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Marx’s Ecology and the Understanding of Land Cover Change

Ricardo Dobrovolski is a biologist and post doctoral researcher in the Ecology Department of Universidade Federal de Goiás, Brazil.

The spread of humans worldwide, especially in the last two hundred years, has been associated with the growing human domination of the earth.1 This domination has not only entailed an increasing world population, but also rising and unequal wealth—all of which has been accelerated by the regime of capital. Such domination of the environment is expressed by among other things: (1) the change in the flux of elements and substances on Earth, i.e., the global biogeochemical cycles (of which the most famous manifestation is the rising level of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases responsible for climate change); (2) the growing threat of species extinction; and (3) the huge land cover change (LCC)—the substitution of natural habitats such as forests, swamps, and grasslands by cropland, pasture, roads, and urban areas.2

Modern natural sciences have made enormous inroads in understanding both ecological problems and the social drivers of LCC. However, they have been unable to generate a systematic understanding of how the regime of capital has governed LCC. Karl Marx developed more than 150 years ago, in the context of a social-science critique, an unparalleled theoretical approach to environmental crisis based on two concepts: differential land rent and the metabolic rift. Here, these concepts will be applied to the understanding of LCC.

Land Cover Change: A General Understanding

To obtain necessary resources, such as food, fibers, and minerals, and for transportation and habitation, humans have transformed the land surface, replacing natural habitats with human-altered environments. About 75 percent of Earth’s ice-free land shows evidence of human alteration.3 Agriculture alone represents about 38 percent of the world’s terrestrial surface.4

LCC causes many environmental problems. It is the principal cause of species extinction and is expected to be so until 2100.5 Nowadays, 25 percent of the mammal species, 13 percent of birds, and 41 percent of amphibians—the best known groups of animal life—are threatened with extinction.6 Retention of biodiversity is crucial for ecosystem processes like productivity, stability, nutrient retention, beneficial water regimes, and invasion resistance.7 In turn these processes are very important for humankind, since natural ecosystems provide many life-sustaining resources like the pollination of food crops, soil formation, nutrient cycling, water supply, residues treatment, medical resources, and even food itself.

The worldwide destruction of forests and other natural habitats has stimulated research into the causes of LCC. The leading approach to understanding this process categorizes its causes as proximate and underlying forces.8 The proximate causes are the direct human activities responsible for the impacts: agriculture, wood extraction, mining, and infrastructure extension. The underlying causes are the demographic, economic, political, institutional, and cultural factors. However, this approach does not incorporate the fact that all these factors are manifestations of the same system by which humans are organized—capitalism. Although it is seldom acknowledged, Marx, in his masterpiece Capital, developed a global understanding not only of how capitalism works, but also about how it promotes environmental degradation.

Marx’s Contribution to the Understanding of Land Cover Change

In the last ten years, Marx’s contribution to ecology has been rescued.9 This revision of his thought has revealed how much his intellectual construction was rooted in nature. To Marx, human beings are social animals able to transform nature in a self-conscious manner through work. Like any other species, Homo sapiens exchange matter and energy with the environment. Marx referred to this process of exchange via work as “social metabolism.” With the rise of capitalist society, all production processes were oriented toward profit (including the robbing of nature). But how, one might ask, did shifting the whole social metabolism to the production of profit, instead of the satisfaction of human needs, affect LCC? In answering this question, two concepts used by Marx are essential: land rent and the “metabolic rift.”

As with any other economic activity in the capitalist society, agriculture—the main production activity responsible for LCC—is oriented to the extraction of profit. However, agricultural production in capitalism has a certain specificity. In general, the economic surplus generated in capitalist production depends on productivity of the labor force. This productivity depends on the technological level of the means of production, the division of labor, and the number of workers. But in agriculture, like other extractive activities such as mining, the revenues appropriated can also be increased due to the exceptional characteristics of the land being exploited. In other words, with the same means of production and the same labor force, particular pieces of land can produce higher yields. In classical theory, the return to landed capital resulting from the monopoly over the properties of the land (and obtained as a deduction from total surplus value) was called land rent or ground rent. It was analyzed by Marx in the third volume of Capital, based on the initial theories of differential rent of James Anderson and David Ricardo.10

The characteristics monopolized by this system of rent include: (1) soil fertility, i.e., the nutrient content and other chemical, biological, and physical properties that facilitate agricultural production; (2) the abundance and availability of resources, such as minerals and timber to be extracted; and (3) location in relation to markets or transportation facilities.

In search of rent (and profits) from the monopolization of nature, people have sought to acquire and monopolize large tracts of land with exceptionally favorable characteristics, leading to the advancing frontiers of agriculture and other extraction activities and the consequent destruction of natural habitats. Particularly in the case of agricultural production, this natural habitat represents areas that have high-fertility soil due to characteristics that are the product of centuries, or even millennia, of action by natural processes. For example, soil formation is the result of bedrock erosion under the physical and chemical actions of water and wind on stone, alongside the activities of microorganisms, plant roots, worms, and other invertebrates.11 Such areas are then incorporated into agriculture in order to guarantee the high land rents.

Furthermore, agricultural expansion has been motivated by the decrease of production in certain areas in the course of time. This decrease is caused by soil degradation, engineered by the process Marx called the “metabolic rift.” Marx borrowed the concept of metabolism, which had been recently coined by Theodor Schwann, to explain chemical changes in living cells, and applied it to society in order to highlight our co-dependence in relation to nature. Due to the development of industrial capitalism centered in cities, humans have overexploited natural resources, such as soil nutrients, through the removal of foods and fibers to sustain the increasing urban population and to provide raw material for the growing industry. This process triggered a huge concentration of such nutrients in the urban centers, since they were not returned to the soil in the rural areas from which they were withdrawn. This was the basis of the metabolic rift, the result of which was polluted cities and an impoverished countryside.12

Tropical Forests and Amazon as Targets of Land Cover Change

The expansion of agriculture in the last few decades has occurred mainly in the tropics. Among the biomes found in this region, the tropical forests are of special concern because, although they occupy only 7 percent of the earth’s land surface, they sustain about half of the planet’s species; they are considered the most ancient, the most diverse, and the most ecologically complex of land communities.13 These areas also stock a great amount of carbon which, if released by deforestation, can greatly impact global warming.14

Brazil is the country with the highest proportion of tropical forests in the world, but also the highest rates of forest destruction.15 According to a national assessment, since 1977 there has been an average of more than 18,000 km2 of annual deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon forest.16 In addition, in the last few years there has been an intense destruction of another important Brazilian biome, the Cerrado (tropical savannas). From 1998 to 2010, about 14,000 km2 were cleared yearly.17

Traditionally, the destruction of the Amazon in Brazil was related to small producers, many of whom were colonizers coming from other regions of the country. Responding to incentives from the government, and in order to get a better life, they destroyed the forest in the process of opening areas to production. This was normally related to cattle ranching and crops with low productivity, low technology, poor access to markets, and other characteristics associated with an underdeveloped production system. Such was the standard scenario of the production in the Amazon and other tropical forests from the 1960s to ‘80s. However, in the last twenty years large agribusiness corporations have begun to participate in economic activities in the tropical forests. This change has contributed to a more intense international surveillance of this process, but the scale of the destruction is also potentially larger and faster.18

This new phase of Amazon destruction, occurring mainly through the expansion of areas for soybean plantation for export and cattle ranching, is a process that is integrated into the global economy. It was influenced by different phenomena, such as: (1) the price increases due to the agrofuel industry and its switch to corn in the United States; (2) mad cow disease that caused the prohibition of animal-protein-based feed for livestock; and (3) the development of the Chinese economy.19 This process also attracted the investments of international companies such as North American agroindustrial giant Cargill, which constructed the deepwater port of Santarém (one of the main export platforms for Amazonia soy).20 Agribusiness relies heavily on the promotion of pesticides, genetically modified seeds, and synthetic fertilizers, including chemicals such as nitrate (necessary to replace the nutrients lost during the phase of production, in an attempt to restore the “original” fertility). These large fields of industrial scale farming are harmful to wildlife, small farmers, and the environment.

This increase in the potential for forest destruction is also related to the building of infrastructure projects, especially roads, which can be described as pathways to destruction. They alter the land rent, since transportation is facilitated in areas near roads, providing access to the land in the proximity. This then encourages deforestation. Studies in the Amazon show that two-thirds of the deforestation occurs within fifty kilometers from roads.21 Consequently, plans to increase the road network in the Brazilian Amazon forest is a major threat to remaining natural habitats.

As a result, agriculture and extraction activities under the capitalist regime—in the Amazon in particular, but in other places as well—can be described as the search for differential rent coupled with the need to escape from the impoverished soils and depleted resources affected by the metabolic rift. These activities are boosted by the government, which promotes the agricultural expansion by offering loans and subsidizing infrastructure construction. This serves the needs of agribusiness through the expanding market for their agrochemical products.

Marx and the Boom-and-Bust Development in the Amazon

Recently, a paper about deforestation in the Amazon, published by Ana S. L. Rodrigues and collaborators in Science, revealed results that support the mechanism proposed by Marx.22 They used an approach that changed space for time, i.e., evaluating in the current time different municipalities, with different proportions of forest cover, as if it they represented the same area in different times during the process of deforestation. The authors wanted to assess the effect of the transition caused by the passage of the deforestation frontier over time, and thus sought to adopt assumptions that would convert spatial changes in land cover to temporal periods, under the proviso that there was a smooth relation between the two. Thus, a municipality with a low proportion of forest change (e.g., 15 percent) represented an area at the beginning of colonization. While an area with a high proportion of deforestation (e.g., 90 percent) is viewed as representing a municipality that has been affected over a long time by the exploitation of natural resources. Based on this method, they found that as the deforestation advances up to 50 percent of the original area of natural vegetation, there is an increase in economic activity: cattle ranching, crop production, and timber extraction. This economic expansion implies the improvement of quality of life of the local population: higher levels in the index of human development and each of its constituents (literacy, income, and life expectancy). Nevertheless, in municipalities with considerably reduced forest cover (less than 25 percent), representing a longer time of exploitation, the economic activities were markedly decreased and the social indicators revealed the lowering of life standards.

The pattern revealed by this analysis is consistent with the broad mechanism suggested by Marx. The forested areas have high fertility due to nutrients that were accumulated by the vegetation over centuries. (In tropical forests more of the nutrients are in the forest cover; the soil, once the vegetation is removed, may be quite poor.23) This fertility is removed with the most valuable wood that is extracted and sold—the remaining vegetation is burned. The nutrients present in the burned vegetation biomass are stored in the soil’s organic matter and sustain good yields of crops and cattle for a few years, which generates a higher differential rent and consequently gives producers an important incentive to invest capital in the area. Yet, the reduction of the proportion of original forest implies that the natural properties of the area are altered, and that the nutrients are removed from the area with the products (i.e., wood, soy, and meat). Without the protection of the natural forest that land quickly loses its natural fertility.24 Beside the loss of nutrients, additional environmental changes occur in the soil (reduction of organic matter, moisture, and other properties), in the local climate, and with respect to biodiversity, leading to manifold unforeseen forms of ecological degradation that affect the local productivity.

With the degradation of the land and the consequent reduction of land rent, the differential advantages of the area are no longer as great, and capital is directed to another pristine area. The explored area will be abandoned, sustain a reduced productivity, or will need higher investments to keep the same production (thus reducing profits). As Marx wrote in the nineteenth century: “Cultivation—when it proceeds in natural growth and is not consciously controlledleaves deserts behind it.”25


The search for land rent and the environmental destruction associated with the metabolic rift are destroying natural habitats such as tropical forests through LCC. This affects biodiversity, climate, and the flux of matter on a global level. It can cause worldwide changes—undermining the stable Holocene conditions to which human civilization has adapted during the last 10,000–12,000 years. Furthermore, the people inhabiting these areas are unable to benefit from sustainable patterns of social improvement, since boom-and-bust development follows the waves of agribusiness expansion and habitat destruction.

A recently published analysis shows that the expansion of agriculture—the main cause of LCC—can be stopped, environmental problems reduced, and world food production increased if we: (1) close yield gaps (i.e., increase the production of underperforming areas already converted to agriculture); (2) increase the agricultural resource (e.g., water and fertilizers) efficiency; and (3) increase food delivery by shifting diets and reducing waste.26 Also, the damaged ecosystems can be recovered with the assistance of the emerging scientific discipline of restoration ecology.27 The mosaic of areas devoted to production, conservation, and restoration can be spatially planned according to the principles of landscape ecology to obtain the best benefits for human needs and other species, as well as to protect the physical properties of the environment.28

In spite of the increasing understanding of the current world environmental crisis and the available strategies to cope with it, the fraction of humanity that has benefited from this status quo prevents us from making the necessary changes. For instance, Brazilian landowners recently were able to submit and have partially approved by the national Congress a revision of the Forest Act, the main environmental legislation on private land. This change reduces the area to be protected and forgives past destruction so as to boost new deforestation.29 The change in environmental law was ironically (and tragically) carried out by Deputy Aldo Rebelo, a high-ranking member of the Communist Party of Brazil (Partido Comunista do Brasil, the PC do B). The alterations in the law reflect the economic power of the agricultural sector. Brazil is a leading producer and exporter of soy, coffee, sugarcane, oranges, poultry, and beef; the agriculture sector represents 40 percent of Brazil’s exports.30 However, such agribusiness expansion can be harmful to the environmental conditions and services necessary for agricultural activity (e.g., soil production, water, pollination), threatening the material bases of production.

To overcome this environmental crisis and guarantee a sustainable production, a new society should be created, organized on the basis of the real needs of humans and their environment, including other species and the physical world. In such a socialist society the producers would take care of the biological, chemical, and physical properties of the land in order to maintain, and even increase, agricultural production. In a social order based on private property and capital system dynamics, there is a contradiction between, on the one hand, the possibility of attending to human needs and reducing the environmental harm, and on the other hand, the prevailing process of increasing destruction through private production. Marx synthesized the necessary response to this contradiction:

From the standpoint of a higher socio-economic formation, the private property of particular individuals in the earth will appear just as absurd as the private property of one man in other men. Even 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 heads of the household].31

In brief, the concepts developed by Marx in the nineteenth century are very useful to a contemporary understanding of LCC. The acknowledgement of the importance of Marx’s ecology is a crucial step in comprehending how human social organization produces changes in the earth. This recovery of Marx’s ideas could help improve ecological science itself, since there is a lack of understanding of the dialectical character of the social metabolism between humanity and nature. Marx’s work also helps us to recognize that the negative dynamics of resource use under capitalism must be replaced by the rational-scientific planning of production with the object of satisfying people’s needs and promoting the conservation of natural processes—if we are to overcome the current structural crisis of the economy and the environment.


  1. Peter M. Vitousek, et al., “Human Domination of Earth´s Ecosystems,” Science 277 (1997): 494–99. See also Johan Rockström, et al., “A Safe Operating Space for Humanity,” Nature 461 (2009): 472–75.
  2. Biogeochemical cycles are the flux of elements through nature. The most studied elements’ cycles are Water, Nitrogen, Carbon, and Phosphorous. Humans have altered profoundly these cycles. For example, humans doubled the rate of nitrogen input into the terrestrial nitrogen cycle. Peter M. Vitousek, et al., “Human Alteration of the Global Nitrogen Cycle: Sources and Consequences,” Ecological Applications 7 (1997): 737–50.
  3. Erie C. Ellis and Navin Ramankutty, “Putting People in the Map: Anthropogenic Biomes of the World,” Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 6 (2008): 439–47.
  4. Jonathan A. Foley, et al., “Global Consequences of Land Use,” Science 309 (2005): 570–74. See also Jonathan A. Foley, et al., “Solutions for a Cultivated Planet,” Nature 478 (2011): 337–42.
  5. Osvaldo E. Sala, et. al., “Global Biodiversity Scenarios for the Year 2100,” Science 287 (2000), 1770–74.
  6. Humans have promoted the extinction of species in rates 100 to 1,000 times higher than the pre-human levels. Stuart L. Pimm, et. al., “The Future of Biodiversity,” Science 269 (1995): 347–50. See also Michael Hoffmann, et. al., “The Impact of Conservation on the Status of the World’s Vertebrates,” Science 330 (2010): 1503–09;IUCN Conservation Monitoring Centre, IUCN Red List of Threatened Animals (Gland, Switzerland: International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, 2010),
  7. David Tilman, “Causes, Consequences and Ethics of Biodiversity,” Nature 405 (2000): 308–11.
  8. Helmut J. Geist and Eric F. Lambin, “Proximate Causes and Underlying Driving Forces of Tropical Deforestation,” Bioscience 52 (2002): 143–50.
  9. John Bellamy Foster, Marx’s Ecology (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2000); Paul Burkett, Marx and Nature (New York: Saint Martin’s Press, 1999); John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark, and Richard York, The Ecological Rift (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2010).
  10. Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 3 (London: Penguin, 1981), 463–78. For Marx, the originator of the classical theory of rent (beyond a few hints offered by Smith) was Anderson, from whom Malthus took the idea (without attribution), and which Ricardo later developed and Marx built upon. See Foster, Marx’s Ecology, 144-47.
  11. Hans Jenny, Factors of Soil Formation (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1941).
  12. Foster, Marx’s Ecology.
  13. Reviewed in William F. Laurance, “Reflections on the Tropical Deforestation Crisis,” Biological Conservation 91 (1999): 109–17.
  14. G. R. van der Werf, et al., “CO2 Emissions from Forest Loss,” Nature Geoscience 2 (2009): 737–38.
  15. Matthew C. Hansen, Stephen V. Stehman, and Peter V. Potapov, “Quantification of Global Gross Forest Cover Loss,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Science 107 (2010): 8650–55.
  16. INPE, Projeto PRODES: Monitoramento da Floresta Amazônica Brasileira por Satélite (São José dos Campos, Brazil: Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas Espaciais, 2010),
  17. MMA, Cobertura Vegetal do Bioma Cerrado (Brasília, Brazil: Ministério do Meio Ambiente, 2010),
  18. Rhett A. Butler and William F. Laurance, “New Strategies for Conserving Tropical Forests,” Trends in Ecology & Evolution 23 (2008): 469–72.
  19. William F. Laurance, “Switch to Corn Promotes Amazon Deforestation,” Science 318 (2007): 1721;E. V. Elferink, S. Nonhebel, and A. J. M., Schoot Uiterkamp, “Does the Amazon Suffer from BSE Prevention?,” Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment 120 (2007): 467–69; Daniel C. Nepstad, Claudi M. Stickler, and Oriana T. Almeida, “Globalization of the Amazon Soy and Beef Industries: Opportunities for Conservation,” Conservation Biology 20 (2006): 1595–1603.
  20. Scott Wallace, “Last of the Amazon,” National Geographic Magazine (January 2007): 40–71.
  21. Daniel C. Nepstad, et al., “Road Paving, Fire Regime Feedbacks, and the Future of Amazon Forests,” Forest Ecology and Management 154 (2001): 395–407.
  22. Ana S. L. Rodrigues, et al., “Boom-and-Bust Development Patterns Across the Amazon Deforestation Frontier,” Science 324 (2009): 1435–37.
  23. Susanna Hecht and Alexander Cockburn, The Fate of the Forest (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010)
  24. Anthony S. R. Juo and Andrew Manu, “Chemical Dynamics in Slash-and-Burn Agriculture,” Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment 58 (1996): 49–60; Deborah A. McGrath, et. al., “Effects of Land-Use change on Soil Nutrient Dynamics in Amazônia,” Ecosystems 4 (2001): 625–45.
  25. Marx and Engels, Collected Works, vol. 42 (New York: International Publishers, 1975), 558–59.
  26. Jonathan A. Foley, et al., “Solutions for a Cultivated Planet,” Nature 478 (2011): 337–42.
  27. Jelte van Andel and James Aronson, eds., Restoration Ecology (Oxford: Blackwell, 2006)
  28. Monica G. Turner, R. H. Gardner, R. V. O’Neill, Landscape Ecology in Theory and Practice (New York: Springer, 2001)
  29. Luiz Martinelli, et al., “Brazilian Law: Full Speed in Reverse?,” Science 329 (2010): 276-77.
  30. Luiz A. Martinelli, et al., “Agriculture in Brazil: Impacts, Costs, and Opportunities for a Sustainable Future,” Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability 2 (2010): 431–38.
  31. Marx, Capital, vol. 3, 911.