A Critical Evaluation of Neil Smith’s ‘Production of Nature’ Thesis in Developing a Marxist Understanding of Nature

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This post is adapted from one of my master’s level essays.


The late Neil Smith, who identified as both a geographer and a Marxist, spent since the late 1970s trying to understand “how capitalism and class power serve to make, unmake and remake the natural and built environments” (Castree, 2013:1). His magnum opus is considered to be Uneven Development: Nature, Capital and the Production of Space, which he first released in 1984 (ibid). It was in which, as this essay will come to argue, that Smith advances a revolutionary understanding of nature and its relationship with capitalism. This essay seeks to critically evaluate the contribution of Smith’s ‘production of nature’ thesis in developing a Marxist understanding of nature. The main portion of this essay is broadly divided in to three parts, in the first of which Smith’s work will be historically situated; secondly, the production of nature thesis shall be examined; and finally, two of the primary critiques of his thesis shall be reviewed.

The Emergence of a Marxian Understanding of Nature

Marx’s commentary on the subject of nature is sparse, but this is not to say that it did not figure central to his mode of argumentation (Castree, 2000; Ekers & Loftus, 2012; Smith, 2010; Smith, 2000). Attempts at drawing a coherent concept of nature from his work have spanned over a century, including Engels himself in The Dialectics of Nature (2001). Perhaps the first systematic account of nature was that provided by Alfred Schmidt in The Concept of Nature in Marx (Schmidt, 1971). Schmidt evidenced that within Marx’s treatment of nature there existed a dualism. On the one hand there was a bourgeois ideology of nature, and on the other, was Marx’s critique of this pervading ideology so as to reveal the true ‘nature’ of nature under capitalism (Castree, 1995; Schmidt, 1971). In the decades that have followed since its translation to English in 1971, “the Marxist tradition [has enjoyed] a well-­‐stocked library of concepts and arguments with which to articulate a theory of nature” (Castree, 2000:71). As Noel Castree suggests, “Marx’s silence on the question of nature has been decisively rectified” (2000:5).

But within this development, it is difficult to argue with the importance of the work of Neil Smith, and in particular his 1986 publication Uneven Development: Nature, Capital and the Production of Space. A quick Google Scholar search reveals over 2870 citations for the book (The Google Scholar search was conducted on 2nd January 2015), and, as Ekers & Loftus testify “the conceptual and political endurance of Smith’s work is … witnessed in a … special issue of New Political Economy dedicated to the 25th anniversary of Uneven Development’s publication…. Almost a decade earlier, Uneven Development was already considered a ‘classic in human geography’ by Progress” (2012:2). Emily Eaton suggests, “Uneven Development has had profound impact on the way geographers have come to understand questions related to… nature” (2011:247). Castree (2000) notes that Geography has long since been viewed as a discipline that carries the burden of bridging the natural and social sciences. It therefore seems apt that it was out of Geography that Marxian work on the production of nature first emerged, from Smith’s interweaving of a Marxist “political economy of uneven development with an analysis of the transformations of nature and space in capitalism” (Guthman, 2011:233). It is for this production of nature thesis that Uneven Development is best know, as Guthman recalls “it was the bellwether of a fierce battle over the ontology of nature” (2011:234). It is to the roots of that very debate that this essay shall first turn.

Examining ‘The Production of Nature’

The production of nature refers to the literal transformation of nature, regardless of whether it has been previously altered by human work, in to a new reconstituted form of nature (Smith, 2000; 2010). On the surface, the suggestion that nature can be produced appears rather preposterous (Ekers & Loftus, 2012). Nature seems to be “the epitome of that which neither is nor can be socially produced” (Smith, 2000:7). However, within Marx’s Value, Price and Profit report he observes that “scientific truth” inevitably presents a paradox with our “every-­‐day experience” (Marx, 2010:17). Scientific ‘truth’ may tell us that the earth orbits the sun, but we may not perceive the movement of our planet, the universe seems to move around us (ibid). It is this paradox, which manifests between our perceptions and such scientific truths, that Smith uses to provoke our conceptions of nature (Smith, 1990). Despite nature frequently being perceived as “the antithesis of human productive activity”, Smith argues, quite on the contrary, that nature “is more and more the product of social production” (ibid: 49). But how does Smith evidence such a claim?

It is from Schmidt’s observations that Smith picks up on. The positivist doctrine, which pervades orthodox science, imparts a preconception of nature (Smith, 2010). This preconception is of nature being beyond the realm of human activity and thus it can only become known through an understanding of its facts that operate autonomously under the guidance of so-­‐called ‘natural laws’ (ibid). It is under social science’s adoption of the positivist doctrine where a duality in the conception of nature becomes clear. Social sciences speak of human nature, positing a conception of nature that is infinitely more difficult to label ‘external’ (ibid). Nature is simultaneously a rigid, external, pure entity, devoid of humanity’s footprint and an abstract signifier that internalizes both human and non-­‐human elements. Smith highlights that this dual concept of nature pervades “in the bourgeois natural science inaugurated during the Enlightenment, romantic reactions to it (in philosophy and literature) and in most Marxist theories of nature” (Castree, 2000: 24-­‐25). Seldom, Smith observes, do critiques consider both at once (Smith, 2010).

In his attempt to dispute the bourgeois ideologies that posit nature as an external reality, Smith evidences the “centrality of capitalism to contemporary nature-­‐society relationships” (Ekers & Loftus, 2012:3). Though the appropriation of nature is not specific to the capitalist mode of production, “under capitalism the appropriation of nature and its transformation into the means of production occur for the first time on a world scale” (Smith, 2010: 49). Thereby, the opportunity arises to mobilise Marx’s critique of the capitalist mode of production to understand the concept of nature. Though Marx never provided a coherent concept of nature, let alone an account of the production of nature, Smith argues that he is able to (re)construct an understanding by synthesis of artifacts of nature in Marx’s analysis and by following Marx’s method (ibid). This method, as Marx puts it, is “rising from the abstract to the concrete” (2002:47), such as he had done in Capital Volume I with the commodity form (Marx, 1967).

“The first major task has been to detect these clues; the second is to lay them out and complete the jigsaw puzzle. Marx has given us the four corners and most of the straight edges; he has also given us most of the common pieces necessary to complete the picture, but these pieces are presented in the context of wholly different analysis. What must be done in order to recognize their significance is to turn the pieces over, and, as it were, to reveal their nature-­‐face” (Smith, 2010:52).

The question for Smith was where to begin, but his cue was provided within the Grundrisse, where Marx writes “production in general is an abstraction, but a rational abstraction in so far as it really brings out and fixes the common element and thus saves repetition” (2002:27). For Smith, the labour process and the production process interweave the human and non-­‐human to create new things (ibid). As the fundamental relation between nature and human beings, “production in general” becomes the window of his point of enquiry, much like Marx did with the commodity. Here Smith evidences how human life hinges on the continuous metabolic exchange between human and non-­‐human (Ekers & Loftus, 2012). Emily Eaton points out that his thesis is derived, therefore “from the most basic understanding that human beings in all times and places go about furnishing their means of subsistence (use-­‐values) and, thus, appropriate, alter and produce… their various environments” (2011:247). Smith traces a movement from production in general, to production for exchange, and then capitalist production (Smith, 2010). Herein nature is progressively subsumed within the “logic of exchange value” (Smith 2012:3), whereby under the eventual “generalization of [the] wage-­‐labour relation” under capitalist production (Smith, 2010:69), the creation and accumulation of value directly determines the nature which is produced (ibid). “Abstract determinations at the level of value are continually translated into concrete social activity in the relation with nature” (ibid: 70). Despite other modes of production holding a socially mediated relationship with nature (Ekers & Loftus, 2012; Smith, 2010), capitalism is unique in its specific complex configuration of it’s socially mediated relationship with nature (Smith, 2010).

For the first time, nature is produced on the global scale and thus “the nature that preceded human history… today no longer exists anywhere” (Marx, 2000: 20). Under production for exchange, a distinction between first and second natures can be made, that is between humanly produced and non-­‐human natures (Smith, 2010). But rather, under the capitalist mode of production:

“the distinction… between a first nature that is concrete and material, the nature of use-­‐values in general, and a second nature which is abstract, and derivative of the abstraction from use-­‐value that is inherent in exchange-­‐value… The same piece of matter exists simultaneously in both natures; as physical commodity subject to the laws of gravity it exists in first nature, but as exchange value subject to the laws of the market, it travels in the second nature. Human labour produces the first nature, human relations produce the second” (ibid: 78-‐79).

In the same way that labour appears concretely in the creation of use-­‐values, but also as an abstract form in terms of socially necessary labour time, this character is mirrored in nature appearing as a differentiated abstract and concrete entity (Ekers & Loftus, 2012; Marx, 1967; Smith, 2010). “Nature is increasingly confronted as a commodity, and reified as an exchange value, so much so that this becomes the prevailing ideology of capitalism” (Prudham & Heynen, 2011: 227). Nature, therefore, is produced through capitalism and it’s intricacies unknowable beyond the particular dynamics of the capitalist system. “The production of nature” is therefore “a continuous process in which nature and capital co-­‐constitute one another in temporally and geographically varied and contingent ways” (Castree, 2000:28).

Criticism of ‘The Production of Nature’ Thesis

As Ekers & Loftus suggest, “important texts that force us to rethink foundational questions elicit sharp commentary and criticism”(2012:2). Therefore, like all seminal texts, this is the case for Uneven Development. Which has often generated “shock, abhorrence and even anger at… the ‘quixotic’ thesis that nature is produced” (ibid:2). Though this essay cannot hope to provide a definitive analysis of the critiques of Smith’s production of nature thesis, we shall now turn to an analysis of two key arguments charged against the text by various scholars.

Underplaying the materiality of nature

Castree stresses that in Smith’s keenness to demonstrate the production of nature he “risk[s] losing sight of the materiality of nature” (1995:20). By which he refers to “both the real, ontological existence and causal efficacy and agency within history, of those entities and processes we call ‘natural’” (ibid: 20). Guthman argues that “the material production of the human body and other raw materials of production: land, ore seeds, water and so forth” remained beyond Smith’s analysis (2011:235). It is this omission of a possibility for other forces beyond human labour that, for Guthman, makes the production of nature thesis jarring, and “rendered the concept of second nature too totalising” (ibid:235). It thereby foreclosed the opportunity for “any generative or productive role forecological or biophysical processes” (ibid: 235, Bakker & Bridge, 2006). The argument follows, for both Castree and Gutham, that the production of nature thesis is so concerned with how capital (re)produces “natural environments in its own image, that they have frequently not theorised the role and importance of those produced natural environments themselves” (Castree, 1995:21). Indeed, therefore, it must be recognised that nature is produced on the world scale by capitalism, but that concurrently the materiality of the natures produced under capitalism must be brought in to question (ibid).

To interrogate this further, Castree mobilises a framework first articulated by Ted Benton, whose aim was a “rigorous exploration of the limits and resources of Marxism itself” (Benton, 1989:51). Whereby, he perceives that “there is a crucial hiatus between Marx’s and Engels’s materialist premisses in philosophy and the theory of history, on the one hand, and some of the basic concepts of their economic theory, on the other” (ibid: 55), which, in Castree’s argument, Smith reproduces (Castree, 1995). It is Benton’s assertion that the so-­‐called eco-­‐ blindness in Marx’s economic theory, principally in Capital, is a symptom of the intellectual and political climate of his time, on an optimistic “over-­‐reaction to Malthus’s epistemic conservatism” (Benton, 1989; Noel Castree, 1995: 22). It is their contention that, for this reason, both Marx (and by corrollary, Smith) overlook the “biological limits to human social possibilities” (Benton, 1989: 57).

Benton (re)constructs Marx’s economic theory in an attempt to further integrate ecological premises, by focusing in particular on “his abstract concept of the labour process as a trans-­‐historical aspect of all societies, and his account of the labour process under capitalism” (Castree, 1995:22-­‐23). Within Marx’s concept of abstract labour, Benton shows how he “underplays the relative dependence of all labour processes upon their contextual conditions” and places an emphasis on (what Benton terms) “eco-­‐regulatory labour processes” such as agriculture that “engage in a ‘metabolism’ with produced nature in the most immediate of senses” (ibid:23). He therefore suggests three modifications to Marx’s understanding of the capitalist labour process; firstly, to view natural conditions as underpinning, and occuptinying an enabling / constraining role to capitalist production; secondly, to understand its centrality to the sustainability of production; and thirdly, to recognise “the naturally mediated unintended consequences” of production which may affect further productive activity (Benton, 1989:73). Castree (1995) is quick to highlight that whilst this may seem to reintroduce an external conception of nature that Smith has argued against, this is not the case. Enivornments produced by capitalism are both constraining and enabling (ibid). Such environments, therefore, “enable and constrain only in specific relation to the social relations that they are imbricated within” (1995:24).

Smith’s treatment of labour practice and productive activity

It seemed peculiar, to Ekers & Loftus, that amidst the flood of commentary and criticism that Uneven Development received, that “his treatment of labour, practice and productive activity” was not scrutinised (2012:2). This was especially so given that ontologically, labour is the key to understanding the specific configuration of the production of nature and how humans themselves interact with various ecologies (Ekers & Loftus, 2012; Harvey, 1996). There are several moments within Uneven Development where Smith (2010) recognizes a “social division of labour… a technical division of labour … and a gendered division of labour” (Ekers & Loftus, 2012:6). However, as per this essay’s a priori argument, Smith’s theorization more often remains abstract, such is the case with labour (Nik Heynen, Hossler, & Herod, 2011), even by his own frustrated admission (Smith, 2011). As this essay has previously noted, Marx holds that the correct scientific method is to derive the concrete from the abstract (Castree, 2008; Ekers & Loftus, 2012; Smith, 2010). It is with this task then, that Ekers & Loftus charged themselves.

Swyngedouw notes, if we take labour to constitute a socio-­‐natural relationship “then, the particular relational frame through which this labour is socially organized has to become an integral part of understanding the continuous (re)making of what we can now discern as socio-­‐natural entities” (2006: 25). Moreover, in an Uneven Development Redux, Smith himself invites academia to consider “production in all its multifold forms” (2011:262). It is upon Smith’s invitation to consider subjects who labour and Swyngedouw’s assertion of the centrality of the ‘particular relational frame’ of the labour process from which Ekers & Loftus take cue, asserting that we require an approach for understanding the organization of labour “that attends to various relations and processes that bring people to labour and regulate the activity through which nature is produced” (2012:11). It is the suggestion of Ekers & Loftus that an engagement with the Italian Marxist theoretician Antonio Gramsci can suture these issues with the production of nature thesis.

“The individual does not enter into relations with other men by juxtaposition, but organically, in as much, that is, as he belongs to organic entities which range from the simplest to the most complex. Thus Man does not enter into relations with the natural world just by being himself part of the natural world, but actively, by means of work and technique. Further: these relations are not mechanical. They are active and conscious” (Gramsci, 1971:352).

Gramsci’s argument here is closely aligned with Smith’s ontology, whereby humanity is an aspect of the natural world and the relationship that people have with ‘nature’ is the result of work (Ekers & Loftus, 2012). Gramsci notes, “the worker is not specifically characterised by his manual or instrumental work but by his working in specific conditions and within specific social relations” (Gramsci, 1996). Gramsci’s understanding therefore shifts attention to the conditions of labour and the relationships that organize labour and the associated production of nature, radically increasing the ‘relational frame’ that Swyngedouw refers to (Ekers & Loftus, 2012). Moreover, Gramsci was skeptical of any generalizing claims of humanity and instead “argued that each person is in a process of ‘becoming’ and ‘is the synthesis not only of existing relations, but of the history of these relations’” (Ekers & Loftus, 2012: 12). This sutures a critique that both Julie Guthman (2011) and Smith (2011) himself made of the production of nature thesis, that a greater level of attention needed to be placed on the human body as a particular production of nature.

Ekers & Loftus (2012) contend, however, that an engagement with Gramsci alone cannot comprehend the entire breadth of relation that play a role in the production of nature. But that a Gramscian approach, of “a study of the differential intensity, efficacy and specificity of social practices in their historical becoming” allows a comprehension of how labour is organized “through a Gramscian framework that necessarily goes beyond Gramsci” (ibid:13). Therefore requiring a historicisation of “the processes and relations that come to bear on the production” (ibid:15). As Stuart Hall suggests, this should detail the cultural, economic and political relations of a given place at a given time, the character of which “cannot be deduced, a priori”, but “must be made historically specific by supplying those further delineations which explain their differentiae” (1980:322).


It is perhaps time that has given the greatest insight to the value of Neil Smith’s work on the production of nature. Whilst the essay has solely focused on theoretical considerations, perhaps a further barometer of the relevance of the thesis is the extent to which we have witnessed the production of nature in the 29 years that have followed its publication. Be it the development of the genetically modified OncoMouse™ (Ekers & Loftus, 2012), or of climate change, which Smith himself refers to in the afterword to the 3rd edition of Uneven Development:

“in the end, the attempt to distinguish social vis-­‐à-­‐vis natural contributions to climate change is not only a fool’s debate but a fool’s philosophy: it leaves sacrosanct the chasm between nature and society – nature in one corner, society in the other – which is precisely the shibboleth of modern western thought that the production of nature thesis sought to corrode” (Smith, 2010: 245).

It is for this reason, in part, that the thesis has an enduring relevance, which Heynen et al. argue is “sorely needed in these neoliberal times and, in this regard… is more relevant than ever” (2011:244). The intellectual contributions for which the thesis provides a foundation are simply too numerous to account for here (Heynen et al., 2011). The production of nature thesis therefore remains a powerful conceptual apparatus for considering nature under capitalism, which ultimately suggests that “by negotiating these antinomies, such an ecological Marxism can (contra bourgeois worldviews) show the folly of mere tinkering with capitalism while (contra more extreme green worldviews) also demonstrating that any post-­‐capitalist future cannot be based on a return to ‘nature in itself’” (Castree, 2000:6).

Despite the book’s pertinence to contemporary debates, this essay has demonstrated that the production of nature thesis is not beyond critique. By no means has the totality of criticism in the vast corpus of work that it has inspired been accounted for, but rather, two particular areas have been highlighted. Firstly, that Smith, much like Marx, underplays the materiality of nature and, secondly, the case for a focus on a “particular relational frame through which this labour is socially organized” (Swyngedouw, 2006:25). Under Smith’s account, therefore, the number of “generative relations identified in the making of nature” are limited (Ekers & Loftus, 2012:2). However, it is important to note that neither critique discounts or obfuscates the central importance of Smith’s production of nature thesis. Rather, these critiques produce suggestions to supplement the thesis, in the declarations of the mediating relevance of Ted Benton and Antonio Gramsci’s work respectively. Smith noted in an Uneven Development Redux (2011), the level of development upon his original thesis led him to consider the daunting, and in the end impractical task, of writing the book anew. Despite this, such level of engagement is testament to its endurance, and it is likely to spawn many interpretations and associated academic debate for years to come.

List of References

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