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This article is adapted from John Bellamy Foster, “Nature,” in Kelly Fritsch, Clare O’Connor, and AK Thompson, ed., Keywords for Radicals: The Contested Vocabulary of Late-Capitalist Struggle (Chico, CA: AK Press, 2016), 279-86,

“Nature,” wrote Raymond Williams in Keywords, “is perhaps the most complex word in the language.”1 It is derived from the Latin natura, as exemplified by Lucretius’s great didactic poem De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things) from the first century BCE. The word “nature” has three primary, interrelated meanings: (1) the intrinsic properties or essence of things or processes; (2) an inherent force that directs or determines the world; and (3) the material world or universe, the object of our sense perceptions—both in its entirety and variously understood as including or excluding God, spirit, mind, human beings, society, history, culture, etc.

In his Critique of Stammler, Max Weber suggested that the intrinsic difficulty of “nature” as a concept could be attributed to the fact that it was most often used to refer to “a complex of certain kinds of objects” from which “another complex of objects” having “different properties” were excluded; however, the objects on each side of the bifurcation could vary widely, and might only become apparent in a given usage.2 Thus, we commonly contrast humanity or society to nature while, at the same time, recognizing that human beings are themselves part of nature. From this problem arise such distinctions as “external nature” or “the environment.” At other times, we may exclude only the mind/spirit from nature.

Science and art are two of the preeminent fields of inquiry into nature, with each operating according to its own distinct principles. As Alfred North Whitehead noted in The Concept of Nature, natural science depicts nature as the entire field of things, which are objects of human sense perception mediated by concepts of our understanding (such as space and time).3 Consequently, one of the two leading scientific periodicals carries the title Nature (the other is Science). Within the Romantic tradition in art (a direct influence on modern environmentalism), nature is often perceived in accordance with notions of “natural beauty” (Percy Bysshe Shelley’s skylark and William Wordsworth’s Lake District); however, the validity of the concept has frequently been challenged within the field of aesthetics.4

As a concept, “nature” gives rise to serious difficulties for philosophy, encompassing both ontology (the nature of being) and epistemology (the nature of thought). Since Immanuel Kant, it has been emphasized that human beings cannot perceive “things in themselves” (noumena) and thus remain dependent on a priori knowledge, which is logically independent of experience. It is therefore customary within academic philosophy today either to take an outright idealist stance and thus to give ontological priority to the mind/ideas, or to subsume ontology within epistemology in such a way that the nature (including the limits) of knowledge takes precedence over the nature of being. In contrast, natural scientists generally adopt a materialist/realist standpoint by emphasizing our ability to comprehend the physical world directly. Concerned with growing ecological crises, most ecological activists today take a similar stance, implicitly stressing a kind of “critical realism,” as in the work of Roy Bhaskar, that rejects both mechanical materialism (e.g. positivism) and idealism.5

Reflecting a similar division of views, many contemporary social scientists (particularly postmodernists) emphasize the fact that our understanding of nature is socially or discursively constructed and that there is no nature independent of human thought and actions. For example, Keith Tester writes, “A fish is only a fish if it is socially classified as one, and that classification is only concerned with fish to the extent that scaly things living in the sea help society to define itself…. Animals are indeed a blank paper which can be inscribed with any message, and symbolic meaning, that society wishes.”6 In contrast, while recognizing the role of thought in mediating the human relation to nature, most ecological thinkers and activists gravitate toward a critical materialism/realism, in which nature (apart from humanity) is seen as existing prior to the social world, is open to comprehension, and is something to defend.7

With the advent of nuclear weapons, the world came to the sudden realization that the relation between human beings and the environment had forever changed. The human impact on nature was no longer restricted to local or regional effects; conceivably, it extended to the destruction of the entire planet in the sense of constituting a safe home for humanity. Subsequently, modern synthetic chemicals (with their capacity to biomagnify and bioaccumulate) and anthropogenic climate change brought the human degradation of nature to the forefront of society’s concerns. Book titles like Silent Spring, The Closing Circle, The Domination of Nature, The Death of Nature, The End of Nature, The Sixth Extinction, and This Changes Everything reflect a growing state of alarm about ecological sustainability and the conditions required for human survival.8

Compared to earlier centuries, the question of nature in the twentieth and twenty-first century has been radically transformed. No longer is nature seen as a direct external threat to humanity through forces like famines and disease. Instead, emerging or threatened global natural catastrophes are viewed as the indirect products of human action itself. We now live in what scientists have provisionally designated the Anthropocene, a new geological epoch in which humanity has become the dominant geological force, disrupting the biogeochemical cycles of the entire planet. This new reality has compelled a growing recognition of the limits of nature, of planetary boundaries, and of economic growth within a finite environment.

The meteoric rise of “ecology” (along with derivatives like “ecosystem,” “ecosphere,” “eco-development,” “ecosocialism,” and “ecofeminism”) stems from these rapidly changing interactions between capitalism and its natural environment. The concepts of ecology, ecosystem, and the Earth system have become central both to science and to popular struggle. At times, they even displace the concept of nature itself.

Attempts to address the enormity of the ecological problem have, however, been complicated by a resurrection of essentialist conceptions of human nature. By subsuming the social under the “natural,” such views often downplay or altogether deny the importance of a social-historical dimension in the human interaction with nature. This outlook has recently gained ground through the social Darwinist pronouncements of sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists. E. O. Wilson’s 1978 On Human Nature, for instance, professes to be “simply the extension of population biology and evolutionary theory to social organization.”9 An inevitable struggle thus arises between ecological radicals who demand that society be historically transformed to create a sustainable relation to nature and more establishment-oriented thinkers who insist that possessive individualism, the Hobbesian war of all against all, and a tendency to overpopulate are all inscribed in human DNA.10 Accompanying this revival of biological determinism has been the presumption that capitalism itself is a product of human nature and of the natural world as a whole. Such views deny the historical origins of alienation. In contrast, most radicals view the alienation of nature and the alienation of society as interconnected and interdependent phenomena requiring a new co-evolutionary social metabolism if the world ecology as we know it is to be sustained.

Contemporary conflicts over the relationship between nature and society can be traced to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries with the rise of capitalism and modern science. The seventeenth-century scientific revolution witnessed the emergence—most notably in Francis Bacon, but also in René Descartes—of calls for the “conquest,” “mastery,” or “domination” of nature. In The Masculine Birth of Time, Bacon metaphorically declared: “I am come in very truth leading to you Nature with all her children to bind her to your service and make her your slave.”11 In The New Atlantis, this ambition was tied to a program for the institutionalization of science as the basis of knowledge and power.12 Descartes also linked it to a mechanistic worldview in which animals were reduced to machines. Following Bacon, the conquest of nature became a universal trope to signify a vague mechanical progress achieved through the development of science. Nevertheless, as Bacon himself made clear in his famous statement in Novum Organum, “nature is only overcome by obeying her.” In this view, nature could only be subjected by following “her” laws.13

The domination of nature espoused by Bacon was subjected to critique during the nineteenth century through the dialectical perspectives associated with Hegel and Marx. In his Philosophy of Nature, Hegel insisted that—while Bacon’s strategy of pitting nature against itself could yield a limited mastery—total mastery of the natural world would forever remain beyond humanity’s reach: “Need and ingenuity have enabled man to discover endlessly varied ways of mastering and making use of nature,” he wrote. Nevertheless, “Nature itself, as it is in its universality, cannot be mastered in this manner…nor bent to the purposes of man.”14 For Hegel, the drive to master nature generated wider contradictions that were beyond human control. In the Grundrisse, Marx treated Bacon’s strategy as a “ruse” introduced by bourgeois society.15 In his Theses on Feuerbach, he rejected essentialist views of human nature outright. Human nature, he argued, is “the ensemble of the social relations.”16 In The Poverty of Philosophy he stated: “All history is nothing but a continuous transformation of human nature.”17

In his later economic writings, Marx developed an analysis of the human relation to nature as a form of “social metabolism.” The social metabolism was part of the “universal metabolism of nature,” which found itself increasingly in contradiction with industrial capitalist development. The soil was being robbed of essential nutrients (e.g., nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium), which were being shipped hundreds and sometimes thousands of miles to the new urban centers. “Instead of a conscious rational treatment of the land as permanent communal property,” Marx charged, “we have the exploitation and squandering of the powers of the earth.”18 In response, he introduced the notion of an “irreparable rift in the interdependent process of social metabolism” imposed by the very nature of accumulation under capitalism. This break with the “eternal natural condition” underlying human-social existence, he argued, demanded a “restoration” through the rational regulation of the metabolism between humanity and nature.19 In Capital, he advanced what is perhaps the most radical conception of ecological sustainability yet propounded: “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.”20

Today, radical ecologists tend to fall into two broad camps. The first consists of those who—from a deep-ecology, radical-green, or “ecologism” perspective—simply counter Baconian anthropocentrism with ecocentric philosophies.21 Such views retain the society-nature dualism but approach it from the side of external nature, life, or some kind of spiritualized nature. This general perspective has played an important role within the ecological movement. Ecofeminist thinkers, for instance, have highlighted the link between the mastery of nature and the subordination of women (often by taking the critique of Bacon as their starting point). Nevertheless, the one-sidedness of radical-green or deep-ecology perspectives often encourages misanthropic views (especially when human population growth is seen as the principal problem) and anti-scientism, where the critical role of science in understanding ecology is misunderstood.

The second broad camp consists of those who have adopted more dialectical perspectives.22 Here, the problem is conceived as one of social metabolism (how capitalist society interacts with nature). From this vantage, the goal is to transcend the “rift in the interdependent process of social metabolism” to create a more sustainable form of human development—inseparable from the struggle for human equality.23 This outlook critically builds on ecological science with its emphasis on the ontological interconnectedness of all living and nonliving things. Conflict arises between a social system geared to endless accumulation and growth and everlasting, nature-imposed, conditions of ecological sustainability and substantive equality. It is along these lines that critical scientists, ecosocialists, socialist ecofeminists, anarchist social ecologists, and many Indigenous activists have coalesced to take a stand in defense of the earth. As Frederick Engels wrote in the Dialectics of Nature:

Let us not…flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human victories over nature. For each such victory nature takes its revenge on us…. Thus at every step we are reminded that we by no means rule over nature like a conqueror over a foreign people, like someone standing outside nature—but that we, with flesh, blood, and brain, belong to nature, and exist in its midst, and that all of our mastery of it consists in the fact that we have the advantage over all other creatures of being able to learn its laws and apply them correctly.24


  1. Raymond Williams,Keywords (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983), 219.
  2. Max Weber,Critique of Stammler (New York: Free Press, 1977), 96.
  3. Alfred North Whitehead,The Concept of Nature (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1920).
  4. For criticisms of the concept of natural beauty within aesthetics, see G. W. F. Hegel,The Philosophy of Nature, vol. 1 (London: Allen and Unwin, 1970), 3; Theodor Adorno,Aesthetic Theory(Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), 68–76.
  5. Roy Bhaskar,A Realist Theory of Science (London: Verso, 1975), andThe Possibility of Naturalism (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press), 1979.
  6. Keith Tester,Animals and Society (New York: Routledge, 1991).
  7. On realism and ecology, see David R. Keller and Frank B. Golley, “Introduction,” in Keller and Golley, eds.,The Philosophy of Ecology (Athens, GA: Univeristy of Georgia Press, 2000), 1–4; John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark, and Richard York, The Ecological Rift (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2010), 289–300.
  8. Rachel Carson,Silent Spring (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1962); Barry Commoner,The Closing Circle (New York: Knopf, 1971); William Leiss,The Domination of Nature (Boston: Beacon, 1972); Carolyn Merchant,The Death of Nature (New York: Harper and Row, 1980); Bill McKibben,The End of Nature (New York: Random House, 1989); Richard E. Leakey and Roger Lewin,The Sixth Extinction (New York: Doubleday, 1995); Naomi Klein,This Changes Everything (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2014).
  9. E. O. Wilson,On Human Nature (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978), x.
  10. On the possessive individualism of capitalist society, affecting its conception of natural-social relations see C. B. Macpherson,The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1962).
  11. Francis Bacon, “The Masculine Birth of Time,” in Benjamin Farrington,The Philosophy of Francis Bacon (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964), 59–72.
  12. Francis Bacon,The New Atlantis and the Great Instauration (London: Wiley-Blackwell, 1991).
  13. Francis Bacon,Novum Organum (Chicago: Open Court, 1994), 29, 43.
  14. Hegel,The Philosophy of Nature, 421–23.
  15. Karl Marx,Grundrisse (London: Penguin, 1973), 409–10.
  16. Marx, “Concerning Feuerbach,” inEarly Writings (London: Penguin, 1974), 421–23.
  17. Marx,The Poverty of Philosophy (New York: International Publishers, 1963), 147.
  18. Marx,Capital, vol. 3 (London: Penguin, 1981), 949.
  19. Marx,Capital, vol. 1 (London: Penguin, 1976), 637­–38;Capital, vol. 3, 959.
  20. Marx,Capital, vol. 3, 911.
  21. Representative works include Andrew Dobson,Green Political Thought (New York: Routledge, 1995); Robyn Eckersley,Environmentalism and Political Theory (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992); Mark J. Smith,Ecologism (Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press, 1998); Bill Devall and George Sessions,Deep Ecology (Layton, UT: Gibbs Smith, 1985).
  22. See, for example, Murray Bookchin,The Philosophy of Social Ecology (Montreal: Black Rose, 1995); Paul Burkett,Marx and Nature (Chicago: Haymarket, 2014); Stefano Longo, Rebecca Clausen, and Brett Clark,The Tragedy of the Commodity (New York: Routledge, 2015); Ariel Salleh, “Introduction,” in Salleh, ed.,Eco-Sufficiency and Global Justice (London: Pluto Press, 2009), 1–40; Naomi Klein,This Changes Everything.
  23. Marx,Capital, vol. 3, 949.
  24. Frederick Engels,Dialectics of Nature (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1934), 180.
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