For decades, Americans have been told that clean and affordable alternative energy sources such as solar and wind power cannot be utilized on a mass scale because the “market” has not yet “decided” that they are profitable. This is an excellent example of the fetishization of the market; it also belies the claim that the market is rational and beneficent.

5. Most everyone living in capitalist societies has heard the familiar despairing, but ultimately self-serving refrain from both producers and consumers of socially harmful commodities such as addictive narcotics and dirty fuels: “If I didn’t do it [produce or sell such commodities] someone else would!” … “The market demands these products, and I am merely obeying the commands of the market.” For societies in which commodities, market values, and market relations, have become fetishes, insight into and regard for the social significance of production and consumption is gravely weakened, and it becomes extremely difficult, due to its social unacceptability, to hold individual decisions accountable in the court of communal interest; indeed, no such court can exist under such conditions.


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