Book Review: ‘Green History – A Reader in Environmental Literature, Philosophy and Politics’
Green writings from Wall
Green History – A Reader in Environmental Literature, Philosophy and Politics, by Derek Wall (Routledge, 1994)
Ninety-six extracts from a wide selection of writers of many periods have been assembled into nineteen groups, each with an introduction by Derek Wall.
The topics of the groups range from “Ecology and early urban civilization” to “Philosophical holism”. They are intended to cover the full spectrum of “Green” attitudes and beliefs and, as such, they offer a valuable insight into the thinking of those people who have decided to associate themselves with the broad ecology movement.
What is clearly demonstrated, however, is that concern for the earth, for nature, is nothing new. Pre-civilized peoples knew—and still know—the extent to which it is was necessary to live in harmony with the flora and other fauna of their area of the planet. But ancient civilisations, although they made many mistakes with their cities, agriculture and irrigation programmes, had their “Green” spokesmen too, such as Plato, Lucretius and Ovid.
Derek Wall intends to give Greens the authority of a respectable history, but he also warns them to be aware that many others before them, including socialists and anarchists, have drawn attention to the impact of human civilisation upon the rest of nature.
He mentions the expansionism of capitalism as the current cause of mushrooming ecological impact but, quoting Jonathan Porritt, entirely evades the explanation of why the majority have no choice but to continue abusing the planet’s resources and amenities.
Nowhere is there a mention of the subjection and exploitation of the majority of the industrial world’s population—the working class—by the capitalist class. Environmental degradation is therefore held up as the fault of us all. And this, of course, is the lameness which has been the cause of repeated disappointment for the political aspirations of Greens. They have no answer to capitalism. They have no agreed understanding of why capitalism plunders and pollutes as it does: and therefore they have no appreciation of what it will take to stop the rape of the world. They act as though they think indignation will be enough – and it won’t.
Green History is an interesting book to dip into or, because of its good index, look up topics and writers. But socialists must be prepared for considerable irritation. For example, Bellamy’s military-industrial society in Looking Backward is described as “socialist” although Bellamy had expressly rejected the label, preferring to call his scheme “Nationalism”. Morris’s News from Nowhere, written as a counterblast to Bellamy by an avowed Marxian socialist is, on the other hand, called “eco-utopian” by Wall. Perhaps these really are the terms in which most people today have been encouraged to think. But, for a book which claims to be providing a guide through the history of ideas to reinforce such prejudices betrays a lack of care and precision, eroding confidence in the other comments and conclusions the editor makes.