Cesspools, Sewage, and Social Murder
Environmental Crisis and Metabolic Rift in Nineteenth-Century London
Publisher: Monthly Review
Date Written: 01/07/2018
Year Published: 2018
Resource Type: Article
Cx Number: CX22787
Karl Marx's analysis of changes in British agriculture in the nineteenth-century provides the theoretical starting point for what is now known as 'metabolic rift theory'. This article considers an aspect of the theory that has not been much discussed in modern ecosocialist analysis- the environmental crisis that the accumulation of human excrement caused in urban areas, notably in London.
The chemist Justus von Liebig, who revolutionized scientific understanding of plant nutrition, saw the replacement of human manure by imported bones and guano as a dangerous waste of natural wealth that made English farmers dependent on expensive imports. "I am firmly of the opinion," he wrote, "that if England wishes to remain an agricultural country she must use as manure the nightsoil and similar residues produced in large cities."
Karl Marx, who admired Liebig's chemistry but had a far better understanding of social and economic conditions, viewed the shift away from human manure as an important example of capitalist society's alienation from the natural world on which human life depends. By concentrating population in cities, he wrote, capitalism causes an "irreparable rift in the interdependent process of social metabolism, a metabolism prescribed by the natural laws of life itself."