Land-use & Land-cover Change

Metabolic rift

November 12, 2010, 1:18 pm

Metabolic rift in the most general sense refers to a disruption in the exchange between social systems and natural systems, which is hypothesized to lead to ecological crisis. The concept has its origins in Karl Marx's work, but has only gained attention recently through the work of John Bellamy Foster. In its original formulation, it refers to the crisis in soil fertility generated by urbanization, in that nutrients from the soil were exported to cities in the form of agricultural products, but not returned to the land—becoming, instead, waste in urban centers. In particular, human excrement, a natural fertilizer, was identified as becoming a public health threat in cities, even though it had been a valuable resource in rural regions, having been used as fertilizer. In Volume 1 of Capital, explaining the rift, Marx (1967: 504-505) wrote:

Capitalist production collects the population together in great centres, and causes the urban population to achieve an ever-growing preponderance… [I]t disturbs the metabolic interaction between man and the earth, i.e. it prevents the return to the soil of its constituent elements consumed by man in the form of food and clothing; hence it hinders the operation of the eternal natural condition for the lasting fertility of the soil…

Rift analyses have recently grown in prominence among social scientists, particularly in sociology, being extended to analyses of the carbon cycle and fisheries, in addition to the classical focus on soil crises.

Further Reading

  • Clark, Brett and Richard York. 2005. “Carbon Metabolism: Global Capitalism, Climate Change, and the Biospheric Rift.” Theory & Society 34(4): 391-428.
  • Clausen, Rebecca, and Brett Clark. 2005. “The Metabolic Rift and Marine Ecology: An Analysis of the Oceanic Crisis Within Capitalist Production.” Organization & Environment, 18(4): 422-444.
  • Dickens, Peter. 2004. Society and Nature. Cambridge: Polity Press.
  • Foster, John Bellamy. 1997. “The Crisis of the Earth: Marx’s Theory of Ecological Sustainability as a Nature-Imposed Necessity for Human Production.” Organization & Environment 10(3): 278-295.
  • Foster, John Bellamy. 1999. “Marx’s Theory of Metabolic Rift: Classical Foundation for Environmental Sociology.” American Journal of Sociology 105(2): 366-405.
  • Foster, John Bellamy. 2000. Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Nature. New York: Monthly Review Press.
  • Moore, Jason W. 2000. “Environmental Crises and the Metabolic Rift in World-Historical Perspective.” Organization and Environment 13(2): 123-157.
  • Moore, Jason W. 2001. “Marx's Ecology and the Environmental History of World Capitalism.”Capitalism, Nature, Socialism 12(3): 134-139.
  • Moore, Jason W. 2002. “The Crisis of Feudalism: An Environmental History.” Organization and Environment 15(3): 296-317.
  • Moore, Jason W. 2003. “The Modern World-System as Environmental History: Ecology and the Rise of Capitalism.” Theory and Society 32(3): 307-377.
  • York, Richard, Eugene A. Rosa, and Thomas Dietz. 2003. “A Rift in Modernity? Assessing the Anthropogenic Sources of Global Climate Change with the STIRPAT Model.” International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy 23(10): 31-51.


York, R. (2010). Metabolic rift. Retrieved from


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