Land and Labour: Marxism ecology and human history

A useful but controversial book
Alan Thornett reviews Martin Empson’s book, published in 2014 by Bookmarks at £13.99.

Martin Empson is a prominent activist in the Campaign Against Climate Change and its Trade Union Committee. I have worked with him in both bodies, in particularly the trade union committee, and have respect for the contribution he makes. He is also a member of the SWP.

This book is interesting and informative, though it covers a very long historical sweep. It is part anthropology and part history of agriculture, part a commentary on the struggle against climate change today, written from a Marxist standpoint.

The first half of the book looks at the history the human race from the appearance of the first apes 23 million years ago to modern humans today. It traces the development of human society from hunter-gatherers, to slash and burn farmers, to the emergence agriculture. It follows the development of social structures from medieval, slave, and feudal through to the emergence and development of capitalism.
It looks at specific examples from ancient Egypt, the Mayan and Incan societies in South America, and the arrival of Europeans in the Americas. It examines the Montagnais in present day Canada and the indigenous population of New England. It looks at the shaping of the landscapes by human activity over long periods of time.

In Britain it looks at iron-age agriculture, the Roman occupation, medieval agriculture, the rise of the peasantry, the peasant’s revolt, the English revolution, the development of class society, the rise of capitalism, the enclosures and the highland clearances, the removal of common land, and the emergence of wage labour, the corn laws, the Tolpuddle Martyrs, and the de-population of the land with the rise of industrialisation,. It examines the development of modern agriculture, up to and including the 20thcentury, and the role of capitalism within it.

It examines the development of agriculture towards the end of the 20th century with increasing globalisation and neo-liberalism. It takes in the role of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in advancing the neo-liberal agenda through trade agreements in the agricultural sector. It assesses the structural adjustment programmes, land grabs, and protectionism that have accompanied this. And also looks at the effects of US and European protectionist farming subsidies (in Europe the CAP) on agriculture in the impoverished economies of the Global South.

It then concludes with some chapters on contemporary ecological struggles and debates: climate change, and global warming in particular—from an anti-capitalist standpoint. Whether this all fits together so well I am not so sure. But the book is well worth a read. It is also good to see someone from the far left in Britain taking up the issue of agriculture.

Having read the earlier sections with some interest, however, this review will concentrate on the latter chapters on agriculture in the 20th Century and the issues and on the ecological situation today. The chapters and sections for example on: Capitalism and Nature, population, the future of farming, plus climate change and global warming. This reflects my areas of knowledge and involvement.

Productivism and ecosocialism

There is a lot to agree with in the book. There is its stress on the importance of the ecological issues and the need for a fundamental change in the structure of society in a socialist direction. There is its stress on the importance of opposing climate change and global warming, along with its opposition to the use of biofuels, GM crops, and nuclear energy. There is also, however, quite a bit to disagree with—at least as far as I am concerned.

The book finds, for example, no problem with productivism—the drive for growth under capitalism. It complains that: “Some environmental campaigners see production itself as the problem. They argue that the more things that are made, the greater the damage to the planet and the more precious resources are used up. This lead to calls for society to produce less and for individuals to consume less.” (Page 215)

Well, yes, indeed they do, and rightly so—certainly in the rich countries. The planet cannot survive the amount of stuff produced by productivist capitalism for consumers in the rich countries. The book criticises Friends of the Earth for using the perfectly reasonable slogan for us in the rich countries: “Consume less, Live more”. It then goes on to miss the point by explaining that all this unnecessary production is as a result of pressure from the advertising industry. Well, yes, it is, but that is a part of the scenario, and it is no-less productivist or unsustainable as a result.

The book also tends towards maximalism. The idea that, in the end, the only way to resolve the ecological crisis is to end capitalism and establish a socialist society. It recognises that the timescale for this is likely to be out of kilter with the urgency of the ecological crisis and the tipping points coming up, but the theme of the need to end capitalism before very much can be done recurres throughout the book.

We all want to end capitalism, of course, those of us on the revolutionary left. But we have to defend the environment in the here and now and see it as a part of the struggle against capitalism itself.

In fact industrialised society is of itself is a major challenge to the environment whatever political form human society takes. Capitalism is highly destructive to the environment but simply its absence does not resolve the problem. The ecological crisis cannot simply be reduced to it.
During a large part the 20th century capitalism and its profit motive ceased to exist from around a third of the world yet the impact on the environment in those regions was at least as severe, maybe more so. The ecological record of the USSR was disastrous, as was those of Eastern Europe and China.

This is what makes to concept of ecosocialism so important, something that the book declines to embrace. In fact the term is not mentioned, which in my view it is a key weakness.

Ecosocialism inserts an ecological perspective into the revolutionary process itself. It defines the kind of alternative society that we want to build—an ecosocialist society. This will not just happen unless it is recognised and consciously fought for in the revolutionary process itself. Even then it will be a difficult struggle.

Ecosocialism is also a vision of a society based on the idea of human beings existing and developing as a part of nature and not in opposition to it or at the expense of it. The book deals takes this up to some extent—in the section on capitalism and human nature for example—but it does not fully embraces this proposition. This is clearly reflected in the section on the rising population of the planet, which it regards as no problem for the either the ecology of the planet or the relationship between human beings and nature. For me that is the most controversial part of the book.

Rising population

The section starts well enough by pointing out the sobering reality that: “Early in 2012 the world’s population hit seven billion. The previous milestone, six billion, was reached in 1999. Only slightly over two centuries ago the world’s population was one billion. The rate of increase has been phenomenal; readers who are over 45 have lived through the doubling of the Earth’s population”. (Page 188)

The conclusion it draws from these rather scary figures, however, is that this presents no problem at all for the ecology of the planet! It is true that this conclusion is contradicted (objectively contradicted) by the content of some of the later sections—on waste and on the water for example. The overall thesis, however, is that no problem is posed by the current rate of increase or any figure it might eventually reach. This to me is a serious departure from reality.

The other conclusion it draws is that those who do suggest rising population is a problem and that we should discussed it—and that certainly includes me—are panic-mongers or worse. In fact we are neo-Malthusians and ‘motivated by the same arguments’ as the notorious 18th century economist Thomas Malthus.

Such guilt by association with Malthus has, unfortunately, long been a feature of the population debate on the left. In fact it has served as a substitute for a discussion on the subject itself. It reflects the approach of Too Many People? (TMP?), by Ian Angus and Simon Butler, which Martin Empson endorsed. Angus and Butler have (unsurprisingly) endorsed his book in return. (My review of TMP? can found here

In the book, therefore, the reactionary views of Malthus are reiterated—along with various other whacky ideas on the population—as if those of us who think that there is a problem to be discussed with rising population figures support them. (There may be it is true some genuine (and whacky) neo-Malthusians around, but the majority of those concerned with this issue reject Malthus’s entire thesis.)

It also suggests that Malthus is relevant to the debate on population today, which again makes no sense. The issue of rising population today (as in the 20th century) is not first and foremost an economic issue. It is even less an issue of a particular strand of 18th century bourgeois economics. It is first and foremost an ecological issue (Malthus never mentioned the environment) with its greatest impact on biodiversity.

Farming and food

It may be, as the book claims that, today, enough food can be produced to support a population of 8 or 10 billion—leaving aside the capacity of capitalism to create famine and hunger despite its ability to produce food—I have an open mind on it.

This capacity, however, is not the result of a ‘green revolution’, as the book suggests. It is a product of modern agriculture with its ever-increasing use of mechanisation, fertilisers, herbicides, pesticides, wetland drainage, hedge removal, deforestation, monocultures, and the rest of it.

The question, therefore, is not whether enough food can be produced but whether the planet (or more precisely the biosphere) can survive the damaging consequences of such production. It is a problem that is seriously underestimated in the book, which argues, essentially, that enough food can be produced and the environment protected with some fairly modest adjustments to today’s farming methods.

The book rightly argues that small and medium size farms are better for the environment than big farms agribusiness. And, indeed, as the book points out, most of the food produced today is already grown on such small and medium farms. These farms, however (particularly in the Global North), are still based on modern farming methods and with high usage of fertilisers, insecticides and herbicides—even monocultures in many cases.

The book is even more complacent when it comes to intensive (factory) farming and meat production, which is a huge problem for the environment. It recognises some of the problems in this, for example the production of methane from cattle the vast production of grain (particularly maize and soya) to feed them, but it still underestimates the scale of the problem.

This is reflected on page 194 where it argues that it is: “The modern meat industry designed around producing large volumes of cheap meat for the supermarkets that is the problem, not the consumption of meat itself.”

But meat consumption is a huge problem; and how can you separate the two things anyway? Not only does the current level of meat consumption rely entirely on intensive farming methods, but meat consumption globally is rapidly increasing. In fact it is set to double by 2050, and such volumes can only be produced by a huge extension of the current intensive methods.

The book quotes the Vegetarian Society (on page 194) when it says: “going vegetarian is an easy way to lower your own environmental impact and help ensure worldwide food security”. It then questions this by saying that it is not just individual diet but the production of food for profit that is the problem. Well indeed. The production of food for profit is a major problem, but irrespective of that the current consumption of meat—let alone the future consumption of meat—is unsustainable.

The recent Horizon TV programme “Should I eat meat? how to feed the planet” pointed to the scale of the problem. Human beings consume a staggering 65 billion animals (meat and poultry) a year. This has doubled in the last 50 years and is set to double again by 2050. A third of the entire global landmass is given over to producing and maintaining the animals we need for human consumption. In fact 14.5 of all green house gas emissions worldwide come from meant production: the same as the entire emissions from all form of transport: cars, lorries, busses, ships and aircraft.

The average American eats 120 kg of meat a year. In the UK we eat an average of 80 kg. This is not currently increasing, but that is not the case in the developing countries where it is going up rapidly, where being lifted out of poverty mean eating a lot more meat. Thirty years ago, China, for example the average consumption was just 4.4 kg per year. It is now 55 kg and rising rapidly.

The amount of methane produced by cattle is indeed huge—putting the equivalent of 2.8 billion tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere. One cow produces 550 Litres of methane a day. This means that one cow has the same effect in global warming terms as the average family car.

At the same time vast amounts of water are used throughout the whole process. Over grazing in the less productive areas leads to land degradation and desertification. A quarter of all grain produced in the USA is used to feed cattle. Huge quantities of antibiotics are used in the production of all species of animals for food.

All this is completely unsustainable and cannot be made sustainable by a few changes in the structure of farming and the methods used.


The big impact of rising human population levels, however, is on biodiversity—in fact catastrophically so. This results from habitat loss, pollution, global warming, plus the general pressures of human society and completion for space.

Yet the issue of biodiversity is almost absent from the book. I could only find one direct reference to it (on page 206) where it says: “Today for the first time since the dinosaurs vanished from Earth we are driving species to extinction faster than new ones are evolving”.

But we haven’t just turned the corner we are hurtling in the other direction at breakneck speed. We are now losing species a thousand times faster than the average loss during the period mentions. The background rate of extinction (the rate that existed for millions of years before the current die off began) of mammals, for example, during that time was about one every 700 years. Today a quarter of all mammal species are at risk in just a few hundred years.

The highest extinction rate is among amphibians, which is a mind-boggling 45,000 times higher than the background rate. (My review of Elizabeth Kobert’s book The Sixth Extinction – an Unnatural History can be found at
The acidification, pollution, and over exploitation, of the ocean is taking place at an alarming rate. Stocks of every species of fully-grown wild fish, for example, have shrunk by 90% in the last 50 years.

At the same time many of the finite mineral resources of the planet on which industrial production, medicines, transport, and communications depend are also running out. The demand for fresh water is set to increase dramatically, both from rising population and rising expectations. Ground water aquifers are being depleted at an alarming rate. Over 25% of all river water is now extracted before it reaches the ocean, and many rivers dry up before they get there. One in six people on the planet get their drinking water from glaciers and snowpack, on the worlds mountain ranges, which are receding. As mentioned above the book has a good section on fresh water, which points a lot of this out.

When it comes to the effect of rising population on global warming Empson invokes Fred Pearce to argue that rising population will not have much effect on this because the highest birth rates are in the most impoverished countries with the lowest per capita carbon footprints. (Fred Pearse is the author Peoplequake, published in 2010, which reinforces complacency on the issue of population).

This is true but superficial. First because the impact of such impoverished populations is greater when it comes to their ecological footprint (i.e. their total impact on the environment rather than carbon emissions) and second because (quite rightly) such populations aspire to change their economic and social situation—and we fully support them in doing so. The carbon footprint of the Chinese population, for example, has risen from 1 to 7 metric tonnes after just 2 decades of capitalist development.

Population again

The book argues that UN estimations that the population could reach 11bn by the end of the century should be treated with caution, and draws on Fred Pearce again to argue that there is nothing to worry about because the population could well stabilise ‘naturally’ before that time. Empson points out that the global birthrate is falling, which of course it is, and lists a number of countries where it is falling quite sharply. (Population figures are a correlation of birth rate and death rate both of which are falling.)

Again all this is true but misleading. It is possible that the global population could stabilise by the end of the century. The reality is that no on knows. There are too many variables based on changing social and economic conditions to be sure about this.
What we do know is that the rate of increase (in absolute terms) has been remarkably consistent for the past 50 years at between 70 and 80 million a year—roughly the population of Germany. What we also know is that nearly half of the current global population is under 25, which is the biggest new generation ever, and a huge potential for further population growth. Surely a precautionary principle is in order under such conditions.

We also have to ask the question that if it does stabilise what will it stabilise at—9, 10, or 11 billion—and will it be sustainable? I have not formed a firm view (personally) as to the carrying capacity of the planet or whether we have reached it yet, or indeed whether we have already passed it. There clearly is such a capacity, however since many of the crucial resources on which the human population (and the biosphere) depends are finite.
Another controversial aspect of the book is that it implies, again reflecting others on the left including TMP?, that those on the left who think that rising population is a problem to be addressed are in favour of population control. This is both untrue and objectionable. There may be people on the left that have this position, and if so they should be condemned for it, but I have not come across them.

There are certainly people on the right who have this position, including government—the Chinese one child family policy for example)—and they are dangerous. In fact they are the ones who will deal with this issue if the left continues to turn its back on it.

Population control is not only wrong but also unnecessary, since there is every chance that the population could be stabilised by measures based entirely on free choice and social justice—measures that are a good thing in their own right anyway. This involves most importantly the empowerment women. It means empowering them to control their own fertility, giving them access to education and jobs, and the chance shed the influences of patriarchy and religion.
Today more than 220m women in the Global South are denied reproductive services. Globally there are 80m unintended pregnancies a year. In my view, most women, in the Global South, if they had free choice, would be unlikely have the large families that prevail today. Some would, but most would not. Empowerment is an approach that helps the women and helps the planet at the same time.

The UN in the shape of its International Conference on Population and Development organised in 1994 in Cairo also advocates methods based entirely on free choice and the empowerment of women. It produced a Programme of Action which called on governments to make reproductive services universally available by 2015 or sooner. (This program can be found at )

In conclusion

As I say above this book has a lot to offer and deserves to be widely read. The left in my view, however, cannot continue to avoid the issue of the rising population of the planet, other than raising the spectre of Thomas Malthus and insisting that there is no problem to discuss. Marxism should not have taboo subjects.

As the ecological crisis deepens, and global warming accelerates, there is a need both to step up the campaigning activates around the environmental crisis and also deepen the discussion on some of these important issues. We need to talk meaningfully about the relationship between human beings and nature and how we live together on a planet with finite and diminishing resources. This is impossible without addressing the issue of the rapidly rising human numbers.
For me the idea of ecosocialism, which sees socialism without ecology as inadequate for the transition to a sustainable alternative to capitalism, is crucially important as is the need to challenge the drive for growth which is inherent in the capitalist system. I enjoyed a lot of Martin Empson’s book but I would urge him to think again on some of these issues.
August 2014

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