Free the sea

Reading Chris Armstrong’s A Blue New Deal for New Scientist, 16 February 2022

Chris Armstrong, a political theorist at the University of Southampton, believes that the institutions and laws that govern our oceans are too fragmented, too weak and too amenable to vested interests to address the inequalities that exist between developed and developing nations.

Nor, he says, do they protect the marine environment from destruction, and this at a time when there’s been a 30 per cent increase in ocean acidity (since 1900), when the global fishing effort has grown ninefold (between 1970 and 2008), and the globe’s pursuit of oil, gas and minerals is increasingly being directed off-shore.

Ocean governance has been shaped by two contrary impulses: the idea of the freedom of the high seas, given shape in Hugo Grotius’s The Free Sea of 1609; and the idea — rather more familiar to landlubbers — of enclosure, by which a coastal state is entitled to exclusive control and enjoyment of its immediate marine environment.

Grotius’s vision of oceanic free-for-all allows anyone with the wherewithal to exploit an ocean resource as much and as often as they desire. Armstrong allows that this was not entirely unreasonable, given the limited technology available at the time to even the wealthiest nations. Clearly, though, it needs reform for the 21st century, given only a handful of rich nations have access to the expensive technologies involved in sea-bed mining and mineral extraction.

Enclosure is perhaps the more recalcitrant tradition. The idea behind “territorial waters” is ancient, but Armstrong sensibly explains it by reference to the 1968 article by the ecologist Garrett Hardin, in which he claimed that “Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all”.

The trouble is, this isn’t true. The historical record is full of examples of resources held in common, and governed equitably for hundreds of years. The much vaunted “tragedy of the commons” is a piece of rhetoric, not a proven truth. And as Armstrong rightly points out, “the real tragedy for individual ‘commoners’ was enclosure itself, which saw them being evicted from the land by wealthy landowners.”

In 1994, a new Convention on the Law of the Sea established Exclusive Economic Zones extending for 200 nautical miles from nearly every shore. Within these zones, resources are subject to the jurisdiction of the coastal state. By this myopic reasoning, landlocked countries were excluded from a share of the spoils of the sea. (This matters, as access to the sea is essential for economic health. Armstrong points out that 9 of the world’s 12 poorest countries are landlocked). It did nothing to prevent richer nations from licensing, on predatory terms, rights over the EEZs of countries too poor to exploit their own territory. And it gave every state-owned atoll, rock, and island an exclusive patch of sea to exploit, extending 200 miles in every direction. And which states own these rocks? Former colonial powers, of course. Thanks to the 1994 convention, the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia and Australia now command the resources of more than 45 million square kilometres of ocean.

What can be done?

In 1959 a treaty established Antarctica as a place of peace and international cooperation — a commons in other words. Eight years later, the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 did the same for the worlds beyond our own. So it is not beyond our legal capacities, Armstrong argues, to govern our oceans along principles of common management, benefit sharing, and even technology transfer between rich and poor nations.

Where Armstrong comes unstuck is in his ideas for enforcement. It’s all very well to dream up a “World Ocean Authority” whose deliberations no state would have the power to veto or depart from. But what omnipotent and omniscient power will drive all this selfless sharing, I wonder? Not, I would bet, the destitute seamen of the Gulf of Thailand; nor the blue whales and other non-human stakeholders of our increasingly stressed oceans.

Salmon or seals?

Reading Rebecca Nesbit’s Tickets for the Ark for New Scientist, 9 February 2022

Imagine: you are the last person alive. On your dying day, you cut down the last remaining oak tree, just because you can. Are you morally wrong?

Rebecca Nesbit, a science writer who trained as an ecologist, reports from fields where scientific knowledge and moral intuition trip over each other in disconcerting, sometimes headline-generating ways. Her first book, published in 2017, was Is that Fish in your Tomato? exploring the benefits and risks of genetically modified foods.

In Tickets for the Ark, Nesbit explores the moral complexities of conservation. If push came to shove, and their extinction were imminent, would you choose to preserve bison or the Siberian larch; yellowhammers or Scottish crossbills; salmon or seals? Are native species more important than invasive species? Do animals matter for their charisma, or their edibility? Are we entitled to kill some animals to make room for others?

Working through these and other issues, Nesbit shows how complex and problematic conservation can be. In particular, she draws attention to the way we focus our efforts on the preservation of species. This, she points out, is really just a grand way of saying that we preserve what we can easily see. For the sake of preserving the planet’s biodiversity, we might as easily focus on genes, or on individual strings of DNA, or the general shape of whole ecosystems.

Tickets for the Ark could be read as a catalogue of understandable blunders. We have attempted to limit the spread of invasive species, only to discover that many indigenous species are long-established immigrants. We have attempted to reverse human interference in nature, only to find that life has been shaping the Earth’s geology for about 2.5 billion years.

Far from being a counsel of despair, though, Tickets for the Ark reveals the intellectual vistas those blunders have opened up.

Even supposing it ever existed, we know now that we cannot return to some prelapsarian Eden. All we can do is learn how natural systems change (sometimes under human influence, sometimes not) and use this information to shape our present world according to our values.

In a sense, of course, we have always been doing this. What is agriculture, if not a way of shaping of the land to our demands? At least now, having learned to feed ourselves, we might move on to realise some higher ideals.

Once we accept that “nature” is a human and social idea, and that conservation is about the future, not the past, then most of conservation’s most troubling conundrums and contradictions fall away. The death of the last oak, at the hands of the last human, becomes merely the loss of a category (oak tree) that was defined and valued by humans; a loss that was at some point inevitable anyway. And though this conclusion is counterintuitive and uncomfortable, Nesbit argues that it should be liberating because it leaves us “free to discuss logically what we should save and why, and not just fight an anti-extinction battle that is doomed to failure.”

Above all, we can now consider what conservation efforts will achieve for whole ecosystems, and for biodiversity as a whole, without wasting our time agonising over whether, say, British white-clawed crayfish are natives, or dingoes are a separate species, or whether we are morally entitled to introduce bison to clear the steppe of Siberian larch (a native species, but responsible for covering, and warming, ancient carbon-sequestering permafrost).

Nesbit’s ambitious and entertaining account foresees a dynamic and creative role for conservation, especially in an era of potentially catastrophic climate change. Having freed ourselves of the idea that species belong only in their past ranges, and armed with better information about how ecosystems actually work, it may be time for us to govern the spread of bison and countless other species into new ranges. A brave proposal; but as Nesbit points out, translocation may be the only option for some species.

Clay moulded by time

Reading Thomas Halliday’s Otherlands: A world in the making for the Telegraph, 5 February 2022

Earlier books have painted tableaux of life at other epochs, but few ever got the scale right. Thomas Halliday’s visions are monstrous.

Halliday is a paleoecologist. That’s a branch of biology, which in turn has become a troublesome cousin of physics, borrowing its technology as it penetrates the living machineries of heritability and development. “My own scientific work,” writes Birmingham-based researcher Thomas Halliday, “has mostly happened in basement museum collections and within computer algorithms, using shared anatomical features to try and work out the relationships among the mammals that lived in the aftermath of the last mass extinction.”

But Halliday is also a child of Rannoch — that glacier-scoured landscape of extinct volcanoes that dominates Scotland’s central highlands. And anyone familiar with that region will see instinctively how it underpins this epic near-hallucinatory natural history of the living earth.

Otherlands works backwards through the history of life, past the icebound Pleistocene 20,000 years ago and the Chicxulub asteroid strike 66 million years ago, past the deeply weird Triassic and the lush Devonian, all the way back to the first stirrings of multicellular life in the Ediacaran, 550 million years ago.

Many readers will come for the jump-scares. The paleocene Mesodma, which looks like a rodent until it opens its mouth, revealing a terrifying notched tooth, as though a buzzsaw were buried in its gum. The Gigatitan, a Triassic forerunner of the grasshopper, whose stridulations generate a bullfrog-like baritone song. The Tully Monster, the herring of the Carboniferous, with a segmented torpedo body, two rippling squid-like tail fins and at the front, “something like the hose of a vacuum cleaner, with a tiny tooth-filled grabbing claw at its end”.

Halliday weaves these snapshots of individual plants and animals into a vision of how carbon-based life continually adapts to its shifting, spinning home. It’s a story that becomes increasingly uncanny as it develops, as how could it not? In the normal course of things, we only ever get to see a single snapshot from this story, which is governed by rules that only start to make sense in geological time.

Anyone who’s looked at a crab feeding — a wriggling mass of legs that are tongues that are teeth — will not be surprised to learn that arthropods are the Swiss Army knives of the animal world, “with each segment containing a flexible, jointed appendage that can be adapted to a huge variety of functions.” But arthropods are weird-looking to begin with.

It’s when the cuddly end of nature starts to morph that the flesh begins to creep. In Gargano, that was once an island in the Mediterranean, home to dwarf elephants, giant swans and metre-long barn owls, we learn that everything on an island tends towards one particular size.

In the cold, though, this process goes into reverse. Getting big means your bulk can keep you warm for longer. Getting small means you can hibernate. Seymour Island in Antarctica, in the Eocene, boasted much wildlife, but nothing in size between a rabbit and a sheep.

So far, so Alice-like. More unnerving are the ways in which living things, quite unrelated, converge to exploit similar settings. The pangolins of Africa and South Asia are more closely related to humans than they are to South American armadilloes. At first glance, though, you’d be hard pressed to tell these two animals apart.

If nature fitted together neatly, this sort of thing might not seem so disquieting. But things don’t fit together. There is no balance, just a torrent of constant change, and plants and animals lost in its eddies. When threatened, the slow loris raises its arms up behind its head, shivers and hisses. Why? Because it’s trying to look like a cobra, though the ranges of slow loris and cobra haven’t overlapped in tens of thousands of years.

Slowly, but very surely, the the six-metre long sea serpents of the Triassic come to see almost benign next to the Giant Dormouse or Terrible Moon-Rat which, in their uncanny resemblance to familiar animals, remind us that we humans, too, are clay moulded by time.

In the story of life on Earth, the activities of Homo sapiens are an eyeblink. We’re a sudden, short-lived, energetic thing, like a volcanic eruption, like a rock from space. It doesn’t really matter what they are, or whether they take a split-second, a couple of hundred years, or a few thousand years to wreak their havoc. Sudden energetic things destroy.

But rather than fall into the contemporary cliche and attempt to conjure up some specious agency for us all — “you too are a governor of the planet!” — Halliday engages us as Victorian writers once did, filling us with wonder, not anxiety — and now with added nuance, and better evidence to hand. The chapter “Deluge”, on the filling of the Mediterranean basin in the Miocine, and the chapter “Cycles” describing Eocene polar rainforests, were personal favourites, dazzling me to the point where I wondered, dizzily, how accurate these visions might be.

I don’t mean that Halliday has taken short cuts. On the contrary: the story he tells is handsomely evidenced. I mean only that his story will eventually date. Not far from where I live, Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins sculpted the first full-scale representations of dinosaurs, setting them in a landscape designed by Joseph Paxton, for the delectation of visitors to the Crystal Palace, once it relocated near Penge.

People now point and titter at Hawkins’s inaccuracies — the horn on one beast turns out to be the thumb belonging to another and so on — but what’s really staggering is how accurate his models are, given the evidence available at the time.

Halliday stands on the shoulders of Hawkins and other giants. He knows about dinosaur coloration, and dinosaur vision (they could see into the ultra-violet). He can trace the wax on fossilised leaves, and tell you how the seasons worked, and about the prevailing winds. He can trace our ancient insectivorous past through genes we all carry that code for digesting chitin. Picking among countless recent discoveries, he can even tell you how four-limbed flying pterosaurs came in to land (“hind-feet first, a jump, skip and hop to a stop”).

I wonder what Halliday cannot yet know?

As the author says, “Nothing provokes debate quite like the hunting of monsters.”

How wheat is grown, how steel is made

Reading Vaclav Smil’s How the World Really Works for New Scientist, 2 February 2022

By the late Renaissance, Europe’s knowledge of the world had grown beyond the compass of any single intellect. In 1772, more or less the whole of human knowledge could be encompassed within a set of handsome encyclopaedias. A century later, even the grandest encyclopaedias, to fulfil their reality-wrapping remit, had to resort to brief sketches and cursory citations. Today the global infosphere has expanded to the point where misinformation and disinformation hide in plain sight.

No one expects everyone to understand everything. But there are limits. Energy expert Vaclav Smil finds it downright inexcusable, that most people misunderstand the fundamental workings of the modern world. “After all,” he says, “appreciating how wheat is grown or steel is made… are not the same as asking that somebody comprehend femtochemistry.”

Smil believes that public discourse has begun to abandon its hold on reality entirely, and he deplores a culture which rewards disproportionately work that is removed from the material realities of life on earth.

This book is Smil’s effort to rebalance public discourse, reminding readers how food is grown, and the built environment is made and maintained — truths that should be obvious, but which are all to easily forgotten in our current, apocalypse- and utopia-minded times.

The fundamentals of our lives will not change drastically in the coming 20–30 years. Most of our electricity is gener­ated by steam turbines, invented by Charles Parsons in 1884, or by gas turbines, first commercially deployed in 1938. So never mind AI, electric cars, the internet, 5G, or space entrepreneurism (all of which depend for their energy on those antediluvian turbines). The health or otherwise of modern civilization rests, as it has rested for decades, on the continued production of ammonia, steel, concrete, and plastics.

All these currently require fossil fuels for their production, and alternative production methods, where they are available, will take many decades to establish. (It was much easier to displace wood by coal than it is now to displace fossil fuels with renewables, because global energy demand was an order of magnitude lower in 1920 than it was in 2020.)

Given the ungainsayable evidence of climate change, does this mean that our civilisation, so hopelessly dependent on fossil fuels, is doomed?

The simple answer is that we don’t know, and Smil would rather we take our present environmental and economic challenges seriously than fritter away our energy and anxiety on complex socio-economic forecasts that are not worth the femtobytes used to calculate them. After all, such forecasts are likely to be getting worse, not better, because, as Smil says, “more complex models combining the interactions of economic, social, technical, and environmental factors require more assumptions and open the way for greater errors.”

How the World Really Works neither laments the imminent end of the world, nor bloviates enthusiastically over the astonishingly transformative powers of the AI Singularity. Indeed, it gives no quarter to such thinking, be it apocalyptic or techno-utopian.

Smil would rather explain the workings of the actual world. He writes about energy, food, materials, the biosphere, about the perception of risk, and about globalisation. He writes about those sizeable parts of ground reality that the doomsayers and boosterists ignore. It’s grumpy, pugnacious account and, I would argue, intellectually indispensable, as we rattle our way towards this year’s COP conference in Egypt.

In an era of runaway specialization, Smil is an exemplary generalist. “Drilling the deepest possible hole and being an unsurpassed master of a tiny sliver of the sky visible from its bottom has never appealed to me,” he writes. “I have always preferred to scan as far and as wide as my limited capabilities have allowed me to do.”

How the World Really Works delivers fully on the promise of its title. It is hard to formulate any higher praise.

Where the law of preposterousness trumps all

Reading Pieter Waterdrinker’s The Long Song of Tchaikovsky Street: A Russian Adventure for the Times, 29 January 2022

On 16 June 1936 the author and Bolshevik sympathiser Andre Gide left France for 9-week trip to the Soviet Union. In Soviet Russia, he was offered every comfort — an experience he found extremely unsettling. “Are these really the men who made the Revolution?” he asked, in his book Afterthoughts. “No; they are the men who profit by it. They may be members of the Party — there is nothing communist in their hearts.”

Parisian intellectuals immediately piled in on this turncoat, this viper: Romain Rolland called Gide’s reporting “astonishingly poor, superficial, puerile and contradictory”.

It is possible to misread The Long Song, Pieter Waterdrinker’s memoir of Russia and its revolutions, in the same way, and lay the same charges at his door. How do you write about a place like St Petersburg (where “although the law of chance may be predominant as a rule, the law of preposterousness trumps all”), how do you anatomise the superficiality, puerility and contradiction of Russian civic culture, without exhibiting the same qualities yourself? How do you explore a sewer without getting covered in….? Well, you get the idea.

Waterdrinker is a novelist best known for the farcical and exuberant The German Wedding (2009). Poubelle, published in 2016, is a dizzying state-of-nations novel rooted in the war in east Ukraine. Waterdrinker’s gift for savage comedy, and his war correspondent’s eye, have few contemporary equivalents. Reading Paul Evans’s impressively brutal translation of The Long Song, I was put in mind, not of any contemporary, but of Wyndham Lewis, a between-the-wars writer so contrarian and violent and hilarious, English letters have spent the 60-odd years since his death trying to bury him.

Waterdrinker complains that he’s been receiving similar mistreatment from the cognoscenti in his native Netherlands. And let’s be frank: there’s nothing more inconvenient, nothing more irritating, than a leftist who calls out socialism.

Be that as it may, The Long Song has already sold over 100,000 copies across mainland Europe. After twenty-odd years of trying, Waterdrinker is an overnight success.

What is this book, exactly? A synthesis of Waterdrinker’s irascible personality and colourful career? A non-fiction novel? A deconstructed political memoir?

Pieter Waterdrinker, who calls a spade a bloody shovel, calls it “… a personal book about the Russian Revolution of 1917. You buffed up your own life with a little patina, borrowed an abundance of what others had written, with liberal citations, made up a bit if need be, and mixed it all together like the ingredients of a thick, hearty soup, et voilá: it was as if the book had written itself.”

Waterdrinker interleaves his early biography (sucked into, and unceremoniously spat out of, the goldrush accompanying the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s) with the history of revolutions in Russia. He concentrates particularly on the people (including Valdimir Lenin, “the bastard that started it all”) who either resided or worked on Tchaikovsky Street (named after the revolutionary, not the composer) where Waterdrinker and his wife Julia and their three cats once lived.

“One of our neighbours… was standing on the landing in a blue-and-white striped sailor’s top, hacking up an antique sideboard with an axe,” the author reminisces. “‘No, not Mama’s dresser…’ the man imitated his wife’s voice out of key. ‘But why not, you slut!’ The axe-head fell again, the splinters and brass fittings flying every which way.”

And this, bear in mind, is the couple’s isle of calm; the place from which Waterdrinker looks back on his early life, before he became a writer. It’s a tale dominated by a series of increasingly dubious business dealings, starting in 1988 with a scheme to smuggle bibles into Leningrad and ending in 1990 when he was strongly urged to transport a container of French wine to Kazan each month “in exchange for an unlimited supply of tender Tatar beauties to work as dancers in the Amsterdam nightlife circuit”. After a spell in the Netherlands, the couple returned to Russia in 1996.

There are moments of sybaritic delight, as when the young would-be writer bathes with his wife-to-be (a teacher who has lived in poverty and squalor for years) in a bathtub of Soviet champagne. There are moments of horror, as when the author’s business associates are hung from trees to freeze to death; or are, more straightforwardly, shot. There are unforgettable grotesques: the half-mad elderly Madam Pokrovskaya, who has eluded the tragedy of a life spent in St Petersburg by entirely abandoning her sense of time; young Waterdrinker’s grinning business partner Swindleman, so hollow, he rattles. In the end (but not so soon as to spoil the book) a sort of tinnitus sets in. The apartment on Tchaikovsky Street is itself lost to redevelopers in the end, and the book ends in clouds of plaster dust and the thudding of drills.

The Long Song draws parallels between the revolution of 1917 and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. It is, to Waterdrinker’s mind, the same revolution, which is to say, the same orgy of resentment, hate and nihilism, fomented by psychopaths, and barely contained — drab decades at a time — by self-serving bureaucrats and secret policemen.

Waterdrinker sees a continuum of moral annihilation stretching from the czars to the present. He concludes that Russian political culture runs on hatred, and its revolutions are, far from being attempts at treatment, merely symptoms of an ineradicable malaise. Waterdrinker prefers witness over analysis, because he’s a sometime war correspondent, and eye-witness is his metier; and anyway, how are you supposed to “analyse” moments like the one recorded by Philip Jordan, a Missouri-born African-American and assistant to the US ambassador, when “in a house not far from the embassy, [the Red Guards] murdered a little girl, twelve bayonets stuck into her body”? The Long Song’s abiding emblem is a description, not of the taking of the Winter Palace, but of the taking of the Winter Palace’s wine cellar, some eight months later: “scenes of tableaux worthy of Dante, in which men up to their ankles in wine shot at each other, the blood of the dead and the wounded mixing with the alcohol.”

The Long Song contributes to a tradition that’s recognised for its literary merit (think Bunin, think Zamyatin) but which tends to get saddled with the “contrarian” label — not least because much of the Left establishment still pays lip-service to the Bolshevik idea. (Consider how Orwell was treated by his contemporaries — or Christopher Hitchens, for that matter.)

Waterdrinker is too much the literary werewolf to change many made-up minds. But, given Russia’s current expansionist posturings, we’d be well to give him audience. Listen, if not to him, then to the dairist who once shared his street, Zinaida Hippius, who watched this horrorshow the first time around: “If a country can exist in Europe in the twentieth century where there’s such phenomenal and previously unwitnessed slavery, and Europe doesn’t understand that or else accepts it, then Europe must meet its downfall.”


Whatever happened to Mohammedan Hindus?

Reading Anna Della Subin’s Accidental Gods: On Men Unwittingly Turned Divine for the Telegraph, 8 January 2022

He is a prince of Greece – but he is not Greek. He is a man of Danish, German and Russian blood, but he springs from none of those places. Who is he? Prince Philip, of blessed memory, consort of Queen Elizabeth II? Or is he – as a handful of her subjects, half a world away, would have it – the son of Vanuatu’s volcano god Kalbaben?

Essayist Anna Della Subin wants you to understand why you might mistake a man for a god; why this happens more often than you’d think; and what this says about power, and identity, and about colonialism in particular.

Early proofs of Accidental Gods arrived on my doormat on Tuesday 2 November, the same day QAnon believers gathered in Dallas’s Dealey Plaza to await the resurrection of JFK’s son John (dead these 20 years). So: don’t sneer. This kind of thing can happen to anyone. It can happen now. It can happen here.

Men have been made divine by all manner of people, all over the world. Ranging widely across time and space, Accidental Gods is a treat for the adventurous armchair traveller, though a disconcerting one. We are reminded, with some force, that even the most sophisticated-seeming culture exists, by and large, to contain ordinary human panic in the face of an uncaring cosmos.

After the second world war, during the Allied occupation, ordinary Japanese folk plied American General Douglas MacArthur with lotus roots and dried persimmons, red beans, rice cakes, bonsai trees, walking sticks, samurai swords, deerskins, a kimono, and much else besides. These were offerings, explicitly made to a newcomer God. Now, we more often talk about them as acts of gratitude and respect. This is just ordinary decency — why would one poke fun at a land one has already nuked, defeated, and occupied? Japan’s written historical record lets us focus on the Meiji dynasty’s politics while drawing a veil over its frankly embarrassing theology.

But not everyone has such a rich political account of themselves to hide behind. In the early 1920s Hauka mediums in Niger, central Africa, were possessed by the spirits of their European conquerors. Their zombified antics were considered superstitious and backward. But were they? They managed, after all, to send up the entire French administration. (“In the absence of a pith helmet,” we are told, “they could fashion one out of a gourd”.) In the Congolese town of Kabinda, meanwhile, the wives of shamanic adepts found themselves channelling the spirits of Belgian settler wives. Their faces chalked and with bunches of feathers under their arms (“possibly to represent a purse”) they went around shrilly demanding bananas and hens.

Western eye-witnesses of these events weren’t at all dismissive; they were disturbed. One visitor, reporting to parliament in London in or before 1886, said these people were being driven mad by the experience of colonial subjection. Offerings made to a deified British soldier in Travancore, at India’s southernmost point were, according to this traveller, “an illustration of the horror in which the English were held by the natives.”

But what if the prevailing motive for the white man’s deification was “not horror or dislike, but pity for his melancholy end, dying as he did in a desert, far away from friends”? That was the contrary opinion of a visiting missionary, and he may have had a point: across the subcontinent, “the practice of deifying humans who had died in premature or tragic ways was age-old,” Subin tells us.

Might the “spirit possessed” just have been having a laugh? Again: it’s possible. In 1864, during a Māori uprising against the British, Captain P. W. J. Lloyd was killed, and his severed head became the divine conduit for the angel Gabriel, who, among other fulminations, had not one good word to say about the Church of England.

Subin shows how, by creating and worshipping powerful outsiders, subject peoples have found a way to contend with an overwhelming invading force. The deified outsider, be he a British Prince or a US general, Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie or octogenarian poet Nathaniel Tarn, “appears on every continent on the map, at times of colonial invasion, nationalist struggle and political unrest.”

This story is as much about the colonisers as the conquered, as much about the present as the past, showing how the religious and the political shade into each other so that “politics is ever a continuation of the sacred under a new name”. Perhaps this is why Subin, while no enthusiast of Empire, takes aim less at the soldiers and settlers and missionaries – who at least took some personal risk and kept their eyes open – than at the academics back home in Europe, and in particular the intellectual followers and cultural descendents of German philologist Freidrich Max Müller, founder of the science of comparative religion. Their theories imposed, on wholly unrelated belief systems, a set of Protestant standards that, among other things, insisted on the insuperable gulf between the human and the divine. (Outside of Christian Europe, this divide hardly exists, and even Catholics have their saints.)

So Europe’s new-fangled science of religion “invented what it purported to describe”, ascribing “belief” to all manner of nuanced behaviours that expressed everything from contempt for the overlord to respect for the dead, to simple human charity. Subin quotes contemporary philosopher Bruno Latour: “A Modern is someone who believes that others believe.”

Subin sings a funeral hymn to religions that ossified. Writing about the catastrophic Partition of India along religious lines, she writes, “There was no place within this modern taxonomy for the hundreds of thousands who labeled themselves ‘Mohammedan Hindus’ on a 1911 census, or for those who worshipped the prophet Muhammad as an avatar of Vishnu.”

Accidental Gods is a playful, ironic, and ambiguous book about religion, at a time when religion – outside of Dealey Plaza – has grown as solemn as an owl. It’s no small achievement for Subin to have written something that, even as it explores the mostly grim religious dimensions of the colonial experience, does not reduce religion to politics but, to the contrary, leaves us hankering, like QAnon’s unlovely faithful, for a wider, wilder pantheon.

“A perfect storm of cognitive degradation”

Reading Johann Hari’s Stolen Focus: Why you can’t pay attention for the Telegraph, 2 January 2022

Drop a frog into boiling water, and it will leap from the pot. Drop it into tepid water, brought slowly to the boil, and the frog will happily let itself be cooked to death.

Just because this story is nonsense, doesn’t mean it’s not true — true of people, I mean, and their tendency to acquiesce to poorer conditions, just so long as these conditions are introduced slowly enough. (Remind yourself of this next time you check out your own groceries at the supermarket.)

Stolen Focus is about how our environment is set up to fracture our attention. It starts with our inability to set the notifications correctly on our mobile phones, and ends with climate change. Johann Hari thinks a huge number of pressing problems are fundamentally related, and that the human mind is on the receiving end of what amounts to a denial-of-service attack. One of Hari’s many interviewees is Earl Miller from MIT, who talks about “a perfect storm of cognitive degradation, as a result of distraction”; to which Hari adds the following, devastating gloss: “We are becoming less rational less intelligent, less focused.”

To make such a large argument stick, though, Hari must ape the wicked problem he’s addressing: he must bring the reader to a slow boil.

Stolen Focus begins with an extended grumble about how we don’t read as many books as we used to, or buy as many newspapers, and how we are becoming increasingly enslaved to our digital devices. Why we should listen to Hari in particular, admittedly a latecomer to the “smartphones bad, books good” campaign, is not immediately apparent. His account of his own months-long digital detox — idly beachcombing the shores of Provincetown at the northern tip of Cape Cod, War and Peace tucked snugly into his satchel — is positively maddening.

What keeps the reader engaged are the hints (very well justified, it turns out) that Hari is deliberately winding us up.

He knows perfectly well that most of us have more or less lost the right to silence and privacy — that there will be no Cape Cod for you and me, in our financial precarity.

He also knows, from bitter experience, that digital detoxes don’t work. He presents himself as hardly less of a workaholic news-freak than he was before taking off to Massachusetts.

The first half of Stolen Focus got me to sort out my phone’s notification centre, and that’s not nothing; but it is, in the greater scheme of Hari’s project, hardly more than a parody of the by now very familiar “digital diet book” — the sort of book that, as Hari eventually points out, can no more address the problems filling this book than a diet book can address epidemic obesity.

Many of the things we need to do to recover our attention and focus “are so obvious they are banal,” Hari writes: “slow down, do one thing at a time, sleep more… Why can’t we do the obvious things that would improve our attention? What forces are stopping us?”

So, having had his fun with us, Hari begins to sketch in the high sides of the pot in which he finds us being coddled.

The whole of the digital economy is powered by breaks in our attention. The finest minds in the digital business are being paid to create ever-more-addicting experiences. According to former Google engineer Tristan Harris, “we shape more than eleven billion interruptions to people’s lives every day.” Aza Raskin, co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology, calls the big tech companies “the biggest perpetrators of non-mindfulness in the world.”

Social media is particularly insidious, promoting outrage among its users because outrage is wildly more addictive than real news. Social media also promotes loneliness. Why? Because lonely people will self-medicate with still more social media. (That’s why Facebook never tells you which of your friends are nearby and up for a coffee: Facebook can’t make money from that.)

We respond to the anger and fear a digital diet instils with hypervigilance, which wrecks our attention even further and damages our memory to boot. If we have children, we’ll keep them trapped at home “for their own safety”, though our outdoor spaces are safer than they have ever been. And when that carceral upbringing shatters our children’s attention (as it surely will), we stuff them with drugs, treating what is essentially an environmental problem. And on and on.

And on. The problem is not that Stolen Focus is unfocused, but that it is relentless: an unfeasibly well-supported undergraduate rant that swells — as the hands of the clock above the bar turn round and the beers slide down — to encompass virtually every ill on the planet, from rubbish parenting to climate change.

“If the ozone layer was threatened today,” writes Hari, “the scientists warning about it would find themselves being shouted down by bigoted viral stories claiming the threat was all invented by the billionaire George Soros, or that there’s no such thing as the ozone layer anyway, or that the holes were really being made by Jewish space lasers.”

The public campaign Hari wants Stolen Focus to kick-start (there’s an appendix; there’s a weblink; there’s a newsletter) involves, among other things, a citizen’s wage, outdoor play, limits on light pollution, public ownership of social media, changes in the food supply, and a four-day week. I find it hard to disagree with any of it, but at the same time I can’t rid myself of the image of how, spiritually refreshed by War and Peace, consumed in just a few sittings in a Provincetown coffee shop, Hari must (to quote Stephen Leacock) have “flung himself from the room, flung himself upon his horse and rode madly off in all directions”.

If you read just one book about how the modern world is driving us crazy, read this one. But why would you read just one?

Stone the Fool and others

Reading Stars and Spies: Intelligence Operations and the Entertainment Business
by Christopher Andrew and Julius Green for the Spectator, 18 December 2021

On 2 October 2020, when he became chief of the UK Secret Intelligence Service (MI6, if you prefer), Richard Moore tweeted (*tweeted!*)

#Bond or #Smiley need not apply. They’re (splendid) fiction but actually we’re #secretlyjustlikeyou.

The gesture’s novelty disguised, at the time, its appalling real-world implications: Bond was, after all, competent; and Smiley had integrity.

Stars and Spies, by veteran intelligence historian Christopher Andrew and theatre director and circus producer Julius Green, is a thoroughly entertaining read, but not at all a reassuring one. “The adoption of a fictional persona, the learning of scripts and the ability to improvise” are central to career progression in both theatre and espionage, the writers explain, “and undercover agents often find themselves engaged in what is effectively an exercise in in long-form role play.”

It should, then, come as no surprise that this book boasts “no shortage of enthusiastic but inept entertainer-spies”.

There’s Aphra Behn, the first woman employed as a secret agent by the British state during the Second Anglo-Dutch War in 1665: reaping no secret intelligence from her former lover, “ASTRA, Agent 160”, she made stuff up.

As, indeed, did “The Man Called Intrepid”, Sir William Stephenson, subject, in 1976, of the biggest-selling book ever on intelligence history. His recollections, spanning everything from organising wartime resistance in Europe to developing the Spitfire and the jet engine, work on the German Enigma code, and developing nuclear weapons, turned out to be the melancholy fabulations of a man suffering catastrophic memory loss.

The authors imagine that their subject — the intersection between spying and acting — is entertaining enough that they can simply start in the England of Good Queen Bess and Christopher Marlowe (recruited to spy for Walsingham while a student at Cambridge; also wrote a play or two), and end with the ludicrous antics (and — fair’s fair — brilliant acting) of US spy show Homeland.

And, by and large, they’re right. Begin at the beginning; end at the end. Why gild the lily with anything so arduous as an argument, when your anecdotes are this engaging? (Daniel Defoe’s terrifying plans for a surveillance state were scotched because the government’s intelligence budget was being siphoned off to keep Charles II’s mistresses quiet; and why were the British establishment so resistant to the charms of Soviet ballerinas?)

This approach does, however, leave the authors’ sense of proportion open to question. They’re not wrong to point out that “the most theatrical innovations pioneered by Stalinist intelligence were the show trials”, but in the context of so many Corenesque quasi-theatrical anecdotes, this observation can’t help but feel a bit cheap.

Once the parallels between spying and acting have been pointed out, the stories told here (many of them the fruit of fairly arduous primary research) sometimes come across as slightly fatuous. Why should the popular broadcaster Maxwell Knight not be a powerful recruiter of spies during the inter-war years? There’s nothing counter-intuitive here, if you think about the circles Knight must have moved in.

We are on surer ground when the authors measure the sharp contrast between fictional spies and their real-life counterparts. In the movies, honeypots abound, still rehashing the myths attaching to the courageous World War One French spy Mistinguett and the sadly deluded Margaretha Zelle (Mata Hari).

In truth, though, and for the longest while, women in this business have been more middle management than cat-suited loot. Recruited largely from Oxford’s women’s colleges and Cheltenham Ladies’ College, women played a more important part in the Security Service than in any other wartime government department, and for years, we are told, the service has been recruiting more women at officer and executive level than any other branch of government.

As for seduction and pillow-talk, even a fleeting acquaintance with men in their natural environment will tell us that, as Maxwell Knight put it, “Nothing is easier than for a woman to gain a man’s confidence by the showing and expression of a little sympathy… I am convinced,” he went on, “that more information has been obtained by women agents by keeping out of the arms of a man, than was ever obtained by willingly sinking into them.”

Fuelled by Erskine Childers’s peerless spy novel The Riddle of the Sands (1903), by Somerset Maughan’s Ashenden stories and by everything Fleming ever wrote, of course the audience for espionage drama hankers for real-life insight from writers “in the know”. And if the writer complains that the whole espionage industry is a thing of smoke and mirrors, well, we’ll find that fascinating too. (In Ben Jonson’s spy farce Volpone Sir Pol, on being told of the death of Stone the Fool, claims that Stone actually ran a sophisticated spy ring which communicated by means of dead drops hidden in fruit and vegetables. Eat your heart out, Le Carré.)

Andrew and Green, who both at different times studied history at Corpus Christi, Christopher Marlowe’s old college, are not really giving us the inside track. I would go so far as to say that they are not really telling us anything new. But they marshall their rare facts splendidly, and use them to spin ripping yarns.

“Von Neumann proves what he wants”

Reading Ananyo Bhattacharya’s The Man from the Future for The Telegraph, 7 November 2021

Neumann János Lajos, born in Budapest in 1903 to a wealthy Jewish family, negotiated some of the most lethal traps set by the twentieth century, and did so with breathtaking grace. Not even a painful divorce could dent his reputation for charm, reliability and kindness.

A mathematician with a vise-like memory, he survived, and saved others, from the rise of Nazism. He left Austria and joined Princeton’s Institute of Advanced Study when he was just 29. He worked on ballistics in Second World War, atom and hydrogen bombs in Cold War. Disturbed yet undaunted by the prospect of nuclear armageddon, he still found time to develop game theory, to rubbish economics, and to establish artificial intelligence as a legitimate discipline.

He died plain ‘Johnny von Neumman’, in 1957, at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, surrounded by heavy security in case, in his final delirium, he spilled any state secrets.

Following John Von Neumann’s life is rather like playing chess against a computer: he has all the best moves already figured out. ‘A time traveller,’ Ananyo Bhattacharya calls him, ‘quietly seeding ideas that he knew would be needed to shape the Earth’s future.’ Mathematician Rózsa Péter’s assessment of von Neumann’s powers is even more unsettling: ‘Other mathematicians prove what they can,’ she declared; ‘von Neumann proves what he wants.’

Von Neumann had the knack (if we can use so casual a word) of reduced a dizzying variety of seemingly intractable technical dilemmas to problems in logic. In Vienna he learned from David Hilbert how to think systematically about mathematics, using step-by-step, mechanical procedures. Later he used that insight to play midwife to the computer. In between he rendered the new-fangled quantum theory halfway comprehensible (by explaining how Heisenberg’s and Schrödinger’s wildly different quantum models said the same thing); then, at Los Alamos, he helped perfect the atom bomb and co-invented the unimaginably more powerful H-bomb.

He isn’t even dull! The worst you can point to is some mild OCD: Johnny fiddles a bit too long with the light switches. Otherwise — what? He enjoys a drink. He enjoys fast cars. He’s jolly. You can imagine having a drink with him. He’d certainly make you feel comfortable. Here’s Edward Teller in 1966: ‘Von Neumann would carry on a conversation with my three-year-old son, and the two of them would talk as equals, and I sometimes wondered if he used the same principle when he talked to the rest of us.’

In embarking on his biography of von Neumann, then, Bhattacharya sets himself a considerable challenge: writing about a man who, through crisis after crisis, through stormy intellectual disagreements and amid political controversy, contrived always, for his own sake and others’, to avoid unnecessary drama.

What’s a biographer to do, when part of his subject’s genius is his ability to blend in with his friends, and lead a good life? How to dramatise a man without flaws, who skates through life without any of the personal turmoil that makes for gripping storytelling?

If some lives resist the storyteller’s art, Ananyo Bhattacharya does a cracking job of hiding the fact. He sensibly, and very ably, moves the biographical goal-posts, making this not so much the story of a flesh-and-blood man, more the story of how an intellect evolves, moving as intellects often do (though rarely so spectacularly) from theoretical concerns to applications to philosophy. ‘As he moved from pure mathematics to physics to economics to engineering,’ observed former colleague Freeman Dyson, ‘[Von Neumann] became steadily less deep and steadily more important,’

Von Neumann did not really trust humanity to live up, morally, to its technical capacities. ‘What we are creating now,’ he told his wife, after a sleepless night contemplating an H bomb design, ‘is a monster whose influence is going to change history, provided there is any history left.’ He was a quintessentially European pessimist, forged by years that saw the world he had grown up in being utterly destroyed. It is no fanciful ‘man from the future’, and no mere cynic, who writes, ‘We will be able to go into space way beyond the moon if only people could keep pace with what they create.’

Bhattacharya’s agile, intelligent, intellectually enraptured account of John von Neumann’s life reveals, after all, not “a man from the future”, not a one-dimensional cold-war warrior and for sure not Dr Strangelove (though Peter Sellars nicked his accent). Bhattacharya argues convincingly that Von Neumann was a man in whose extraordinarily fertile head the pre-war world found an all-too-temporary lifeboat.

“A moist and feminine sucking”

Reading Susan Wedlich’s Slime: A natural history for the Times, 6 November 2021

For over two thousand years, says science writer Susan Wedlich, quoting German historian Richard Hennig, maritime history has been haunted by mention of a “congealed sea”. Ships, it is said, have been caught fast and even foundered in waters turned to slime.

Slime stalks the febrile dreams of landlubbers, too: Jean-Paul Sartre succumbed to its “soft, yielding action, a moist and feminine sucking”, in a passage, lovingly quoted here, that had this reader instinctively scrabbling for the detergent.

We’ve learned to fear slime, in a way that would have seemed quite alien to the farmers of ancient Egypt, who supposed slime and mud were the base materials of life itself. So, funnily enough, did German zoologist Ernst Haeckel, a champion of Charles Darwin, who saw primordial potential in the gellid lumps being trawled from the sea floor by various oceanographic expeditions. (This turned out to be calcium sulphate, precipitated by the chemical reaction between deep-sea mud and alcohol used for the preservation of aquatic specimens. Haeckel never quite got over his disappointment.)

For Susan Wedlich, it is not enough that we should learn about slime; nor even that we should be entertained by it (though we jolly well are). Wendlich wants us to care deeply about slime, and musters all the rhetorical at her disposal to achieve her goal. “Does even the word “slime” have to elicit gagging histrionics?” she exclaims, berating us for our phobia: “if we neither recognize nor truly know slime, how are we supposed to appreciate it or use it for our own ends?”

This is overdone. Nor do we necessarily know enough about slime to start shouting about it. To take one example, using slime to read our ecological future turns out to be a vexed business. There’s a scum of nutrients held together by slime floating on top of the oceans. A fraction of a millimetre thick, it’s called the “sea-surface micro-layer”. Global warming might be thinning it, or thickening it, and doing either might be increasing the chemical transport taking place between air and ocean — or retarding it — to unknown effect. So there: yet another thing to worry about.

For sure, slime holds the world together. Slimes, rather: there are any number of ways to stiffen water so that it acts as a lubricant, a glue, or a barrier. Whatever its origins, it is most conspicuous when it disappears — as when overtilling of America’s Great Plains caused the Dust Bowl in 1933, or when the gluey glycan coating of one’s blood vessels starts to mysteriously shear away during surgery.

There was a moment, in the 1920s, when slime shed its icky materiality and became almost cool. Artists both borrowed from and inspired Haeckel’s exquisite drawings of delicate maritime invertebrates. And biologists, looking for the mechanisms underpinning memory and heredity, would have liked nothing more than to find that the newly-identified protoplasm within our every cell was recording, like an Edison drum, the tremblings of a ubiquitous, information-rich aether. (Sounds crazy now, but the era was, after all, bathing in X-rays and other newly-discovered radiations.)

But slime’s moment of modishness passed. Now it’s the unlovely poster-child of environmental degradation: the stuff that will fill our soon-to-be-empty oceans, “home only to jellyfish, algae and microbial mats”, if we don’t do something sharpish to change our ecological ways.

Hand in hand with such millennial anxieties, of course, come the usual power fantasies: that we might harness all this unlovely slime — nothing more than water held in a cage of a few long-chain polymers — to transform our world, providing the base for new materials and soft robots, “transparent, stretchable, locomotive, biocompatible, remote-controlled, weavable, wearable, self-healing and shape-morphing, 3D-printed or improved by different ingredients”.

Wedlich’s enthusiasm is by no means misplaced. Slime is not just a largely untapped wonder material. It is also — really, truly — the source of life, and a key enabler of complex forms. We used to think the machinery of the first cells must have risen in clay hydrogels — a rather complicated and unlikely genesis — but it turns out that nucleic acids like DNA and RNA can sometimes form slimes on their own. Life, it turns out, does not need a substrate on which to arise. It is its own sticky home.

Slime’s effective barrier to pathogens may then have enabled complex tissues to differentiate and develop, slickly sequestered from a disease-ridden outside world. Wedlich’s tour of the human gut, and its multiple slime layers, (some lubricant, some gluey, and many armed with extraordinary electrostatic and molecular traps for one pathogen or another) is a tour de force of clear and gripping explanation.

Slime being, in essence, nothing more than stiffened water, there are more ways to make it than the poor reader could ever bare to hear about. So Wedlich very sensibly approaches her subject from the other direction, introducing slimes through their uses. Snails combine gluey and lubricating slimes to travel over dry ground one moment, cling to the underside of a leaf the next. Hagfish deter predators by jellifying the waters around them, shooting polymers from their skin like so many thousands of microscopic harpoons. Some squid, when threatened, add slime to their ink to create pseudomorphs — fake squidoids that hold together just long enough to distract a predator. Some squid pump out whole legions of such doppelgangers.

Wedlich’s own strategy, in writing Slime, is not dissimilar. She’s deliberately elusive. The reader never really feels they’ve got hold of the matter of her book; rather, they’re being provoked into punching through layer after dizzying layer, through masterpieces of fin de siecle glass-blowing into theories about the spontaneous generation of life, through the lifecycles of carnivorous plants into the tactics of Japanese balloon-bomb designers in the second world war, until, dizzy and gasping, they reach the end of Wedlich’s extraordinary mystery tour, not with a handle on slime exactly, but with an elemental and exultant new vision of what life may be: that which arises when the boundaries of earth, air and water are stirred in sunlight’s fire. It’s a vision that, for all its weight of well-marshalled modern detail, is one Aristotle would have recognised.