Nature and Us — climate change under a Marxian perspective

Author: Muhammad Ashar Khan
Dated: 19-11-2020

Theory of alienation is a central part of Marx’s critique of Capitalism. It explains how capitalism detaches humans from their existence and nature. It also provides deep insights into how capitalism can unravel nature, both in a physical and spiritual sense. Reading the theory today can help us understand capitalism’s role in climate change, and how the current system of political economy can unleash a global catastrophe.


Alienation theory is a fundamental part of Karl Marx’s critique of capitalism. Marx argues that capitalism, in essence, is an exploitative economic system that perpetuates inequality between classes. It stratifies society into two main classes with opposing/clashing interests (i.e. the bourgeoisie and the proletariat). The bourgeoisie are the owners of the means of production while the proletariat refers to the working class. It, therefore, makes social cohesion impossible. Furthermore, it alienates them from their immediate surroundings — from the very nature that sustains them.

Another of Marx’s ideas, central to his critique of capitalism, is that of ‘forced labor’. He explains how capitalism externalizes humans from their reality, which makes them incapable of challenging a system that goes against human nature. He argues that capitalism divorces humans from their intellectual function by mandating repetitive tasks to maximize production. As a result, not only does it suppress human’s ability to think creatively, but also divorces them from their spirit. Human spirit for Marx is the ability of (wo)men to develop social bonds with fellow human beings for collective societal progress, instead of endeavoring to maximize personal benefits.

Under the light of the above arguments, this brief essay underlines how capitalism alienates humans from nature and their essential existence. It also aims to highlight the detrimental and catastrophic impact of such ideology on nature, and how its resultant unraveling of the global ecology is propelling us towards an existential crisis.

Estrangement from Nature
Humans, just like other species, depend on nature for both biotic and abiotic (intellectual, spiritual, financial, and so on) sustenance. We derive resources from nature that enable us to develop, produce, and grow. Thus, nature holds indispensable importance in our lives and without it our survival is inconceivable.

A reading of Marx’s work on ‘labor alienation’ in the 21st century, underlines an interesting fact about capitalism i.e. it inherently leads to estrangement from nature and natural spirit . By emphasizing on the accumulation of wealth and maximization of profits, Marx explains, capitalism commodifies nature and makes it a source of exploitation (Marx and Engels 2002). Man lives on nature, he explains, which means that nature is his body, with which he must remain in continuous interchange until he/she dies. That [(wo)]man’s physical and spiritual existence is linked to nature indicates that nature is linked to itself, for man is a part of nature (Marx and Engels 2002).

He lays the foundations of the idea of an umbilical relationship between humans and nature. By establishing that humanity and nature are inseparable, Marx refutes the anthropocentric view of nature as a resource that can be exploited for human benefits. Nature, for Marx, is not only an integral part of our biological existence, but it also sustains us economically. Every species that contributes to nature has a vital role in its operations, and disturbing it can unleash a cascading effect that can potentially disrupt the ecosystem.

Furthermore, Capitalism fosters an environment of deception and misinformation. This is fairly evident in the current global political atmosphere. Right-wing conservative politicians who often espouse the mantra of free-markets and advocate exponential economic growth through deregulation of fossil fuel industries, turn a blind eye to its severe consequences. These mantras are received positively by the masses who are often unaware of their long-term consequences. Such ignorance is well highlighted in Marx’s theory, where he argues that how the bourgeoisie class lures the working class into the façade of economic growth via an exponential increase in production until the latter becomes completely ignorant of detrimental consequences of such economic growth.

The global emphasis on unabated economic growth through the exploitation of natural resources also undermines the fact that an ecological imbalance can jeopardize millions of lives. Global warming is a clear manifestation of the self-destructive nature of the current system. Due to the inequality it has fostered, the top 1 percent, who have amassed most of the global wealth and are the major contributors of greenhouse gases, are at the helm of decision making, promoting policies that fit their profit models (Harvey, 2020). Their undiminished expansion reflects how capitalism is the root cause of global climate inequality. This leads the discussion to another point of Marx’s alienation theory: human to human alienation.

Human-to Human alienation

In the manuscript, Marx argues that capitalism has turned humans into “object[s] of production” (Marx and Engels 2002). This means that under capitalism humans are treated as machines destined to perform repetitive tasks as their labor. Thus, because capitalism disregards humanity’s uniqueness of thinking creatively, humans become devoid of their spirit— the spirit of ingenuity, artistry, and the sense of brotherhood. Not only does this lead to them becoming slaves of the system, but they also lose their ability to resist exploitation.

As we internalize the norms of capitalism and strive to amass wealth, we become increasingly alienated from our fellow beings. It means that when one person competes against another to achieve the same goal, both become ignorant of the detrimental consequences of such competition. On one hand, the cleavage that arises from this system is reflected in the inability of the proletariats to opt for collective resistance against capitalist exploitation. The bourgeoisie class, on the other hand, has seized this opportunity to divide proletariats, pitching them against one another, to curb any potential of a revolution that can challenge their exploitation.

Even though the threat of climate apocalypse is becoming increasingly imminent, we are still unable to take any decisive action. Not only is this the consequence of a weakened proletariat class, but it also shows how capitalism disconnects humans from their societal structure – alienating them from each other.

For example, only 147 multinational corporations that control over 40 percent of the global economy are the major source of carbon emission. However, their political clout often enables them to halt any progress towards protective legislations (Vossole, 2012). The working class, on the other hand, cannot challenge their political and economic imperialism, because we are ever more divided.
Lastly, it is imperative to underline that a massive inequality exists between the major contributors to environmental degradation and those who are directly affected by it. Countries in the Global South are at the gravest perils of climate crisis while the developed countries are the major contributors to carbon emissions (central cause of climate change).


As a result of the hegemony of neo-imperialist forces, we find ourselves unable to collectively resist the imminent disaster. This is mainly because the proletariats of the Global North are often ignorant of the problems their counterparts in the developing countries face, and thus, lack a cohesive force of unity, paving the way for the behemoth spread of capitalism. The alienation of the proletariat class from each other and their impotence to challenge the bourgeoisie structure is the primary reason why capitalism has emerged as an invincible ideology that dictates the direction of the global political economy.

Marx’s critique, therefore, is crucial to understand the connection between environmental degradation and capitalism. Contemporary writers like John Foster have developed Marx’s ideas by identifying the ecological rift between man and nature as a source of capitalism (Benton, 2018). This makes Marx’s work the focal point of alternative ideas that can be used to save nature from the effects of the current economic order — or disorder.

The Marxist blend of spiritual and material systems of political economy can, at least, provide us the direction for a change that is essential for saving our present and future. Marx’s work not only negates the “no alternative” idea, but it also sets forth the foundations of a “Green New Deal” (Holden, 2019) that can remedy the present-day situation. And it will not be the first time humanity shall embrace a new, we did this in the 1930s by reexamining capitalism under Keynesian macroeconomic ideas and — cannot stress enough— we need to do it once again.


Benton, T. (2018, June 5). What Karl Marx has to say about today’s environmental problems. The Conversation, p. n.p. Retrieved 6 27, 2020, from
Harvey, F. (2020, September 21). World’s richest 1% cause double CO2 emissions of poorest 50%, says Oxfam. Retrieved from The Guardian : World’s richest 1% cause double CO2 emissions of poorest 50%, says Oxfam
Holden, E. (2019, February 11). What is the Green New Deal and how would it benefit society? Retrieved from The Guardian :
Marx, Karl, and Frederick Engels. 2002. “Other Writings of Marx and Engels.” In The Communist Manifesto: A Road Map to History’s Most Important Political Document, ed. Phil Grasper. Penguin, 149–53.
Vossole, J. V. (2012). Global Climate Governance: A Legitimation Crisis: Capitalism, Power, and Alienation. Fernand Braudel Center, 35(1), 1-27. Retrieved from