A sack of tech cats

Reading Long Shot by Kate Bingham and Tim Hames for the Telegraph, 15 October 2022

“Not only were we building the plane as we were flying it,” writes Kate Bingham, appointed by Boris Johnson in May 2020 to chair the UK Vaccine Task Force, “we were flying in the dark and simultaneously writing the instruction manual, and fielding endless petty questions from air traffic control asking about the strength of the orange juice we were serving to passengers.”

The tale of Britain’s vaccination effort against Covid-19 ends happily, of course: the task force arranges for clinical trials, secures 350 million doses of six vaccines, oversees any amount of novel infrastructure for their manufacture and distribution, and delivers Covid-19 as close to a knock-out blow as one could reasonably dream of.

At the time of Bingham’s first phone call, in January 2020, things looked rather different: it seemed to this British venture capitalist, who had no specialist knowledge of vaccine development, that she was being asked to take responsibility for a huge amount of government expenditure “that would, most likely, prove completely wasted.”

Vaccines normally take decades to develop, while viruses can mutate in a matter of weeks. There was, Bingham insists, very little chance of success.

Britain’s internationally celebrated vaccine development and production regime was set in motion, from something like a standing start, by a team, that included a bomb disposal expert, an Indian rowing star, an Italian consultant, a former ambassador, a football pundit, and the redoubtable Ruth Todd, whose day job was to see that submarines were delivered on time. This is a book about the skills and experiences necessary to build extraordinary ventures under pressure. Although the science is sketched ably enough here and there, this is not a science book.

Bingham’s background is in drug discovery — a notoriously unpredictable business where some of the brightest minds in biochemistry stake their future careers on one roll of the clinical-trial dice. VCs, if they’re wealthy enough, can spread their risks over a few dozen companies, but even they barely survived the dot-com crash of 2001. Bingham’s one of the new breed that emerged from the wreckage, an investor altogether more interested in managing the companies she helps create than in driving start-ups into premature IPOs. She still carries in her DNA an instinct for spreading risk, though: the VTF spent 4.6 billion on six vaccines in the hope that one might work, one day, maybe.

Coming up to speed with the science was no easy task, even for a major biotech player. There was no shortage of brilliant work to choose from, but little way of telling what innovations would pay off on time. Bingham salutes the work of Robin Shattock at Imperial College, London, graciously acknowledging that his “amplified mRNA” technology, which triggers large immune responses from very small amounts of vaccine, will surely be mature enough to help combat the next pandemic (and be in no doubt, there will be one). [Iona, “amplified mRNA” is a separate (though related) technology to the mRNA tech harnessed by Pfizer]

On the other hand, those teams who were fully ready were anxious to make an impact. Bingham only found out about Oxford University’s non-profit vaccine partnership with AstraZeneca over the radio, and Pfizer, partnering with BioNTech, much preferred to throw its own money at things than rely on any taskforce handholding.

Choreographing this sack of tech cats was not, says Bingham, her hardest task, and with the help of Tim Hames (a former chief leader writer for the Times) she patiently anatomises how she weathered the formless paranoia of politicians, the hampering good intentions of civil servants, and (most distressing of all, by some measure) the random mischief-making of government communications demons.

The ears of the National Audit Office may burn (she dubs their “help” a foolish and expensive joke); most everyone else emerges from this tale with due credit and generous thanks. Indeed, Bingham’s candid account will be uncomfortable reading for those who nurse a dogmatic hostility to “insiders”. Bingham’s husband is Jesse Norman MP, then the financial secretary to the Treasury. Bingham has no difficulty demonstrating that this has nothing to do with anything, but that didn’t stop the Guardian’s jibes, its “chumocracy” tables and the rest.

The trouble is, given a problem as complex and fluid as democratic government, expertise is only authoritative in relation to some particular subject. Without insiders — those with firsthand knowledge in a particular affair or circumstance (like, yes, the PM’s adviser Dominic Cummings, who insisted the VTF should be handled as a business) — experts are merely preaching in the wilderness. On the other hand, without experts to inform them (people like Sir Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific adviser) insiders have nothing to offer but windbaggery.

Knowledge and power must meet. Bingham and Hames’s accessible, edge-of-the-seat account of how British innovators vaccinated the UK and much of the rest of the world is also a quiet, compelling, non partisan argument for dialogue between business and politics.

“The idea that life is absurd bothers him”

Reading Life As Told by a Sapiens to a Neanderthal by Juan José Millás and Juan Luis Arsuaga for the Telegraph, 27 July 2022

In 2013 the oldest known human DNA was discovered, in a complex of caves in the Sierra de Atapuerca in northern Spain. It belongs to an early hominid, Homo heidelbergensis, who lived 400,000 years ago, and to whom we owe the invention of the fireplace.

Arsuaga has built an illustrious career around excavations in Atapuerca, a site humans have occupied continuously for a million years, from the dawn of Homo sapiens to the bronze age. He knows a lot about how humans evolved, and he is an eloquent communicator. “As he talked,” the novelist Juan José Millás recalls, “I realised what a great sense of the theatrical Arsuaga had. He was a master of oral storytelling. He knew when he had his audience, and when he was running the risk of losing them. He endeared himself by combining intellectual precision with a kind of helplessness.”

It’s Aruaga’s eloquence that first persuaded Millás that the two of them should collaborate on a book — a Boswellian confection in which Millás (humble, curious, a klutz, and frequently brow-beaten) follows Arsuaga around with a dictaphone capturing the great man’s observations. “In Spain,” he remarks, early on, “there are two principal periods: the first runs from the Neolithic to 1958, at which point the social planning by the Opus Dei technocrats comes in. Until then, the countryside was a place full of people, full of voices, life here was not a sad thing, there were children running around. It would be like walking down the street. By 1970, the countryside was empty, there was nobody left.”

Millás casts Arsuaga as the representative of Homo sapiens: articulate, eclectic, self-aware and tragical. Millás casts himself as Homo neanderthalis, not quite as quick on the uptake as his more successful cousin. Neanderthals are a species not exactly lost to history (Sapiens and Neanderthals interbred, after all) but no longer active in it, either.

The idea is that Arsuaga the high-brow leads our beetle-browed narrator hither and thither across northern Spain, on foot or in his trusty Nissan Juke, up lost valleys (to understand the evolution of hunting) and through deserted playgrounds (to grasp the mechanics of bipedalism), past market stalls (to grasp the historical significance of diet) and into a sex shop (to discuss the relative size of primate testicles) and building, bit by bit, a dazzling picture of the continuities that exist between our ancient and contemporary selves.

For many, the devil will be in the detail. Take, for example, Millás’s Neanderthals. He is not exactly wrong in what he says about them, but he is writing, in the most general and allusive terms, into a field that is developing frighteningly fast. It‘s hard, then, for us to know how literally to take the author’s showier gestures. Millás says, about that famous interbreeding, that “The Sapiens, being the smart ones, did it out of vice, while the Neanderthals, who were more naïve, did it out of love.” With Neanderthal intelligence and sociality a topic of so much fierce debate, such statements as this may be met with more scepticism than appreciation.

This is as much a buddy story as it is a virtuosic work of popular science. In unpacking our evolutionary past, Millas also brings his human subject to light. Arsuaga holds to the tragic view of life espoused by the fin de siecle Spanish essayist Miguel de Unamuno. Millás, a more common-or-garden depressive, finds Arsuaga’s combination of high spirits and annoyance hard to read. Deposited on the outskirts of Madrid, and half suspecting he’s been actually thrown out of Arsuaga’s Nissan, Millás realises that the palaeontologist “experiences sudden bursts of sadness that he sometimes conceals beneath an ironic demeanour, and sometimes beneath passing bad moods. I think the idea that life is absurd bothers him.”

Aruaga’s tragic sense entends to the species. We are the self-domesticating species: “To the Neanderthal,” he says, “the Sapiens must have seemed like a teddy bear.” We have evolved social complexity by shedding the adult seriousness we observe in less social mammals. (“I’ve been to Rwanda, looking at old gorillas,” says Aruaga, “and I can assure you they don’t play at all, they don’t laugh at anything.”) Over evolutionary time, we have become more playful, more infantile, more docile, and we have done this by executing, imprisoning and marginalising those who exhibit an ever-expending list of what we consider anti-social traits. So inanity will one day conquer all.

I wish Millás was a less precious writer. Very early on the pair arrive at a waterfall. “What had we come here for?” Millás writes: “in principle, to see the waterfall, and perhaps so the waterfall could see us, too.” Such unredeemable LRBisms are, I suppose, a form of protective coloration, necessary for a novelist and poet of some reputation: an earnest of his devotion to propah lirtritchah.

It’s when Millás forgets himself, and erases the distance he meant to maintain between boffins and scribblers, that Life becomes a very special book indeed: a passionate, sympathetic portrait of one life scientist’s world view.

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.

“Neigh-CHURE!”

The farming crisis; for the Telegraph, 19 June 2022

It’s time for the UK to transform agriculture: to achieve levels of food security not contemplated since the Second World War; to capture fast-developing far eastern markets in meat and dairy while reducing (for reasons that are medically unclear) the amount of meat and dairy eaten at home; to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050; and to reintroduce the lynx and the wolf. All of this at once, in a manner that won’t add a further spike to people’s already spiking grocery bills, and preferably before the grain shortages triggered by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine complicate matters still further by lowering the gluten content and hence the quality of a British loaf, not to mention triggering a famine across the whole of north Africa.

Were all things equal (and they very much aren’t) we would still have a crisis on our hands. You only have to look out the window. Ninety-seven per cent of British wildflower meadows are gone, and we’re 44 million individual birds poorer than we were fifty years ago. The UK’s flying insect population has declined by about 60 per cent in the last 20 years.

This particular crisis doesn’t feel nearly as urgent as it should, thanks to what fisheries scientist Daniel Pauly has dubbed “shifting baseline syndrome” — our tendency, when we ask what nature should look like, to reference a period no more distant than our own childhoods.

It takes considerable study and real writerly skill to convey what our land should (or at any rate, could) look like, which is why Isabella Tree’s four-year-old book Wilding: The Return of Nature to a British Farm is already a classic, with its talk of species-rich wildflower meadows in every parish and coppice woods teeming with butterflies. A mere four generations ago, she writes, we knew ”rivers swimming with burbot – now extinct in Britain – and eels, and… summer nights peppered with bats and moths and glow-worms.” In those days the muddy North Sea was clear as gin, she says, filtered by oyster beds as large as Wales. “Yet we live in denial of these catastrophic losses.”

Since the publication of Feral in 2013, campaigning journalist George Monbiot has led calls to rewild our desertified and sheep-scraped landscape. He says Britain is the most zoophobic nation in Europe, and he may have a point. While even a simple beaver release here can trigger a storm of protest, on the continent reintroduced animals are extending their ranges without trouble or controversy all over mainland Europe. Bear numbers have doubled. Herds of wisent roam Dutch nature reserves. There are wolves all across Europe (and no, they don’t eat people).

Our island hang-ups are historical, according to Isabella Tree. A great many of our national myths are bound up in the idea that human habitations were hewn out of dense wildwood in ages past — in other words, we had to make a choice between a productive working landscape, or nature, but we couldn’t have both. That just-so story might explain British land use, but it has little to do with the way nature and farming actually work. Tree and the regenerative farming community argue that traditional farming and forestry practices like haymaking, pollarding and coppicing create multiple habitats, supporting a much greater variety of wildlife than closed-canopy woodland ever could, or did. According to this lobby, what we need is not a return to nature, as such, but a return to actual farming.

What we have now is not farming so much as its massively instrumentalised cousin: “agricultural production”. The supermarkets like it because they can guarantee year-round supplies of entirely uniform food products. But the price of treating farming as just another financial and engineering challenge, rather than as a biological activity has been, on the one hand, despoliation and extinction, and on the other, exhausted soils and crippling fertiliser bills.

When barrister Sarah Langford left London and began regenerating 200 acres of Suffolk land — a story told in her new book Rooted: Stories of Life, Land and a Farming Revolution — she found that forty per cent of her income was going on artificial fertiliser and sprays, and most of the rest on machinery, diesel and labour. Her few thousand pounds of profit a year is typical for the industry.

Farmers really do live on government subsidies, because actually producing food loses more money than it makes. A third of the country’s farmers would be bankrupt without basic payments. What they have been asked to do since the end of the Second World War — overproduce food — is destroying the world, and they are the ones left carrying the can. Farming is bad for the soil, bad for the planet, bad for the climate, bad for our waistlines, bad for our health! Meanwhile farmers are going to the wall, abandoning the land, and choosing death as a way out of debt: more than one farm worker in the UK takes their own life each week.

In Sarah Langford’s book, her response to this dire state of things — to attempt not just to farm her land, but to regenerate it — sets her at loggerheads with her Uncle Charlie, an experienced Hampshire farmer. The irascible Charlie and his mates (“Nature!” they tease poor Sarah, “NEIGH-CHURE!”) form an entertaining and sceptical chorus to Langford’s efforts at sustainable farming — a career change she did not plan, but which was more or less forced on her by a temporary snag in the family finances followed by a whopping fire.

Langford’s book is full of telling detail, as when, while applying for a five-year Countryside Stewardship scheme, on a form 123 pages long, and referring to a manual 312 pages long, she discovers that she still has to fill in the Basic Payment form, which has completely different set of codes for each option. But Rooted is more than a memoir; Langford manages to contain and convey the whole scale of the coming agricultural revolution.

Our current food system evolved out of a dangerous assumption that all the world’s bounty lay a mere sea-voyage away. The Second World War put paid to that fond notion, and the experience of importing 20 million tons of food a year in the teeth of U-boat attacks inspired the 1947 Agriculture Act. Its framework of government subsidies and guaranteed prices may sound a bad idea now; back then there was an economic recovery to pay for and a food supply to secure.

The Act, and similarly intentioned legislation elsewhere in the world, worked a treat. Langford tells us that the first journal article to warn of growing levels of food waste was published in 1980, just 25 years after the abolition of rationing. Today the world produces 1.7 times as much food as it did in 1960, on about a third of the land. The only problem being, this is more food than we need — enough to feed three billion people who don’t exist yet. Globally, we throw away 2.5 billion tonnes of food every year, while eating just 40 per cent of all the food we produce. In the UK a full third of all fruits and vegetables bound for the supermarkets are rejected.

Those of us who live amidst relative plenty tend to prioritise the environmental issues this raises over the ones about distribution and equity. But heaven knows the environmental issues are serious enough, witness the major declines in over half our nation’s species since 2002. Whoever would have imagined that we would ever risk running out of dormice, or water voles, or hedgehogs?

The overwhelmingly urban lobby that would blame farming for these ills finds its champion in campaigning environmental journalist George Monbiot. For them, Monbiot’s latest, Regenesis, bears good tidings — nothing less than “the beginning of the end of most agriculture.”

Monbiot introduces us a soil bacterium studied by scientists working for NASA in the 1960s. He explains how, though fermentation, we can cultivate this bacterium. Once dried, it can be turned into a cheap protein-rich flour. This flour could feed the world, in a production process that consumes no more energy than any cash-strapped developing country could afford through solar power, and which requires 17,000 times less land than you’d need to produce the same amount of, say, soybean protein.

To the 98.5 per cent of us in this country who have no working connection to the land, Monbiot’s Rousseauist future sounds too good to be true. All things being equal, who wouldn’t want to see Britain smothered in wildwood stalked by beavers, bears and pine martens?

But history is not kind to “hero projects” of this sort, and Monbiot’s breathless conjurations of the future of the food that would emerge from farming’s demise are somewhat disconcerting. A morsel that tastes like seared steak but with the texture of scallops? A mousse that breaks on the tongue like panna cotta but has the flavour of jamon iberico? All whipped up in some lab, apparently, by “inventive chefs working with scientists”.

Actually, to swap breweries for barns wouldn’t be particularly science fictional: fermentation is a practice older than farming. But for Monbiot to mix an argument about largely untested technologies with a diatribe against Welsh sheep farming (yes, Monbiot is worrying the sheep again) smacks of bad faith.

In his superbly acerbic diary Land of Milk and Honey: Digressions of a Rural Dissident, columnist and cattle farmer Jamie Blackett is out to defend, not farming as it is (which he frankly considers a nightmare — there is less distance between Blackett and Monbiot than you might expect) but farming as it was practised in his father’s day. By yesterday’s pre-CAP logic, it makes sense to mix livestock and arable, and even to focus entirely on livestock and dairy in the UK where the climate dictates that grass is the best crop to grow (and sometimes the only one).

Blackett, citing the huge margins involved in turning cheap vegetable oils, sugars and carbohydrates into fake meats and fake milk, reckons veganism is the best thing that ever happened to the processed food industry since Cadbury’s stuck their Finger of Fudge up at the very concept of the balanced diet. He complains that “without the ability to grow meat and milk the only solution is to plant the land up with trees and go and do something else for thirty years while they grow” — which is, of course, precisely what Monbiot is advocating in Regenesis.

But need the debate about the future of farming be so polarised? The popular response to the Amazon Prime’s TV show Clarkson’s Farm — surely the unlikeliest of vehicles Jeremy Clarkson has ever ridden — suggests we might not be so short of goodwill, after all. And the legislative framework that’s being assembled post-Brexit at least holds out the possibility of real and positive change for the British countryside.

Anyone who thinks Brexit caught British agricultural thinking by surprise hasn’t been paying attention. The 2020 Agriculture Act is the largest shift in farm and rural policy since the UK joined the Common Agricultural Policy in 1973. In England, the old subsidy payments will be phased out by 2028, replaced by a new Environmental Land Management System which will reward farmers with public money for producing “public goods”. Conservation manager Jake Feinnes lists them in his book Land Healer: “clean, plentiful water, clean air, thriving plants and wildlife, a reduction in and prevention of environmental hazards, adaptation to and mitigation of climate change” and “‘beauty, heritage and engagement with the environment’.”

Can this act change, fast enough for it to matter, a governing culture that has spent three quarters of a century micromanaging British agriculture into its current, monstrous form? Having been encouraged (and not just encouraged — forced) to squeeze every last calorie they can from their ever-more blighted patrimony, are farmers likely to embrace the government’s green new deal?

Blackett is sceptical. “For the last twenty years,” he writes, “I have been receiving payments for hedges, ponds, rushy pasture, water margins, wild-flower meadows and winter stubbles. The payments have been miserly, never quite enough to compensate… The final straw came when I was made to keep a diary like a primary school child. I have come to the conclusion that it is better to farm for maximum profit and use any surplus for conservation on my land than to be a poorly paid serf of the Green State.”

For Blackett, whether or not Defra’s ideas are well-intentioned or not is beside the point. The road to Hell is paved with good intentions. He’d rather farmers were left alone to exercise their own judgement, and then “there will be more biodiversity, fewer wildfires and less greenhouse gas in consequence, for the benefit of us all.”

Oddly — in light of the specious battle lines George Monbiot draws between conservationists and working farmers — Blackett’s irascible anti-state-interference rhetoric finds a very close echo in Birds, Beasts and Bedlam, a wonderfully garrulous memoir by Derek Gow, an outspoken champion of rewilding, responsible for the reintroduction of beavers and white storks into the UK. At first glance, Gow comes across as a sort of anti-Blackett, and yet he has nothing but praise for British farmers, a “hearty culture where if you helped your neighbours, they helped you”. This, he reckons, is about as far as you can get “from the egotistical and odd world of nature conservation where big stories were talked and small deeds were done.”

Gow’s rewilding efforts are frustrated less by farmers (who are a curious bunch at heart, and can follow an argument) as by conversation charities themselves (“small, grey non-entities standing together on a dias”). “If you wish to bludgeon badgers,” Gow writes, “a way can be found. If you wish, on the other hand, to restore fading species for nature conservation purposes, then you have to fill in 90-page documents which will be thoroughly scrutinised eventually and returned to you with a further suite of impossibly complex questions.”

Independent spirits like Gow and Blackett desperately need a venue in which they can thrash out their opinions and share their knowledge. And it may be that a culture of regenerative farming will encourage that much-needed exchange.

On Great Farm in north Norfolk, Jake Fiennes has made some small changes that allow the land to remain in food production, but which also allow nature to thrive. His particular hobby horse is the soil, and all the ways he has found to enhance the relationship between his crops and the bacteria and fungi in his soil, so as to reduce the amount of manure and fertiliser he uses, even while increasing yields.

Fiennes’s brand of regenerative farming (and others — there are as many innovative farming techniques as there are innovative farmers) promises to restore crashing mammal, bird and insect populations, make the landscape better able to survive droughts and floods, lock away carbon as organic matter, and still produce high quality food. The soil science is new (and startling: it turns out that plant roots exude chemicals as nourishment for microbes, and up to 96 per cent of carbon a plant processes is used to feed soil and fungi). But the takeaway is as old as the hills: rotate your crops, keep the ground covered as much as you can, ensure a mixed environment and a healthy hedgerow so your predators cancel out your pests. The detail is fascinating, but at the sharp end of the business, “regenerative farming” is less about having ideas than about ignoring, as far as possible, the present market’s more perverse incentives.

Fiennes skewers such absurdities very well. For instance, under CAP farmers were paid to set aside ten per of their land to discourage overproduction. They just needed to keep their land in “agricultural condition”. Soon near-destitute farmers were filling in ponds, ripping out wide hedgerows, straightening the meanders of streams and chopping down woodland so as to turn ‘permanent ineligible features’ into set-aside.

For all the anxiety washing about the agriculture sector, there are signs — strong signs — of promise. We need a decent amount of food security, and we have it; though Britain currently produces less than 60 per cent of its own food, the Dimbleby report, the first independent survey of the British food system in 75 years, suggests that 74 per cent of our food could be sourced at home — a figure considered excellent for food security. We need a sensible tariff system to defend our agricultural sector during its transformation from CAP’s culture of over-production and set-aside, to the provision of public environmental goods. World Trade Organisation rules allow for exactly this. And, funnily enough, farmers know how to farm; at very worst, the next generation now has reason to remember and learn.

Novice farmer Sarah Langford, the novice regenerative farmer, bemoans her feeling “of muddling around in the half-light of knowledge”. She says she sees “how easy it is to think you’re doing the right thing while causing harm.”

Her point is that farming is hard to do. Hard — but not impossible. And it’s a task made immeasurably easier, once farmers are given the freedom to remember who they are.

Safe and clean and a nightmare

Reading Serhii Plokhy’s Atoms and Ashes for the Telegraph, 8 May 2022

Jimmy Carter is the only US president to have had hands-on experience of nuclear reactors. As part of the US Navy’s nuclear submarine program, he once helped disassemble a Canadian research reactor that had gone into meltdown. His enthusiasm for the technology was, to say the least, measured: “US dependence on nuclear power should be kept to the minimum necessary to meet our needs,” he told the UN General Assembly in 1976, tying the fortunes of the industry ever more tightly to immediate geopolitical demands.

But the nuclear industry has never been able to respond to such demands quickly enough. Right now, Germany is finding this out the hard way. The country decommissioned its nuclear fleet after the 2011 Fukushima accident. Ill-suited to renewables, beset by winter doldrums and long overcasts, it bet on being able to import its energy. Now it finds itself in a hopeless tangle, under pressure to stop importing Russian gas, yet unable to reverse its nuclear decommissioning programme.

It’s this unwieldiness, this inflexibility that puts nuclear power, time and again, on the wrong side of history, and powers the deeper arguments running under Serhii Plohki’s terrifying compendium of notorious nuclear mishaps.

The ostensible theme of Atoms and Ashes is straightforward: what happens when nuclear power generation goes wrong?

Rejecting the distinction between military and civil nuclear programmes (the uranium 235 and plutonium used in nuclear munitions are, after all, usually obtained from civil reactors), Plohky begins in the Marshall islands in March 1954 where, according to a notorious White House briefing, “the wind failed to follow the predictions,” spreading fallout from a US thermonuclear test across Rongelap and other inhabited islands.

In the UK, around 12 kilogrammes of uranium escaped through the stacks of the Windscale piles between 1954 and 1957, giving maybe 300 people terminal cancer.

In 1979 a nuclear core melted down inside a reactor on Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania. No uncontrolled release of radiation ever occurred.

There’s a pattern here, and let’s not be bashful: the West won. Compare these chapters with the ones about the nuclear waste fires at Kyshtym in the Urals in 1957 (nadir of an environmental catastrophe so severe, some of the 20,000 square miles contaminated were turned into a nature park to keep people out) and the explosion at Chernobyl in Soviet Ukraine in 1986 (which killed over thirty outright and over the years has likely seeded 4000 people with terminal cancer). These accounts spell out exactly what to expect when you deny vital information to people and then bully them into performing impossible miracles on shoddy equipment. If civil nuclear power were a theatre of the Cold War (and it was) then the West, with its capitalistic working practices, won hands down.

But complacency is not an option. The peaceful application of nuclear power was the industry’s grail in those dark years, but “atoms for peace” far from ending want and war, have merely encouraged nuclear proliferation. (India produced its first plutonium in a reactor supplied by Canada, calling its first nuclear test a “peaceful nuclear explosion”.)

Not can we comfortably assume that, like the oil industry, like the hydo-electric industry, nuclear power is evolving and improving and becoming safer year on year.

True, the oil industry kills 264 times as many people as the nuclear industry, to produce just over seven times the amount of useful energy. True, nuclear power produces barely three fifths the amount of carbon that solar energy does, and generates four times as much power.

But the build quality of nuclear reactors across the globe is probably going down, not up, as reactor design loses research funding in the developed world, while relatively primitive reactors, further “simplified” to cut costs, are sold to unstable states hungry for nuclear prestige.

Plohki’s last major chapter analyses the multiple reactor meltdown at Fukushima in 2011. The earthquake which hit on Friday 11 March — an 8.9 on the Richter scale — shook the entire planet on its axis and jolted the whole of Japan several feet sideways. The tsunami that followed was far more terrible than the Fukushima Daiichi designers had allowed for. Yet no one died from acute radiation poisoning, and while cancer deaths cannot be ruled out, studies have as yet found no increase in the rate of such deaths.

Reasons for the deep unease that swept the globe following the Fukushima accident will be found neither in the figures, nor in the historical circumstances. (The worst that happened politically was that the prime minster, Naoto Kan, was roundly pilloried for grandstanding on Japanese TV.)

No, what really got under everyone’s skin were the eight painfully long days of pure terror during which the Fukushima disaster unfolded, with its various equipment failures, meltdowns, and releases of radioactive materials.

Look at it this way: were some poor sod to lose control of his muscle car on a cattle grid near Penistone, we would merely shrug and sigh. But imagine if the act of wrapping that car around a tree took over a week, and each excruciating moment of it were broadcast live on television. What would our reactions be then? Come Monday, how many of us would leave our cars in the garage?

On the outside, Atoms and Ashes looks like an altogether unnecessary contribution to the “Say something should happen” argument against nuclear power. But Plohki’s gripping, measured accounts of human error and staggering heroism in the face of the slow, unwieldy and terrifying forces of nuclear power get under the skin of problem.

We’ve developed a clean, safe energy generation system. But never mind the materials it uses, the machine itself scares the living daylights out of us: slow, inexorable, mysterious, and persistent (no nuclear power station has ever been fully decommissioned).

Nuclear power is safe, and clean, and a nightmare — and one cannot simply reason one’s way out of a nightmare.

Now and again they kill people

Reading Andrew Scull’s Desperate Remedies for the Telegraph, 3 April 2022

Are mental illnesses real?

Well, says, Andrew Scull, they hurt; they blight lives; now and again they kill people. So there’s that.

But are they illnesses in any recognisable sense? They can’t be cured. Some people, after years of suffering, experience complete remission for no reason. The search for reliable genetic markers for schizophrenia and major depression has proved a snark-hunt. And so on: Desperate Remedies is the story of what happens when the world stubbornly refuses to reward our efforts at rational understanding.

There are two traditions in psychiatry. The first, greatly shaped by our experience with syphilis, assumes that mental illness is an organic failing, perhaps the result of an infection. Henry Cotton is the unlovely poster child of this tendency, a man whose fin de siecle war on “focal infection” involved the surgical removal, of teeth and tonsils first of all, then colons and cervixes, and then just about anything his knife could reach — and killed very nearly half his clientele.

The other tradition, mindful especially of those traumatised by war, assumes mental illness is grounded in individual experience. At its psychoanalytic height, in the twenty years following the second world war, it could blame just about everything on the parents. The Hungarian-American psychoanalyst Franz Alexander believed that “the asthmatic wheeze was the ‘suppressed cry’ of a patient suffocated by an over-attentive mother.” The current crop of trauma therapies — springing from the roots of 1960s-era PTSD like mushrooms after a spring rain — is the latest lurid flowering of this tradition.

Meanwhile psychiatrists — the poor bloody footsoldiers in this intellectual conflict — have been treating ordinary people in oversubscribed, underfunded institutions (or in the absence of those institutions, where “care in the community” holds sway). It’s their “desperate remedies” — from shock therapies to lobotomies — that form the core of this book.

Andrew Scull’s erudite, precise, blisteringly critical history of 200 years of psychiatry spends many pages explaining what happens when overambitious clinicians meet clients deprived of their rights. (Not everyone in the profession is a Nurse Ratched, but it’s worth remembering that One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was drawn from personal experience.)

In spite of everything, Scull still holds out the narrow possibility that psychiatry has a future, if it would only calm down and own up to its limitations. In the psychopharmological present, for instance, much that we’re told works, doesn’t work. Or doesn’t work for very long. Or is accompanied by so many side effects that many feel they would be better off if it didn’t work. What actually works doesn’t work nearly as well as the press says it works. And — the cherry on the cake — we don’t know why it works. (Any piece of folk wisdom you may have picked up about “dopamine imbalances” or “serotonin levels” is almost certainly wrong.)

The opioid crisis in the United States is a public health scandal that’s been waiting to happen since the early 1940s, when Arthur Sackler, among others, worked out how to couch drug advertisements as clinical information. In its wake, the efficacy of countless drugs is being reassessed. Old trials are being picked over, old claims re-examined. The result? “GlaxoSmithKline has all but closed its psychiatric laboratories,” Scull remarks, surveying the ruins left by this latest “paradigm shift” in psychiatry; “AstraZeneca has essentially dropped internal research on psychopharmacology, and Pfizer has dramatically reduced its spending in the psychiatric arena.”

Were all their efforts quackery? Of course not. It is easy (and cheap) to cherry-pick horror stories from Scull’s impassioned history. But his far more worrying point is that plenty of the effort expended over the last 200 years was intelligent, sincere, and honestly conducted — and that, too, has brought only marginal and temporary relief to the suffering mind.

 

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.

Clay moulded by time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I wonder what Halliday cannot yet know?

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

Whatever happened to Mohammedan Hindus?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A perfect storm of cognitive degradation”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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