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Accumulation by contamination

The concept of accumulation by contamination emerged to study the dynamics of social metabolism (Martinez-Alier, 2002) and capitalism (Harvey, 2003) through a lens of environmental conflicts (Armiero, 2008).

The multidimensional crisis that our societies are facing highlights the instability and the crisis tendencies of capitalism. The crisis also offers the possibility to revitalize the Marxist theory of over-accumulation. This theory views the economic crisis as due to a lack of capital for profitable investment opportunities. Potential solutions to the crisis can be found in the search for lower input costs (i.e. land, raw materials, labour, etc.) and in the expansion of markets (i.e. trade with non-capitalist social formations). Capitalist development needs something ‘outside of itself’, and for this reason continuously aims to open up ‘territories’ (Harvey, 2003). The issues at stake are how this process interacts with social metabolism, and what are the social and environmental consequences.

In addressing these issues there are gaps in the existing literature. The concept of ecological distribution conflicts (Martinez-Alier, 2002) fails to deeply investigate the driving forces of social metabolism. In this regard it is useful to link two lines of thought, namely ecological economics and political ecology, to show how capitalism appropriates nature and the labour force to expand domination through dispossession (expropriation of rights) and contamination (cost-shifting). In this sense the neo-liberal project is about the release of assets (both inputs and outputs of the social metabolism) at a very low cost.

Capitalism is understood here as a relation of social production in which labourers have no control over the means of production (e.g. workers in a mine or factory). Accumulation is the process by which the separation between labourers and their means of production is continuously reproduced. Over-accumulation is in contrast a result of the accumulation process generating excessive capacity for capital beyond available opportunities for dispossession (or contamination) (Harvey, 2003).

These concepts are linked to historical Marxist debate over primitive accumulation (De Angelis, 2001). Lenin, and others like Dobb in development studies, have argued that primitive accumulation is a clear-cut historical process that gave birth to the preconditions of a capitalist mode of production (i.e. Historical Primitive Accumulation). On the other hand Rosa Luxemburg, and writers such as Amin and Wallerstein argued from a World System Theory perspective that primitive accumulation is an on ongoing process whereby the extra-economic pre-requisite to capitalist production is an inherent and continuous element of modern societies (i.e. Inherent-continous Primitive Accumulation).

In Marx’s theory, primitive or original accumulation of profits and capital by colonial robbery and enclosures would be substituted in due course by the exploitation of labour as the capital/labour ratio in the economy increased, and new technologies enhanced labour productivity together with new methods of disciplining wage labour. Harvey’s footnote to Marx (the concept of accumulation by dispossession), in line with Rosa Luxemburg, emphasizes that primitive or original accumulation has never been as important as today.

Having briefly clarified the terms of the debate, we argue that there are two complementary strategies of capitalism. First, accumulation by dispossession (Harvey, 2003) is the inherent necessity of the capital system to separate, through extra-economic means, the labourers from the means of production to perpetuate the capitalistic relation (e.g. bio-prospecting, patent rights, privatization of public utilities, etc). Second, accumulation by contamination is the process by which the capital system endangers, through cost-shifting, the means of existence (and subsistence) of human beings to perpetuate the capitalistic relation (e.g. air pollution, alteration of biogeochemical cycles, etc).

In the case of dispossession, that which pre-existed outside the capitalist system is brought inside, for example, by privatization of public assets or commons (Harvey, 2003). Normally a specific social group is dispossessed by another one to obtain profit (e.g. farmers are dispossessed of their land by land grabbers).  In the case of contamination, an appropriation of de-facto property rights takes place resulting in the shifting of costs and risks, i.e. exploiting the sinks over their sustainable assimilative capacity (e.g. climate change). The consequences most likely fall upon the most vulnerable social groups (e.g. small scale farmers in the South), but society as a whole can be affected. Such unequal distribution can be intra-generational and/or inter-generational.

The explicative ability of the two concepts has been explored fin the context of the waste management sector, as one among several strategies for expanding the scale and scope of capital accumulation (Demaria and D’Alisa, 2012). In Naples (Italy), the contamination of an extended population group has taken place via massive incineration, leading to an intense cycle of protests (D’Alisa et al, 2010). In Delhi, wastepickers have been dispossessed of the waste upon which they depend for their livelihood. Waste is now destined to be burned in incinerators, causing contamination of the city’s air and subsequent complaints by citizens living nearby (Schindler et al., 2012).

Capital accumulates, expanding social metabolism and capitalist markets through dispossession and contamination. The result is an unequal distribution of costs and benefits which lead to socio-environmental conflicts. In response, different actors resist capital accumulation in different ways. The dispossessed complain about the expropriation of (or separation from) their means of production (e.g. land), while victims of contamination complain about the costs shifted to the detriment of their environment and health (e.g. climate conditions).


Armiero, M. (2008), Seeing Like A Protester: Nature, Power, and Environmental Struggles, Left history 13 (1).
D’Alisa, G., Burgalassi, D., Healy, H., Walter, M. (2010). Conflict in Campania: Waste emergency or crisis of democracy. Ecological Economics 70, 239-249.

De Angelis, M. (1999). Marx’s theory of primitive accumulation: a suggested reinterpretation. Manuscript, University of East London. Available at

Demaria, F., D’Alisa, G. (2012). Industrialización de la gestión de los residuos en Delhi (India): ¿cual es el futuro de los recicladores? Ecologia Politica 43, 37-46.

Harvey, D. 2003. The New Imperialism, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Martínez-Alier, J. 2002. The environmentalism of the poor: a study of ecological conflicts and valuation. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.

Schindler, S., Demaria, F., Bhushan, S. (2012). Delhi Waste Conflict. Economic and Political Weekly XLVII: 42, 18-21.

This glossary entry is based on contributions by Federico Demaria and Giacomo D’Alisa, co-editors of “Degrowth: A Vocabulary for a New Era” (Routledge, 2014).

EJOLT glossary editors: Hali Healy, Sylvia Lorek and Beatriz Rodríguez-Labajos.

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