“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.

A lousy container for thought

A critical survey of climate fiction for The Bookseller, 18 October 2021

A genre to contain our imaginative responses to climate change was only ever going to be a house built of straw. Climate change is not like any other problem — the nuclear threat, say, or the hole in the ozone layer, or big tobacco, or big pharma. We are used to satirising, vilifying and sometimes even explaining and humanising our societal mistakes. But our species’ role in the earth’s average temperature rise isn’t, in any meaningful sense, either an accident or an oversight; nor is it a deliberate act of malevolence or of willful blindness. It’s a wicked problem, embracing generations living and dead and still to be born, implicating everyone on earth, and calling into question every stab we’ve ever made at progress.

Calling attention to the problem has been the easy bit. We had tools we could use. Science fiction, in particular, had over half a century’s experience exploring risks of all kinds, not all of them goofy or existential, when George Turner’s The Sea and Summer (1987) turned a generation of SF readers on to the firestorms to come.

The work we these days most easily classify as “climate fiction” has hardly got beyond that early, siren-sounding stage. That sounds like a problem, but I’m not sure it is one. Promoting a genre means giving it clear lines and simple definitions. Of course work labelled “cli-fi” remains wedded to an essentially dystopic view of the future: those are the rules we set for it. Nor, come to that, is there anything wrong with informing emerging generations of the problems they must face. Marcus Sedgwick and Paolo Bacigalupi and their peers have built worthwhile careers on this minatory effort. There’s no point complaining about how “cli-fi” aestheticises the disasters it depicts. Artists communicate through beauty, not disgust. (Go look at Goya, if you don’t believe me.)

And there has been progress. The genre’s brief has widened. The Swan Book by Australian Aboriginal author and land rights activist Alexis Wright (2013) highlights how the colonial abuse of peoples goes hand in hand with the land’s exhaustion. Cherie Dimaline’s The Marrow Thieves (2017) would have us stop treating the world as a series of problems to be solved.

This approach, it is true, has less appeal for those of us who have more of our lives to look back on than to look forward to. For us, solutions to the End Times can’t come quickly enough.

Bruce Sterling’s Viridian Design Movement and Neal Stephenson’s Hieroglyph Project promised to amass fictional thought experiments to solve our difficult future. Though their calls for submissions of socially useful fiction were directed at younger writers from diverse backgrounds, they were, in essence, activities aimed at old western men in a hurry. These projects fell short of their promise, but not, I think, because they tried to be positive, and not because they came from an unfashionable corner of the culture. They failed *because fiction is the wrong tool for that kind of work*. Fiction is — let’s be frank here — a lousy container for thought.

One of the most successful climate-engaged books of the last couple of years, Richard Powers’s The Overstory, is, dramatically speaking, also one of the most underwhelming: little more than an animated Wikipedia trawl through contemporary abuses in the forestry sector. James Bradley contracts a milder version of the same disease in his recent novel Ghost Species (2021): a thinly fictionalised series of opinion pieces on the role of synthetic biology in addressing biome loss.

These books are symptoms of our moment, not shapers of it, and that’s because fiction undermines received opinion far more effectively than it establishes it. It’s a solvent, not a glue. Far more influential on the cli-fi scene are David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas (2004) and Margaret Atwood’s Maddaddam trilogy — works that, significantly, leave us questioning the very idea that climate solutions are possible.

Writers! Let’s leave dealing with climate change to the grown-ups, and go back to our proper job: teasing out what it feels like to be in a climate crisis.

Yun Ko-eun’s 2020 satire The Disaster Tourist describes an economy geared to our appetite for disaster. Gathering Evidence by Martin MacInnes and The Rain Heron by Robbie Arnott (both 2020) spin twisted eco-fables thick with guilt and dripping with cognitive dissonance. Jeff Vandermeer dons the motley of a private eye to solve the murder of the Earth in Hummingbird Salamander (2021); and Laura Jean Mckay gives our doomed biome a voice in The Animals in That Country (2020).

These books and others are at last addressing the subjective experience of climate change. That’s vital psychological work, and socially useful with it: you can throw facts at our heads all day long, but people will deny and avoid that which they cannot feel.

Meanwhile, within science fiction and the high-concept thriller, and from out of the recent glut of “dystopian” fiction, a much keener, cleverer, more properly fictional approach is emerging to address the climate crisis.

It’s the creeping uncanny of the coming apocalypse that’s engaging the current wave of climate-engaged writers. Under the Blue by Oana Aristide and This Fragile Earth by Susannah Wise both exploit the fact that anything on the scale of a climate disaster is going to be slow. Civilisation will collapse, but the shelves won’t empty overnight, and the flood insurance won’t bankrupt you just yet. Wise goes even further, projecting beyond climate disaster towards a workable new world. All around us, the city’s 3D-printed buildings are spiralling into being, while a few hardy saplings in the derelict neighbourhood park are “evidence of the blight’s end”. Whether Wise’s heroine will ever be able to wrap her pre-apocalyptic head around this post-apocalyptic future is, however, uncertain.

In the Goldsmiths-winning The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again (2020), to take an even more powerful example, M John Harrison leads his readers around the archaeological leavings of Ironbridge picking his way between the foetuses of discarded genetic experiments spilling from the back of an aquarium shop. This is a world where current tools and technology can find no purchase in a reality that’s already wedded to the future.

This new crop of climate fiction won’t, after all, help us save tomorrow — but it will, and for the first time, help us picture it. For as long as they were wedded to what might happen in the future, writers of climate fiction could only amount to a bunch of Cassandras, trumpeting their own importance. Now they are feeding on much richer meat. Cli-fi has stuck its teeth into the present.

Who’s left in the glen?

Watching Emily Munro’s Living Proof: A climate story for New Scientist, 6 October 2021

Most environmental documentaries concentrate, on the environment. Most films about the climate crisis focus on people who are addressing the crisis.

Assembled and edited by Emily Munro, a curator of the moving image at the National Library of Scotland, Living Proof is different. It’s a film about demobbed soldiers and gamekeepers, architects and miners and American ex-pats. It’s about working people and their employers, about people whose day-to-day actions have contributed to the industrialisation of Scotland, its export of materials and methods (particularly in the field of off-shore oil and gas), and its not coincidental environmental footprint.

Only towards the end of Munro’s film do we meet protestors of any sort. They’re deploring the construction of a nuclear power plant at Torness, 33 miles east of Edinburgh. Even here, Munro is less interested in the protest itself, than in one impassioned, closely argued speech which, in the context of the film, completes an argument begun in Munro first reel (via a public information film from the mid-1940s) about the country’s political economy.

Assembled from propaganda and public information films, promotional videos and industrial reports, Living Proof is an archival history of what Scotland has told itself about itself, and how those stories, ambitions and visions have shaped the landscape, and effected the global environment.

Munro is in thrall to the changing Scottish industrial landscape, from its herring fisheries to its dams, from its slums and derelict mine-heads to the high modernism of its motorways and strip mills. Her vision is compelling and seductive. Living Proof is also — and this is more important — a film which respects its subjects’ changing aspirations. It tells the story of a poor, relatively undeveloped nation waking up to itself and trying to do right by its people.

It will come as no surprise, as Glasgow prepares to host the COP26 global climate conference, to hear that the consequences of those efforts have been anything but an unalloyed good. Powered by offshore oil and gas, home to Polaris nuclear missiles, and a redundancy-haunted grave for a dozen heavy industries (from coal-mining to ship-building to steel manufacture), Scotland is no-one’s idea of a green nation.

As Munro’s film shows, however, the environment was always a central plank of whatever argument campaigners, governments and developers made at the time. The idea that the Scots (and the rest of us) have only now “woken up to the environment” is a pernicious nonsense.

It’s simply that our idea of the environment has evolved.

In the 1940s, the spread of bog water, as the Highlands depopulated, was considered a looming environmental disaster, taking good land out of use. In the 1950s automation promised to pull working people out of poverty, disease and pollution. In the 1960s rapid communications were to serve an industrial culture that would tread ever more lightly over the mine-ravaged earth.

It’s with the advent of nuclear power, and that powerful speech on the beach at Torness, that the chickens come home to roost. That new nuclear plant is only going to employ around 500 people! What will happen to the region then?

This, of course, is where we came in: to a vision of a nation that, if cannot afford its own people, will go to rack and ruin, with (to quote that 1943 information film) “only the old people and a few children left in the glen”.

Living Proof critiques an economic system that, whatever its promises, can cannot help but denude the earth of its resources, and pauperise its people. It’s all the more powerful for being articulated through real things: schools and roads and pharmaceuticals, earth movers and oil rigs, washing machines and gas boilers.

Reasonable aspirations have done unreasonable harm to the planet. That’s the real crisis elucidated by Living Proof. It’s a point too easily lost in all the shouting. And it’s rarely been made so well.

If this is Wednesday then this must be Thai red curry with prawns

Reading Dan Saladino’s Eating to Extinction for the Telegraph, 26 September 2021

Within five minutes of my desk: an Italian delicatessen, a Vietnamese pho house, a pizzeria, two Chinese, a Thai, and an Indian “with a contemporary twist” (don’t knock it till you’ve tried it). Can such bounty be extended over the Earth?

Yes, it can. It’s already happening. And in what amounts to a distillation of a life’s work writing about food, and sporting a few predictable limitations (he’s a journalist; he puts stories in logical order, imagining this makes an argument) Dan Saladino’s Eating to Extinction explains just what price we’ll pay for this extraordinary achievement which promises, not only to end world hunger by 2030 (a much-touted UN goal), but to make California rolls available everywhere from to Kamchatka to Karachi.

The problem with my varied diet (if this is Wednesday then this must be Thai red curry with prawns) is that it’s also your varied diet, and your neighbour’s; it’s rapidly becoming the same varied diet across the whole world. You think your experience of world cuisine reflects global diversity? Humanity used to sustain itself (admittedly, not too well) on 6,000 species of plant. Now, for over three quarters of our calories, we gorge on just nine: rice, wheat and maize, potato, barley, palm oil and soy, sugar from beets and sugar from cane. The same narrowing can be found in our consumption of animals and seafood. What looks to us like the world on a plate is in fact the sum total of what’s available world-wide, now that we’ve learned to grow ever greater quantities of ever fewer foods.

Saladino is in the anecdote business; he travels the Earth to meet his pantheon of food heroes, each of whom is seen saving a rare food for our table – a red pea, a goaty cheese, a flat oyster. So far, so very Sunday supplement. Nor is there anything to snipe at in the adventures of, say, Woldemar Mammel who, searching in the attics of old farmhouses and in barns, rescued the apparently extinct Swabian “alb” lentil; nor in former chef Karlos Baca’s dedication to rehabilitating an almost wholly forgotten native American cuisine.
That said, it takes Saladino 450 pages (which is surely a good 100 pages too many) to explain why the Mammels and Bacas of this world are needed so desperately to save a food system that, far from beaking down, is feeding more and more food to more and more people.

The thing is, this system rests on two foundations: nitrogen fertiliser, and monocropping. The technology by which we fix nitrogen from the air by an industrial process is sustainable enough, or can be made so. Monocropping, on the other hand, was a dangerous strategy from the start.

In the 1910s and 1920s the Soviet agronomist Nikolai Vavilov championed the worldwide uptake of productive strains, with every plant a clone of its neighbour. How else, but by monocropping, do you feed the world? By the 1930s though, he was assembling the world’s first seed banks in a desperate effort to save the genetic diversity of our crops — species that monocropping was otherwise driving to extinction.

Preserving heritage strains matters. They were bred over thousands of years to resist all manner of local environmental pressures, from drought to deluge to disease. Letting them die out is the genetic equivalent of burning the library at Alexandria.

But seed banks can’t hold everything (there is, as Saladino remarks, no Svalbard seed vault for chickens) and are anyway a desperate measure. Saladino’s tale of how, come the Allied invasion, the holdings of Iraq’s national seed bank at Abu Ghraib was bundled off to Tel Hadya in Syria, only then to be frantically transferred to Lebanon, itself an increasingly unstable state, sounds a lot more more Blade Runner 2049 then Agronomy 101.

Better to create a food system that, while not necessarily promoting rare foods (fancy some Faroese air-fermented sheep meat? — thought not) will at least not drive such foods to extinction.

The argument is a little bit woolly here, as what the Faroe islanders get up to with their sheep is unlikely to have global consequences for the world’s food supply. Letting a crucial drought-resistant strain of wheat go extinct in a forgotten corner of Afghanistan, on the other hand, could have unimaginably dire consequences for us in the future.
Saladino’s grail is a food system with enough diversity in it to adapt to environmental change and withstand the onslaught of disease.

Is such a future attainable? Only to a point. Some wild foods are done for already because the high prices they command incentivize their destruction. If you want some of Baca’s prized and pungent bear root, native to a corner of Colorado, you’d better buy it now (but please, please don’t).

Rare cultivated foods stand a better chance. The British Middle White pig is rarer than the Himalayan snow leopard, says Saladino, but the stocks are sustainable enough that it is now being bred for the table.

Attempting to encompass the Sixth Extinction on the one hand, and the antics of slow-foodies like Mammel and Baca on the other is a recipe for cognitive dissonance. In the end, though, Saladino succeeds in mapping the enormity of what human appetite has done to the planet.

Saladino says we need to preserve rare and forgotten foods, partly because they are part of our cultural heritage, but also, and more hard-headedly, so that we can study and understand them, crossing them with existing lines to shore up and enrich our dangerously over-simplified food system. He’s nostalgic for our lost food past (and who doesn’t miss apples that taste of apples?) but he doesn’t expect us to delete Deliveroo and spend our time grubbing around for roots and berries.

Unless of course it’s all to late. It would not take many wheat blights or avian flu outbreaks before slow food is all that’s left to eat.

 

Heading north

Reading Forecast by Joe Shute for the Telegraph, 28 June 2021

As a child, journalist Joe Shute came upon four Ladybird nature books from the early 1960s called What to Look For. They described “a world in perfect balance: weather, wildlife and people all living harmoniously as the seasons progress.”

Today, he writes, “the crisply defined seasons of my Ladybird series, neatly quartered like an apple, are these days a mush.”

Forecast is a book about phenology: the study of lifecycles, and how they are affected by season, location and other factors. Unlike behemothic “climate science”, phenology doesn’t issue big data sets or barnstorming visualisations. Its subject cannot be so easily metricised. How life responds to changes in the seasons, and changes in those changes, and changes in the rates of those changes, is a multidimensional study whose richness would be entirely lost if abstracted. Instead, phenology depends on countless parochial diaries describing changes on small patches of land.

Shute, who for more than a decade has used his own diary to fuel the “Weather Watch” column in the Daily Telegraph, can look back and see “where the weather is doing strange things and nature veering spectacularly off course.” Watching his garden coming prematurely to life in late winter, Shute is left “with a slightly sickly sensation… I started to sense not a seasonal cycle, but a spiral.” (130)

Take Shute’s diary together with countless others and tabulate the findings, and you will find that all life has started shifting northwards — insects at a rate of five metres a day, some dragonflies at between 17 and 28 metres a day.

How to write about this great migration? Immediately following several affecting and quite horrifying eye-witness scenes from the global refugee crisis, Shute writes: “The same climate crisis that is rendering swathes of the earth increasingly inhospitable and driving so many young people to their deaths, is causing a similar decline in migratory bird populations.”

I’m being unkind to make a point (in context the passage isn’t nearly so wince-making), but Shute’s not the first to discover it’s impossible to speak across all scales of the climate crisis at once.

Amitav Ghosh’s 2016 The Great Derangement is canonical here. Ghosh explained in painful detail why the traditional novel can’t handle global warming. Here, Shute seems to be proving the same point for non-fiction — or at least, for non-fiction of the meditative sort.

Why doesn’t Shute reach for abstractions? Why doesn’t he reach for climate science, and for the latest IPCC report? Why doesn’t he bloviate?

No, Shute’s made of sterner stuff: he would rather go down with his corracle, stitching together a planet on fire (11 wildfires raging in the Arctic circle in July 2018), human catastrophe, bird armageddon, his and his partner’s fertility problems, and the snore of a sleeping dormouse, across just 250 pages.

And the result? Forecast is a triumph of the most unnerving sort. By the end it’s clearly not Shute’s book that’s coming unstuck: it’s us. Shute begins his book asking “what happens to centuries of folklore, identity and memory when the very thing they subsist on is changing, perhaps for good”, and the answer he arrives at is horrific: folklore, identity and memory just vanish. There is no reverse gear to this thing.

I was delighted (if that is quite the word) to see Shute nailing the creeping unease I’ve felt every morning since 2014. That was the year the Met Office decided to give storms code-names. The reduction of our once rich, allusive weather vocabulary to “weather bombs” and “thunder snow”, as though weather events were best captured in “the sort of martial language usually preserved for the defence of the realm” is Shute’s most telling measure of how much, in this emergency, we have lost of ourselves.

Reality trumped

Reading You Are Here: A field guide for navigating polarized speech, conspiracy theories, and our polluted media landscape by Whitney Phillips and Ryan M. Milner (MIT Press)
for New Scientist, 3 March 2021

This is a book about pollution, not of the physical environment, but of our civic discourse. It is about disinformation (false and misleading information deliberately spread), misinformation (false and misleading information inadvertently spread), and malinformation (information with a basis in reality spread pointedly and specifically to cause harm).

Communications experts Whitney Phillips and Ryan M. Milner completed their book just prior to the US presidential election that replaced Donald Trump with Joe Biden. That election, and the seditious activities that prompted Trump’s second impeachment, have clarified many of the issues Phillips and Milner have gone to such pains to explore. Though events have stolen some their thunder, You Are Here remains an invaluable snapshot of our current social and technological problems around news, truth and fact.

The authors’ US-centric (but universally applicable) account of “fake news” begins with the rise of the Ku Klux Klan. Its deliberately silly name, cartoonish robes, and quaint routines (which accompanied all its activities, from rallies to lynchings) prefigured the “only-joking” subcultures (Pepe the Frog and the like) dominating so much of our contemporary social media. Next, an examination of the Satanic panics of the 1980s reveals much about the birth and growth of conspiracy theories. The authors’ last act is an unpicking of QAnon — a current far-right conspiracy theory alleging that a secret cabal of cannibalistic Satan-worshippers plotted against former U.S. president Donald Trump. This brings the threads of their argument together in a conclusion all the more apocalyptic for being so closely argued.

Polluted information is, they argue, our latest public health emergency. By treating the information sphere as an ecology under threat, the authors push past factionalism to reveal how, when we use media, “the everyday actions of everyone else feed into and are reinforced by the worst actions of the worst actors”

This is their most striking takeaway: that the media machine that enabled QAnon isn’t a machine out of alignment, or out of control, or somehow infected: it’s a system working exactly as designed — “a system that damages so much because it works so well”.

This media machine is founded on principles that, in and of themselves, seem only laudable. Top of the list is the idea that to counter harms, we have to call attention to them: “in other words, that light disinfects”.

This is a grand philosophy, for so long as light is hard to generate. But what happens when the light — the confluence of competing information sets, depicting competing realities — becomes blinding?

Take Google as an example. Google is an advertising platform, that makes money the more its users use the internet to “get to the bottom of things”. The deeper the rabbit-holes go, the more money Google makes. This sets up a powerful incentive for “conspiracy entrepreneurs” to produce content, creating “alternative media echo-systems”. When the facts run out, create alternative facts. “The algorithm” (if you’ll forgive this reviewer’s dicey shorthand) doesn’t care. “The algorithm” is, in fact, designed to serve up as much pollution as possible.

What’s to be done? Here the authors hit a quite sizeable snag. They claim they’re not asking “for people to ‘remain civil’”. They claim they’re not commanding us, “don’t feed the trolls.” But so far as I could see, this is exactly what they’re saying — and good for them.

With the machismo typical of the social sciences, the authors call for “foundational, systematic, top-to-bottom change,” whatever that is supposed to mean, when what they are actually advocating is a sense of personal decency, a contempt for anonymity, a willingness to stand by what one says come hell or high water, politeness and consideration, and a willingness to listen.

These are not political ideas. These are qualities of character. One might even call them virtues, of a sort that were once particularly prized by conservatives.

Phillips and Milner bemoan the way market capitalism has swallowed political discourse. They teeter on a much more important truth: that politics has swallowed our moral discourse. Social media has made whining cowards of us all. You Are Here comes dangerously close to saying so. If you listen carefully, there’s a still, small voice hidden in this book, telling us all to grow up.

Pretty tragic

Is Michel Comte’s past celebrity a burden? “You carry it on your fucking back,” he says. “It took ten years for people to notice I was visiting Africa for months at a time. It took twenty years before people starting listening to what I’ve been saying since my first gallery show.”

A conversation for the Financial Times, 20 May 2020.

Visit a hydrogen utopia

On Tuesday 3 December at 7pm I’ll be chairing a discussion at London’s Delfina Foundation about energy utopias, and the potential of hydrogen as a locally-produced sustainable energy source. Speakers include the artist Nick Laessing, Rokiah Yaman (Project Manager, LEAP closed-loop technologies) and Dr Chiara Ambrosio (History and Philosophy of Science, UCL).There may also be food, assuming Nick’s hydrogen stove behaves itself.  More details here.

Hurtling towards zero

Watching Richard Ladkani’s Sea of Shadows for New Scientist, 2 October 2019

This is the story of the world’s smallest whale, the vaquita, reduced in number to fewer than 30 individuals, and hiding out in the extreme south-western corner of its territory in the Sea of Cortez. It is not a story that will end well, though Richard Ladkani (whose 2016 Netflix documentary The Ivory Game was shortlisted for the Oscars in 2017) has made something here which is very hard to look away from.

This is not an environmental story. This is a true crime. No-one’s interested in hunting the vaquita. The similarly sized Totoaba fish, which shares the vaquita’s waters, is another matter. It’s called the cocaine of the sea — a nickname that makes no sense whatsoever until you learn that the Mexican drug cartels have moved into the totoaba business to satisfy demand from the Chinese luxury market. (It’s the usual film-flam: the fish’s swim bladders are supposed to possess rare medical properties. )

Illegal gill nets that catch the totoaba — itself a rapidly declining population — also catch and kill vaquitas. The government talks a good environmental game but has let the problem get out of hand. Law-abiding fishing communities are ruined by blanket fishing bans while the illegals operate with near-impunity. Late on in the film, there’s some CCTV footage of a couple of soldiers having some car trouble. They ask for help from a passing motorist. Who shoots one of the soldiers dead. Bam. Just like that. And drives away. Meet Oscar Parra, the tortoaba padron of Santa Clara. (I said you couldn’t look away; I didn’t say you wouldn’t want to.)

Things are so bad, a scheme is dreamt up to remove the remaining vaquitas from the ocean and keep them in captivity. It’s an absurdly desperate move, because virtually nothing is known about the vaquita’s disposition and habits. (Some locals believe the creature is a myth dreamt up by a hostile government to bankrupt the poor: how’s that for fake news?) Project leader Cynthia Smith explains the dilemma facing the vaquita: “possible death in our care or certain death in the ocean”. She knows what she’s doing — she a senior veterinarian for the U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Program — but no one has ever tried to capture, let alone keep, a vaquita before. This could go very wrong indeed. (And still, you cannot look away…)

Sea of Shadows won the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival in February this year; National Geographic snapped it up for $3million. It’s built around a collaborative investigation between Andrea Crosta, executive director and co-founder of Earth League International (the hero-detectives of The Ivory Game) and Carlos Loret de Mola, a popular correspondent and news anchor in Mexico, whose topical show Despierta reaches an international audience of 35 million people a day. Crosta and de Mola and the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, their maritime partners in crime-prevention, are all of them expert in handling and appealing to the media. Everything about this film that might rankle the viewer is entirely deliberate — the film’s “whodunnit” structure, the way all content is crammed into a pre-storyboarded narrative, then squeezed to release a steady drip-drip-drip of pre-digested information. Sea of Shadows is pure NatGeo fodder, and if you don’t like that channel much, you won’t like this at all.

Just bear in mind, the rest of us will be perching on the edge of our sofas, in thrall to drone-heavy cinematography that owes not a little to Denis Villeneuve’s 2015 thriller Sicario, rocked by a thumping score full of dread and menace, and appalled by a story headed pell-mell for the dark.

Rare resources are doomed to extinction eventually because the rarer a resource is, the more expensive it is, and the more incentive there is to trade in it. This is why, past a certain point, rare stocks hurtle towards zero.

Can the vaquita be saved? Sea of Shadows was made in 2018 and says there are fewer than 30 vaquitas in the ocean.

Today there are fewer than 10.

Human/nature

Was the climate crisis inevitable? For the Financial Times, 13 September 2019

Everything living is dying out. A 2014 analysis of 3,000 species, confirmed by recent studies, reveals that half of all wild animals have been lost since 1970. The Amazon is burning, as is the Arctic.

An excess of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, meanwhile, has not only played havoc with the climate but also reduced the nutrient value of plants by about 30 per cent since the 1950s.

And we’re running out of soil. In the US, it’s eroding 10 times faster than it’s being replaced. In China and India, the erosion is more than three times as bad. Five years ago, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization claimed we had fewer than 60 years of harvests left if soil degradation continued at its current rate.

Why have we waited until we are one generation away from Armageddon before taking such problems seriously?

A few suggestions: first, the environment is far too complicated to talk about — at least on the tangled information networks we have constructed for ourselves.

Second, we’re lazy and we’re greedy, like every other living thing on the planet — though because most of us co-operate with each other, we are arguably the least greedy and least lazy animals around.

Where we fall down is in our tendency to freeload on our future selves. “Discounting the future” is one of our worst habits, and one that in large part explains why we leave even important, life-and-death actions to the last minute.

Here’s a third reason why we’re dealing so late with climate change. It’s the weirdest, and maybe the most important of the three. It’s that we know we are going to die.

Thinking about environmental threats reminds us of our own mortality, and death is a prospect so appalling we’ll do anything — anything — to stop thinking about it.

“I used to wonder how people could stand the really demonic activity of working behind those hellish ranges in hotel kitchens, the frantic whirl of waiting on a dozen tables at one time,” wrote Ernest Becker in his Pulitzer-winning meditation The Denial of Death in 1973.

“The answer is so simple that it eludes us: the craziness of these activities is exactly that of the human condition. They are ‘right’ for us because the alternative is natural desperation.”

Psychologists inspired by Becker have run experiments to suggest it’s the terror of death that motivates consciousness and all its accomplishments. “It raised the pyramids in Egypt and razed the Twin Towers in Manhattan,” is the memorable judgment of the authors of 2015’s best-selling book The Worm at the Core.

This hardly sounds like good news. But it may offer us, if not a solution to the current crisis, at least a better, healthier and more positive way of approaching it.

No coping mechanism is infallible. We may be profoundly unwilling to contemplate our mortality, and to face up to the slow-burn, long-term threats to our existence, but that anxiety can’t ultimately be denied. Our response is to bundle it into catastrophes — in effect to construe the world in terms of crises to make everyday existence bearable.

Even positive visions of the future assume the necessity for cataclysmic change: why else do we fetishise “disruption”? “The concept of progress is to be grounded in the idea of the catastrophe,” as the German philosopher Walter Benjamin put it.

Yes, we could have addressed climate change much more easily in the 1970s, when the crisis wasn’t so urgent. But the fact is, we’re built for urgent action. A flood. A drought. A famine. We know where we are in a catastrophe. It may be that our best is yet to come.

Will our best be enough? Will we move quickly and coherently enough to save ourselves from the catastrophes attendant on massive climate change? That’s a hard question to answer.

The earliest serious attempts at modelling human futures were horrific. One commentator summed up Thomas Malthus’s famous 1798 Essay on the Principle of Population as “150 pages of excruciatingly detailed travellers’ accounts and histories . . . of bestial life, sickness, weakness, poor food, lack of ability to care for young, scant resources, famine, infanticide, war, massacre, plunder, slavery, cold, hunger, disease, epidemics, plague, and abortion.”

Malthus, an English cleric driven up the wall by positive Enlightenment thinkers such as Godwin and Condorcet, set out to remind everybody that people were animals. Like animals, their populations were bound eventually to exceed the available food supply. It didn’t matter that they dressed nicely or wrote poetry. If they overbred, they would starve.

We’ve been eluding this Malthusian trap for centuries, by bolting together one cultural innovation after another. No bread? Grow soy. No fish? Breed insects. Eventually, on a finite planet, Malthus will have his revenge — but when?

The energy thinker Vaclav Smil’s forthcoming book Growth studies the growth patterns of everything from microorganisms to mammals to entire civilisations. But the Czech-Canadian academic is chary about breaking anything as complicated as humanity down to a single metric.

“In the mid-1980s,” he recalls, “people used to ask me, when would the Chinese environment finally collapse? I was writing about this topic early on, and the point is, it was never going to collapse. Or it’s constantly collapsing, and they’re constantly fixing parts of it.”

Every major city in China has clean water and improving air quality, according to Smil. A few years ago people were choking on the smog.

“It’s the same thing with the planet,” he says. “Thirty years ago in Europe, the number-one problem wasn’t global warming, it was acid rain. Nobody mentions acid rain today because we desulphurised our coal-fired power plants and supplanted coal with natural gas. The world’s getting better and worse at the same time.”

Smil blames the cult of economics for the way we’ve been sitting on our hands while the planet heats up. The fundamental problem is that economics has become so divorced from fundamental reality,” he says.

“We have to eat, we have to put on a shirt and shoes, our whole lives are governed by the laws that govern the flows of energy and materials. In economics, though, everything is reduced to money, which is only a very imperfect measure of those flows. Until economics returns to the physical rules of human existence, we’ll always be floating in the sky and totally detached from reality.”

Nevertheless, Smil thinks we’d be better off planning for a good life in the here and now, and this entails pulling back from our current levels of consumption.

“But we’re not that stupid,” he says, “and we may have this taken care of by people’s own decision making. As they get richer, people find that children are very expensive, and children have been disappearing everywhere. There is not a single European country now in which fertility will be above replacement level. And even India is now close to the replacement rate of 2.1 children per family.”

So are we out of the tunnel, or at the end of the line? The brutal truth is, we’ll probably never know. We’re not equipped to know. We’re too anxious, too terrified, too greedy for the sort of certainty a complex environment is simply not going to provide.

Now that we’ve spotted this catastrophe looming over our heads, it’s with us for good. No one’s ever going to be able to say that it’s truly gone away. As Benjamin tersely concluded, “That things ‘just go on’ is the catastrophe.”