Monday, May 20, 2019

Paul Morland - The Human Tide

Contemporary books on population are often, at best, frustrating. At worst they are apologies for anti-human policies that see people as the origin of all our problems - whether poverty, food or environmental. So I was pleasantly surprised that early on in this new book by Paul Morland he puts a case that population growth is not a bad thing:
But for all the caveats, proper acknowledgement should be made of the great achievement that is the vast multiplying of human numbers and the provision of billions of people with a standard of living and health care and education which the wealthiest of earlier ages would have envied.
By this, Morland distinguishes himself from a myriad of other authors who contend that population growth is in itself bad. This is not to say that he dismisses population growth or ignores some of its consequences. Much of the book is a study of how population change has taken place across the world at different times. I won't repeat Morland's arguments here, but his conclusion is roughly that societies go through a fairly predictable pattern of slow, gradual growth interrupted occasionally by events like the Black Death, followed by a rapid acceleration that is associated with the transition to an industrial economy, followed by a slow decline in fertility and mortality. The latter, he says take place on time-scales "which once took generations [but] now take place in decades."

This is very interesting, and for those who are arguing against the tide, that population growth is not the origin of poverty, hunger or environmental disaster, the book contains many, very useful, facts and figures about the likely demographic future. However Morland comes unstuck with his argument that demographic change is at the heart of the vast majority of historical change. His book is, as he explains, "about the role of population in history". He says that "demography is a factor which itself is driven by other factors, numerous and complex, some material, some ideological and some accidental." But despite saying this, often he falls back on an argument that population change is the most important factor. For instance Morland writes:
As soon as a country of many hundreds of millions starts to get going [economically], even moving from abject to moderate poverty for its average citizen, the weight of numbers starts to count. The United States... is not the largest economy in the world because its people are very much richer than people in the individual European countries or Japan, but because there are so many more of them.
Later he says:
Germany's burgeoning population at home allowed it eventually to field great armies on the battlefields of the Eastern and Western Fronts in both world wars. Britain's mass emigration meant it could raise a smaller army from its home population but could call on the assistance of a worldwide network in wartime, for food, equipment and men.
Both of these examples do not stand up to real historical analysis. The population of the US matters, of course, but US power in the 20th and 21st century arose from a host of historical factors that are far more important that sheer numbers of people. The decline of European colonialism, the rise of a more modern industry over that of Europe, the exhaustion of Britain (in particular). Britain could call on resources from around the world not because of emigration, but because of colonialism and Imperialism. One million Indian troops fought for Britain in World War One - not because of emigration, but because of colonial history, a factor that helped fuel the Independence movement.

Morland is repeatedly guilty of putting a mechanical argument about population ahead of a deeper understanding of economic development, political change and ignoring colonialism and imperialism (an issue which leads to a particularly crude analysis of the origins of the Israel/Palestinian conflict0. At times this is surprisingly crude. To argue, for instance, that war in Yemen (indeed war or violence in general) is due to young populations is to be guilty of crude causation. Or to write that "The fact [Woodrow] Wilson was in a position to impose his ideas [at Versailles] reflected the triumphant growth of America's population". Demographics was not the reason - economic power was, and that is not the same as having lots of workers.

It is important to stress that Morland is no conservative. His argument is that population growth is not the threat that so many think it is. This is, he argues, because larger populations can be supported by planetary resources and will provide more people to do work to improve the planet and the economy. Unfortunately there's not enough here to back that up and I suspect many readers will be unconvinced. He also points out that we are not living through a population explosion, but a trajectory which will see the levelling off of population growth in the not to distant future. As countries become more wealthy, more urban and, crucially, make sure women are provided with real choices about their own fertility, population will plateau and likely decline. In this, fertility choices are closely linked with economic and political realities.
Fertility rates...are especially low in countries where women are encouraged to get an education and a career but where birth outside marriage is frowned upon. They are much better in countries where attitudes to women in the workplace are more positive and provision is made to allow both female and make workers to combine careers with parenting.
Later, he concludes that "the human tide is best managed by ordinary human beings themselves". Having looked at failed examples of state fertility management in places as varied as the former USSR, China and the US, it's hard not to agree.

Unfortunately I find it hard to recommend Paul Morland's book. The useful nuggets of information are drowned out by crude arguments which don't stand up to scrutiny. A more useful book on population in my opinion is Ian Angus and Simon Butler's Too Many People? which locates demographic change squarely in the context of the economic and political system.

Related Reviews

Malthus - An Essay on the Principle of Population
Pearce - PeopleQuake, Mass Migration, Ageing Nations and the Coming Population Crash
Thornett - Facing the Apocalypse: Arguments for Ecosocialism
Meek (ed) - Marx and Engels on the Population Bomb

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Julian Rathbone - The Mutiny

There have been plenty of novels set during the Indian "Mutiny" of 1857. In fact, it was a George MacDonald Fraser novel Flashman in the Great Game that first taught me about this seminal moment in British Imperial history. It shouldn't be a surprise that 1857 has had such a hold on accounts, fictional and non-fictional of British history - it was a tremendous shock to colonial arrogance at the time, and accounts of the barbarity were wildly discussed and stoked, in the popular press. How could formally subservient people suddenly rise up and violently assault their benevolent rulers?

Of course, British rule was anything but benevolent, something that Julian Rathbone skilfully shows in this, his final novel. Rathbone was not afraid of being unorthodox in his books and this one uses a combination of fiction, historical factor, letters and author asides to draw a brilliant portrait of British India on the cusp of rebellion and then during the uprising itself. With a cast of hundreds and a viewpoint that jumps rapidly between different locations, people and even times, it's not a book that everyone will enjoy. Rathbone appears to be using the story mostly to tell the history, rather than letting the history be the backdrop. As a result, characters occasionally make rather irrational choices, simply to make sure they are in a particular place.

In the first half of the novel we follow the fortunes of a couple of families of British officers based in Meerut. When the uprising begins the children's' servant takes them away to escape the bloodshed, ending up near Cawnpore where one of the mothers eventually arrives to try and rescue them. It's convoluted but allows Rathbone to describe the reality of a country in complete upheaval and then look at the barbaric reality of the revolt and the British response.

Rathbone doesn't shy away from the violence arguing that brutality took place on both sides. At least he tries to show why the petty racism, day to day humiliation by the British could lead to violent retribution. He also argues that the main spur to revolt was not a desire to kick out the British, but a reaction against attempts to forcibly Christianise the population. He also spends a lot of time on the detail of the violence which some readers have found difficult, but I thought made the tension at the heart of the book much more real. The besieged people on both sides had a lot to lose.

There are few happy endings to any of the story threads here. Rathbone skilfully weaves history and fiction together (helpfully providing a list at the end explaining who is real and who isn't) and thus cannot escape the fact that things did not end well for the majority of those Indians who rose up. His afterword argues that there was a a lot of good about British rule in India post 1857, though this doesn't really stand up to scrutiny. It is a clever book clearly based on a close knowledge of the historical sources, but unafraid to give a fictional spin on real events (there's a couple of clever allusions to Flashman and the characters Flashman - in both the Fraser and Hughes versions - might be based on). I wouldn't describe it as an enjoyable read, but certainly it's a good one. It might even encourage further reading about the reality of British rule in India.

Related Reviews

Farrell - The Siege of Krishnapur
Ward - Our Bones Are Scattered: The Cawnpore Massacres & the Indian Mutiny of 1857
Wagner - Amritsar 1919
Newsinger - The Blood Never Dried

Saturday, May 11, 2019

Penny McCall Howard - Environment, Labour & Capitalism at Sea: 'Working the Ground' in Scotland

Working at sea in the fishing industry is 115 time more dangerous than the UK average. It' i a startling statistic, that is usually explained by the idea that the sea is "dangerous". But Penny McCall Howard's important book is a detailed examination of why this is an incorrect explanation. More than that, it is a brilliant anthropological study of the lives of those on the west coast of Scotland who making a living from the sea. Howard shows how human labour is part of shaping an ecology which is far wider than just the "prawn monoculture" they fish.

Many of the classic works of anthropology are written by observers who maximise their distance from their subject. In his classic studies of the Nuer people of Southern Sudan, E.E.Evans-Pritchard wrote detailed accounts of his subject's lives, but always remained an observer. Howard too is an outsider, but she doesn't remain aloof from the fisher communities that she is writing about. An accomplished sailor she works with the men (they are all men), joining their small fishing boats or working on trawlers. As such, this is an intimate account of labour at sea, and how it is shaped by wider environment and economy. Howard explains her framework:
I focus on people's labour as what ties environments, people and tools together as they work to make dishing grounds productive. I take a phenomenological approach that focuses on people's experience of their own labour, including the results of that labour, and the aspirations and hopes that they pour into it. As a result, this book challenges the popular conception of the sea as a hostile wilderness...I explore the more complicated reasons why human-environmental relations at sea are fraught with ruptures, tensions and contradictions, tragedy, unfulfilled hope and even desperation.
Howard says that in the communities she studied, fishers feel in "a state of siege".  One fisher told her that "if you are trawler-man you think everyone is out to get you". This should be of no surprise - one of the consequence of heightened environmental awareness in the general population is an understanding that we are facing a biodiversity crisis and this is commonly understood to be particularly an issue for sea-life. Indeed the week I write this review the Guardian carries an article by George Monbiot which has the unfortunate headline "Stop eating fish. It’s the only way to save the life in our seas". It's hard to see any of those who Howard writes about here as seeing this as anything else as an assault on their livelihoods.

Howard begins with the nature of labour at sea, tracing it's impact on the environment, the process of shaping the "grounds" themselves and how wider, social relations, transform that experience. In one anecdote, she notes how an experienced fisher complains about having to go to the toilet at sea in a bucket, while the owner has spent tens of thousands on new navigation equipment to improve his chance at a profit.

All workers become intimate with their environments - whether it is a computer network, a phone call centre, the fields an agricultural workers frequents or fishers who "work the ground". The word "ground" is important. Howard says that she has noted more than 80 uses of the word - which means far more than, say, the sea-bed. Instead "what linked these places was the productive labour that took place in them. The ground was a place that afforded fishermen better catches and where they found their work to be productive. The affordances of grounds were not static and they were historically inextricably connected to the labour expended there."

Crucially, she continues, "fishermen re-shaped the affordances of grounds through their work and developed new tools in order to further develop the affordances of grounds." It brought to mind Marx's statement that "Labour is, first of all, a process between man and nature, a process by which man, through his own actions, mediates, regulates and controls the metabolism between himself and nature".

Howard shows how fishers have a complex relationship with the grounds they work. To understand their labour as simply bringing fish on-board a ship in a net is to misunderstand the intimate relationship with the sea. This is not a romanticised view of life on-board ships, rather its the way that years of experience allow the fishers to develop very clear understanding of the sea, its tides, its depth and the seabed. Using this information (often obtained through careful watching of equipment screens, but also through feeling the vibrations of the boat and its equipment) workers are able to make decisions about how, where and when to fish. Some areas might bring a bigger catch, but be risky for expensive equipment, other places might bring smaller fish in bigger quantities which require more labour to prepare. All of these decisions take place in the context of the wider, capitalist, market which might mean a fish that was extremely valuable one week is almost worthless the next. Grounds then, "are places where affordances are intentionally developed in particular social and economic context, and through often improvised actions with particular conditions of satisfaction."

Howard draws on the work of environmental geographer Neil Smith who argued that humans "create nature". Howard shows how fisher's labour transforms the environment. For instance, she quotes one fisher saying "if you come across a piece of ground with a lot of skate, first you have to fish them off, and that's when you will find you start to get a good fishing of prawns." Howard continues: "Trawler skippers saw themselves as intervening in ecosystems to make them more productive of the prawns or crabs they fished for."

Thus those critics who might simply see the fishing industry as exploiting a pristine environment are incorrect. Fishers are part and parcel of shaping the ecology that they labour in. In fact, fishers almost always see their labour as making a positive contribution. That is not to suggest that the consequences might not be destructive, but to show how the actual catching of prawns is the result of wider social interactions. This was drawn out for me by Howard's discussion of the working practice of the skippers of the boats she worked on. They would often keep up a constant radio and 'phone chatter with other skippers, sharing information with others. So the work was intensely co-operative - a "community of practice" as Howard puts it. But skippers could also conceal and hide information. They might be fearful that someone else would undermine their catch at the market, or get fish that they might want. So wider capitalist social relations shape the relations between the working boats and their crew. Something also seen in Howard's brilliant discussion of technology - as alluded to earlier, technology at sea is usually about maximising profits, not improving the lives of those who work there. I don't have space to draw this out further, but Howard's conclusion is important. Technology, she explains, arises out of and then shapes, the industry:
The effects of technologies must be examine din the context of the transformation of sea creatures into valuable commodities with a variable price in faraway markets, and the alienation of fishing crew from any ownership relation with a boat and from the sea as a source of reliable livelihood.
This is also true of the relations between workers. Technology allows the better exploitation of the environment. But it also means that the job becomes more deskilled, and boat owners can employ cheaper labour. The final chapters of the book look at what this has meant for communities and crew, particularly through the hiring of immigrant workers on very low wages. Class differences have, as Howard is careful to emphasise, always existed in the fishing industry. So the system of shares that determines pay rates on many boats doesn't arise out of some historical communal system, but out of a system of multiple ownership of boats. Today that means that crew will often receive low pay for long hard work, and sometimes get nothing if the trip itself is not profitable. It is a system open to exploitation, but one where it is difficult for workers to organise collectively.

This returns me to my starting point. The horrifically high level of deaths and injury in the fishing industry is not the result of accidents. It is a consequence of the job "as currently organised" where boat owners cut corners on maintenance and safety to maximise profits, or crew must risk going to sea in a extreme conditions in order to make enough money to pay rent or loans. Returning to the work of Neil Smith, Howard shows how the "ideology of nature" means that the natural world is seen as outside the lived reality of people - something to be used and exploited. But capitalism makes the sea more dangerous for workers. As Howard points out the idea of a "hostile and dangerous sea naturalises the deaths of those working on it, no matter what the real cause." Deaths are seen as a result of the sea itself, not the system that exploits those who work it in the quest for profits.

Howard's book is a remarkable piece of work. It's a first rate piece of Marxist anthropology that puts human labour at the centre of a discussion about ecology. It shows how the biodiversity crisis in the oceans is related to wider social relations, and emphasises again how the fight to prevent environmental destruction requires challenging the priorities of the system - not just changes to our diet. For radical environmentalists and Marxist ecologists this should be a required read, and I'm pleased to see that a cheap paperback is to be published soon.

Related Reviews

Smith - Uneven Development: Nature, Capital, and the Production of Space
Carson - Under the Sea Wind
Clare - Down to the Sea in Ships
Rediker - Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea
Lymbery - Dead Zone: Where the Wild Things Were

Friday, May 10, 2019

Steven King - Writing the Lives of the English Poor: 1750s-1830s

Steven King's book is a detailed, academic, textual study of an archive of 26,000 letters written by claimants for poor relief to parish officials. I've written a review for another publication and will link it here when it is published.

Monday, May 06, 2019

Jim Bell - The Interstellar Age

Voyagers One and Two were launched in 1977 and, by a lucky chance of birth, this has meant for much of my life their missions have been a major scientific influence. I was far too young to even know of their encounters with Jupiter and Saturn, though the images they returned were part of the background scientific knowledge for me as I entered my teens and my close interest in astronomy and space sciences. I remember Voyager 2's arrival at Uranus and Neptune in 1986 and 1989, though the latter was overshadowed, in my family, by the massive political upheaval in Eastern Europe taking place that year. The sense of wonder that the two probes brought was enormously influential and, it was only by another lucky chance of timing that the Voyager 2 was able to visit all four of these planets in one trip. In my university studies I was able to draw on some of the Voyager data for a, distinctly, amateur piece of work of the atmospheric physics of gaseous planets.

Jim Bell's history of these missions is "the story of the NASA men and women who flew the forty-year Voyager mission" and it is a profound journey for many reasons. On a personal level it answers some long troublesome questions. For instance, I never understood why the decision was taken by NASA to divert Voyager 1 to Saturn's moon Titan. This meant that the first probe would be unable to visit Uranus and Neptune which always seemed to me to be a major mistake given that Titan was, at least in the Voyager images, distinctly uninteresting. As Bell explains though, scientists knew Titan had an atmosphere and speculation about this, and the possibilities it implied were a point of major discussion in the 1980s. Bell quotes one Voyager scientist as saying that had Voyager 1 failed, the second craft would still have forgone the chance to visit Uranus and Neptune for a glimpse at Titan. However Uranus and Neptune proved far more exciting than expected, but have now only received one visit from a spacecraft. Hindsight, as they say, is wonderful.

More importantly Bell shows just how amazing the missions and the resultant science is. For instance, Voyager actually uses a tape machine to story data and images, before returning them to earth. Few of my tape recorders lasted beyond the 1980s, so to have one, albeit a much more expensive version, survive for the whole of the mission is incredible. Equally impressive is the way that the scientists continually updated the probe's software to compensate for minor damage, fuel limitations and the harsh environments around the gas giants.

Bell has a good chapter on the science behind the famous golden record that sits on both craft. This message to alien civilisations is unlikely ever to be read, but should it be, it has a fascinating store of information designed to maximise information about our civilisation, and instructions on how a relatively scientifically advanced alien society might access the information. I enjoyed the descriptions of which images were selected - in order that they could tell much more about us than simply contained in visual form (eg, an image of a stuck snowmobile tells the aliens that we, acknowledge mistakes, and have a planet that is covered in some form of white stuff). Sadly I doubt these records will ever be found, but they are likely to remain some of the few records of our civilisation long after we have gone. I do, however, consider that Jim Bell's belief that we'll eventually catch up with Voyager and put them in museums a fantasy. As an aside it is notable that despite the scientific endeavour, real world interests influenced the contents of the record. The recording company behind the Beatles was unable to agree copyright exclusions to allow their music to be added to the record - a fantastic example of how capitalism's need to profit from everything shapes the world!

Jim Bell puts across the science of Voyager and our solar system well and in an accessible form. I was inspired to read it partly because I enjoyed Alan Stern & David Grinspoon's book on the New Horizons mission so much. That is a very different book which focuses more on the trials of getting New Horizons off the ground. Voyager had much less of those difficulties and had more planetary encounters. But both missions demonstrate how, even at remarkably low cost (Voyager cost the US taxpayers a few cents each), we can learn a great deal from short flybys. Voyagers One and Two, like New Horizons, have inspired millions of people. It's an impact we should consider more, rather than the penny pinching that such science often gets. For me, reading this felt like I was coming home to events that had shaped me, and my old enthusiasm for the study of the universe returned - and I do hope that Uranus and Neptune are visited someday soon.

Related Reviews

Stern & Grinspoon - Chasing New Horizons
Brzezinski - Red Moon Rising: Sputnik and the Rivalries that Ignited the Space Race
Scott & Leonov - Two Sides of the Moon
Clegg - Gravity: Why What Goes Up, Must Come Down

Saturday, May 04, 2019

Talat Ahmed - Mohandas Gandhi: Experiments in Civil Disobedience

One of the most exciting things about radical politics in the UK in 2019 has been the emergence of mass protest movements against environmental destruction that take their inspiration from historic non-violence, direct action and civil disobedience struggles. Figures like Martin Luther King Jnr and Mohandas Gandhi loom large in discussions about the most effective way to campaign. So I was very pleased to pick up Talat Ahmed's new book that looks at probably the most famous proponent of non-violence, Mohandas Gandhi.

Talat Ahmed traces the development of Gandhi's politics from his experiences as a youth in India, the experiences that shaped him in England while he trained to be a lawyer and then the sharper experiences in South Africa were he encountered systematic racism for the first time. Ahmed shows how Gandhi's politics evolved relatively early into a highly structured religiously inspired vision that placed a highly developed moral code at the heart of everything that Gandhi did and argued for. In particular Gandhi's activism transcended the traditional barriers within Indian society. For instance. he fought hard for the rights of the dalit community, the caste popularly known as untouchables. Gandhi also argued for unity between religious communities, even at time of great unrest and ethnic conflict.

But Ahmed also argues that Gandhi's approach was limited by his approach to wider social conflict.  She writes:
Gandhi abhorred violence, particularly if resorted to by ordinary people, and certainly if it was part of a class struggle against exploitation and oppression - foreign or domestic. This was true in South Africa, Chauri Chaura, Mappiula [Rebellion], the Quit India movement and the naval mutinies. On each occasion, Gandhi lectured ordinary people, the subalterns, for not having understood the principles of his satyagraga strategy, And on each occasion, those who wielded power and had a monopoly on violence to mete out the full power of the state with no regard for passive resistance were absolved somehow of responsibility. 
She concludes that "By treating violence and non-violence as abstract moral precepts, Gandhi effectively left the mass of people defenceless in the face of colonial state brutality and violence."

It is clear from Ahmed's book that Gandhi had a horror of struggle escalating out of control, particularly if it began to challenge the basis of bourgeois society. In fact, Gandhi's vision of India after the British had left was very much one of bourgeois capitalist democracy. Gandhi was "a leader precisely because he also possessed the ability to unite the myriad of class forces... in Indian nationalism". Thus those struggles which brought together different religions as part of a mass struggle were often rejected by Gandhi if they went too far. Gandhi himself, under pressure from the growth of the left, had some ambiguity towards capitalism. Ahmed quotes a response from Gandhi to the Indian Communist M.N. Roy's arguments in favour of the Bolsheviks:
I am an uncompromising opponent of violent methods even to serve the noblest of causes... I desire to end capitalism almost if not quite as much as the most advanced socialist or event communist. But our methods differ, our languages differ.
But the problem was not just about method and language. It was also about vision, and ultimately this meant that Gandhi undermined struggles that could have advanced Independence and the struggle against an enormously unjust Indian society. Some examples that Ahmed gives are quite stark - for instance Gandhi calling off struggles when they develop into strikes, or when his supporters riot against policemen who have killed protesters.

Despite Gandhi being forever associated with Indian Independence, Ahmed explains that the British authorities credited other forces for being the final catalyst for change. Clement Attlee, for instance, said that the "principle reason" for the British deciding to leave India was the "erosion of loyalty to the British crown among the Indian army and navy" resulting from the more radical movements. Attlee went on to describe Gandhi's role as "minimal". This is not to say that Gandhi had no significance - indeed he helped create a mass movement against the British, but that Gandhi's strategy, at crucial points, was not enough to drive things through because he had elevated non-violence to the level of a unbreakable religious belief, rather than a tactic.

Talat Ahmed's book is a highly readable, critical, introduction to Gandhi's life and politics. Its importance is underlined by her hope that it will "help activists today grapple with the real life and complex and contested legacy of this enigmatic and contradictory 'non-violent revolutionary'" and to encourage today's activists "to go beyond what Gandhi ever thought possible and engage not only in 'experiments in civil disobedience'" but to build the sort of movements that can fundamentally transform society. Since the bloody legacy of Britain's Partition of India is two countries armed with nuclear weapons, this is a vision that has never been more important.

Related Reviews

Ward - Our Bones Are Scattered: The Cawnpore Massacres & the Indian Mutiny of 1857
Davies - Late Victorian Holocausts
Newsinger - The Blood Never Dried
Wagner - Amritsar 1919

Saturday, April 27, 2019

Alan Thornett - Facing the Apocalypse: Arguments for Ecosocialism

I've known Alan Thornett for many years, most recently through work in the environmental movement as part of the Campaign Against Climate Change's trade union group. Alan Thornett is a longstanding socialist, a committed anti-racist and fighter for women's rights. We have, over the years, engaged in various debates over some of the subjects in this, his latest book, and he wrote a friendly but very critical review of my book Land and Labour. I highlight this because in this review of Thornett's book I will take issue with many of his arguments and suggest that he has a wrong approach for a socialist towards dealing with environmental disaster. These are, however, arguments between people who want to see an end to environmental destruction and to see society move towards a socialist model. They are part of clarifying our mutual understanding of our politics and our strategies.

Thornett begins by arguing that "breaking with the legacy of the 20th century will require big changes organisational and political... it means a serious re-examination of the strategic conceptions that the left has being applying to the ecological struggle for the last three decades". Thornett shows how historically the left has not taken environmental issues seriously, except in a few individual cases and he rightly argues that this is in part a legacy of those regimes that labelled themselves socialist, but acted in a way that copied the capitalist states. However Thornett's main ambition in this book is not just to highlight historical errors of the left, but to argue that key strategies and politics of the contemporary left are mistaken. It would be fair to say that I am one of the people he disagrees with here. In the introduction to the book Thornett writes:
Since modern humans migrated out of Africa about 180,000 years ago, we have had a disproportionate impact on other species. We destroyed the planet's large animals... in what was a major global extinction event... More recently, as human maritime capability developed along with colonial expansion, sailors ate their way through vulnerable species... In the 18th century [I think Thornett really means the 19th century when the majority of the bison where killed] between 30 and 60 million bison roamed North America's great plains. The construction of the railroad network and accelerated human settlement led to a remarkable mass slaughter of the bison, taking it close to extinction... We are the only species to have invaded every habitat on earth and capable of destroying the planet many times over... If we ignore the impact we are having on the planet, we will destroy all other species that live on it and ultimately ourselves.
There are, I suggest, two problems with this approach. Firstly Thornett repeatedly uses the word "we", suggesting the human society today is the same as it was in the 18th century and 180,000 years ago. He also ignores the different historical contexts of these events - hunter-gatherer communities killed megafauna as part of their livelihoods which is not the same as the systematic destruction of bison as part of a genocidal approach to the indigenous population of the United States. However I am particularly concerned with the use of "we" as it implies that all humans are equally to blame for today's environmental crisis, just as they were all to blame for megafauna extinction. For instance, the hunting to extinction, of megafauna in Australia by bands of hunter-gatherers, is in no way the same as the contemporary "Sixth Extinction" caused by capitalism - for example as a result of industrial agriculture.
Over population
This approach characterises Thornett's wider approach which is to argue that over-population is a key problem for the environment and for the left. He argues that the left has failed to understand and respond to the environmental situation: "major issues remained to be resolved for Marxism and the ecological struggle, in terms of both analysis and response". Thornett begins by criticising those on the left who argue that the solution to capitalism's destruction of the planet is the struggle for socialism.
The standard 'solution'; advanced by most on the radical left in this regard, is the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism - by implication within the next 12 years because that is how long we have to do it. It is what I call 'one solution revolution'.... Capitalism is the problem and its overturn is the solution - and not just as a long-term perspective, which is a different matter - but as an immediate solution to global warming. Such an approach is maximalist, leftist and useless. We can all, as socialists, vote to abolish capitalism with both hands, and this is indeed our long-term objective. But as an answer to global warming within the next 12 years it makes no sense.
It is true that some on the left, and some socialist organisations, do have a position similar to that Thornett describes here. But in my extensive experience, those are organisations that have the least involvement with environmental politics, and the least developed understanding of Marxism and ecology. Thornett caricatures the whole left (excluding himself) as having this position. He writes, "The practical upshot of a maximalist approach of this kind is to deprioritise the struggle for changes in the here and now, and so demobilise the left".

But this is plainly not true. For instance, Socialist Worker placards on climate demonstrations often say "System Change not Climate Change" and, as Thornett explicitly notes "One Solution Revolution". But they also call for One Million Climate jobs and other reforms. Thornett has closely worked with socialists from a number of different traditions (including the SWP) to develop these strategies to deal with climate change under capitalism; so his argument here is a mis-characterisation of much of the radical left.

By downplaying slogans that highlight the need for a socialist alternative to capitalism Thornett makes a error about how socialists should approach the struggle to deal with ecological disaster. The starting point must be that capitalism is the problem, not, as Thornett implies the existence of humans or the use of industry and technology. Global environmental crisis is the result of the development of a system of generalised commodity production based on the accumulation of wealth for the sake of accumulation. Despite Thornett noting the work of Marxists like Paul Burkett and John Bellamy Foster, his own book fails to emphasis this aspect of capitalism. The reader could be left with the impression that Thornett believes that the problem is simply the existence of human society (of whichever form).

In my view, socialists who reject, as utopian, the slogan 'System Change not Climate Change' for the environmental movement fail to see that the demand is not simply about the result, but also a strategy for getting a sustainable world. This isn't simply about whether or not socialism is the solution to the environmental crisis. Understanding that capitalism is the problem helps orient the movement. To argue anything else is to give ground to the idea that capitalism can solve the crisis - and if the last 40 years have taught us anything, it is that it can't and won't. It is only mass action that can force through reforms on the scale we require. Thornett's alternative - to eat less meat, to take individual responsibility for our personal footprint (which socialists don't worry about this?) and so on are thus fundamentally inadequate. Even Thornett's preferred strategy - the use of taxation against oil companies to "bring down carbon emissions rapidly" would fail unless it is backed up by powerful forces that can make the oil companies obey. The tragic lessons of experiments in radical reformism over the years has been that the capitalists are prepared to use the full power of their state to restrict any attempts to stop the accumulation of capital. 


This brings me to another key difference - the question of population. Thornett argues that the a key problem is the growing population and its environmental footprint. He notes that the footprint of people is different depending on where they are in the world, but writes that "African faces the most
dangerous situation". He argues that strategies need to be developed that will reduce population growth and encourage smaller families. Again he implies, perhaps inadvertently, that others on the left wouldn't agree. For instance he says that "policies that involve lifting women out of poverty in the poorest parts of the globe and enabling the to control their own fertility through the provision of contraception and abortion services, need to be supported". But I don't know anyone on the left who would disagree. The problem is that this won't stop environmental destruction.  

Later Thornett writes, "how can rising population and women's reproduction be separated? One determines the other." But this ignores the question of social context. Women have children based on all sorts of factors - but most importantly the number of children they have is linked to wealth. But whether a society can support a particular population is determined by the nature of that society. It's a point made well by Karl Marx:
overpopulation is…a historically determined relation, in no way determined by abstract numbers or by the absolute limit of the productivity of the necessaries of life, but by the limits posited rather by specific conditions of production…. How small do the numbers which meant overpopulation for the Athenians appear to us!
When we look at the causes of environmental disaster we have to point out that the problem is simply not caused by population growth in Africa (and to do this, as Thornett does, is to open the door to racist arguments about the developing world). Thornett does write:
I am not arguing that rising population is the root cause of the ecological crisis... That is the fault of the capitalist system of production and the commodification of the planet - although pre-capitalist systems of agriculture were already degrading the ecology and the biodiversity before capitalism arrived. What I am arguing is that rising population is a major contributory factor. 
But if this is the case, the starting point is not population, but the nature of capitalism. The structures of capitalism and the nature of accumulation mean that population growth in the developing world is not the problem. But Thornett moves further into dangerous territory when he argues that
The question is not simply whether capitalism is ecologically destructive, but whether the ecological crisis can be reduced to capitalism.... If the problem is simply capitalism, this implies (in reverse) that its removal would resolve - partially at least - the ecological crisis. But there is no evidence that this would be the case. In fact, major existential challenges would continue to exist, and the ecological struggle would have to continue long after capitalism had left the scene.
Clearly there will be ecological issues to resolve once capitalism has been defeated, but that will require a system being put in place that is capable of dealing with the disaster. In other words a society that is not based on the competitive accumulation of capital. But here Thornett appears to suggest the problem cannot be reduced to capitalism, in which case you can never prevent ecological crisis, which is a very strange conclusion to draw for a Marxist.

In other sections of the book Thornett deals with other issues such as transport and jobs, as well as a discussion of the relative weaknesses of the British trade union movement on ecological issues. In the section on food he argues that we need a transition to a lower meat diet. I've dealt elsewhere at length with this question, and won't repeat those arguments here. But I do want to note that Thornett's figures are incorrect. On page 176 he argues that GHG emissions from meat production "are greater than the emissions generated by the entire world-wide transportation system". But this is not true, as the UN's Food and Agricultural Organisation [FAO] has pointed out here. Readers might suggest that Thornett is correct not to rely on figures from the UN which might have a vested interest in denying this, but Thornett does rely on FAO figures on the previous page. Similarly Thornett quotes the figure of 18 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions being due to livestock production, but this figure comes from a report that the FAO admitted was flawed and the correct figure is nearer 14.5 percent. Thornett does then use this figure a few pages later (p186) but attributes it to "meat production" which is incorrect as it is from the whole "livestock sector" which includes more than meat production. More worryingly Thornett uses the infamous figure from the film Cowspiracy that 51 percent of all worldwide CO2 emissions comes from livestock. But this figure has been widely discredited, as Danny Chivers, author and lead external carbon analyst for Christian Aid and ActionAid has written:
The 51 percent number comes from a single non-peer-reviewed report by two researchers—a report littered with statistical errors. This study counts the climate impact of methane from animals as being more than three times more powerful as methane from other sources, adds in an inappropriate chunk of extra land use emissions and incorrectly includes all the carbon dioxide that livestock breathe out.
I highlight these inaccuracies because if the left is to win an argument around the environment we must be absolutely rigorous in our use of evidence, or risk undermining our own arguments.

In his conclusion Thornett writes that the left cannot reduce its arguments around environmental disaster to propaganda for socialism. That is true but no serious ecological Marxist makes this error. But the environmental crisis is an existential threat to humanity caused directly by the nature of capitalism. Unfortunately Alan Thornett's book undermines the struggle for a sustainable world because it obscures the real problem.

Related Reviews

Angus - Facing the Anthropocene
Angus - A Redder Shade of Green
Wallis - Red Green Revolution

Burkett - Marx and Nature
Foster - Marx's Ecology
Malm - The Progress of This Storm

Dee Brown - The Fetterman Massacre

Dee Brown is the celebrated author of one of the most famous books on the Native Americans - Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee. It is a classic of its time and a painful read as it depicts the story of the genocide of the Indigenous people of the Americas at the hands of the US government. It was a formative book for me, though perhaps superseded today by other works such as Nick Estes' Our History is the Future. However I was keen to read Brown's Fetterman Massacre as it centres on a notorious incident in December 1866 when Captain Fetterman's force of US Army troops was massacred by an army of Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapaho warriors under the leadership of Red Cloud.

Red Cloud's war was a response by the Native Americans to the incursions into their territory by the US Army and settlers from the East. Brown's book focuses on a small aspect of the widr conflict, following Colonel Henry Carrington who built and setup Fort Phil Kearny to protect travels and settlers on the Bozeman trail. Carrington, together with a tiny military force and a few civilians, setup an isolated fort and attempted to maintain it's position in the face of increasing hostility from the local indigenous people. Carrington himself was a bit of an idealist, and he was in a difficult position - isolated, under-supplied and lacking in experience (he himself had never commanded in action). He was also under pressure from the likes of Fetterman to take a more aggressive attitude to Red Cloud's forces.

Brown artfully mines the documentary evidence to show how Carrington came to understand the weakness of his position and how the expedition begins to approach disaster. Fetterman himself is experienced in fighting battles, but only for the Union against the Confederacy. He has little experience of fighting the highly mobile, guerrilla, forces that Red Cloud commands. Probably more dangerous for Fetterman is his own racism and prejudices which lead him to see the Native Americans as easy enemies for the trained US troops. Famously Fetterman declared "With 80 men I could ride through the Sioux nation" and it is ironic that when he and his command perished in a brutal, but brief fight, casualties were almost exactly eighty.

Tragically for Carrington he became the scapegoat, despite Fetterman having repeatedly broken discipline and disobeyed commands. Carrington had warned of disaster and the Army bureaucrats had ignored him. Red Cloud could claim a major victory, that would not be surpassed until the Battle of the Little Big Horn a decade later.

While this is a great compact read, it lacked nuance and I felt the voices of the Native American people were drowned out, as was the wider context of the battle. Dee Brown's work is sympathetic to the Native American people but he also carries with him the legacy of an earlier era - he uses the racist term "half breed" for instance. That said, the work is in no way a celebration of the US Army and tells a fascinating, if horrible, history.

Related Reviews

Estes - Our History is the Future
Tully - Crooked Deals and Broken Treaties
Philbrick - The Last Stand
Cronon - Changes in the Land
McMillan & Yellowhorn - First Peoples in Canada
Leacock - Myths of Male Dominance

Fagan - The First North Americans