Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Jonathan Watts - When a Billion Chinese Jump

I will admit that when I fixed picked up Jonathan Watts' book I did not have much hope that I would enjoy it. Books on the environmental crisis and China often fall into crudities about the country something George Monbiot once called a manifestation of old racist tropes about the "Yellow Peril". Happily Watts' book is far better than this and as well as being thoughtful it is also very readable. China is a rapidly developing economy and since this book was first published in 2010 it is likely that some of the figures given are now dated. However the trends that Watt shows remain the same, if not worse, and it is this that makes it very useful for understanding China's environmental crisis and its role within the crisis.

Unusually for an environmental work, Watts bases his writing on his travels and specifically his encounters with individuals, often ordinary people on the frontline of the impact and the battle against climate change. Here are Chinese workers, farmers and migrant labourers, as well as officials, bureaucrats and business leaders.

Almost every book about China, its economy, environment or people begins with the scale of the country and its population. China's enormous economic power and, crucially, its cheap labour has allowed the current regime and previous ones to literally move mountains in the pursuit of economic improvement. Needless to say that historically this has had a devastating impact upon Chinese environment, an impact that seems to be growing worse by the day. Often current practise has been shaped by what has gone before:
[China's] waterways are now blocked by almost half of the world's 45,000 biggest dams... China's president Hu Jintao is a trained hydro-engineer. His view of the world - now imprinted into the communist ideological canon as a 'Scientific Outlook on Development' - has been shaped by his knowledge of water and how it can be controlled.
Hu Jintao's Presidency ended in 2012, yet it is fair to say that this approach continues, along with an belief that technology and science can cure the threat of environmental disaster. Famously we see this with the Three Gorges Dam, designed to harness the massive waters of the Yangtze River yet it brought along with it massive environmental and social disruption, and Watts dams tend to attract heavy industry enthused by the possibility of cheap and accessible electricity.

Despite whole areas of China being famed for their beauty and ecological diversity, much is under threat from industrial, agricultural and urban expansion. The global biodiversity crisis is enormous, but "the situation is particularly grim in China, where the die-off is reckoned to be taking place a twice the speed of the global average. According to the China Species Redlist, it is accelerating."

Much of Watts book looks at the different aspects of China's environmental crisis - water shortages, air pollution, fossil fuel expansion and so on. But the reason the book is useful is that he doesn't simply focus on these and the human tragedies that flow from them. He shows how the environmental crisis is not new - there were plenty of environmental mistakes, disasters and errors made throughout the 20th century - but how the current crisis is closely linked with the rise of industrial production for consumerism. In part this is due to demands of the Chinese population, a large section of which has far more wealth than ever and wants to emulate the lifestyles of the West. There's a fascinating section where Watts interviews Kan Yue-Sai, a multi-millionaire who got rich through marketing cosmetics who prides herself in helping launch China's "consumer culture" and for whom environmental problems were simply buzzwords to spout during the interview.

But crucial to the immense destruction caused by Chinese manufacturing is the outsourcing of emissions from the developed world. Western companies, attracted by cheap wages, low costs and minimal environmental restrictions have effectively moved emissions and waste to China. Pan Yue, a minister for environmental protect told Watts, "they raise their own environmental standards and transfer resource-intensive and polluting industries to developing nations; they establish a series of green barriers  and bear as little environmental responsibility as is possible."

This is of course not to let China itself off the hook. Not every factory is manufacturing goods for the west, the coal mines being dug and the land being destroyed are assisting the development of China's economy too. But this does help locate the problem in the right place. China is attractive to the west because it has low costs and high wages, something that its own capitalists are keen to exploit.


Thankfully there is resistance. The Chinese have to acknowledge 1000s of "mass incidents" and Watts sees the aftermath of them, as well as often coming across accounts of protests, petitions and movements that have (sometimes successfully) challenged environmental destruction. In part this, as well as the very obvious destruction, has led the Chinese government to implement various pieces of environmental legislation. Sadly these are all too often ignored, or bribes ensure that no one is ever prosecuted. But it would be wrong to say there is no awareness of the problem.

The problem is that China's headlong rush to industrialise is done, not in the interest of people, but of capital. The need to compete with the United States, and the potential for a minority of people to get extremely rich, helps to undermine environmental laws. The immense bureaucracy doesn't help, nor does the short term interests of capital. It's staggering to read, for instance, that 1/3 of China's wind turbines are not connected to the grid and simply rotate pointlessly. Without fundamental change, the situation will not improve. Take agriculture:
China is the new frontier for agriscience. With a fifth of the world's population to feed on a tenth of the planet's arable land, the temptations of biotechnology have been enormous. Urbanisation and industrialisation add to the pressures by taking land for factories, roads and housing blocks. With the population expanding and appetites growing, China faces and uphill struggle to feed itself. As Vaclav Smil noted: 'All of the world's grain exports together would fill less than two-thirds of the country's projected demand for food.
Alongside technical fixes for agricultural comes threats to the environment, and while Watts highlights a few examples of more environmentally sound farming, they are far and few between (and some of them don't work at all).

Those that suffer are inevitably the poorest. "The rich folk have already moved out... It has become a slum" notes one woman about their polluted town. Though few in the country except the very rich can escape the worst pollution. In one of Watts' more startling statistics, he points out that only 1 percent of China's population breath air deemed safe, for a country of over 1.3 billion, that's a lot of illness.

Jonathan Watts concludes by saying that China cannot save the world, but it forces us to "recognise we are all going in the wrong direction". He highlights that there are many in the country who are struggling for a sustainable future, but focuses on individuals to change their behaviour to solve the problem. This seems barely credible given the scale of the problem he describes, and I tend to agree more with an old man he meets on a train who, when discussing the environment points out "The problem of a corrupt bureaucracy cannot be solved by bureaucrats. We need a mass movement to clear them out. I think there will be one within five years". The old man hasn't been proved right yet, but if we're to survive the 21st century as a global society it increasingly looks like we should follow his dream.

Related Reviews

Lafitte - Saving Tibet
Shapiro - China's Environmental Challenges
Au Loong Yu - China's Rise: Strength and Fragility
Gittings - Changing Face of China

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Claire North - The End of the Day

Claire North's first two books focused on individuals with odd powers. The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August was about people who returned to the beginning of their lives with their memories intact upon their death. Touch was about people who could possess other peoples bodies at will. This book however is very different, it's about Charlie, who is employed by Death as her harbinger. Charlie has no special abilities except perhaps, a faith in individuals (which is greatly tested by some of the people he visits) and being good at listening, which is particularly useful as people tend to pour out their thoughts to him.

The plot is fairly thin, but the book is extremely readable. It's as much a comment on the state of the world, as on the lives of the people Charlie meets. Chapters are interspersed by random snippets of conversation which betray both the happiness and sadness of people's lives and their rage at the world around them. War, Famine and Pestilence, as well as their respective harbingers, stalk the land and North depicts how their abilities have changed with the modern world, but how the opportunities for disaster have spread. I was struck by the contemporary relevance of this in a small aside at the end as War looks at a small island in the South China Seas and the captain of the ship comments how "they" have put their flag on it. Its never mentioned who they are, but War is suitably pleased at what this means.

As Charlie travels the world meeting people and giving gifts the reader is often left wondering what happens next. Charlie is at pains to explain that his visit doesn't mean death is imminent, and his gifts often help the recipient live longer. This is a bureaucratic process run by a expertly staffed office in Milton Keynes (having visited the place I'm not surprised that Death's office is there), and when Charlie finds himself in difficult situations, he is helped out by the bureaucracy. Though his activities attract the attention of the authorities who like many, want to bargain with Death itself.

Oddly the thing that worked least for me, is that Death, and his harbinger, are simply accepted by so many people. The news reports on him occasionally; people are often completely unsurprised by his presence, or existence and crucially, the authorities track him.

At the end of the book what I remembered most was the anger. North's characters are angry at racism and poverty (there's an interesting scene with a Black Lives Matter demo); war and climate change are constant backdrops. Imperialist destruction of South America and the Middle East are repeatedly mentioned and the way that the profits come before people is behind some of the key scenes of the book. The first time that Charlie is caught on camera, for instance, is when he visits a family being forced out of their London home by a company that wants to build luxury apartments.

The End of the Day is not as good a novel as North's earlier books - the central idea just didn't quite work for me this time. But in turns tragic and funny, it is a book that made me think, which is no bad thing at all. It also contains a highly appropriate quote from Karl Marx if you can find it.

Related Reviews

North - Touch
North - The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Robert Kee - The Most Distressful Country

A recent trip to the North of Ireland prompted me to look at the history of Ireland. Robert Kee's Green Flag trilogy is often recommended as a good place to start to understand the historical developments that have led to the anachronistic situation we see today - the north of the Island part of the British State and the remainder "the South" an independent country.

Kee's book is not a complete history of Ireland, rather it is a history of the development of Irish Nationalism, used here in the sense of thinking of Ireland as a nation, rather than today when it might be used to distinguish a political outlook separate from that of the loyalists. The context for all of this is of course the fact that Ireland was Britain's first colony. The majority Catholic population were kept down trodden and oppressed while Britain used the Protestant landowning class to govern in its interests through a process of divide and rule.

That said, modern divisions - Catholic and Protestant - weren't necessarily appropriate historically. In the context of the struggle for Irish "nationalism" as Kee shows, many leading figures were Protestant. They were also keen to struggle for improvements to the rights for Catholics, who had historically had few rights. Take the famous figure Robert Emmet, who lead an uprising in 1803. Emmet was a wealthy Protestant who supported Catholic rights, in particularly their right to stand for parliament. The defeat of previous movements, including the United Irishmen, meant that Emmet could downplay the potential for the nationalist cause:
Asked by the Speaker if it were not so that 'the object next their hearts was a separation and a republic', Emmet replied: 'Pardon me, the object next their hearts was a redress of their grievances.;' He said that if such an object could be accomplished peaceably, 'they would prefer it infinitely to a revolution and a republic'.
The reality is, of course, that a redress of grievances could not happen without a struggle against British rule, and for some form of independence. The period covered in this volume covers some of the great movements for this, such as the United Irishmen's rebellion of 1798. These took place in the context of the French Revolution and it is interesting to  speculate what might have happened had the military support from France been successful, or better organised.

Kee is particularly good an analysing events when he puts class at the heart of his history. Take the debate about the "union" between Britain and Ireland that was passed in 1801. Kee writes:
Opinion about a union did not run clearly down any political or social dividing line. The most solid opinion seems to have been among the Orangemen who were very generally described as being against it. This to may seem a paradox in the light of later events, but it was a logical attitude at the time, for the Orangemen simply represented the most extreme expression of the Protestant point of view, namely that they held a dominant position in Irish society and the legislature as things were, and what they held they wanted to hold. Even in later times, after they had identified their interests with the Union they were always to make clear that, in the event of a clash between those interests and the Union, it was the Union they were prepared to sacrifice.
One of the strengths of Kee's book is that he doesn't focus just on the ideas or actions of prominent figures. He writes with sympathy and understanding of the majority of the Irish population, particularly its peasantry and shows how their confidence in struggling against the status quo rises and falls. He also covers the great tragedies that befall them, particularly the Potato Famine but also the route cause of their poverty - the way that land ownership was organised solely to profit the owners and those who sublet land, rather than those who did the work.

The book finishes just before a new outburst of radical nationalism, the Fenian movement, following the decline of the earlier struggles. I look forward to reading part two.

Related Reviews

Woodham-Smith - The Great Hunger
Mitchell - A Rebel's Guide to James Connolly
Davis - Late Victorian Holocausts

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

Andrew Ward - Our Bones Are Scattered: The Cawnpore Massacres & the Indian Mutiny of 1857

This is an incredible work of history. It describes, in often horrible detail, the Indian Mutiny and specifically the Cawnpore Massacre of the British and the resultant bloody retribution by the East India Company's troops. The author is unapologetic in this, writing in the preface:
I have tried to depict the massacres at Cawnpore unflinchingly because though they were more terrible than anything I hope you can imagine, they were less atrocious than the British public was encouraged to think, and more complicated than either imperialist or nationalist historians have made them out to be. I have tried not to spare the reader the horrors of British retribution because they were more atrocious than the British public was encouraged to think. No one can say how many thousand of Indians - including women and children - died during the suppression... but many times more, certainly, than the Europeans who died at Cawnpore.
Ward locates Cawnpore (including the specific violence of the uprising) and the wider Mutiny in the longer history of British rule in India. He notes the systematic robbery of India's riches, the racism that pervaded everything that Europeans did with regard to the native population, the violence with which the military was used to enforce company interests and the casual belief in white supremacy that meant Europeans simply could not comprehend that the Indian population would revolt against them.

There were a number of issues that meant 1857 brought the native soldiers to the brink of mutiny. Discontent was growing throughout the country, indicated at first by the circulation of chupatty's among the population. This is a fascinating phenomena which clearly has its roots in much older village traditions - headmen would bake these bread and pass them onwards and those who took them, and made others to pass one, where declaring their allegiance. But Ward points out that the colonial administration ignored this, he quotes a British administrator saying that officers "who dared to look gravely on the 'chupatty mystery' were denounced as croakers".

But more direct problem was the question of the new ammunition. Some authors writing on 1857 have argued that the question of the tallow used on new cartridges supplied to the regiments, made from pork and beef, was not as important as historically thought. The tallow was offensive to Hindus and Muslim's alike, and "even the most complacent Calcutta bureaucrat had to concede that the cartridge business was more worrisome". But as Ward points out the "history of the Company's army was replete with such blunders, but at a time of dangerous disaffection in the army's ranks this one proved colossal". It was commonly believed that the British wanted to systematically destroy the Indian population's caste and belief, and rumours regularly circulated that there were factories that manufactured things deliberately to do this.

Ironically, the violence retribution of the British reinforced this idea. As we shall see captured rebels were treated in ways that were designed to be as offensive as possible, reinforcing the beliefs that led to the rebellion in the first place.

Ward's story focuses on events in Cawnpore, a key town in British rule. Here, hundreds of European's, men, women and children, found themselves under siege in a inadequate defensive compound, surrounded by tens of thousands of well armed rebel soldiers. In appalling conditions the mainly British defenders survived weeks of shell-fire and attack, as well as hunger and thirst. Eventually they brokered an agreement with the leader of the rebels, but were betrayed and most of them were killed. The women and children that survived were eventually massacred in the most horrific and brutal way, their dismembered bodies thrown into a well.

I found it difficult to put down Ward's day to day account of the siege and then the massacre, as well as events elsewhere in India. It is brutal, but it's obsessive detail brings to life the reality of the Uprising, and the reasons behind it. The Europeans cannot believe that their world has fallen apart; the Indians are confident they can end British rule, even if they are often unclear on what this means and the true nature of British power. It is extremely clear to the reader that the violence that takes place is a direct result of the nature of Company rule; despite racist European beliefs that such behaviour was inherent to the population they ruled.

The rebellion was eventually overwhelmed by British military power, and weaknesses in the Indian leadership that meant, for instance, failing to take Cawpore quickly and moving forward to other important targets. British retribution, was overwhelming, and appalling. British army columns moved through rebels areas:
Sending the rebels to paradise was not the column's ideas of revenge... so hanging parties devised means of defiling and degrading them before death. Many captives were not permitted to call witnesses or testify in their own defense, some were even gagged... condemned prisoners were often flogged... Soldiers then forced beef down the throats of the Hindu captives, pork down the throats of the Moslems. Prisoners were daubed with animal fat; some Moslems were even sewn into pig skins before hanging. Sweepers were employed to execute Brahmin prisoners, many of whom were first smeared with cow's blood.
From blowing victims from guns, to rape and systematic murder, the violence continued. Despite this, and not unexpectedly, the British public never heard about the revenge. The story of Cawnpore however was used to justify the taking of India into the British Empire and the further rule of India for another century. As Ward concludes:
None of the many wells that the British filled with rebel corpses were memorialised... It was not until April 13 1919, that the well at Cawnpore was displaced in India's moral imagination by another: the well at Jallianwallah Bagh in Amritsar into which Indian men, women, and children jumped to escape the volleys of a party of Gurkhas under the command of British General Dyer... 379 people were killed and another twelve hundred wounded.
It has often been said that victors write history. This is absolutely true of the Indian Mutiny. For years the narrative focused on the appalling violence and betrayal of the rebels, without putting it into context, while the British response was downplayed or ignored. Andrew Ward's detailed, scrupulously researched and extremely well written history rectifies this. I encourage you to read it.

Related Reviews

Davies - Late Victorian Holocausts
Newsinger - The Blood Never Dried
Farrell - Siege of Krishnapur
Macrory - Signal Catastrophe
Holmes - Redcoat
Dalrymple - Return of a King