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Books: Land and Labour

Martin Empson’s engaging historic perspective on ecology shows how Marxism can teach us about our relationship with the environment, says DEREK WALL

Land And Labour

by Martin Empson

(Bookmarks, £13.99)

LAND And Labour’s author Martin Empson is a seasoned socialist and green activist and is well known on the left for his practical activity and non-sectarian approach.

His book is an encyclopaedic environmental history from a Marxist perspective and it’s one that should be taught in every school because the interactions between human beings and the rest of nature are an important story.

To better maintain our environment we need to know how human beings have managed in the past and environmental history can be studied from a variety of perspectives.

But Empson does a good job in showing how Marxism can tell us more about our relationship as a species with our wider environment.

After all, Marx and Engels were interested in a variety of environmental issues, from deforestation to soil erosion and workplace pollution.

Covering much of human history and prehistory, the book is difficult to put down.

From our earliest days as a species we have been changing “nature” and Empson gives an example from South Africa where, 75,000 years ago, the local population at the Klaises River Mouth ate the bulb of a plant known as the watsonia.

Archaeological evidence showed that they burnt the surrounding area and that this increased the productivity of the bulbs — thus from very early times we have altered the environment to increase our food supply.

A large range of topics, from Egyptian pyramid builders going on strike for larger food rations, to the dangers of GM, from the original affluent society of hunter-gathers to the recognition that capitalism create climate change are all scrutinised.

There is a good account too of Lenin’s efforts to promote wildlife conservation in the Soviet Union and criticism of Stalin’s environmental record.

But I was disappointed to find no reference to Fidel Castro’s interest in ecology and Cuba’s attempts to become greener, likewise Latin American countries in the Alba group which have been working to promote strong international agreements to combat climate change.

This would have been an interesting area to discuss but it is impossible to cover everything in one book and Empson has even so produced a very well presented and important publication.

Derek Wall is international co-ordinator of the Green Party.

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