Ecological Marxism and the ‘Cheaps’

In the course of preparing an introduction on human geography and Marxism[1] I have been considering the question of nature: something that was clearly at the center of Marx’s materialist vision. One of the responses to recent ecological crises among people who appeal to the Marxist tradition has been what I will call ‘ecological Marxism.’ In their details, the various contributions to these arguments, such as Elmar Altvater’s fossil capitalism or James O’Connor’s second contradiction, all posit natural limits: something highly contentious, of course, and long debated.

A particularly interesting case of this is Jason Moore’s argument about what he calls ‘the cheaps.’[2] What he is referring to here has tended to shift from a single focus on food to include also energy, raw-materials, and labor. He imagines these as naturally occurring substances or forces which are then commodified by capital so as to be put to work by it in the cause of accumulation. Capital has thrived by the discovery and exploitation of successive frontiers: new spaces that were uncommodified became the lifeblood of capitalism. Work is done both by people and by those natural forces and substances external to nature, like the processes at work in the growth of crops or animals or those going on in the soil which make it fertile. Running water when mobilized through hydro-electric power does work for capital, likewise the growth of forests or the processes through which oil is formed. The rate of exploitation depends not only on the unpaid work of the worker but also on the unpaid work of nature; this is because, and for example, more fertile soils yield a higher productivity per worker, shortening necessary labor times relative to surplus labor times. But, he asks, what happens when there are no more frontiers? Capital’s problem is that its demand for cheap natures rises faster than its ability to secure them, so that production costs rise and threaten to undermine the accumulation process. The world ecological surplus constituted by the cheaps is being depleted. Meanwhile, waste frontiers are exhausted: there is only one atmosphere. Negative value is setting in.

This is an argument that is presented in a fairly convincing way, even while some of the claims could be expressed more transparently. Once one clears that underbrush away, however, and looks at his claims in the sober daylight of historical materialism, problems emerge. I concentrate on what seem to me to be the most significant of his cheaps before making some general comments.

Food: Empirically he is on dangerous ground here. His emphasis is on wheat. It is a common argument that the wheat frontier of North America, from the second half of the nineteenth century on, provided the British working classes, and presumably also their North American counterparts, with cheap bread, which served to keep wages in check. But this did not apply to France and Germany, which both erected barriers to wheat from North America but managed to industrialize regardless. The concentration on wheat is also strange given his interest in the forces of nature. From the standpoint of calories per acre, there is simply no comparison with the potato.

It is in terms of the logics of capitalist development, though, that his claims are particularly suspect. Food prices, even when low, are only one aspect of the value of labor power; there are also the costs of shelter, clothing, and transport to be factored in. Moreover capital is driven by its contradictions to expand the number of consumer delights that the labor movement will then pursue in its demand for increased wages. This also applies to the products of agriculture. In the advanced industrial societies, the significance of cheap bread is long gone, if it was ever that important. In the advanced capitalist societies, food costs form a very low to low proportion of household budgets: 6.5% in the US, 8.7% in the United Kingdom, 9.6% in Canada, 0.6% in Germany and 13.6% in France.

The fossil fuel case: Empirically again, this is odd, because we are all now very aware of the energy transition and the ability of sustainable forms of energy to replace oil and coal. The real problem, as Leah Stokes has recently made clear,[3] is the resistance of the fossil fuel industries and the coal burning electric utilities. Their resistance takes us back not to questions of natural limits but to the very nature of capitalism as a social relation. The question is typically posed as one of stranded costs: fixed investments of long life for which the debt has to be fully amortized. The fixed investments have historically been quite massive: mines, refineries, power stations, offshore drilling platforms, pipelines, not to mention all the gas stations that will become obsolete. Even if the debt has been paid down, the possibility of continuing to use what has become ‘free’ constant capital to absorb surplus labor, is an alluring one.

The class relation is central to understanding what is going on here. The investment in energy is what it is all about: mechanizing so as to speed up the rate at which the means of production absorb surplus labor time. Similar arguments apply to food. It is well known that diets that are more vegetable based are far more sustainable than ones with a stronger meat element. But just as the fossil fuel industry is resisting the transition to clean energy, so is the meat industry engaged in analogous battles. It could convert to vegetable substitutes and that is already taking place to some degree. But the stranded and opportunity costs promise to make it a dragged out battle.

There are some more general points about the whole question of cheapness and natural limits that should make us skeptical. First, cheapness is not necessarily what capitalists are looking for; rather it is the ability to extract surplus value regardless. Whether or not objects of labor, instruments of labor or the labor power itself are cheap is beside the point. Scrap iron in the US is, per ton, almost five times more expensive than iron ore, but those working in an electric arc furnace are vastly more productive than those working in a classic integrated iron and steel mill. Likewise, it is well known that more expensive, more skilled labor working with more sophisticated machine tools, can be more productive than cheaper labor.

Second, and as Matt Huber (2020: 38) points out, nature is not a free good. Rather the private owners of farmland, forest, and mineral reserves, can claim a rent from those who wish to use it in order to extract surplus value. Those rents then get recycled, often through consumption, much as Malthus imagined, as in the construction of elaborate mansions for the likes of Trump, or through the oil-state purchases of weapons. Through such means is capitalism kept on the road and the tendency for the rate of profit to fall, countered.

On the other hand, capital has always shown itself able to turn ecological crisis to its advantage. The variable incidence of air pollution in cities makes new opportunities available for the real estate industry. The acid rain crisis created an investment boom in low sulphur coal. A whole new industry dedicated to the production of equipment for the generation of clean energy is now under way. Global warming may now be out of control, but for those interested in these things, buying stock in the air conditioning industry will have its allure. As Matt Huber has remarked regarding James O’Connor’s equally dismal forecast,  “… underproduction has yet to emerge as a real structural crisis for capital. If anything, capital is finding new ways to profit from ecological crises, including the crisis of climate change” (2020: 30.) And to look at the problem from Moore’s viewpoint, it is simply not the case that there are no more frontiers. Coastal waters became a new frontier for the oil industry, and as the ice melts around the Arctic, it is looking in that direction for more oil. There are new frontiers around the mineral-of-the day, lithium, in places like Cornwall in Southwest England and the Salton Sea in Southern California. And can new frontiers in cheaper labor power ever vanish when the industrial reserve army is continually replenished, and when an international division of labor that confines most of the world to the continuing status of ‘developing countries’ shows little sign of change?

Moore, along with others like James O’Connor, tells a story that is heavily inflected with American experience. That there is an ecological crisis is very clear. But countries matter, which then means that states and government policies matter. The comparative figures for gasoline consumption are quite staggering. Gas consumption is the absolute major contributor to green house gases and, unsurprisingly, the US leads the way by a considerable margin in liters consumed per capita. In terms of liters per capita, the US consumes more than four times that of any West European country. Among the developed countries, only Canada (3.62) comes close.

How to explain? Well, the sprawl of American cities is notorious, making the automobile a necessity. It is in part a result of the power that the oil industries have exercised over the state and federal governments, and the low rates of gas tax that they have secured. It is also a result of the way in which a combination of developer power and the jurisdictional fragmentation of metropolitan areas has allowed the sequential development of ever more distant urban peripheries.

This particular example notwithstanding, states historically have played an important role in mitigating ecological crisis and facilitating suspension of the contradictions as indeed one might expect given that they are an essential part of capital’s division of labor. Some outstanding examples include the 1930s initiatives of the Roosevelt administration to curb soil erosion: the Soil Conservation Act of 1935, including programs of tree planting to impede wind erosion, and the construction of ponds to limit runoff and hence soil erosion, is regarded as a very considerable success. The disastrous London smog of 1952, widely claimed to have resulted in 12,000 deaths, was the trigger for the Clean Air Act of 1956. In a context where coal was the fuel of choice for domestic heating and was used extensively in industry, the Act allowed for the establishment of smokeless zones and subsidies to households to convert to cleaner fuels. American fuel economy legislation is another, if a more controversial and contested, case.

The present conjuncture, though, is more daunting. It seems to be a particularly bad time to confront the most obvious ecological crisis, which is that of global warming. It is not just that the challenge is global, and that there are no quasi-state institutions at that scale capable of responding. It also happens to coincide with an enduring neo-liberal moment, and suspicions regarding state intervention, particularly in the US, where national decline and weak leadership have encouraged climate denial and the continued promotion of fossil fuel use.


Huber M (2020) Review of Raj Patel and Jason W. Moore, A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things: A Guide to Capitalism, Nature, and the Future of the Planet. Antipode online. Available here:

Huber M (2020) Ecology at the Point of Production: Climate Change and Class Struggle. Polygraph 28: 23-43. Available here: .

Moore J (2012) Cheap food and bad money: food, frontiers, and financialization in the rise and demise of neoliberalism. Review 33, 125-161. Available here: .

Moore J (2014) The end of cheap nature, or, how I learned to stop worrying about ‘the’ environment and love the crisis of capitalism.’ In Structures of the World Political Economy and the Future of Global Conflict and Cooperation, ed. C Suter and C Chase-Dunn, 1-31, Berlin: LIT. Available here: .

[1] An Advanced Introduction to Marxist Geography. Forthcoming, Edward Elgar, 2021.

[2] His writing is prolific. See, however, Moore (2012 and 2014) for a sense of his major argument.

[3] ‘Not Another Decade to Waste’: How to Speed up the Energy Transition at

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