How to appropriate a plant

Visiting “Rooted Beings” at Wellcome Collection, London for the Telegraph, 24 March 2022

“Take a moment to draw a cosmic breath with your whole body, slower than any breath you have ever taken in your life.” Over headphones, Eduardo Navarro and philosopher Michael Marder guide my contemplation of Navarro’s drawings, where human figures send roots into the ground and reach with hands-made-leaves into the sky. They’re drawn with charcoal and natural pigments on envelopes containing the seeds of London plane trees. When the exhibition is over, the envelopes will be planted in a rite of burial and rebirth.

What are plants? Garden-centre curios? Magical objects? Medicines? Or trade goods? It’s hard for us to think of plants outside of the uses we put them to, and the five altars of Vegetal Matrix by Chilean artist Patricia Dominguez celebrate (if that is quite the word) their multiple social identities. One shrine contains a medicinal bark, quinine; in another, flowers of toxic Brugmansia, an assassin’s stock-in-trade; In the third sits a mandrake root, carved into the shape of a woman. Dominguez’s artistic research sits at the centre of a section of the exhibition entitled “Colonial violence and indigenous knowledge”.

Going by the show’s interpretative material, the narrowly extractive use of plants is a white western idea. But the most exciting exhibits reveal otherwise. From 400 CE there’s a fragment of the world’s earliest surviving herbal, painted on papyrus (we have always admired plants for what we could get out of them). Also from the Wellcome archives, there’s a complex map describing the vegetal “middle realm” of Jain cosmology — obviously a serious effort to establish an intellectual hold on the blooming and buzzing confusion of the plant world. Trees and their associated wildlife are reduced to deceptively simple and captivating shapes in the work on paper of the artist Joseca, whose people, the Yanomami, have been extracting foods and medicines from the Amazon rainforest for generations. His vivid plant portraits are not some classic Linnaean effort at the classification of species, but emotionally they’re not far off. Joseca is establishing categories, not tearing them down.

Bracketing the section about how imperial forces have “appropriated” useful plants (and thank goodness for that! cries the crabbed reviewer, thinking of his stomach as usual) are more introspective spaces. Ingela Ihrman’s enormous Passion Flower costume dominates the first room: time your visit just right, and you will find the artist inhabiting the flower, and may even get to drink her nectar. Not much less playful are the absurdist visions — in textile, embroidery and collage — of Gözde Ilkin, for whom categories (between human and plant, between plant and fungi) exist to be demolished, creating peculiar, and peculiarly endearing vegetal-anthropoid forms.

“Wilderness” is the theme of the final room. There’s real desperation in the RESOLVE Collective’s effort to knap and chisel their way towards a wild relationship with the urban environment. Made of broken masonry and pipework, crates and split paving slabs, this, perhaps, is a glimpse of the Hobbesian wilderness that civilisation keeps at bay.

Nearby, Den 3 is the artist SOP’s wry evocation of the old romantic mistake, cladding misanthropy in the motley of the greenwood. Rather than vegetate on the couch during the Covid-19 pandemic, SOP built a den in nearby woods and there enjoyed a sort of pint-size “Walden Pond” experience — until lockdown relaxed and others began visiting the wood.

At its simplest, Rooted Beings evokes a pleasant fantasy of human-vegetable co-existence. But forget its emolient exterior: at its best this show is deeply uncanny. The gulfs that exist between plant and animal, between species and species, between us and other, serve their own purposes, and attempts to do as Navarro and Marder suggest, and experience the world as a plant might experience it, are as likely to end in horror as in delight. “As you are very slowly dying while also staying alive,” they explain, “your body becomes the soil you are living in.” Crikey.

Strife, crime, depravity and recycled urine

Watching Rudolph Herzog’s Last Exit: Space for New Scientist, 16 March 2022

Documentary-maker Rudolph Herzog uses the likelihood (or otherwise) of humans colonising other worlds to structure this peculiar dash through the besetting space concerns of our day; for instance, how will we copulate in space? How much antimatter do we need for a journey to Proxima Centauri B? And how much extra skin do each of us need before it’s worth us bio-engineering human photosynthesis?

Closer to home — and here’s where Last Exit: Space begins — how will the first Martian colonists survive their cosmic ray-doused journey to the Red Planet? How will they stand a planetary surface ten times more radioactive than the surface of the Earth? And how will they survive each other’s company, hunkered down in sub-surface bunkers, “enjoying drinks of recycled urine”?

A traditional documentary might look for answers through the press offices of ESA or NASA. Not so Rudolph Herzog, whose father Werner, narrated and executive-produced this film. In signature Herzog style, Rudolph side-steps the pundits, and goes instead after people whose real lives are already shaped by the conundrums of space travel.

In the Negev desert, the Austrian Space Forum puts a not-too-sophisticated-looking Mars EVA suit through its paces. In Denmark, volunteers at Copenhagen Suborbitals build their first full-size rocket to propel one of their number past the Karman line and into the record books as the world’s first amateur astronaut.

Among the naysayers, space anthropologist Taylor Genovese compares the likely living conditions on Mars to working in an Amazon fulfilment centre, while Judith Lapierre, sole female crewmember of the Moscow Isolation Experiment in the late 1990s, explains how this study in close-proximity living ended with her alleging sexual harrassment against a Russian crewmember — which in turn seems to have led to her ostracism from the space community. If we can’t get along with each other on Earth, what chance do we have in space? Short of any number of technological miracles, a visit to another star will require a starship capable of supporting entire generations of human beings, such are the distances and journey times involved: Lapierre’s testimony suggests to the Herzogs that our spacefaring future will be one of “strife, crime and depravity”.

In that case, we might be better off staying put. This, surprisingly, is the advice of a cleric of the mystical Dawn Valley community in Planaltina, Brazil. The followers of former truck driver Tia Neiva believe they receive energies from visiting extraterrestrials from Capella. These same extraterrestrials advise against bodily journeys between the stars. As the cleric explains, since we evolved on this planet, we are hardly likely to thrive elsewhere.

Last Exit: Space pays a high price for its wide-eyed, catch-all approach to the subject; the lack of analysis on show here is frustrating. On the one hand we are regaled, yet again, with tales of “the human pioneering spirit” — as though humans were destined to explore and become somewhat less than human when not exploring. There’s really no anthropological evidence for this. Many is the culture that has stayed put and literally tended its own garden.

Set in false opposition to this straw man are an astonishing assortment of dystopian fantasies. Space corporations will control our water! Space corporations will control our air!

More likely, space corporations wielding mining robots will want as few people in space as possible. (While one isn’t obliged to mention robots in a movie of this sort, I’d contend that without them, it’s very hard indeed to say anything sensible about the economics of outer space.)

Astronaut Mike Foale and astronomer Lucianne Walkowicz provide the documentary with small but penetrating voices of calm. Space is an additional field of human endeavour, not an escape route lest the endeavour go wrong — say, by laying waste to the planet.

I’m as much of a space nut as anyone I know. But, to answer the question Werner Herzog poses at the beginning of his son’s charming, if somewhat unfocused documentary — “Do we need to seek our destiny among the stars?” — I do hope not.

Not quite a coincidence

Reading Antone Martinho-Truswell’s The Parrot in the Mirror for New Scientist, 9 March 2022

Organisms adapt over evolutionary time to their changing surroundings. This creates, over time, a living world of quite jaw-dropping diversity. It also generates some astonishing coincidences — if “coincidence” is quite the right word to describe how two quite unlike species, adapting to identical environments, end up looking and behaving the same. For instance, the pangolins of Africa and the armadilloes of South America look like close cousins; in fact they’re more closely related to humans than they are to each other.

Convergent evolution doesn’t have to be so visually obvious. Take humans and birds: few readers will take on trust Sydney-based zoologist Martinho-Truswell’s assertion that we “look like a strangely featherless bird”.

By the time I finished The Parrot in the Mirror, though, I found that image both compelling and reasonable. Martinho-Truswell explores the traits shared by humans and birds, from our unusual longevity to our advanced social skills, from our parenting styles to our intelligence and even our use of language. These, the author argues, are all extraordinary examples of convergent evolution at work.

Crudely, Martinho-Truswell’s argument goes like this:

Once birds could fly, they could elude almost all predators. And since they were unlikely to be eaten in any given year, it made sense for birds to go on living, producing more eggs and offspring. Increased longevity followed. With longevity came increased intelligence. Long-living animals need to be smart because they get to be the parents of young who develop over a longer period. And because longer development requires a bigger egg and a bigger yolk sac, and because an egg can only get so big, most birds hatch out very immature, helpless young, that require enormous amounts of care. This care is provided by pair bonded parents, sometimes supplemented by a larger community, hence the evolution of complex social behaviour and language (or song, at any rate).

The human story is a twisted mirror-image of the avian one. Communal behaviour among primates promoted the evolution of intelligence, and this reduced the likelihood of predation. Longevity followed, boosting intelligence further, to the point where big-brained human young have to be born immature and helpless so as not to kill their mothers in childbirth.

For different reasons, then, humans and birds evolved measurable intelligence. But how do we compare our abilities? Can we even talk about bird smarts and human smarts in the same sentence?

Martinho-Truswell’s handling of this subject is very well done. A balance has to be stuck between precision and imagination. On the one hand, a duckling’s ability to imprint upon its mother shortly after the moment of its birth puts it well ahead of chimpanzees, parrots, pigeons, crows and even human children, but this one hardwired ability doesn’t necessarily make the duckling more intelligent. On the other hand, it would be a dull observer indeed that did not see in Irene Pepperberg’s thirty-year study of language use in Alex, an African Grey parrot, quite staggering evidence of advanced cognition. (Alex not only asked questions; it asked them, and got annoyed if people offered dumb responses.)

Containing the niceties of convergent evolution in a straightforward narrative is not easy. Evolutionary causes and effects do not follow each other in neat, storybook fashion, and there’s always the temptation, reading this book, to take Martinho-Truswell’s acts of narrative shorthand at face value and suppose that humans, 50 million years behind parrots in the evolution of intelligence, somehow became more human by actually mimicking their distant avian cousins. (Distant cousins indeed, by the way: the last common ancestor of birds and mammals died out 320 million years ago.)

But it is surely better to be very slightly misled by a gripping story than to be bludgeoned by a dull one. Martinho-Truswell has written a superb introduction to a surprisingly complex and fraught field of study. Having read it, you will not look at yourself in the mirror in quite the same way.

 

How to prevent the future

Reading Gerd Gigerenzer’s How to Stay Smart in a Smart World for the Times, 26 February 2022

Some writers are like Moses. They see further than everybody else, have a clear sense of direction, and are natural leaders besides. These geniuses write books that show us, clearly and simply, what to do if we want to make a better world.

Then there are books like this one — more likeable, and more honest — in which the author stumbles upon a bottomless hole, sees his society approaching it, and spends 250-odd pages scampering about the edge of the hole yelling at the top of his lungs — though he knows, and we know, that society is a machine without brakes, and all this shouting comes far, far too late.

Gerd Gigerenzer is a German psychologist who has spent his career studying how the human mind comprehends and assesses risk. We wouldn’t have lasted even this long as a species if we didn’t negotiate day-to-day risks with elegance and efficiency. We know, too, that evolution will have forced us formulate the quickest, cheapest, most economical strategies for solving our problems. We call these strategies “heuristics”.

Heuristics are rules of thumb, developed by extemporising upon past experiences. They rely on our apprehension of, and constant engagement in, the world beyond our heads. We can write down these strategies; share them; even formalise them in a few lines of light-weight computer code.

Here’s an example from Gigerenzer’s own work: Is there more than one person in that speeding vehicle? Is it slowing down as ordered? Is the occupant posing any additional threat?

Abiding by the rules of engagement set by this tiny decision tree reduces civilian casualties at military checkpoints by more than sixty per cent.

We can apply heuristics to every circumstance we are likely to encounter, regardless of the amount of data available. The complex algorithms that power machine learning, on the other hand, “work best in well-defined, stable situations where large amounts of data are available”.

What happens if we decide to hurl 200,000 years of heuristics down the toilet, and kneel instead at the altar of occult computation and incomprehensibly big data?

Nothing good, says Gigerenzer.

How to Stay Smart is a number of books in one, none of which, on its own, is entirely satisfactory.

It is a digital detox manual, telling us how our social media are currently weaponised, designed to erode our cognition (but we can fill whole shelves with such books).

It punctures many a rhetorical bubble around much-vaunted “artificial intelligence”, pointing out how easy it is to, say, get a young man of colour charged without bail using proprietary risk-assessment software. (In some notorious cases the software had been trained on, and so was liable to perpetuate, historical injustices.) Or would you prefer to force an autonomous car to crash by wearing a certain kind of T-shirt? (Simple, easily generated pixel patterns cause whole classes of networks to draw bizarre inferential errors about the movement of surrounding objects.) This is enlightening stuff, or it would be, were the stories not quite so old.

One very valuable section explains why forecasts derived from large data sets become less reliable, the more data they are given. In the real world, problems are unbounded; the amount of data relevant to any problem is infinite. This is why past information is a poor guide to future performance, and why the future always wins. Filling a system with even more data about what used to happen will only bake in the false assumptions that are already in your system. Gigerenzer goes on to show how vested interests hide this awkward fact behind some highly specious definitions of what a forecast is.

But the most impassioned and successful of these books-within-a-book is the one that exposes the hunger for autocratic power, the political naivety, and the commercial chicanery that lie behind the rise of “AI”. (Healthcare AI is a particular bugbear: the story of how the Dutch Cancer Society was suckered into funding big data research, at the expense of cancer prevention campaigns that were shown to work, is especially upsetting).

Threaded through this diverse material is an argument Gigerenzer maybe should have made at the beginning: that we are entering a new patriarchal age, in which we are obliged to defer, neither to spiritual authority, nor to the glitter of wealth, but to unliving, unconscious, unconscionable systems that direct human action by aping human wisdom just well enough to convince us, but not nearly well enough to deliver happiness or social justice.

Gigerenzer does his best to educate and energise us against this future. He explains the historical accidents that led us to muddle cognition with computation in the first place. He tells us what actually goes on, computationally speaking, behind the chromed wall of machine-learning blarney. He explains why, no matter how often we swipe right, we never get a decent date; he explains how to spot fake news; and he suggests how we might claw our minds free of our mobile phones.

But it’s a hopeless effort, and the book’s most powerful passages explain exactly why it is hopeless.

“To improve the performance of AI,” Gigerenzer explains, “one needs to make the physical environment more stable and people’s behaviour more predictable.”

In China, the surveillance this entails comes wrapped in Confucian motley: under its social credit score system, sincerity, harmony and wealth creation trump free speech. In the West the self-same system, stripped of any ethic, is well advanced thanks to the efforts of the credit-scoring industry. One company, Acxiom, claims to have collected data from 700 million people worldwide, and up to 3000 data points for each individual (and quite a few are wrong).

That this bumper data harvest is an encouragement to autocratic governance hardly needs rehearsing, or so you would think.

And yet, in a 2021 study of 3,446 digital natives, 96 per cent “do not know how to check the trustworthiness of sites and posts.” I think Gigerenzer is pulling his punches here. What if, as seems more likely, 96 per cent of digital natives can’t be bothered to check the trustworthiness of sites and posts?

Asked by the author in a 2019 study how much they would be willing to spend each month on ad-free social media — that is, social media not weaponised against the user — 75 per cent of respondents said they would not pay a cent.

Have we become so trivial, selfish, short-sighted and penny-pinching that we deserve our coming subjection? Have we always been servile at heart, for all our talk of rights and freedoms; desperate for some grown-up come tug at our leash, and bring us to heal?

You may very well think so. Gigerenzer could not possibly comment. He does, though, remark that operant conditioning (the kind of learning explored in the 1940s by behaviourist B F Skinner, that occurs through rewards and punishments) has never enjoyed such political currency, and that “Skinner’s dream of a society where the behaviour of each member is strictly controlled by reward has become reality.”

How to Stay Smart in a Smart World is an optimistic title indeed for a book that maps, with passion and precision, a hole down which we are already plummeting.

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.

Plastic astronauts

Watching Petrov’s Flu, directed by Kirill Serebrennikov, for New Scientist, 16 February 2022

Petrov (Semyon Serzin) is riding a trolleybus home across a snowbound Yekaterinburg when a fellow passenger mutters to a neighbour that the rich in this town deserve to be shot.

Seconds later the bus stops, Petrov is pulled off the bus and into the street, and a rifle is pressed into his hands. Street executions follow, shocking him out of his febrile doze—

And Petrov’s back on the trolley bus again.

Ambitious, mischievous, rich in allusions to Russian history, literature and cinema, Petrov’s Flu is also (lest we forget the obvious) a painfully precise, gut-wrenching depiction of what it’s like to run a high fever. Seeing the world through Petrov’s sick and disjointed point-of-view, we find the real world sliding away again and again, into often violent absurdity.

The worst is over. Petrov is on the mend. But it takes us the longest time before we can be confident that his friend, the drunken mischief-maker Igor (Yuri Kolokolnikov), is real, while Sergey (Ivan Dorn), the struggling writer pal who browbeats poor Petrov on every point (and is determined to achieve literary immortality through suicide), is a figment of Petrov’s own fever-wracked consciousness.

As Petrov’s fever breaks over the course of the film, fantasy and reality begin to separate, and what we might have feared was just a bag of bits (some tender, some shocking, all horribly entertaining) turns out to be a puzzle that, once complete, leaves us exhausted but eminently satisfied. Petrov turns out to be a comic-book writer, separated from his wife but still dedicated, as she is, to their son, who for his part is determined not to let his own fever stop him attending a kids’ New Year party.

Petrov’s Flu begins as a sci-fi movie. The whole city languishes under an epidemic that arrived accompanied by lights in the sky; Petrov’s wife (Chulpan Khamatova) is possessed by a demonic alien force during a library poetry reading; here and there, UFO-themed street graffiti come to life and wiggle across the screen.

As reality and hallucination part company, however, it becomes something different: a film about parents and children; about creative work, pretension and ambition; also, strongly, about Russia’s love of science fiction.

At its birth, western science fiction, and especially American science fiction, celebrated adventure and exploration. Russian sf has always been more about finding and building homes in a hostile environment. (The film’s location here is apposite: wintry Yeketerinburg, just east of the Urals, may as well be on the moon.) Russian sf is also strongly religious in spirit — and was indeed for many years one of Russia’s very few outlets for spiritual feeling, under a regime devoted (often brutally) to the suppression of religion.

The aliens in Russian sf invariably offer some form of redemption to a struggling humanity, and Petrov’s Flu, for all its iconoclasm and mischief, is no different. One of the most affecting scenes in the film is when Petrov, mad with fear, in dashing with his son to a local hospital, when the pair are intercepted by a kindly UFO.

Such are Petrov’s fever dreams, coloured by his space-crazy childhood and his adult career drawing comic books. At one point he remembers his mum and dad decorating a Christmas tree with festive plastic astronauts; Petrov’s possessed wife, meanwhile, pursues her latest hapless victim among the climbing-frame rockets and spaceships of a delipidated playground.

Fans of Andrei Tarkovsky (director of sf classics Solaris and Stalker) will enjoy director Kirill Serebrennikov’s knowing nods to key moments in those films. But it would be a mistake, I think, to watch this film purely for the in-jokes. True, Petrov’s Flu is shocking and funny contribution to Russia’s centuries-old tradition of absurdist literature. But it’s also a film about people, not to mention an extraordinary evocation of febrile delirium, and its assault on the mind.

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.”