Marx, the Commons and the Environment

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Vasilis Kostakis examines recent books that specifically deal with Marx’s writings on the issue of the commons.

Vasilis Kostakis:

"Elmar Altvater, a professor emeritus for International Political Economy at the Free University of Berlin, has written a thought-provoking review of Paul Burkett’s book Marxism and Ecological Economics: Toward a Red and Green Political Economy, which, according to Prof. Altvater, is “an attempt to bring Marx into the new economic subdiscipline of ecological economics (transforming the latter through the encounter), and at the same time to reexamine Marxist theory from the perspective of ecological economics”.

Prof. Altvater’s review on Paul Burkett’s book has been published in Monthly Review (Volume 58, Issue 08 (January) / A Marxist Ecological Economics).

I cite here wide excerpts of Altvater’s critique, which might be quite extensive, however, equally interesting and worth-reading:

“Modern and nonorthodox interpretations of Marxian theories (in plural, not in singular as Wolfgang Fritz Haug so convincingly argues) are capable of discovering in Marx’s theory sometimes surprising insights into the human-nature metabolism in processes of transforming matter and energy into desired use values. Already in his early writings of the 1840s Marx mentioned several times the “metabolic character” of natural transformations performed by human labor. The “active man” (and woman) inevitably uses nature as a resource (tap) on the one hand and a waste outlet (sink) on the other. But it is important to understand that this metabolism is central to the making of human history.

Transformations of matter and energy simultaneously are transformations of society and of men and women themselves. The very existence of humankind depends on nature; moreover, it is part of it, physically as well as psychologically, aesthetically, etc. Even the “metabolic rift” between society and nature (Burkett refers here to John Bellamy Foster) is part of this history because it is a result of the social mechanisms of alienation of workers from the conditions of production (292). At one end of the rope is the alienation of workers, while at the other end are the external constraints exerted by the dynamics of capitalist accumulation on peoples.


The human-nature relationship is a centerpiece of the Marxian critique of political economy. It is also the object of ecological economics. The critique of political economy is a powerful theoretical endeavor because of its emphasis on praxis, especially the class struggle, which so often is singled out in Burkett’s book as the core of the problem. Marx’s entire class-based political-economic critique (which cannot be separated from his ecological views) thus becomes the necessary basis for the development of a truly radical ecological economics. For this reason Burkett begins his book with a critique of the notion of the “value of nature” (referring simply to economic values and not to the issue of intrinsic value). This is a concept that, as he makes clear, can be traced back to the physiocrats. Marx’s critique of the physiocrats becomes the basis for the critique of other, more recent value-of-nature concepts. The physiocrats in their theoretical reasoning had an agrarian society in mind; this was their life experience. Their theory was outdated already by the end of the eighteenth century due to the emerging manufactures, the use of fossil fuels, and the increase of productivity for the production of relative surplus value. Adam Smith, who is not mentioned by Burkett, had already heavily criticized the physiocrats and mercantilists in his Wealth of Nations. The physiocrats contributed to economic theory not only with Quesnay’s famous circulation scheme, but also with their emphasis on natural riches as the fundamental basis of productive work.

Nevertheless, the physiocrats did not understand that in capitalism natural riches must be transformed into economic and monetary wealth. Again, the double character of the natural and of the social form is decisive. It is not by accident that physiocratic theories led to economic romanticism and even reactionary discourses. Silvio Gesell gave the journal he published at the beginning of the twentieth century the title “Der Physiokrat.” There he propagated his ideas of free land (access to land for everybody, “Freiland”) and free money (“Freigeld,” money with a zero or negative interest rate), plus the free market as the alternative to capitalism. This is a current that deserves theoretical as well as political criticism in a discussion of the relevance of physiocratic ideas today.


In Justice, Nature and the Geography of Difference, David Harvey discusses many of the questions raised by Paul Burkett in his tenth chapter on the class and distributional bases of capitalist accumulation. It is true, as Burkett notes, that in many contributions to ecological economics the “social separation of the direct producers from necessary conditions of production” (309), i.e., the class perspective, is missing.

Also frequently missing is any understanding of “Marx and Engels’ vision of communism which integrates a common-pool resource, co-evolution, and common-property dimensions of sustainable development” (331). For Burkett it is crucial to pay homage to “the classical Marxist vision of communism as disalienation of production in service of human development…” (332). Such a vision of sustainability in a society of associated producers contrasts sharply with the anti-ecological world of the present global economy, the features of which are summarized at the end of Burkett’s book in terms of accumulation, crisis, growth, and class hierarchy—which can only be surmounted by a full-scale ecological-social revolt.

Most of the environmental distribution conflicts that Burkett examines in his book are due to the acceleration and expansion of economic processes so that the environment, which is a finite entity, is overexploited on the side of the taps and overloaded on the side of the sinks. The environmental “Kuznets curve” (the mainstream environmental notion that as societies reach a certain stage of economic development they begin to devote increasing shares of their economic resources to protecting environmental amenities), which Paul Burkett criticizes, is only a naïve expression of the dominant functionalist view that the market will, when it becomes necessary, choose to create disincentives to pollution. Such a notion does not even take into account the obvious distinction between “dirty” and “clean” pollution. It is true that dirty pollution, e.g., smog and poisoned water, decreases with growing incomes. The rich don’t want the waste they produce in their own backyard. But due to the same process of the growth of wealth, “clean” pollution, which one cannot see or smell, increases, e.g., CO2 emissions due to a rising number of cars. This is the reason why the so-called ecological footprint is larger the richer people are. It is monetary wealth that allows access to natural resources (exhausting ecological taps) and high amounts of harmful emissions (overloading ecological sinks).

The notion of ecological footprint (which measures the global ecological input of any given entity, whether a particular individual, city, or nation state) has triggered a broad worldwide debate on ecological justice. The ecological footprint of many regions, particularly in the rich industrialized countries, is far too large for the world as a whole to sustain. Yet, since money is the key to access natural resources and sinks, those who have large amounts of money at their disposal have access to more resources and sinks than those who have little or no money—and money in a globalized economy is denominated by a few strong currencies.

Burkett explores at length the current question of energy and how energy is grasped in Marxist as well as in non-Marxist ecological economics—above all in approaches based on thermodynamic economics. He dedicates a large part of his book to the treatment of thermodynamic economics and the categories of entropy and irreversibility. Marxism and Ecological Economics thus presents as broadly as it deserves the seminal approach of Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen from the early 1970s on.

While supporting Georgescu-Roegen’s critique of the ecological irrationalities of the economic process, Burkett goes on to question Georgescu-Roegen’s attempt to reconcile the nonsense of the economic process, which inevitably produces an entropy increase, i.e., a deterioration of living conditions of human beings, by seeing this as having no more fundamental root than the mere pursuit of the “enjoyment of life.” This, as Burkett points out, is obviously a superficial and unsatisfactory explication of the reasons why humanity accepts the entropy increase. It is a good example of the failures resulting from the disdain of useful Marxist categories by even critical ecological economists. Entropy production in the economic process always makes sense so long as the other side of the double-sided production process, i.e., the valuation process, results in a surplus value and thus in profits and an acceptable profit rate for capital and capitalists. Consequently, Burkett stresses the relevance of the Marxian category of the double character of production, which allows him penetrate the economy-nature relation much more thoroughly than most of even the more critical approaches to ecological economics.

This is also amply demonstrated in the sixth chapter on the “Podolinsky myth,” where he criticizes attempts to base value theory not on labor but instead on energy. The critique of Podolinsky is completely justified and is elaborated on the basis of Friedrich Engels’s notes, which he submitted to Marx on the question.

Therefore, it is somewhat surprising that Burkett, after having discussed the importance of the categories of energy and entropy, does not pursue the next step of analyzing the capitalist energy system and its relevance for capitalist accumulation as well as for the alternative: sustainable human development. Capitalist industrialization and the production of relative surplus value would not have been possible without the transition from an energy system based on biotic energies, windmills, and water wheels to a fossil energy regime. The increase of the growth rate of GDP since the end of the eighteenth century—an indicator of the extreme acceleration of capitalist accumulation since then—would not have been possible without the use of fossil energy. The energy regime is important also because of the contemporary conflicts arising from the unequal distribution of fossil energy reserves and the uneven consumption of these resources. Money is of utmost importance, but it cannot open all the doors of access to resources, particularly to fossil fuels. Distributional conflicts on the environment are sharpened and reshaped into political and military conflicts. Today they are one of the most topical aspects of world development. Therefore it is necessary to incorporate within critical reasoning on ecological economics the question of ecological imperialism. The history of ecological imperialism has been recounted by Alfred Crosby in his book by the same name. But ecological imperialism is not merely past history but the history of the present, with regard to both taps and sinks.

The question of the energy regime is also of vital importance for the whole question of sustainable human development. Here Burkett remains rather abstract. Communism, in line with Marx, is for him “the individual’s right to a share in the total product for her private consumption” (322), access of all individuals to the “expanded social services—education, health care, utilities and old age pensions—that are financed by deductions from the total product…” (323), “individual’s right to progressively shorter working time” (324), and a cooperatively structured society regulated by a common plan (325). It is surprising that Paul Burkett does not take notice of the broad debate on renewable energies as the basis for any social, economic, and political alternative beyond the capitalist system, which is intimately bound to the exploitation of fossil fuel. Overcoming capitalism is only possible by concomitantly overcoming the fossil energy regime. Sustainability remains an abstract message, so long as the question “Which energy regime is sustainable?” is not answered. Perhaps Burkett understands the “de-entropification of human needs and human development” (329) as another expression (however abstract) of the transition from the fossil energy regime to an energy regime based on the use of renewables.

There is no book without some lacunae. This also holds true in this case. One question which still deserves more deliberation is how to regulate property in a communist, planned, cooperatively structured economy based on renewable and not fossil energy. What are the forms of reappropriation of the alienated and dispossessed spaces (and times) of peoples? The struggles for reappropriation are already going on today, everywhere. There is an urgent need for theoretical clarification. Paul Burkett’s Marxism and Ecological Economics is a great help, and it also shows that the “red-green” line of argument should be continued.” (