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Marxist Approaches in Environmental Sociology

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Sociology
Wordcount: 1588 words Published: 18th May 2020

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Readings this week focus on Marxist and neo-Marxist approaches in environmental sociology. While Marx’s early work has been criticized for his anthropocentric views the environment, later work in Capital has been influential in shaping work in environmental sociology. Marx’s dialectic – which connects individual experiences to social conditions – has been used to examine how capitalist modes of production and our relationships to these forces of production shape inequalities in the environment. Theories such as the treadmill of production have expanded on Marxist ideologies to examine the role of capitalism and globalization in shaping environmental harm, while scholars such as Downey and Strife have identified mechanisms (policy implementation) to understand environmental degradation and inequality in exposure to environmental harm. A summery of work that considers Marxist perspectives is presented below.

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Early work by O’Connor (1991) connected Marxist theory to 20th Century capitalism, noting two contradictions of capitalism; (1) capital’s social and political power over labor tends to a crisis of over-production, and (2) the amount of fixed capital bears no relationship to the rate of exploitation of that capital. Foster (1992) explicitly connected these contradictions to environmental harm; the first contradiction of inequality and overproduction drives environmental exploitation, leading to the second contradiction where high levels of production lead to unsustainable environmental practices. According to Foster, capitalism’s self-destructive approach leads to the ruin of natural resources (the commons) because rates of production do not account for the amount of natural resources available or the associated environmental costs (e.g. pollution). Foster called this “the absolute law of environmental degradation under capitalism”. Foster expands on O’Connor’s earlier work by considering the role of globalization in expanding capitalist modes of production to the global South, resulting on the acceleration of natural resource use and habitat destruction at a global scale.

Foster (1999) expands on earlier work with a discussion of Marx’s theories of metabolic rift. Countering critiques that Marx failed to consider connections between nature and society in his early work, Foster illustrates the important connections between nature and society as outlined by Marx’s theory of metabolic rift. According to Marx, the metabolic rift represents a disconnect between society and the environment created by human modes of production and the relation of nature through labor. Marx considered the metabolism to symbolize man’s relationship with nature, where material labor resulted in human’s alienation from man and from nature (Tucker 1978). Metabolic rift theory was primarily concerned with capital agriculture which would “…impoverish the soil and the worker” (Foster 1999). Of key interest here, Foster contends that framing Marx’s work as human exploitation of nature ignores the perspectives on the ecological implications of capitalism. Foster contends that perspectives should embrace methodological approaches that recognize complex interactions between humans and the environment.

Work by Gould, Pellow, and Schnaiberg (2004) represents neo-Marxist work considering the role of modern capitalism, globalization, and global structures in causing environmental harm and perhaps more fully incorporates ideas of political economy and metabolic rift. The authors embrace the idea of the dialectic, connecting interactions of the political economy to the natural environment. Schnaiberg’s work examined the role of the state, capitalist modes of production, and labor in creating a “treadmill” where there is ever-increasing expansion of capitalism which results in enviornmental degradation. Gould and authors expand on this work to examine the role of expansion to the global South with connections to world systems theory; capitalist markets and modes of production by core countries allows for new areas of exploitation of labor and the enviornment in the global South. Pollution and natural resource depletion is accelerated on a global scale as owners take maximize profits by exploiting a new pool of workers and take advantage of areas with less restrictive enviornmental regulations (Gould et al. 2004). Their argument is particularly convincing when considering the role of trade agreements in shifting environmental burdens from core to periphery countries. While Marx predicted revolution as a solution to alleviate inequalities between social classes, the authors posit that framing of capitalist economies as social change have contributed to the lack of action in addressing environmental impacts in capitalist societies.

York and Bell (2010) consider the role of the political economy in maintaining power in destruction of the natural environment in coal mining communities West Virginia. Their work examines contradictions in why communities continue to support extractive industries that cause environmental harm but provide few economic benefits. These communities experience destruction of their natural environment (mountaintop removal), pollution, and health-hazards resulting from coal production. The authors posit that elites – coal industry owners – maintain power through “ideological manipulation” (York and Bell 2010). The authors demonstrate that political power can shape environmentally destructive practices; their case study examines how coal industry executives leveraged ideas of identity, the importance of protecting coal jobs, and reinforcing gender ideologies to prevent the passage of regulations that would be protective of the environment and ultimately reduce profits. This work expands on Marx’s ideas of employing ideology to further the interests of power or excepting the capitalist status quo. It would be interesting to expand this work beyond the realm of coal production. For example, examining the role of industry in shaping perceptions about oil extraction both in the American West (hydraulic fracturing) and globally where oil is framed as important for jobs and the freedom of the western world.

Downey and Strife (2010) extend work beyond the treadmill of production to propose a theory of inequality, democracy, and the environment (IDE). IDE theory considers the role of political, economic, and military elites in shaping environmental degradation. According to Downey and Strife, decisions and attitudes about the environment are shaped by various elite groups that use networks to promote accumulation of profits at the expense of the environment. The authors posit that inequality is a key part of this process, where unequal access to networks of power shapes exposure to environmental degradation. While democracy implies that all groups have equal access to government officials who implement policies, Downey and Strife argue that networks of power give elite groups the ability to further policies or legislations that allow them to engage in unsustainable practices or cause environmental harm. Their example of modern agriculture and the environment illustrates how mechanisms of economic and political power that have encouraged unsustainable crop production techniques, reduced diversity, and increased pollution disproportionately impacting farmers around the world (Downey and Strife 2010). As noted by the authors, the lack of international focus is one limitation of this work. It would be interesting to consider the role of IDE mechanisms on environmental degradation globally. While Downey and Strife critique theoretical previous theoretical models that ignore policy mechanisms, examining policy-environment connections in conjunction with prior theories (i.e. treadmill of production theory) could provide important insight political economy and environmental impacts globally.

Discussion Questions:

Can we connect IDE to world systems theory to apply outside the U.S. context?

How has the treadmill of production shaped studies in areas of environmental scarcity?

How can we study the social construction of nature in the global South and the influence of capitalist modes of production and changing nature of consumption?


  • Downey, Liam and Susan Strife. 2010. “Inequality, Democracy, and the Environment.” Organization and Environment 23(2):155–88.
  • Foster, John Bellamy. 1999. “Marx ’ s Theory of Metabolic Rift : Classical Foundations for Environmental So Ciologyl.” 105(2):366–405.
  • Gould, Kenneth A., David N. Pellow, and Allan Schnaiberg. 2004. “Interrogating the Treadmill of Production: Everything You Wanted to Know about the Treadmill but Were Afraid to Ask.” Organization and Environment 17(3):296–316.
  • O’Connor, James. 1991. “On the Two Contradictions of Capitalism.” Capitalism, Nature, Socialism, 2: 107-109.
  • Tucker, Robert C. (ed). 1978. The Marx-Engels Reader, Second Edition. Second. New York, N.Y.: W. W. Norton & Company Inc.
  • York, Richard and Shannon Elizabeth Bell. 2010. “Community Economic Identity: The Coal Industry and Ideology Contruction in West Virginia.” Rural Sociology 75(March 2010):111–44.


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