Ecological Sustainability, Inequality and Social Class

Karl Marx’s concept of sustainability is connected to his concepts of metabolism and reproduction. While the first connection is well recognized in recent literature (famously in the work of Paul Burkett, John Bellamy Foster and many others),1 the second connection is not. Moreover, sustainability is potentially connected to another crucial concept in Marx’s thinking – that is, value of labour power (which is expressed as the wage that workers receive), although Marx fails to explicitly make that connection.

In this short paper, I connect sustainability to metabolism, reproduction, and value of labour power. I argue that sustainability (or a healthy environment) can be seen as an “ecological social wage” under capitalism and has to be fought for as a part of a larger fight against the various logics of capitalism, such as endless accumulation, and against the system as a whole. Therefore, ecological sustainability is fundamentally a class issue, one that concerns the working class of the world as a whole that is comprised of people with different gender, racial, and nationality backgrounds, and it is not to be narrowly seen as an ecological issue, separate from the needs and the movements of the working class.

What is Sustainability?

To live and to satisfy our needs, we must enter into a metabolic relation with nature, as Marx says in chapter 7 of Capital Vol 1.2 That is, on the basis of manual and mental labour, we must interact with nature from which we get raw materials and energy and in which we dump waste products. Nature, especially transformed nature, is a part of the means of production.

Seeing society as a temporal process, in Chapter 23 of Capital Vol 1, Marx referred to “simple reproduction” saying: “every social process of production is at the same time a process of reproduction,” and “No society can go on producing, in other words, no society can reproduce, unless it constantly reconverts a part of its products into means of production…”3

Rubbing Marx’s concept of metabolism with his concept of reproduction, one can say this: in producing the things that we need, we use up the means of production, including those that come, more or less, directly from nature, and these means of production must be replenished in terms of their quantity and quality. For example, if we cut trees and pollute air to produce wealth, a part of the produced wealth – the combined product of labour and nature – has to be utilized to replenish the trees and to clean the air. We have to reproduce elements of nature, constantly. Not doing so constitutes a threat to sustainability.

Marx talks about sustainability more directly in Capital Vol 3:

“an entire society, a nation, or all simultaneously existing societies taken together, are not the owners of the earth. They are simply its possessors, its beneficiaries, and, have to bequeath it in an improved state to succeeding generations as boni patres familias [good householders].”4

We may conclude that not to do so is to live in an ecologically unsustainable world, a world where the physical environment is not in a state of good health.

Marx’s concept of sustainability is quite consistent with that of the United Nations’ Brundtland Commission, established in the 1980s to promote sustainable development globally, which views sustainable development as: “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (Brundtland Commission, 1987).5

That capitalism has not achieved sustainability is clear from the fact that we are facing massive ecological problems, including global warming, deforestation, soil erosion, air pollution, resource depletion, etc. The question is why?

Causes of Threat to Sustainability

First, what is not the cause? The threat to sustainability under capitalism does not come from the fact that there are too many people on earth, nor from the fact that some erstwhile poor countries are consuming more things to live a slightly better life, nor indeed from human beings’ productive activity as such (e.g. industrialization), although all these facts do involve increased extraction of resources from nature. It is rather the social form in which we live our lives and the attendant nature-dominating discursive framework that constitute the most important threat to sustainability.

The social form in which we live is not one that is just.6 We live in an unjust world. So one may ask: what connection might injustice have to the threat to sustainability?

I see inequality as a form of injustice. And I see inequality not just as inequality in income and consumption but as class inequality. Class inequality refers to the inequality in the control over society’s productive resources, including those that come directly from nature (farm land, water, minerals, etc.), and consequent class exploitation (appropriation of surplus product or surplus labour, by the class that controls the means of production from the class that does not).7 We are talking here about inequality between those who control productive resources and their uses, and those who do not, and inequality between those who have the power to exploit others in production and outside production, and those who do not.

Lenin said: “As long as there is exploitation there cannot be equality.” More specifically, the capitalist or “the landowner cannot be the equal of the worker, or the hungry man the equal of the full man” (ibid.). Because of class inequality, what we receive from society (in terms of goods and services to meet our needs) is not quite in accordance with our abilities; nor is it according to the amount of work we perform (consider how much a bank CEO makes as opposed to an ordinary worker); nor indeed is it according to how much we need in order to satisfy all of our varying needs.

Class-based inequality as class-based injustice is the fundamental threat to sustainability. This requires an explanation.

Most of us have to rely on wage-work to survive because of our separation from the objective conditions of production, including nature (land, etc.). Marx called this primitive accumulation, and this is an on-going process. This separation, with respect to nature, is not a physical separation, for production in all forms of society requires unity – non-separation – of human beings with nature. The separation in question is social-political; it is in terms of class. That is: we have no control over the use of the objective conditions of production, including those that more or less directly come from nature, with which we are physically in contact in the realm of production. We do not decide how much resources are being extracted, in what manner and at what rate. We are a part of nature. We are in physical contact with nature. Yet, under capitalism, we hardly control the basis on which we interact with nature.

We live in a society which, as Marx says in Capital Vol 1, is based on endless accumulation of wealth in the form of money, as denoted by M-C-MΔ. This is a process whose aim is not to directly satisfy human needs but to make profit, on a continuous basis. And this process of endless accumulation, i.e. accumulation for the sake of accumulation, generally promotes consumption for the sake of consumption. Otherwise, how will the endless production of things find a market? And while the accumulation process tends to be endless, many of the natural resources used in production are finite. This means, among other things that there is a disjunction – a contradiction – between capital’s time (turnover time) and nature’s time. Endless accumulation can take two forms: it is based on increases in the output over a prolonged working-day (especially in a context where technological change has not quite occurred) or per hour (when productivity-enhancing technological change has occurred).8 And this means intense extraction of resources from nature and expansion of wastes dumped in the natural environment.

Let us explore this disjunction, this contradiction. A capitalist is compelled to engage in endless accumulation by the logic of accumulation and is passionate about this (both logic and passion matter here), so he/she has to, and wants to, invest money today and get back the investment with a profit as soon as possible. However, nature’s time, which is driven by nature’s own bio-physical-chemical processes that are more or less autonomous of human activities, may not coincide with capital’s time. If a seed is planted today, it may take months or years for it to become a mature tree to satisfy human needs. Impatient to make money endlessly and quickly, the capitalist system cannot give nature enough time to reproduce – replenish – itself.

The capitalist class relation seeks to convert nature into a form of capital. Letting a seed grow into a mature tree is a natural process that takes time. This is nature’s time, which is, of course, different for different natural processes. But time – from capital’s standpoint – is money, and this means that one has to, for example, pay interest on the capital sunk in the form of the tree that is slowly growing out of a seed. The longer the time the tree remains in its natural state, the more is the cost of capital (interest), potentially. Anything that is not a part of circulation of capital, of the M-C-MΔ process, of the money-making process, is literally a waste, an unproductive thing.

We live in a society where nature is bought and sold like other things. Once I buy a piece of forestland, I can do whatever I want to do with it. The fetishism of the commodity – the idea that things that we use inherently have a price-tag (that is, that they must be bought and sold, and for a profit, for them to satisfy our needs) – is most stark in the case of nature (as it is in case of labour power as a commodity):9 a beach, a forest or a farmland as things appear to be ones which are inherently, by necessity, commodities, and increasingly so since the 1970s when the epoch of the post-war crisis in the advanced capitalist world began. To treat nature and its elements (land, oceans, forests), as commodities is a hallmark of the modern society we live in. This logic of commodification under capitalism counters the logic of sustainability.

We live in a society where there is a profound disjunction, a contradiction, between the global scale of capitalist accumulation, as it is governed by the globally-operating law of value or the law of competition, on the one hand, and the political framework, that is, the state-system on the other, which is nationally-based (in spite of the erosion of some of the powers of the state in certain contexts). This disjunction makes it difficult for humanity to coordinate and to plan the use of natural resources which occur geographically unevenly on the surface of the earth across countries in an effective manner.

This forces, for example, Japan as a territorially separate entity with no oil of its own, located on the earthquake-prone ring of fire, to invest in nuclear energy plants; the ecologically risky nature of nuclear plants is made riskier by their location in the ring of fire. Because of the same disjunction, or contradiction, the low-income countries, more or less deprived of technologies that the advanced countries enjoy, are having to subject the natural environment under their territorial jurisdictions to excessively high level of exploitation, in order to meet their very basic needs. The ability to sustainably reproduce nature is unequally distributed in a world which is subjected to a global logic of accumulation and which is divided by nation-states, some of which are richer and more powerful than others.

We live in a society where old value must be destroyed for new value to be produced, and this means war. In many cases, indeed, economies of advanced capitalist countries rely on the production of military weapons to keep their accumulation system going, and this often means artificially creating conditions for war, and often this war involves war between poor countries. Further, advanced capitalist countries compete with one another for monopolistic control over the politically and militarily weaker countries’ markets and workforce as well as their natural resources.10

In short, we live in an imperialist world, and imperialism means war. And war means massive destruction of nature. It means pollution. That Agent Orange, a powerful chemical used by the U.S. military during the Vietnam War to eliminate forest cover for anti-imperialism fighters in North Vietnam, is widely known. As a more recent example, the western-capitalist war on Iraq created a massive amount of environmental pollution, producing birth defects and other health problems, as London’s Guardian reported. War also means that resources are invested in killing people, while these resources can be used to replenish elements of nature (clean up rivers, oceans, plant trees), to increase the role of public transportation to reduce environmental pollution, and to enhance people’s access to the things they need such as healthcare, housing, food, etc.11 Using resources on wars or on the preparation for wars, when resources can be used to meet basic needs of people and to create a sustainable ecological environment – this problem is most glaring in the global periphery.

We live in a society where, given the high rate of labour exploitation and a large reserve army of labour globally, millions of people are deprived of a decent income with which to afford things produced in environmentally friendly ways (e.g. organically produced food), which are initially expensive in part because of the small-scale nature of production. In parenthesis, and in a slight criticism of Marx and Vladimir Lenin, I will say that mere separation of direct producers from land, either in primitive accumulation (as per Marx), or in a process of class differentiation under the impact of market (as per Lenin), may create a market for food but not necessarily a market for ecologically produced food.

We live in a society, where there is a long-term trend toward the decline in the rate of profit as investment in constant capital to variable capital increases (because labour, as the ultimate creator of capitalist wealth, is increasingly replaced by non-labour inputs in the production process). This is also a society where there is the problem of a constant possibility of overaccumulation of capital and commodities. This problem is partly caused by lack of planning of production and by competitively-driven technological dynamism resulting in production of more and more things every hour, which, of course, requires more intense extraction of resources from nature and greater generation of wastes.12 Responding to the declining rate of profit and the problem of overaccumulation, there is a tendency to not only increase exploitation of labour but also to make profit from new forms of commodification and from the destruction of nature.13

Sustainable production can be a source of profit for some capitals (consider the production of cleaner technologies; wilderness as an ecotourist place), so there can be, within limits, sustainable development within capitalism. But there are strong limits to sustainability within capitalism, in terms of both the magnitude of sustainability and the temporal and spatial scale of sustainability (how long and over how large an area sustainability can occur). This is because of the social framework within which sustainable development is promoted. This is the framework of markets-in-every-thing, of endless accumulation, and of inequality and of exploitation of people.

Capitalism takes far too much out of labour compared to what it gives it, just as it takes far too much out of nature compared to what it puts into it. There are two metabolic rifts here, joined together in the same process of capitalist accumulation: an ecological metabolic rift and a labour metabolic rift.14

Sustainable development means a clean environment, an environment that is a source of mental/spiritual peace, a source of material things that satisfy our needs, and a place to dump what is absolutely a waste product. It means a society where farm production and non-farm production are sectorally and geographically integrated, to the extent materially possible, thus minimizing metabolic rift between where things directly derived from nature (e.g. food, linen) are produced (say, in villages) and where they are consumed.15

Our needs as human beings include environmental needs. Like other needs, environmental needs cannot be fully met under capitalism or can be met only in an alienating way that impoverishes nature and us.

A large part of what is called nature is land. Land is an important means of production, and a source of food, and it has been subjected to unsustainable use under capitalism. About the relation between capitalism and agriculture, Marx says that: “the capitalist system runs counter to a rational agriculture” and that “a rational agriculture is incompatible with the capitalist system (even if the latter promotes technical development in agriculture).”16 Paraphrasing and slightly extending Marx, Lenin says in his Development of Capitalism in Russia: “That capitalism is incompatible with the rational organization of agriculture (as also of industry) has long been known.” One can generalize Marx’s and Lenin’s point and say that capitalism is incompatible with the rational organization of our metabolic interaction with nature. Capitalism violates the principle of humanization of nature and naturalization of human beings.

Let me quote someone who is not a Marxist, Amartya Sen, a Nobel laureate in Economics:

“The big challenges that capitalism now faces in the contemporary world includes issues of inequality (especially that of grinding poverty in a world of unprecedented prosperity) and of ‘public goods’ (that is, goods that people share together, such as the environment). The solution to these problems will almost certainly call for institutions that take us beyond the capitalist market economy.” (Sen, 1999:267)17

So What Is To Be Done?

Capitalism can be seen in terms of its logic, or logics, and as a system,18 that is, the totality of capitalist class relation as such. So the fight against capitalism has to be seen as a fight against both aspects of capitalism. In terms of the fight against the logics of capitalism (endless accumulation, commodification, etc.), sustainable environment must be seen as a human need. More specifically, and under capitalism, it must be seen as a part of the value of labour power itself (something Marx failed to do explicitly).

So sustainable development must be fought for as a part of the fight to improve living conditions. The fight for environmental needs must be a part of the fight for a better “social wage.” We can call it an “ecological social wage” and we can extend the scope of the concept of ecological social wage to include the remunerative price not only for peasants’ labour performed on their own or leased-in land19 but also for the indigenous communities working on commonly owned (or state-owned) farm-land and forest areas.

Given that one reason for the unsustainable environment is privatization of nature, the fight for sustainability must be a fight for common property in nature: for our rivers, forests, clean air and land as forms of common property. The fight for a sustainable environment must be a part of the fight for ‘nature-commons’, and such a fight must be a part of the fight for treating all forms of use-values (natural and non-natural things including factories and banks) as commons, which will be subjected to democratic control by men and women and citizens of different racial, ethic and nationality backgrounds.

Fighting for a sustainable environment is therefore a class issue, in the broadest sense of the term. It is a working class issue, or, more correctly, an issue of the alliance of workers and peasants (or the alliance of workers and small-scale producers, including indigenous producers). The matter of sustainable development is a deeply class matter (even if it is not exclusively a class matter). However, the fight against the logics of the system to obtain improvements within the system of capitalism is limited because there are limits to what capital can grant as long as capital rules.

To conclude: fighting for sustainable environment must be a part of the fight against the capitalist system itself, which exploits people and which is ecologically degrading (and which promotes and/or reproduces undemocratic relations based in gender, race, ethnicity and nationality, in order to be able to super-exploit some sections and to weaken ordinary people’s resistance against exploitation and ecological degradation by dividing them).

The fight for sustainable development must be a fight for a society beyond commodification, private ownership of means of production, avoidable inequalities, exploitation, and social oppression. Such a fight requires a revolutionary program, including the nationalization of all the major corporations, banks, large farms and privately owned forests and plantations, under the democratic control of working people with their different gender, racial, ethnic and nationality backgrounds. This would allow the rational reorganization of the world’s economy and our relation to nature, to meet the environmental and social needs of the masses, not the capitalists’ need for endless private profit. •

This article first published by Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal.


  1. Burkett, P. 1999. Marx and Nature, St. Martin’s Press, New York. Foster, J. 2000. Marx’s ecology, Monthly Review Press, New York. See also: O’Connor, J. (ed). 1994. Is capitalism sustainable?, Guilford Press, New York.
  2. Marx, K. 1977. Capital Volume 1, Vintage, New York.
  3. Marx, 1977: p.711.
  4. Marx, K. 1981. Capital Volume 3, Penguin, London, p. 911.
  5. This is quoted in Redclift, M. 2005. “Sustainable development (1987-2005): An oxymoron comes of age,” Sustainable development, 13:4, 212-227.
  6. There is a large amount of literature on Marxism and justice/injustice. For example, see: Callinicos, A. 2000. Equality, Polity press, London (chapter 3). Geras, N.1985: ‘Controversy about Marx and Justice’, New Left Review, 1/150; Geras, N. 1992. ‘Bringing Marx to justice’, New Left Review, 1/195; Nielson, K. 1986. ‘Marx, Engels and Lenin on justice: The critique of the Gotha programme’, Studies in Soviet Thought, 32:1, 23-63. Also, Heller, A. 1976. The theory of need in Marx, St. Martin’s press, New York.
  7. Das, R. 2017. Marxist class theory for a skeptical world, Brill, Leiden.
  8. On these two forms of accumulation, which are respectively called formal and real subsumptions of labour under capital, see Das, R. J. 2012. ‘Forms of Subsumption of labour under capital, class struggle and uneven development’, Review of Radical Political Economics, Vol. 44:2, 178-200. The implications of this duality of capitalist accumulation for nature require a detailed exploration.
  9. This is also true about labour power as well, which has a natural component in so far as our limbs and our energy – the parts of our body-mind complex – are parts of nature itself.
  10. Henryk Grossman (1929) says: “Competition among the capitalist powers first exploded in the struggles to control raw material resources because the chance of monopoly profits were greatest here…. Because raw materials are only found at specific points on the globe, capitalism is defined by a tendency to gain access to, and exert domination over, the sources of supply. This can only take the form of a division of the world.”
  11. Note that when basic needs of small-scale producers (e.g. peasants) are not met, they try to extract more out of nature (subjecting their land to more intense exploitation that will otherwise be the case) in order to survive, and this in turn can result in an above-normal level of environmental degradation.
  12. I am abstracting from the connection between over-accumulation of capital and the issue of the decline in the rate of profit caused by the rising ratio of the constant part of total capital relative to its variable part.
  13. This is the case even if these strategies can ultimately cause a physically and biologically degraded environment and a physically and mentally unhealthy labour force, reduce labour productivity, and increase the cost of constant capital and decrease the rate of profit.
  14. Das, R. 2014. “Low-Wage Capitalism, Social Difference, and Nature-Dependent Production: A Study of the Conditions of Workers in Shrimp Aquaculture,” Human Geography: A New Radical Journal, Vol 7(1):17-34.
  15. It also means a society where waste produced during the metabolic exchange between nature and society in the sphere of production returns to production, such that waste becomes a non-waste, it becomes productive.
  16. Marx, K. 1981. Capital Volume 3, Penguin, London, pp 216.
  17. Sen, A. 1999. Development as Freedom, Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  18. Magdoff, F. and Foster, J. 2010. “What Every Environmentalist Needs to Know About Capitalism,” Monthly Review.
  19. Here land refers to land as farmland, forests, and water, so land-based activities on the part of small-scale producers include farming, forest-based activities (e.g. collection of forest products), and fishing. Many indigenous communities are involved in not only farming but also collection of forest products (e.g. leaves, firewood, etc.).

Raju J Das teaches radical political economy, international development, state-society relations, and social struggles at York University, Toronto. Das is on the editorial board of Science & Society and the editorial advisory board of Dialectical Anthropology. His most recent book, published in 2017, is Marxist Class Theory for a skeptical world (Brill, Leiden).