Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Michael Grant - Cities of Vesuvius - Pompeii & Herculaneum

When Vesuvius erupted in AD 79, the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum stood little chance. Both were less than 10 miles from the volcano, and both were rapidly overcome by material from inside the earth. Thousands of people fled the volcanic mud and ash. Hundreds died and the archaeological record shows that many of them died because they returned for valuables, or tried to wait out the falling rocks in places of shelter.

Pompeii is one of the great tourist sites for those interested in history and though Michael Grant starts this wonderful book, with details of some of those who died in the eruption, the vast majority of the work is an illumination of the ancient town's streets, houses, shops, theatres and brothels. There's much of interest - and it's fun to compare and contrast our lives today, with those of the Roman's in AD 79. Surely if London was overcome by natural disaster many of use would die clutching our valued possessions. But we also find familar the love that the Roman's had for fine art, for good wine and for love and literature.

There is staggering evidence for how the Roman's lived. Having been to Pompeii, I've seen the cart tracks in the streets and stood in the fine rooms of the houses, you looked at the casts of those who died clutching their children to their breast. But I didn't know archaeologists had found the remains for bread in ancient ovens or tracked the artists responsible for different murals in Roman houses.

Grant's section on graffiti is amusing - not least because so much of it is reminisant of slogan's scrawled on walls today. "At least six inscriptions compare brunettes with blondes" he tells us and "a certain Septumius employes the same medium [graffiti] to launch obscene attacks on anyone who reads his scrawl." So much was written, that many walls had signs warning against the practice - to no avail. This certainly wasn't a practice limited to adults - the relative height of different graffiti show many children had a go, often as in the case of their adult scrawlers quoting famous works of literature.

Though first published in 1971, this appears to be the first paperback edition of this short book, dated 2001. I'd recommend anyone interested in ancient lives picks up a copy, particularly if you plan to visit the Naples region anytime soon.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Barbara W. Tuchman - The Guns of August

The outbreak of war in 1914 was greeted in many countries by rejoicing. Indeed, many of the most ardent and eloquent opponents of the expected conflict rolled over and supported their governments.

Barbara Tuchman's history of the first month the First World War is an excellent military history, dealing with a forgotten part of the conflict - the war of maneuver that all the European powers engaged in, before becoming bogged down in the trench warfare that we all think of when hearing about the conflict.

Up until the 1914, all wars had been on a relatively small scale, and very few (with the interesting exception of Lord Kitchener) believed that the coming war would be anything but a short war of conquest. Certainly no-one expected the slaughter that would take place.

The scale of the outbreak of hostilities however, shocked everyone. The first German attacks on the French forts on the second day of the conflict cost the lives of thousands of men. Tuchman describes how the “dead piled up in ridges a yard high” and points out the attitude of the German commanders in this battle “spending lives like bullets in the knowledge of plentiful reserves to make up the losses” set the scene for the later battles at the Somme and Verdun, were both sides wasted the lives of millions.

But not all of this history is as unsurprising as the horrific casualty figures. We learn that the British Army in France, who famously fought a brave battle at Mons in the first days of the war, under the cowardly leadership of Sir John French retreated in the face of the enemy, only returning to join the French in the battle to defend Paris. This is the second shock – how close the German’s came to capturing Paris, and ironically Tuchman points out that it’s precisely this failure on the part of the German military that sets the scene for the long, drawn out war of iteration.

As I finished the book, I was reminded of Rosa Luxembourg’s wonderful opening chapter of her anti-war pamphlet, written in 1915. She describes how the scenes of joyous crowds waving the armies off, had been replaced by a sullen acceptance of the horrific realities of war. In a memorable phrase, referring to those who were rubbing their hands with glee at the prospect of a long drawn out war – the capitalists who could make money from it, she wrote “and the profits, spring like weeds from the fields of the dead”. An eloquent description of a wasteful war which altered the face of the last century.

Tuchman’s book is an amazing historical introduction to the leaders who led their countries into this war, the politicians and generals prepared to sacrifice the lives of their soldiers and the horrific battles in which their armies lost their lives.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Francis Wheen - Marx's Das Kapital - A biography

Francis Wheen wrote one of the best books about the life of Karl Marx, an accessible, interesting and often funny look at the great man's life, ideas and activities. His latest book is much shorter, but nonetheless an interesting way of looking at what Wheen thinks is Marx's most important work.

Das Kapital was the culmination of Marx's life work. It's a sprawling, multi-volume look at the economics that underpin capitalist society, a prediction of what was to come and an examination of capitalism's impact on people's lives. Not simply in the realm of how the capitalists cut wages and keep and army of unemployed, but how the worker becomes alienated from his labour's product and thence from society. These complex ideas are brought to life by Wheen quoting Marx's florid and engaging prose - rescuing the real Marx from the dogmatic Stalinist language we might be more used to.

Wheen's enthusiasm for Marx (and Das Kapital) means that he feels the need to rescue the book from those Marxists (Lenin and Trotsky in particular) that Wheen thinks abused the tradition of Marxism, but these are the weakest sections of an otherwise interesting read.

Wheen concludes by pointing out how increasingly economists and commentators have found themselves drawn to some of the central points of Kapital - though unfortunately not it's revolutionary conclusions, and concludes that "Marx may only now be emerging in his true significance. He could yet become the most influential thinker of the twenty-first century". Let us hope so.

Friday, October 06, 2006

George Monbiot - Heat, How To Stop The Planet Burning

The greenhouse gases that humans have emitted into the atmosphere since the industrial revolution will lead to an almost certain temperature rise of 1 to 2 degrees Celsius. Already the temperature changes that we have seen are having catastrophic effects around the world – melting polar ice, shrinking glaciers and an increase in hurricanes being amongst some of the most obvious of these.

The human consequences (never mind those to fragile eco-systems around the world) have already been catastrophic. The suffering in New Orlean’s Superbowl may have been just the most visible of these, but no less is the suffering of those facing crop failures and flooding elsewhere. Even a small increase beyond the 2 degrees mentioned previously will have even more dramatic consequences. George Monbiot points out that one piece of research shows that rice yields drop by 15% for every degree temperature increase, and a 2.3 degree temperature rise will expose around 200 million new people to the threat of malaria.

In this context, Monbiot sets himself the task of showing how Greenhouse gas emissions can be reduced to minimise a temperature rise beyond 2 degrees Celsius. He argues that the UK (and by extension) the US and other industrial nations need to implement strategies to reduce our Carbon Dioxide emissions by 90%. This startling, and frightening figure offers perhaps humanity’s greatest challenge over the next few years.

Monbiot starts controversially – he points out the hypocrisy and double standards of some who claim to lead green lifestyles, yet still regularly fly around the globe. But he will also upset other Green apple carts – some of his research has led him to believe that previously accepted practices – such as arguing for localised wind turbines on home roofs will have limited effect.

What Monbiot does offer are concrete strategies in a variety of areas – power generation, transport, housing and retail for example. He proves, though sometimes it is hard, that we could achieve a 90% cut. In some cases (like transport) this is easy – a rapid switch towards public transport in the UK would lead to an almost immediate 90% cut in emissions. Proper insulation of homes and offices would do similar.

What he doesn’t prove is how we get it done. In my mind, such dramatic changes to energy, transport and housing policies will require government and state intervention - investment to make the technology a reality and legislation to force companies to make the changes.

This is unlikely to happen if left to the politicians who have vacillated long enough, rather we need a political movement to force them to do it. Monbiot explicitly doesn’t attempt to describe his vision of that movement and this I think is the books real weakness – the reader is left with a desire to save the planet, but with limited options (other than the campaign groups listed in the books appendixes) about how to do it.

I do believe we can build the political movements required, and Monbiot’s book is a manifesto for the sort of strategies we need – to this end, every activist should read the book and take its themes and arguments into their Trade Union branch, their community group and their environmental organisation. This is a call to arms, and comes very highly recommended.

Related Reviews

Helen Caldicott - Nuclear Power is not the Answer
Tim Flannery - The Weathermakers

Fred Pearce - The Last Generation