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.”

Turning over new leaves

Contemplating Trees at Fondation Cartier, Paris for the Financial Times, 1 August 2019

Trees, a group show at the Fondation Cartier in Paris featuring artists, botanists and philosophers, screams personality — by which I mean eccentricity, thought and argument. Appropriately, it’s an exhibition that lives and breathes. I hated some of it and walked out of the gallery grinning from ear to ear. It absolutely does its job: it makes trees treeish again.

The French state’s funding for the arts is generous in quantity but conservative in taste. It doesn’t fund the Fondation Cartier, leaving it free to be playful — to hang so-called “outsider” and indigenous artists alongside established names; to work with artists in the long term, developing and acquiring pieces as collaborations grow. In other words, Paris’s first private foundation for contemporary art is free to behave as a private patron should and to learn on the job.

Trees is the latest in a line of exhibitions conceived by the Fondation Cartier that seek to decentre humans’ view of ourselves as overlords of creation. In 2016, The Great Animal Orchestra exhibition (which visits London in October) sought to establish common intellectual ground between species. Trees goes further, seeking a rapprochement between two kingdoms, the animals and the plants.

Trees are weirdly hard to see because they hide in plain sight. “The tree is the chair on which we sit, the table we use to write, it is our cupboards, our furniture, but also our most ordinary tools,” as Parisian philosopher Emanuele Coccia writes in the exhibition catalogue.

Tree-blindness is made worse by a western intellectual inheritance. When Aristotle asserted in his De plantis that vegetable life is insensate, he was going against Plato, Anaxagoras, Democritus and Empedocles. And he was wrong: plants detect and react to temperature, humidity, air pressure, vibration, sound, touch, trauma and chemical information that we have no short names for. They respond to these sensations as quickly as any animal. They are not less than animals, but they are radically, mind-bendingly different.

A life among trees does things to the eye. Perspective is not much help in reading a treescape, while pattern recognition is vital. Work here by Kalepi, Joseca and Ehuana Yaira, Yanomami artists from the Amazon rainforest, explores the architectonic quality of trees, expressing them as entire bodies rather than (as the western eye prefers) complex assortments of twigs and leaves. The Paraguayan artists of the Gran Chaco region included here, meanwhile, express their forest home more through typology than through aesthetics. Theirs is a forest as well-stocked and well-ordered as a supermarket. Count all the little animals and plants laid out in rows: this is not a wilderness but a tally of self-renewing plenty. The general lesson seems to be that a forest is an environment that’s easier to read for what it contains than to swallow in one gulp.

Drawings and diagrams by contemporary botanist Francis Hallé honour natural history, a European tradition in which aesthetic knowledge and scientific knowledge run parallel. Twentieth-century laboratory-based science finds its way on to Fabrice Hyber’s huge canvases — like wall-sized notebook pages annotated with multicoloured scribbles, graphs, colour wheels and wave forms. In each, Hyber reduces the trees to a single trunk, or a trunk and a branch: a world of abstractions and generalis­ations. Cesare Leonardi’s meticulous drawings reveal the architectural potential of trees — a potential mischievously misappropriated in Peruvian photo­grapher Sebastian Mejía’s pictures of trees strained through fence wire, incorporated into walls or otherwise appropriated by the unliving city.

Some works here protest against the world’s breakneck deforestation. Thijs Biersteker, in collaboration with botanist Stefano Mancuso, offers a salve, wiring two trees in the Fondation’s extensive garden to scientific visualisations to help us empathise with what trees are sensing in real time. (This is more than a rhetorical flourish: the sense data that the piece collects are being corroborated and fed into scientific research, in a work that fulfils a dual artistic and scientific function.)

The lion’s share of the show is given over to Brazilian artist Luiz Zerbini, whose muted, simple monotypes and huge, complex, colourful canvases surround a table herbarium and a tree. The paintings are an Anthropocene jungle of sorts in which urban and natural forms hide in plain sight within a fiercely perpectiveless, rectilinear grid. Give your eyes time to adjust, and you find yourself in a city/forest of the future, where nature is exploited but not exhausted, and beauty and utility coexist.

These canvases suggest that we humans, having crafted our way out of the trees and developed those crafts on an industrial scale, can perhaps learn an even neater trick and make the whole human adventure last beyond this current, rapine moment

I came out of this show happy. I wasn’t just enthused. I’d been converted.

Just a nuclear-powered dinosaur

Pondering the science of Godzilla for New Scientist, 12 June 2019

FOR Japanese children, Godzilla is the ultimate scary adult: fierce, honourable, clumsy and a bit out of control. For their grandparents, he’s the irradiated embodiment of wartime tragedy, a bad memory come to life. For the rest of us, I suppose, he’s “just” a nuclear-powered dinosaur.

Godzilla is also a pay cheque. Films featuring the epic creature, almost all by the Japanese studio Toho, have been produced since 1954, a cinematic franchise record. The current release, Godzilla: King of the monsters, is the 35th, and the third to be produced entirely within the Hollywood system.

Its human stars play the shattered Russell family. Millie Bobby Brown from TV hit Stranger Things is Madison, whose brother Andrew was killed during a 2014 kaiju (monster) attack on San Francisco. Her dad Mark is literally living with wolves; her mum Emma prefers kaiju to people.

Terroristic eco-warriors are out to awaken Godzilla’s subterranean cousins in an effort to bring the planet “back into balance” – and Emma is inclined to help them. Newsreel images of ruined San Francisco make her point: in five short years it has turned to jungle, accelerated by ionising radiation spilling from Godzilla’s insides.

Why do movies, stretching back to the giant ants of Them!, assume that excess radiation promotes growth? The evidence has always pointed the other way. Ionising radiation weakens and breaks up DNA, damaging cells enough to kill them, or cause them to mutate in ways that, somehow or other, lead to the grave. In humans, epidemiological studies show that even low doses of radiation increase the risk of cancer.

Still, human nature being what it is, whenever a new kind of ray is detected, we speculate about its magical properties. Radium, a radioactive metal, was discovered by Marie and Pierre Curie in 1898, and though it eventually killed her, it still found its way into the food chain thanks to products like Hippman-Blach bakery’s Radium Bread (made with radium-laced water, which was supposed to cure everything from arthritis to impotence to wrinkles).

Is there more to this accelerated-growth idea than magical thinking? “Hormesis” is the controversial notion that things that are dangerous in high doses might be beneficial to human health at lower levels. Some lab studies have shown the effect in action. Whether there is radiation hormesis, however, is a big question – and a timely one.

China’s space programme has studied the ability of plants to develop and thrive in conditions of microgravity and exposure to cosmic radiation in space. Since 1987, 66 mutant varieties have been cultivated through its space-breeding efforts.

So far, so workaday: “atomic gardening” has been around since the 1950s, exposing plants to radioactive sources (typically cobalt-60) to generate mutations, and over 2000 new varieties of agriculturally useful plants have been created this way.

The Chinese results, however, are a bit weird. Plants positively mutated during space flight have grown faster than their irradiated Earth-grown counterparts. Space-bred mutations do better than their “atomically gardened” controls, and no one is sure why.

Is there something magical about cosmic rays? Probably not, though if I were Godzilla (traditionally Earth’s first line of defence against alien attack) I would watch my back.

“And it will no longer be necessary to ransack the earth…”

Visiting Raw Materials: Plastics at the Nunnery Gallery, Bow Arts, for the Spectator, 1 June 2019

Plastics — even venerable, historically eloquent plastics — hardly draw the eye. As this show’s insightful accompanying publication (a snip at £3) would have it, ‘Plastics have no intrinsic form or texture, thus they are not materials that can be true to themselves.’ They exist within inverted commas. They can be shell-like, horn-like, stony, metallic — they do not really exist on their own behalf.

Mind you, the first vitrine in Raw Materials: Plastics at the Nunnery Gallery in east London contains an object of rare beauty: a small, mottled, crazed, discoloured sphere that looks for all the world like the planet Venus, reduced to handy scale.

It’s a billiard ball, made of the first plastic: cellulose nitrate. Its manufacture had been keenly anticipated. In the US, a $10,000 prize had been offered for anything that could replace ivory in the manufacture of billiard balls (and no wonder: a single tusk yields only three balls).

Under various brand names (Celluloid, Parkesine, Xylonite), and in spite of its tendency to catch fire (colliding snooker balls would occasionally explode), cellulose nitrate saved the elephant. And not just the elephant: plastics pioneer John Wesley Hyatt reckoned that ‘Celluloid [has] given the elephant, the tortoise, and the coral insect a respite in their native haunts; and it will no longer be necessary to ransack the earth in pursuit of substances which are constantly growing scarcer.’

The whole point of plastic is that it has no characteristics of its own, only properties engineered for specific uses. Cheaper than jade. Less brittle than bone. It’s the natural material of the future, always more becoming than being. Hence the names: Xylonite. Bexoid. Halex. Lactoid.

Unable to nail the material in words, one writes instead about its history, sociology, industrial archaeology or ecological impact. On remote islands in the Pacific, thousands of albatross chicks are starving because the parents mistake floating plastic debris for food. Stories like this conjure up a vision of vast islands of discarded plastic coagulating in the Pacific Ocean, but there aren’t any. Instead, plastics eventually fragment into ever smaller pieces that are ingested by marine animals and carried to the sea bottom. In the Mariana Trench, all crustaceans tested had plastics in their guts. So plastics rise and fall through the food chain, creating havoc as they go — a bitter irony for a material that saved the elephant and the turtle, made fresh food conveyable and modern medicine possible, and all for less than 15 per cent of global oil consumption.

What can be gained from looking at the stuff itself? Raw Materials: Plastics transcends the limitations of its material by means of a good story. The first plastics were made in the Lea Valley, not from crude oil, but from plant materials, in a risky, artisanal fashion that bore, for a while, the hallmarks of older crafts including baking, woodcutting and metalwork. Fast-forward 140 years or so and, under the umbrella term ‘bioplastics’, plant-based and biodegradable synthetic products promise to turn the wheel of development full circle, returning plastics to their organic roots. (Designer Peter Marigold’s FORMCard plastic, used here in an excellent school art project, is a starch-based bioplastic made from potato skins.) Then, perhaps, we can break the bind in which we currently find ourselves: the one in which we’re poisoning the planet with plastic in our efforts not to further despoil it.

This is the third and for my money the most ambitious of the gallery’s ongoing series of small, thoughtful exhibitions about the materials, processes and industries that have shaped London’s Lea Valley. (Raw Materials: Wood ran in 2017; Raw Materials: Textiles last year.) The show is more chronicle than catalogue, but the art, scant as it is, punches above its weight.

I was struck, in particular, by France Scott’s ‘PHX [X is for Xylonite]’, a 13-minute collage of photogrammetry, laser scanning and 16mm film. It ought, by all logic, to be a complete mess and I still haven’t been able to work out why it’s so compelling. Is it because digital artefacts, like their plastic forebears, are themselves prisoners of contingency, aping the forms of others while stubbornly refusing to acquire forms of their own?

Bringing London’s buried rivers to light

Exploring London’s hidden rivers for the Financial Times, 8 June 2019

Early in the eleventh century, King Cnut sailed his troops from the Thames all the way up the river Effra to Brixton. But by the time Victoria took the throne, a millennium later, the Effra had vanished: polluted; canalised; in the end, buried.

The story goes that once during Victoria’s reign, a coffin from West Norwood Cemetery was found bobbing out to sea along the Thames. The Effra had undermined the burial plot from below, then carried the coffin four miles to its outflow, under what is now the MI6 building in Vauxhall.

It’s stories of this sort which make Londoners grateful for Joseph Bazalgette, the civil engineer who got London’s rivers working again. Following the Great Stink of 1858, he was given the job of turning them into closed sewers. By integrating the Thames’s tributaries into his underground system, Bazalgette sealed the capital’s noisome waterways from view, and used them to move London’s effluent ever eastwards and away.

The problem Bazalgette solved was an old one. London’s Roman founders also had trouble with its rivers. They’d first camped along the banks of the Walbrook, between the two low lying hills of Ludgate and Cornhill. “At first the river was full and reasonably fast-flowing,” explains Kate Sumnall, archaeologist and co-curator of the Secret Rivers exhibition at the Museum of London Docklands. “Twenty years later, the character of the river had completely changed.” River levels dropped dramatically while, at the same time, floods became more frequent. The Romans tried to manage the river by raising ground levels, building revetments, and straightening its course, all with the idea of getting flood waters away as fast as possible. It’s an approach urban planners copied, with refinements, well into the 1960s, and all over London the consequences run, unseen, below people’s feet

I’ve met Sumnall and her co-curator Thomas Ardill at a cafe in Smithfield Market, not far from the banks of the noisome Fleet river — a stretch of waterway no one in their right mind would ever want to uncover; a ditch that inspired Ben Jonson’s coprophilic masterwork “On the Famous Voyage”, once dubbed the filthiest and most deliberately and insistently disgusting poem in the English language.

After the Great Fire, Christopher Wren wanted to turn the Fleet into a sort of Venetian canal: the sheer number of dead dogs floating in the ooze defeated his plans. It’s has since been given a decent burial under Farringdon Road.

In the company of Sumnall and Ardill, the vanished Fleet Ditch comes to life beneath our feet. Every side street was once a wharf. Coal was piled up in Newcastle Close. Dig under Stonecutter Street and you come up with whetstones and knives. Every hump in Farringdon Road marks an old bridge.

Could things have turned out differently for London’s lost rivers? Probably not, but it’s fun to tinker. Ardill tells me about a group of artist-activists called Platform. In 1992 they set up a mock Effra Redevelopment Agency to consult the residents of Brixton about their plans to open up the local river. A sylvan wonderland awaited those who didn’t mind losing their houses.

Compare this mischievous exercise in grass-roots democracy with the paralegal shenanigans of the Tyburn Angling Society, which explores the legal aspects of restoring the river so that it flows freely through the more exclusive enclaves of west London. Levies charged on newly river-fronted properties will pay for the compulsory purchase orders. Buckingham Palace is one of the buildings the Society has earmarked for demolition.

Real-world efforts to restore stretches of London’s rivers began in 2009. Of London’s nearly 400 miles of river network, just twenty have been restored, but developers and councils are beginning to appreciate the cachet a river can add to an area, plus the improvements it can bring by way of social cohesion and well-being. Sixty more miles of waterway run through the city’s public parks and existing urban regeneration schemes, and can be restored at relatively low cost.

Dave Webb, the ecologist who chairs the London River Restoration Group, began his working life trying to ameliorate the effects of engineering projects that canalised and culverted “unsightly” and “dangerous” watercourses. Now he’s bringing these formerly dead rivers back to light and life.

One difficulty for advocates like Webb is in conveying what restoration actually entails. “Architects have a habit of dreaming up a lovely wildlife space, only to insist that it mustn’t then change. Restoring a river is not like restoring a table. You’re reawakening a natural process. You’re enabling the river to adjust and move around.”

Webb has been energetically promoting London Rivers Week, a festival to promote London’s stretches of restored river. The point is not just to prettify the city. It’s to make London sustainable as the climate changes. If the capital leaves its waterways running underground in concrete channels much longer, flash flooding will start to erode its infrastructure. Toxins concentrated on road surfaces during droughts will enter the water system after a single downpour, poisoning everything downstream. Not that much would survive a drought anyway, since smooth concrete surfaces do not provide plants and animals with sanctuary in dry weather, the way a river’s pools and puddles will.

Webb shows me an alternative to London’s existing bleak, brutalist riverine architecture: the restoration of the Quaggy River in Sutcliffe Park, in the Royal Borough of Greenwich. The park works as a giant sponge, against the day a flood-swollen Quaggy threatens to inundate the neighbouring borough of Lewisham. In normal weather the Quaggy also overflows, less spectacularly, to feed a small wetland which you can enter along a boardwalk. There are dragonflies and mayflies. There are fish, and kingfishers to eat the fish. Above all there are people — twice as many as there used to be when the park was flat and dry. Plus they spend double of the amount of time here that they used to.

“I remember walking along one London river when it was still a concrete channel,” Webb recalls. “I asked what all the iron railings were for and I was told it was to stop kids falling into the water, which was about five inches deep. ‘Well,’ I was told, ‘there’s also the business of them throwing shopping trolleys in it.’ I’ve found that if you give people a river, they won’t spoil it.”

And sure enough, in this not very affluent and fairly unprepossessing stretch of south London, the river shimmers under the dappled shade of self-seeded willow trees. Webb reckons there was nothing particularly heroic about the engineering involved: “In a lot of cases, there’s not even any need for planting. The ecologies of the river’s headwaters will work their way downstream in the course of a few seasons, and birds and insects follow very quickly.”

Webb also recommends a walk along the Wandle, which passes through Croydon, Sutton, Merton, and Wandsworth to join the River Thames. This chalk stream was once the heaviest-worked river in the capital, driving mills to produce everything from paper to gunpowder, snuff to textiles. Declared dead in the 1960s, now it’s a breeding spot for chub and dace and brown trout. From certain angles, it will fool you into thinking you’ve hit a particularly idyllic nook of the South Downs. Turning a corner will quickly remind you of the city’s presence, but that’s the peculiar, liminal charm of an urban river.

While Thames 21, the charity behind London Rivers Week, organises citizen science projects, clean-ups and campaigns, the Museum of London Docklands’ Secret Rivers exhibition has scheduled a series of guided walks to enjoy over the summer. On 8 June you can follow the track of the the Walbrook, the river that made Londinium possible. In July you can sneak off from the line of the Tyburn to go shopping in Bond Street, or follow the gruesome Neckinger, the foul, lead-poisoned stream in which Bill Sykes got his just desserts in Dickens’s Oliver Twist. And I’m particularly looking forward to mid-August, when stretches of the Wandle will dazzle in the sun.

The most blatantly artificial landscape in Europe

Mucking about on Windermere for FT Magazine, 31 March 2019

The Osprey, a steam launch built in 1902, carries me out on Lake Windermere. The ride is smooth, fast, virtually silent. I glance behind me, and for a few disconcerting seconds I am lost.

Where did we launch from? Where is Windermere Jetty, the region’s new “Museum of Boats, Steam and Stories”? Where are its enormous glass walls, to reveal its full-time restoration work to public view? Where are its gigantic eaves, to shield visitors from the rain?

There’s an art to hiding in plain sight. Windermere Jetty — a series of unostentatious sheds designed by architects Carmody Groarke — is clad in copper, and even before its greenish patina appears, it’s blending easily with the darker tones of the surrounding trees.

Even if their colour made them stand out, these sheds would not immediately draw my eye. conditioned as I am by Arthur Ransome’s stories, and the Swallows and Amazons films, and a school syllabus besotted by the region’s literary history. I know what to expect from this view. The Jetty’s low, dark, massy wharf buildings, stuck right on the edge of the lake, obviously belong. The nearby Windermere Marina Village (a perfectly pleasant array of holiday apartments, carefully tucked away) obviously doesn’t.

In 1909, the zoologist Jacob von Uexküll proposed that animals only see what they need to see: the rest goes by virtually unnoticed. Tourism probably wasn’t at the forefront of his mind when he said this. But people are animals too. When we visit a place, we see what we already know about it, or what we have already been told about it, and the genuinely unexpected — especially in a place as loaded with expectation as the Lakes — is as likely to disappoint or irritate us as delight or surprise.

Why do the Lakes generate such strong feeling? Because they’re endangered? Or because they’re already spoiled? Spoiled how? By afforestation, by sheep, by the clumsy application of preservationist aspic? They’re not what they were, on this we can agree. But what were they? At Windermere Jetty, alongside elements of familiar Lakeland lore — steam kettles, childhood boating holidays, Beatrix Potter’s rowing boat mounted on one wall — other, more disconcerting aspects of the region are revealed: the Lakes as mining region, as testbed for new technologies, as strenuously guarded zone of wartime production. Sublime this place may be, from the right angles. But those scarps aren’t all ancient glacial erosion, and those hills, which haven’t seen a tree in eighty years, aren’t naturally bare. This is one of the most blatantly artificial landscapes in Europe.

From the polished deck of the Osprey, I slip under the spell of that period when wealthy industrialists built great houses along Windermere’s lake shore and ordered ostentatious steam launches to carry them to the railway head at Windermere. Men like Charles Fildes (Manchester: tin plate), who in winter took boiler and engine out of his private paddle steamer to use in his miniature railway. Or Col. John George Miller Ridehalgh (“King of the Lake”), who lit one of his several steamers with gas generated on board with a device straight out of a Heath-Robinson cartoon, driven by clockwork and a weight. Or William Henry Schneider (Barrow-in-Furness: iron production), who was so in love with his 65-foot steam yacht that he fitted it with an ice-cutting bow for winter use.

Like all seemingly timeless moments, this one lasted hardly any time at all. Windermere became a playground for Midlands industrialists around the middle of the nineteenth century and by the 1880s their great houses were already too big to manage. Henry Schneider turned Belsfield into a hotel while he was still living there: Ridehalgh’s seat, Fell Foot Park, was demolished in 1907.

Boats of better provenance than the Osprey are kept in dry dock. The Branksome cost around four times as much as the Osprey when it was built in 1896. The hull is constructed using 50 foot long lengths of varnished teak. The leather seats, the walnut panelling, the velvet upholstery and carpets are original.

It’s hard to hold in mind how advanced these craft were, and how important to the boating industry. Their designs, which derive ultimately from Windermere’s char-fishing boats of the Seventeenth century, were copied across Europe. (Their combination of stability and steerability also set the style for rowboats in every decent pleasure park in Britain.) “They could only have arisen in this place, at this moment,” says Rachel Roberts, head curator at the Jetty. Money was one ingredient in their manufacture. Because their backers were pioneer industrialists, an ambition to innovate — to be the fastest on the lake, or the most ostentatious — was another spur. Innovations from overseas were trialled here: the first American Chris-Craft boats. Planing hulls from Italy. World Speed records were broken here, repeatedly.

Windermere’s radical engineering culture long outlived the era of grand houses and their masters. On the Jetty’s roster for renovation is the steam launch Bat. In 1891, Jack Kitchen and Isaac Storey, two local radio pioneers, achieved a world first by steering it around the lake by radio remote control. (Kitchen already had form as an inventor: his reversing rudder, which could bring small ships to an almost complete stop in an instant, was picked up by the Royal Navy. His gas-powered gramophone and an elliptical wheel for difficult terrain fared less well.)

The region’s experimental engineering grew ever more baroque. The first British-built flying plane, the Waterhen, launched from Windermere in November 1911. It flew tourists around the lake safely for years, even as rival prototypes were falling out of the sky. Eleven years later someone thought it would be a good idea to build a power boat around a Rolls Royce 85 HP Mk1 Hawk airship engine. The Canfly looks terrifying enough in the museum. On the water it was a monster. You had to point the thing carefully down the centre of the lake before you cranked it to life because once the boat got moving there was no easy way to steer. The only way to stop it was to cut the engine.

Roberts leads me to exhibits that reveal where all this well-funded innovation was ultimately bound: the killing fields of the following century. Sail lost its dominance on the lake when local sailmakers were put to manufacturing sand-bags in the First World War. Over the course of the Second World War, 500 people were employed to turn out 35 gigantic Shorts Sunderland Flying Boats: key machines in the Allies’ airborne Atlantic defence. “These,” she says, pointing to a picture of the factory, which stood not far from here, “were the largest single-span buildings in Europe.”

Defended by D company, 9th Lakes Battalion, who patrolled Lake Windermere with four speed boats and two houseboats, all equipped with machine guns, the workers lived more or less over the shop in the purpose-built village of Calgarth. Afterwards, the village was used to house and recuperate 300 child victims of the Holocaust.

“Wars transform the whole character of a place,” says Roberts, though she doesn’t mention the biggest wartime transformation of all.

More or less everything we think about the Lake District is an artefact of the Napoleonic Wars. Between 1799 and 1815, conflict brought to a halt the sort of comfortable European travel young intellectuals expected from their Grand Tour.

With the wonders of the mainland put out of bounds, the Lakes provided a homegrown locus for the cultivation of finer feeling — and it’s a role the region still fulfils today, at least for those of a sufficiently Romantic temperament. “Here,” wrote the publisher Rudolph Ackerman, in his Picturesque Tour of the English Lakes (1821) “we have valleys of the utmost softness and beauty, luxuriantly wooded and watered by these enchanting lakes and the crystal streams which flow from them, deeply embosomed amidst lofty mountains, whose sides exhibit wild rocks majestically piled on each other, with yawning gulfs between, down which foaming torrents descend from dark and gloomy Tarns…”

But by then, the natural Lakeland landscape was already a thing of the past. From about 1300 the monks of Furness Abbey had been scouring the hills for iron and felling woods for charcoal. Iron, to feed the first factories of the Industrial Revolution, drove the Lakeland economy for decades. Copper was another important mining activity, turning the whole massif of the Coniston Fells to scree. The blighted wildernesses of Old Man of Coniston and Honister Pass are what’s left of the trade in slate, to roof the houses of 19th-century Midlands towns during the boom. There’s much local opposition at the moment to plans to construct a zip-wire across the Honister Pass, from Borrowdale to Buttermere. But it’s not such an outlandish idea: blocks of slate were once removed from the mountain but just such a wire. There are photographs. There was also an incline system, and the Honister Crag Railway, and a tramway which ran right up until 1962.

We assume the Lake District is under threat by throngs of tourists. In his Guide to the Lakes in 1810, Wordsworth lamented how his “Republic of Shepherds and Agriculturists” was ceding ground to a culture of railway tourism. Nowhere in the index, however, will you find any reference to coal, copper, industry, iron, or mines.

Today 18 million of us clog the narrow lanes of England’s Lake District each year, and Carlisle Lake District Airport, a half-hour drive from Penrith will only add to the burden when it opens this July. Still, we tend to blank the fact that the Lake District is an industrial site, characterised (in George Monbiot’s memorable formulation) by “quad bikes, steel barns and absentee ownership”.

The Lake District knows what to do with visitors. It builds industries around them. The first public steamer on Windermere, the Lady of the Lake, was launched the same year the Great Britain sailed from Liverpool to New York. A rival company sprang up to take advantage of the fast-improving technology. Its flagship used to shoot past the Lady with the band playing “The Girl I Left Behind Me”.

Today the region responds similarly: by swinging squealing youths from wires that in another age would have carried stones. By trialing driverless pods, so as to prise visitors out of their cars. On nearby Coniston, a steamer restored by the National Trust vies for trade with two ferries driven by solar power.

Stephen Beresford, Windermere Jetty’s senior conservation boat builder, shows me round the working part of the museum, where local apprentices will learn how to build and restore a collection whose provenance stretches from 1780 to 1983. “The trick,” says Beresford, a civil engineer turned historic boat restorer, “is to know what you can and can’t replace.” Time is real, and cannot be frozen. Imagination, technique and craft are the way we connect to the past. Every vessel in this museum could go back on the water if he replaced everything. “And by the time we got it back into the water there’d be so little of it left, it’d no longer be historic. Would it?”

Slightly fleshy, slightly scabby, cast adrift

Exploring Matthew Day Jackson’s show Pathetic Fallacy at Hauser & Wirth Somerset for the Times Literary Supplement, 26 February 2019

The New York-based artist Matthew Day Jackson takes mixed media seriously. Behind the techniques and materials, the molten lead and the axe handles, the T-shirts and laser-etched Formica, Jackson’s aesthetic sees the world not as a continuum but as a mass of odd juxtapositions. Since his first big solo show in 2004, he has intertwined the grotesque and the beautiful. Every ten years, he paints a picture of himself as a corpse, but the majority of his work is mischievous, holding the autobiographical and the cerebral in an uneasy balance.

Hauser and Wirth, an international gallery with a strong educational remit, regularly brings its spikier artists to its property in Bruton, Somerset, to stay, work and reflect. The residencies come without strings, there are no prescribed outcomes, and one suspects there’s a certain mischief in who gets chosen. First to arrive, in 2014, was the (intermittently scary) video artist Pipilotti Rist. Seduced by her surroundings, she came up with sensuously observed close-ups of bodies and leaves in intimate proximity. Nothing wrong with that, of course. But it’s a risk for the gallery, and a challenge for the artists who stay here, that the landscape round about is so ridiculously seductive.

Showing next door to Matthew Day Jackson, Eve, an exhibition of paintings by the Somerset-based artist Catherine Goodman, is unashamedly paradisal. Even its edge of Freudian melancholy proves heartwarming in the end.

What on earth will Jackson, a cerebral city-dwelling proponent of an aesthetic he dubs the “horriful”, do with all this serried loveliness? He says that at first he found the landscape hard to read. “It’s more like urban space”, he says. “Everywhere you look, you can trace how humans have engaged with this place.” He can’t get over the time-worn depth of the lanes here. There’s no equivalent back home: “Maybe in Oregon and Wyoming, you can find tracks still rutted by wagon wheels”.

Predictably, for an artist who’s spent his career mapping the failures of American utopianism, Jackson has responded to the beauty around him by mourning its passing. His Solipsist collage-paintings of silk-screened Formica zoom out to encompass large swathes of the planet. Seen from various orbital viewpoints (the images are based on photographs taken by NASA astronauts) four elements emerge. Mine workings strip the Earth back to, well, its earth. The hopelessly polluted Ganges and the virtually vanished Ural Sea stand for water. Smoke plumes from forest fires give a shape to air. Yellowstone Lake inhabits a caldera that, if it erupted, would consume most life on Earth.

Each landscape, weirdly colourized (“Formica limits your colour palette”), laser etched with precise contours and subtle, uninterpretable boundary lines, resembles a computer-readable map. “Over” it (or, to be literal about this, embedded in it) is the flattened image of a satellite, made of cast lead.

The fact that the satellite observing the view is itself melted into the picture suggests a colossal foreshortening. There’s something suggestive of Jean Dubuffet, too, in the way the texture of the satellite is employed to convey a radical flatness. There’s no shade here, no occlusion, no hint of curvature. Human activity and human destiny are being measured and metricized to the point where even the planet has nowhere to turn.

Jackson’s flower paintings in the next room continue the theme: vases of hallucinatory Formica and fabric blooms, backlit by unearthly aurorae that may reference the tie-dye fad of the early 1970s but are more likely – given the way this show is going – something ghastly to do with nuclear testing.

The paintings work with the Astroturf floor and Jackson’s experimental, sculptural furniture to explore the idea that we only ever see things through their use. This isn’t a human foible: living things generally only sense what is relevant to their survival. So if Jackson is holding humanity to account here, it is a gentle and considered judgement. “What we most want is to feel that we exist”, he says, as we contemplate vanished seas and shredded mountain ranges. “We want not be lonely. Hence the appeal of metrics: they give us a sense of accomplishment.”

It can be a nuisance, having the artist around when you’re viewing a show. I was initially thinking about our greed and rapacity, and now, looking at these spoiled and garishly mapped earths, all I can see is our pathos: how we are polishing our rock down to the granite, just so we can glimpse ourselves in it.

Pathetic Fallacy is a well-chosen title for this show. John Ruskin coined the phrase to have a dig at the emotional falsity of poets who made clouds weep and trees groan. Jackson’s show is more in the spirit of Wordsworth’s defence of the practice, arguing that “objects . . . derive their influence not from properties inherent in them . . . but from such as are bestowed upon them by the minds of those who are conversant with or affected by these objects”.

In other words, we impose ourselves on the world because we feel we are the only meaning makers. On the way out, I pass more pictures: flattened lead satellites, cast in moulds made of corrugated cardboard, twine, sawdust, glue. This close, they appear slightly fleshy, slightly scabby, cast adrift, and travelling out into space.

A world that has run out of normal

Reading The Uninhabitable Earth: A Story of the Future by David Wallace-Wells for the Telegraph, 16 February 2019

As global temperatures rise, and the mean sea-level with them, I have been tracing the likely flood levels of the Thames Valley, to see which of my literary rivals will disappear beneath the waves first. I live on a hill, and what I’d like to say is: you’ll be stuck with me a while longer than most. But on the day I had set aside to consume David Wallace-Wells’s terrifying account of climate change and the future of our species (there isn’t one), the water supply to my block was unaccountably cut off.

Failing to make a cup of tea reminded me, with some force, of what ought to be obvious: that my hill is a post-apocalyptic death-trap. I might escape the floods, but without clean water, food or power, I’ll be lucky to last a week.

The first half of The Uninhabitable Earth is organised in chapters that deal separately with famines, floods, fires, droughts, brackish oceans, toxic winds and war and all the other manifest effects of anthropogenic climate change (there are many more than four horsemen in this Apocalypse). At the same time, the author reveals, paragraph by paragraph, how these ever-more-frequent disasters join up in horrific cascades, all of which erode human trust to the point where civic life collapses.

The human consequences of climate disaster are going to be ugly. When a million refugees from the Syrian civil war started arriving in Europe in 2017, far-right parties entered mainstream political discourse for the first time in decades. By 2050, the United Nations predicts that Europe will host 200 million refugees. So buckle up. The disgust response with which we greet strangers on our own land is something we conscientiously suppress these days. But it’s still there: an evolved response that in less sanitary times got us through more than one plague.

That such truths go largely unspoken says something about the cognitive dissonance in which our culture is steeped. We just don’t have the mental tools to hold climate change in our heads. Amitav Ghosh made this clear enough in The Great Derangement (2016), which explains why the traditional novel is so hopeless at handling a world that has run out of normal, forgotten how to repeat itself, and will never be any sort of normal again.

Writers, seeking to capture the contemporary moment, resort to science fiction. But the secret, sick appeal of post-apocalyptic narratives, from Richard Jefferies’s After London on, is that in order to be stories at all their heroes must survive. You can only push nihilism so far. J G Ballard couldn’t escape that bind. Neither could Cormac McCarthy. Despite our most conscientious attempts at utter bloody bleakness, the human spirit persists.

Wallace-Wells admits as much. When he thinks of his own children’s future, denizens of a world plunging ever deeper into its sixth major extinction event, he admits that despair melts and his heart fills with excitement. Humans will cling to life on this ever less habitable earth for as long as they can. Quite right, too.

Wallace-Wells is deputy editor of New York magazine. In July 2017 he wrote a cover story outlining worst-case scenarios for climate change. His pessimism proved salutary: The Uninhabitable Earth has been much anticipated.

In the first half of the book the author channels former US vice-president Al Gore, delivering a blizzard of terrifying facts, and knocking socks off his predecessor’s An Inconvenient Truth (2006) not thanks to his native gifts (considerable as they are) but because the climate has deteriorated since then to the point where its declines can now be observed directly, and measured over the course of a human lifetime.

More than half the extra carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels has been added in the past 30 years. This means that “we have done as much damage to the fate of the planet and its ability to sustain human life and civilization since Al Gore published his first book on climate than in all the centuries – all the millennia – that came before.” (4) Oceans are carrying at least 15 per cent more heat energy than they did in 2000. 22 per cent of the earth’s landmass was altered by humans just between 1992 and 2015. In Sweden, in 2018, forests in the Arctic Circle went up in flames. On and on like this. Don’t shoot the messenger, but “we have now engineered as much ruin knowingly as we ever managed in ignorance.”

The trouble is not that the future is bleak. It’s that there is no future. We’re running out of soil. In the United States, it’s eroding ten times faster than it is being replaced. In China and India, soil is disappearing thirty to forty times as fast. Wars over fresh water have already begun. The CO2 in the atmosphere has reduced the nutrient value of plants by about thirty per cent since the 1950s. Within the lifetimes of our children, the hajj will no longer be a feature of Islamic practice: the heat in Mecca will be such that walking seven times counterclockwise around the Kaaba will kill you.

This book may come to be regarded as last truly great climate assessment ever made. (Is there even time left to pen another?) Some of the phrasing will give persnickety climate watchers conniptions. (Words like “eventually” will be a red rag for them, because they catalyse the reader’s imagination without actually meaning anything.) But the research is extensive and solid, the vision compelling and eminently defensible.

Alas, The Uninhabitable Earth is also likely to be one of the least-often finished books of the year. I’m not criticising the prose, which is always clear and engaging and often dazzling. But It’s simply that the more we are bombarded with facts, the less we take in. Treating the reader like an empty bucket into which facts may be poured does not work very well, and even less well when people are afraid of what you are telling them. “If you have made it this far, you are a brave reader,” Wallace Wells writes on page 138. Many will give up long before then. Climate scientists have learned the hard way how difficult it is to turn fact into public engagement.

The second half of The Uninhabitable Earth asks why our being made aware of climate disaster doesn’t lead to enough reasonable action being taken against it. There’s a nuanced mathematical account to be written of how populations reach carrying capacity, run out of resources, and collapse; and an even more difficult book that will explain why we ever thought human intelligence would be powerful enough to elude this stark physical reality.

The final chapters of The Uninhabitable Earth provide neither, but neither are they narrowly partisan. Wallace-Wells mostly resists the temptation to blame the mathematical inevitability of our species’ growth and decline on human greed. The worst he finds to say about the markets and market capitalism – our usual stock villains – is not that they are evil, or psychopathic (or certainly no more evil or psychopathic than the other political experiments we’ve run in the past 150 years) but that they are not nearly as clever as we had hoped they might be. There is a twisted magnificence in the way we are exploiting, rather than adapting to the End Times. (Whole Foods in the US, we are told, is now selling “GMO-free” fizzy water.)

The Paris accords of 2016 established keeping warming to just two degrees as a global goal. Only a few years ago we were hoping for a rise of just 1.5 degrees. What’s the difference? According to the IPCC, that half-degree concession spells death for about 150 million people. Without significantly improved pledges, however, the IPCC reckons that instituting the Paris accords overnight (and no-one has) will still see us topping 3.2 degrees of warming. At this point the Antarctic’s ice sheets will collapse, drowning Miami, Dhaka, Shanghai, Hong Kong and a hundred other cities around the world. (Not my hill, though.)

And to be clear: this isn’t what could happen. This is what is already guaranteed to happen. Greenhouse gases work on too long a timescale to avoid it. “You might hope to simply reverse climate change;” writes Wallace-Wells: “you can’t. It will outrun all of us.”

“How widespread alarm will shape our ethical impulses toward one another, and the politics that emerge from those impulses,” says Wallace-Wells,”is among the more profound questions being posed by the climate to the planet of people it envelopes.”

My bet is the question will never tip into public consciousness: that, on the contrary, we’ll find ways, through tribalism, craft and mischief, to engineer what Wallace-Wells dubs “new forms of indifference”, normalising climate suffering, and exploiting novel opportunities, even as we live and more often die through times that will never be normal again.

The world bacteria made

Visiting Bacterial World at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History for New Scientist, 23 November 2018

“It’s like a cheetah going after a wildebeest,” says Judith Armitage, lead scientist for Bacterial World, an exhibition at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. She’s struggling to find a simile adequate to describe Bdellovibrio bacteriovorus, a predatory bacterium found, among other places, in the human gut. Indeed, it’s monstrously fast: capable of swimming 100 times its own body length every second.

Other bacteria are built for strength, not speed. Campylobacter jejuni, which we have to thank for most of our food poisoning, has a propeller-like flagellum geared so that it can heave its way through the thick mucus in the gut.

Armitage has put considerable effort into building a tiny exhibition that gives bacteria their due as the foundational components of living systems –and all I can think about is food poisoning. “Well that’s quorum sensing, isn’t it?” says Armitage, playing along. “After 24 hours or so biding their time, they decide there’s enough of them they can make you throw up.”

Above our heads hangs artist Luke Jerram’s gigantic inflatable E. coli, seen floating over visitors at the first New Scientist Live festival in 2016. It seems an altogether more sinister presence in Oxford’s Museum of Natural History: the alien overseer of a building so exuberantly Gothic (built in 1860, just in time for the famous evolution debate between Thomas Huxley and “Soapy Sam” Wilberforce, the Bishop of Oxford) that it appears more grown than made.

Armed with just 55 exhibits, from the Wellcome Collection, the Pitt Rivers Museum and the Natural History Museum in London, Armitage has managed to squeeze 3.8 billion years of history along a narrow balcony just under the museum’s glass roof. Our journey is two-fold: from the very big to the very small, and from the beginnings of life on Earth to its likely future.

Towering stromatolites, the earliest fossil evidence of life on Earth, reveal the action of countless anaerobic bacteria whose trick of splitting water would result, a million years later, in an extremely rusty planet filling up with toxic oxygen. To survive, let alone thrive, in the ghastly conditions ushered in by the Great Oxygenation Event required bacterial adaptations on which all living things today depend. For example, Paenibacilla (pictured) promote crop growth, and symbiotic bacteria of the genus Rhizobium pack essential hard-to-get at iron into our vegetables. Cellular adaptations defend against caustic oxygen, and have, incidentally, thrown up all manner of unforeseen by-products, including the bioluminescence of certain fish.

As multicellular organisms, we owe the very structure of our cells to an act of bacterial symbiosis. Our biosphere is shaped to meet the needs of ubiquitous bacteria like Wolbachia, without which some species of environmentally essential insect cannot reproduce, or even survive.

Naturally, we humans have tried to muscle in on this story. For a while we’ve been able to harness some bacteria to fight off others, thereby ridding ourselves of disease. But Armitage fears the antibiotic era was just a blip. “New antimicrobials are too expensive to develop,” she observes. “Once they’re shown to work they’ll be kept on the shelf waiting for the microbial apocalypse.”

But look on the bright side. At least once the great Throwing Up is over and the human population shrinks to a disease-racked minimum, the bacteria released from our ballooning guts can get back to what they’re good at: creating vibrant ecosystems out of random raw material. “Bacteria will eat all the plastic.” Of this Armitage is certain. “But,” she adds, “it takes time for metabolic cascades to evolve. We’ll probably not be around to see it happen.”

On the way out, my eye is caught by another artwork:  uneasy and delicate pieces of crochet by Elin Thomas depicting colonies of bacteria. The original colonies were grown on personal objects: a key, a gold wedding ring; a wooden pencil. A worn sock.

Microbial World is a tremendous exhibition, punching way above its tiny weight. It doesn’t half put you in your place, though.