Since the turn of the millennium, one Marxist line of inquiry into environmental problems has outshone all others in creativity and productivity: the theory of the metabolic rift. Developed by John Bellamy Foster and his colleagues Richard York and Brett Clark, with crucial contributions from Paul Burkett and Marina Fischer-Kowalski and many others, it can be summed up in the following, highly condensed sequence. Nature consists of biophysical processes and cycles. So does society: human bodies must engage in metabolic exchanges with nonhuman nature. That need not be particularly harmful to any of the parties. Over the course of history, however, the relations through which humans have organized their Stoffwechsel might be fractured and forcibly rearranged, so that they not only harm the people disadvantaged by this change, but also, at the very same time, disturb the processes and cycles of nature. A metabolic rift has opened up.
Distilled through Foster’s pioneering exegesis, the theory makes inventive use of Marx’s comments in the third volume of Capital on how capitalist property relations “provoke an irreparable rift in the interdependent process of social metabolism, a metabolism prescribed by the natural laws of life itself”; operationalised in a variety of ways, it has elucidated everything from the imbalances in the global nitrogen cycle to climate change.