By Camilla Royle
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Land and Labour by Martin Empson

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Published by Bookmarks, 13.99
Issue 387

Humans are part of the natural world yet we also shape that world. The type of society we live in, and crucially the way human labour power is organised, are central to how we relate to nature. But as Martin Empson argues, the changes we make to nature also affect the ways that societies are run. Crucially the shift from fairly egalitarian hunter-gatherer societies towards societies based on agriculture – known as the Neolithic agricultural revolution – enabled the evolution of class society.

These points have been made elsewhere – Karl Marx touched on the subject of nature, and other writers such as US Marxist John Bellamy Foster have built on Marx’s insights and developed a critique of the way capitalism today creates environmental crises. But few have attempted to spell out how our dynamic relationship with nature has developed as human societies have changed. Empson’s Land and Labour is a valuable contribution to the development of a theory of this dynamic relationship

From the earliest human societies, the effect we have had on the natural world has been profound. An increase in the abundance of hazelnuts across Europe 9,000 years ago can still be detected. Empson suggests that this is because people at the time planted hazelnut bushes because they provided a nutritious food source to add to what could be obtained by hunting and gathering.

In Britain, the introduction of new forms of farming machinery replaced strip farms with large open fields. The highland clearances, driven by the profits to be made from sheep farming, saw hundreds of thousands of farmers forced from their land. Empson argues that “the development of modern agriculture…is inseparable from the rise of capitalism”.

Replacing the sheep with deer for hunting in the 19th century, such as on the Balmoral estate, created the “wilderness” environment that Queen Victoria was so fond of. So although we might think of this type of landscape as typically Scottish today it has changed considerably in the past few centuries.

Land and Labour discusses a broad range of human societies to the present day and crosses seven continents. I found the section on the efforts of the Brazilian landless workers movement to occupy land and experiment with different ways of running agriculture particularly enlightening. The book highlights key examples to make a point rather than being an attempt to write a complete history.

Nevertheless it covers a lot of ground. Although Empson is not a professional historian, anyone who has read his articles and reviews knows he has read an enormous amount and is unrelentingly enthusiastic about both historical and contemporary environmental issues.

Land and Labour also deals with urbanisation. A discussion of cities is sometimes left out of writing on the environment but deserves attention. Most people in the world now live in cities, but although they are often seen as environmentally destructive, research shows that, depending on how cities are organised, people in cities can use less energy than those in rural areas. For example, city dwellers often travel shorter distances to get to work and use public transport.

Cities can also be sites of anti-capitalist protest – bringing people together in large numbers such as in Istanbul’s Gezi Park and Tahrir Square in Cairo. But Empson also shows, with the example of the history of Chicago, that cities aren’t separate from the countryside.

The need to bring food into cities in large quantities has also transformed the rural areas that surround them. As Empson says: “Chicago sucked in vast quantities of grain, encouraging grain farms to spread over a huge region”. Much of this grain was then sold on to cities on the East coast such as New York.

This attention to the way society and natural systems interrelate in complex and evolving ways is demonstrated throughout the book.

Importantly, it puts the struggles of ordinary workers and peasants at the centre of history. So the transformation of the environment after the highland clearances is not seen as an inevitable result of progress but as a consequence of class struggle. In this case, the struggle was won by the emerging capitalist class. But the democratic societies glimpsed briefly during the
Russian Revolution and the Paris Commune provide an example of the way society could be run, and the way environmental problems could be tackled, in a world run by ordinary people.

Marxist geographer Neil Smith once argued that, in starting to develop a historical materialist approach to nature, Marx had given us the corners and most of the straight edges of a jigsaw puzzle. The job of later generations has been to lay out these pieces and fill in the rest of the picture. This book is an important contribution to that tradition.

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