You wouldn’t stop here for gas

Reading Lyndsie Bourgon’s Tree Thieves: Crime and Survival in the Woods for the Telegraph, 12 July 2022

Worldwide, the illegal timber trade is worth around 157 billion dollars a year. According to oral historian Lyndsie Bourgon, thirty per cent of the world’s wood trade is illegal, and around 80 per cent of all Amazonian wood harvested today is “poached” (a strange term to apply to timber, which would struggle to fit into the largest poche or pocket — but evocative nonetheless). $1 billion worth of wood is poached yearly in North America.

Bourgon focuses her account on thefts from public lands and forest parks of the Pacific North-West. There are giants here, and Methuselahs. “Old-growth” trees, more than two hundred years old, are intagliated with each others’ root systems, with fungal hyphae and with other soil systems we’ve barely begun to understand. Entire ecosystems may stand or fall on the survival of a single 800-year-old red cedar — an organism so huge it may take weeks or months to saw up and remove from the forest, leaving a trail of sawdust, felling wedges and abandoned equipment.

That the trade in such timber was not sustainable has never been a secret, and to save some of the world’s oldest and biggest trees, the Redwood National Park was established in 1968.

But while the corporations received compensation for their lost profits, the promised direct government relief for workers never materialised. “Do you know what it’s like to work 20 years, then sleep in a pick-up truck?” asked Seattle’s archbishop Thomas Murphy, at a 1994 summit attended by the new president, Bill Clinton; “A way of life is dying.”

North America’s oldest timber companies were founded near the town of Orick, on the banks of the Redwood Creek in Humboldt County, California. Orick’s first commercial sawmill opened in 1908. Orick is now home to just under 400 people. You wouldn’t stop here for gas on your way to a luxury cabin on US Forest Service land, or a heated yurt by Park Canada.

To live in Orick is to feel the walls closing in: one woodsman turned poacher, Danny Garcia, likens the sensation “to having your car break down in the middle of nowhere — you’ve no cash to fix it and no way out.”

This, says Garcia, is where his “tree troubles” started, but he wasn’t the first to go sawing chunks out of giants. His partner in crime Chris Guffie says: “I’ve been at it for so doggone long. It’s like Yogi Bear and the park ranger.”

“To begin to understand the sadness and violence of poaching,” says Bourgon, “we need to consider how a tree became something that could be stolen in the first place.” Like it or not, conservation has patrician roots: in the 1890s, organisations like the New York Sportsmen’s Club lobbied to ensure access to game and fish for its members. Dedicated hunting and fishing seasons suited their sporting clientele, but as a letter to a Wyoming paper put it: “When you say to a ranchman, ‘You can’t eat game, except in season,’ you make him a poacher, because he is neither going hungry himself nor have his family do so…”

Remove land from a community, Bourgon argues, and you make poaching “a deed of necessity”. So why not buy the land and give it back to its people, along with the tools to protect and manage it. Going by the experiences of the 59 community forests that now dot the province of British Columbia, community forests create twice as many jobs as those run by independent industry.

Of necessity, however, Bourgon spends more pages explaining the workings of a solution more palatable to central authority: an ever-more interconnected system of police surveillance, involving cameras, magnetic plates, LIDAR and, most recently, genetic testing. Even as Bourgon wrote this book, a genetic map was being assembled to make wood products, at least in the Pacific North-West, traceable to their original growing locations. The brilliance of this effort, spearheaded by Rich Cronn at the Oregon State University at Corvallis, cannot hide the fact that it is facilitating an age-old mistake: substituting enforcement for engagement.

Bourgon gives a voice both to the rangers risking their lives to save some of the planet’s oldest trees, and to poachers like Danny Garcia whose original sin was his unwillingness to leave the home of his ancestors. Full of the most varied testimonies, and by no mean fudging the issue that timber poaching is a crime and an environmental violation, Tree Thieves nonetheless testifies to the love of the woodsman for the wood. Drive through Orick sometime, and you will discover that communities are an ecology, too, and one worthy of care.

How to appropriate a plant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Salmon or seals?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“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.