Theory and Society

, Volume 35, Issue 1, pp 109-156

First online:

Metabolism, energy, and entropy in Marx's critique of political economy: Beyond the Podolinsky myth

  • Paul BurkettAffiliated withDepartment of Economics, Indiana State University
  • , John Bellamy FosterAffiliated withUniversity of Oregon

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Until recently, most commentators, including ecological Marxists, have assumed that Marx's historical materialism was only marginally ecologically sensitive at best, or even that it was explicitly anti-ecological. However, research over the last decade has demonstrated not only that Marx deemed ecological materialism essential to the critique of political economy and to investigations into socialism, but also that his treatment of the coevolution of nature and society was in many ways the most sophisticated to be put forth by any social theorist prior to the late twentieth century. Still, criticisms continue to be leveled at Marx and Engels for their understanding of thermodynamics and the extent to which their work is said to conflict with the core tenets of ecological economics. In this respect, the rejection by Marx and Engels of the pioneering contributions of the Ukrainian socialist Sergei Podolinsky, one of the founders of energetics, has been frequently offered as the chief ecological case against them. Building on an earlier analysis of Marx's and Engels's response to Podolinsky, this article shows that they relied on an open-system, metabolic-energetic model that adhered to all of the main strictures of ecological economics – but one that also (unlike ecological economics) rooted the violation of solar and other environmental-sustainability conditions in the class relations of capitalist society. The result is to generate a deeper understanding of classical historical materialism's ecological approach to economy and society – providing an ecological-materialist critique that can help uncover the systemic roots of today's “treadmill of production” and global environmental crisis.