Friday, September 15, 2023

Ben Rawlence - The Treeline: The last forest and the future of life on earth

There is a crude, but attractive, solution to climate disaster that has been on offer from various NGO, environmental groups, multinational corporations and governments at different points over the last fifty years. Plant trees. Trees, we hear all the time are the "lung" of the planet. Their loss contributes to a warming world and their planting will fix the problem. If only it was so simple.

Ben Rawlence's recent book The Treeline is a fascinating study of a specific set of trees - those that make up the boundaries between two climatic regions - the frozen wastelands and the warming, more comfortable bits. "The earth is out of balance" says Rawlence, and "the treeline zone is a terrritory in the grip of a large geological change, confounding and challenging our ideas of the past, present and future."

The book, part travelogue, part scientific account and very much a celebration of trees, ought to have been huge. Not least because the treeline itself, wrapped like a wavey line along the north pole, is very long indeed. But Rawlence explains that the book's length was constrained by his discovery that only "a tiny handful of tree species make up the treeline" and just six of them are the "familiar markers of the northern terroirtoies: three configfers and three broadleaves". For those confused by these terms there is a hand guide at the back of the book.

As the world is warming the treeline is moving, sometimes remarkably rapidly. As Rawlence travels around the Treeline, he meets people that are living, herding, surviving in areas were there should be no trees, and where the arrival of trees is both surprising and transformative. Take his visit to Norway.

The Sámi have been saying for at least fiften years that winters are getting 'weird'. The amount of light hasn't changed and the soil is the same, but more rain and more heat have made all the difference. The downy birch loves the warmer waether. It used to be confined to the dips and gullies on the plateau, out of the icy winds, but, unleashed by the warmth, it is storming over the top and out into the open, moving upslope at the rate of forty metres a year. And enormous amount of territory is being transformed from tundra into woodland at a lightning pace.

Here we encounter the unanticipated problem caused by those who would simply plant more saplings. Trees don't always help ecological systems. This is for several reasons. The trees encroaching onto areas were they were previously absent destroy ecologies and landscapes. Their presence transforms the space they move into:

The greening of the tundra is closely linked to more warming as the birch improves the soil and warms it further with microbial activity, melthing the permafrost and releading methane - a greenhouse gas eight-five times more powerful than carbon dioxide in its warming effects over a shorter timeframe. 

Another problem is that that the trees that are exploding outwards aren't creating the same, historic forests that nuture and protect biodiversity. Where "old growth" forest "created a diverse forest full of hundrds of different kinds of plants", the old trees simply cannot grow in time. Instead fast growing species are blocking the potential for other trees to evolve their own space and support biodiversity such as the lichen that feed reindeer. Rawlence paints a picture of sometrees "racing over the tundra" while other species don't get a look in. It has tremendous consequences for animals like reindeer and the people who live on them.

One of the most important strengths of The Treeline is that Rawlence refuses to isolate the ecological systems from human society. 

The landscape we have grown up in and taken for granted in a few short generations are not timeless at all, but a human-shaped moment in a continuous drynamic of changing colours of blur ocean, white ice and green forest on a ball of rock, surrounded by gas, spinning in space. 

Countless generations have labourerd on their lands, relating to the species, encouraging, nuturing and fighting for an ecological space. Climate change is arriving like a massive hammer, smashing up complex relationships and undermining historically viable systems. The people who suffer first and foremost are some of the poorest - indigineous communities that are forgotten and neglected - yet also are often those with some of the best answers to solving ecological problems. Though it is very likely that many, such as the reindeer herders, will simply disappear from their current economic niche.

Rawlence also identifies as second factor. If we cannot ignore the role of humans in shaping a landscape, we cannot also ignore the role of the economic systems they create. Its unusual to read it in a book on ecology, so its worth highlighting this:

The breaching of the ecological ceiling of the planet was only enabled and accelerated by a specific recent economic model: industrial capitalism and its political export, colonialism.... our collective survival on the planet almost certainly depends on moving beyond it.

It's a stark choice. For readers who like easy solutions, there are plenty of examples that Rawlence gives, were small groups of people and individuals are fighting to protect and understand trees and the related economic systems. But these brief moments, in time and space, of rewilding are likely to be swallowed up by the vast forces unleased by industrial capitalism. Planting trees on its own is not going to cut it. Ben Rawlence's book is a celebration of trees, ecology and human life - through a study of the tree line in many different places. It's also a call to arms.

Related Reviews

Bourgon - Tree Thieves: Crime & Survival in the Woods
Rackham - Trees and Woodland in the British Landscape
Rackham - The Ash Tree
Bensaïd - The Dispossessed
Slaght - Owls of the Eastern Ice

Tuesday, September 12, 2023

Fred Archer - Under the Parish Lantern

Fred Archer was a Warwickshire farmer who discovered a penchant for writing, and whose accounts of English rural life in the Vale of Evesham between the wars became best sellers. Reading Archer today it is easy to dismiss his work as bucolic whimsy. His tales of usually funny, salacious and often deal with the changes that Archer himself saw - the transition from horse power to the internal combustion engine, the transition away from traditional crafts and practices and the decline of the rural village as a centre for agricultural workers. Archer bemoans what has been lost, though he is rarely dismissive of the new. Unfortunately his comments on wider politics tend to be irksome, and simplistic.

That said, if you read between the whimsical lines there are some fascinating nuggets here, that illuminate wider rural issues. Many of these are related to questions of poverty and unemployment. But two chapters in Under the Parish Lantern stood out for me. The first relates the construction of the war memorial, which can still be seen in Ashton-under-Hill. There were two rival projects, the official construction was to be on land donated by a local landowner, but a smaller group of villagers argued that this land wasn't his to give - it had been illegally enclosed by the previous owner and belonged to the village by rights. They proposed an alternative location for the memorial and even began constructing it, before being stopped. Archer's dismissal of one of the leaders of this opposition for his left politics demonstrates that radical ideas did exist in the countryside, exacerbated by the way the individuals son continued to suffer from the gas he'd been the victim of on the Western Front. The battle over the war memorial highlights wider struggles, and how workers' memories of the past shaped their fears and thoughts in contemporary times.

The second chapter is actually the best - Archer's thoughts on how modern industrial farming is destroying nature. It is fascinating because it has great parallels with Rachel Carson's Silent Spring. Archer, a farmer close to the land and nature, understands exactly how the destruction of specific species has a much wider knock on effect. He notes how pesticides might kill one weed or insect that is damaging crops, but lead to a wider increase in destructive creatures. There's a broad range of examples, and it reminded me that ecological thinking is not a new thing. Indeed the whole chapter emphasises how important it is to ensure agricultural workers and farmers are part of the struggle to protect the environment and biodiversity.

Under the Parish Lantern is by no means a great work, but Archer's thoughts on industrial farming, labour and the nature of community - as well as his funny stories continue to entertain, many years after the community he describes has completely disappeared.

Related Reviews

Archer - A Distant Scene
Thompson - Lark Rise to Candleford
Whitlock - Peasant's Heritage
Bell - Men and the Fields

Wednesday, September 06, 2023

Ren Hutchings - Under Fortunate Stars

Ren Hutchings first novel Under Fortunate Stars has a fascinating premise. A state of the art spacecraft, owned by a bureaucratic galaxy wide corporation, on a diplomatic mission is sucked into a rift in space and finds itself out of touch with the rest of humanity. They quickly encounter another, much older spacecraft, crewed by a ragtag bunch of misfits from the past. These humans turn out to be the founders, the people whose intervention saved humanity by ending a devastating alien war. 

The presence of both craft in this space rift is inexplicable, and it becomes clear that unless the two ships return to their own times, history will be altered and the future may be completely changed as the war will not stop. 

Its a clever premise, but unfortunately it is undone by an overlong and too complicated story. Hidden in Under Fortunate Stars is a great novel, and a good editor should have cut a hundred pages to bring the story out. Instead we are given far too much exposition, background history and overlong technobabble. It makes the book to slow and boring and does nothing to fill out the characters. Unfortunately most of the main characters are one dimensional with people introduced then forgotten. I was left wondering what had happened to some of the main people on the historic ship that had jumped forward - they seem to play no role other than to make up numbers. The author lets the story unfold by telling the characters back story with chapters devoted to their own history. But the time jumping gets confused with the timetravel and its a little messy in places.

This is an ok novel that should have been great, so I find it hard to recommend.

Saturday, September 02, 2023

Duncan Stone - Different Class: The untold story of English cricket

Early this year, in June 2023, a long awaited, independent report into "Equity in Cricket" was published. The report was damning, saying that English cricket was not "for everyone", and prompted the chair of English cricket to say "This report makes clear that historic structures and systems have failed to prevent discrimination, and highlights the pain and exclusion this has caused." The report exploded like a bombshell during the Second Test of the summer's Ashes series. But by the end of the series it had all but disappeared from the headlines.

Anyone who has spent anytime following cricket in England will know that the sport is riddled with racism, misogyny and hostility to change. It has a strange obsession with its own history, and despite it being very much a sport liked, played and followed by thousands, there is a tendency for it only to be thought of in terms of test matches, national games and county cricket.

As a lifetime cricket fan and supporter of the "Anyone but England" position, I thought it time to delve deeper into the history of the game. Duncan Stone's Different Class seemed the ideal book to explore the real history of the game and try to understand how we have ended up with a national game that is so resistant to change. Stone shows how modern cricket evolved from a mass sport, that involved hundreds of thousands of players and supporters. 

Broadcasters, politicians and the people in charge of the contemporary game would have us believe its origins lie in gentile matches between village teams of vicars and blacksmiths, played purely for the love of the sport. In reality much of the mass participatory roots of the game lie in the huge profits to be made from gambling. It was precisely this mass appeal that meant the establishment saw in cricket something else. By the end of the nineteenth century,

Cricket's growing significance extended beyond what happened at the wicket. Thomas Martineau, the Mayor of Birmingham clarified this wider importance... in 1884: cricket, he argued, now formed "part of a larger question exercising the minds of many wise people in England... namely, the question of keeping up the strength of nation".

As Stone continues, it was

cricket, more than any other sport, that came to define the spiritual (or moral) health of the English. If the overwhelming mass of ordinary cricketers and administrators had done the most to make cricket the national game, the "spirit" of English cricket would be shaped by a mere handful of gentlemen amateurs who had, invariably, attended one of the nation's famous public schools.

A running theme through Stone's book, and indeed the history of English cricket, is the way that the administrators of the national game hated and disliked the cricket from below epitomised by countless different leagues and groups of teams. One cricket writer, Alec Waugh, worried in the Cricketer in 1922 that cricket "is no longer entertained for a few. It has become a part of the national life, and probably, if the Bolsheviks get their way with her, it will be nationalised with the cinema and the theatre and Association Football." Chance would be a fine thing.

Such ludicrous musings on the part of Waugh reflected a genuine fear of sport from below, and the idea that ordinary players and supporters could enjoy and manage their own game. Much of Stone's book explores how the various leagues evolved and existed, demonstrating an amazing life that is hidden from official histories that focus on specific matches, players and the national game.

The official focus on games for the sake of games demonstrated an "increasing rejection of competitive cricket" which was seen as working class, radical and unsporting. The country's industrial north was associated with competitive professional leagues and the south, alleged to be about sportsmanship and playing the game. Stone's detailed accounts shows that this was far from true, but the administrators in London were able to shape a narrative that writes out the working class, ordinary person's game from history. As Stone summaries:

While working-class cricketers in the Home Countries continued to play against their neighbours in local leagues, clubs dominated by the region's middle class coveted visits from elite metropolitan clubs. Regional and local rivalries did not strictly disappear, but one's social class or education rather than place or community, now defined sporting rivalries where the middle class dominated. Over time, this made it increasingly difficult to determine which clubs were the best in playing terms, as a club's status hinged upon their facilities, the social statues of its players and those it played against. 

Such was the position in the run up to the Second World War, and it is one that Stone argues came to be defended and extended after the interregnum caused by the conflict. It also continues to define the game today. Let's spell out Stone's argument. Essentially he says that class interests came to dominate the game, though their wealth and power. 

The warring factions in club cricket's cold war were split between those who wished to preserve a non-competitive form of the game where elite clubs got to choose who they mixed with, and those who wanted to see the introduction of meritocratic leagues that would encourage youth, raise standards and public interest.

Despite the continued love of the game, mass participation and dynamic leagues and local clubs, this situation essentially continues today. The purse strings repeatedly fail to open for working class communities, whose school children have lost their playing fields and rarely have access to the equipment needed to play cricket. Much vaunted attempts to get more non-white players, women and so on into the sport have repeatedly failed and the national game (of both men and women) remains dominated by individuals from middle and upper class backgrounds. The playing fields of Eton, and its like, continue to dominate the game.

The recent success of the English women's team demonstrates the appetite for the watching public for cricket. But it remains a game that is frequently out of the reach of ordinary people. Stone argues that the English Cricket Board continues to ensure that cricket was "run in the interests of a minority of subscribers". 

For those who enjoy cricket it is a depressing situation. Though, as Stone demonstrates, there is a lot of cricket out there, though not necessarily in the public view. Stone's book is a powerful polemic that ought to be widely read. It is a history that has very little anecdotes from extraordinary games, few tales of eccentric and talented players and very little of the "leather on willow" beloved of the usual cricket history. It won't be widely read in Lords or in the members' pavilion at Edgbaston where I spent a few depressing years. But it is all the better for that. While the reader may struggle with the detail of the ins and outs of various leagues, it is worth persevering. As Stone says, the future of the game as a sport with "broad appeal" will very much depend on it coming to "reflect the nation that is England today". 

Related Reviews

Bhattacharya – You Must Like Cricket – Memoirs of an Indian Cricket Fan
James - Beyond A Boundary
Trevelyan - English Social History
MacDonell - England, their England

Thursday, August 31, 2023

Friedrich Engels - Anti-Dühring

There's an old joke on the left that says that no one today would remember the German philosopher Eugen Dühring if Friedrich Engels had not written a 500 page polemic against his ideas! But Anti-Dühring or, to use it's full title, Herr Eugen Dühring’s Revolution in Science is much more than just an attack on a forgotten philosopher. It is a powerful defence of Marxist materialism in the face of criticisms that might have originated with Dühring, but are often repeated. In fact Engels' Anti-Dühring is one of the clearest statements of Marxist ideas and, written as it was much later than the Communist Manifesto, it is in some ways actually a clearer statement of Marx and Engels' revolutionary framework. It should not be surprising that three chapters of Anti-Dühring were 

The first thing readers will not about the book is that Engels is really funny. He clearly despises Dühring and the loathing comes out in every page, Engels deploying a dry wit to skewer his opposition. One example will suffice:

What did Herr Dühring promise us? Everything. And what promises has he kept? None. "The elements of a philosophy which is real and accordingly directed to the reality of nature and of life", the "strictly scientific conception of the world", the "system-creating ideas", and all Herr Dühring's other achievements, trumpeted forth to the world by Herr Dühring in high-sounding phrases, turned out, wherever we laid hold of them, to be pure charlatanism. 

Engels wrote the book because sections of the German workers' movement and the socialist organisations were attracted to Dühring's work. Partly, I suspect, this was because Dühring offered a simplistic explanation of history and social change that was easy to accept, precisely because it failed to challenge bourgeois philosophy. It's why Engels described his work as an "infinitely vulgarised duplicate of Hegelian logic" and its why he took the time to skewer Dühring. Looking at Dühring's arguments it is easy to spot this. For instance, his emphasis on "Force" as the key driver of economic development, where Dühring generalises from a thought-experiment about two people on a desert island and extrapolates to the whole of human society. Dühring's method, Engels' argues 

consists of dissecting each group of objects of knowledge to what is claimed to be their simplest elements, applying to these elements similarly simple and what are claimed to be self-evident axioms and then continuing to operate with the aid of the results so obtained. 

A problem in the "sphere of social life" Dühring says "is to be decided axiomatically, in accordance with particular, simple basic forms, just as if we were dealing with the simple... basic forms of mathematics". 

Engels points out:

This is only giving a new twist to the old favourite ideological method, also known as the a priori method, which consists in ascertaining the properties of an object, by logical deduction from the concept of the object, instead of from the object itself.

To show how wrong Dühring is, Engels takes us on a detailed trip through human history, showing how human society is the product of wider relations that just those between two humans. Concepts like "morality and law. Equality", to take a chapter heading, arise out of specific historical circumstances:

The idea of Equality, both in its bourgeois and in its proletarian form, is therefore itself a historical product, the creation of which required definite historical conditions that in turn themselves presuppose a long previous history. it is therefore anything but an eternal truth. And if today it is taken for granted by the general public - in one sense or another - if, as Marx says, it 'already possesses the fixity of a popular prejudice", this is not the effect of its axiomatic truth, but the effect of the general diffusion and the continued appropriateness of the ideas of the eighteenth century.

Contrast Dühring, who abstracts from relations that are unreal. As Engels says, Dühring is shaped by his own Bourgeois prejudices... 

Dühring is able without more ado to let his famous two men conduct their economic relations on the basis of equality, this is so because it seems quite natural to popular prejudice. And in fact Dühring calls his philosophy natural because it is derived solely from things which see to him quite natural. But why they seem natural to him is a question which of course he does not ask.

In showing the way Marxism provides an alternative to Dühring crude theories, Engels develops a brilliant account of human history and Marxist philosophy. Ranging from the labour theory of value to historical materialism, Engels' polemic is really an exposition of his, and Marx's, own theories. Engels however allows himself some fascinating intellectual detours, from the development of class society to a historical materialist account of the development of modern armies. Anyone, he quips, who tried to use Dühring principles to development and reform military power, would "earn nothing but a beating".

Ultimately though, Engels book is about the project of human emancipation through the fight for socialism, at a time when "every ruling and exploiting class has become superfluous and indeed a hindrance to social development". This is why Engels book continues to be read and Dühring is forgotten.

Related Reviews

Engels - The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State
Engels - Socialism: Utopian and Scientific
Engels - Dialectics of Nature
Engels - The Condition of the Working Class in England

Monday, August 28, 2023

Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone - This is How You Lose the Time War

Science fiction and romance is a rare combination, so it is wonderful to find a novel that does the sub-genre so well. This is How You Lose the Time War is a short and very tightly written story (the authors apparently wrote alternate chapters) that tells the story of two super soldiers on opposing sides that fight a war up and down history, to shift historical outcomes so they favour their own side.

On one of these battlefields, Red finds a mocking letter from her opponent Blue. To prevent superiors finding traces of the missive, and hence potential for Red coming under suspicion that she's being turned, the letter quickly vanishes. Further exchanges between the two are written in complex codes, the eddies of liquids, the movement of gases, the reflections of lights, and move from mocking, to flirtation to outright declaration of friendship. Which eventually becomes love. Along the way the two share literature recommendations, favourite places and times.

Its a sweet story, that draws out the way that impersonal communications - letters, emails, messages - can become something much more than expected. But its told in the context of a genocidal fight that flips back and forth through time and space. The battles, fights and strategies are mostly hinted at - though the authors give us enough that we can fill in the blanks. Eventually the romance becomes a threat. Should superiors suspect than the agent is for the chop. But is the romance real? Or is it just a complex plot to turn, or entrap the opposition's best soldier?

That, dear reader, is for you to find out. This is How You Lose the Time War is rightly a phenomena, but its well worth digging out for a neat twist on the genre.

Saturday, August 26, 2023

Barbara Kingsolver - Demon Copperhead

Reading Demon Copperhead was not an easy process for me. Barbara Kingsolver has taken, as her inspiration, Charles Dickens' novel David Copperfield and its bildungsroman format. Her central character, Demon Copperhead, like Dickens' titular hero, faces trials and tribulations as he grows old. The book takes from Dickens' many characters and names, scenarios and events. But, as a reader, I was struck mostly by the tribulations. Each time Demon's life seemed to make a turn for the better, tragedy or disaster, awaited around the corner.

Demon Copperhead is set in West Virginia, an area of the eastern United States that Kingsolver knows well and features in several of her works. It is an intimate portrait of an area devastated by the loss of the mining industry and provided historical work, and yet an area that remains shaped by that industry and its legacy.  The collapse of the industry has left in its wake unemployment, under-employment, hunger and brutal poverty - and a drug crisis that shapes Demon's life from his birth. His mother is a recovering addict, who loves Demon dearly, but whose life is reversed when she gets together with a new love - a man who brings violence and abuse into Demon's life. Following his mother's death, his neighbours provide love and support, until child services drag Demon away - adding him to a treadmill that puts orphans at the mercy of people who use kids to bolster their workplaces and finances. Their's no love her.

Kingsolver gives her youthful hero a great deal of agency - while he suffers each stage of his life, he constantly tries to break free - though constantly suffering the sort of setback that made this reader grind his teeth in anxiety. His big break, symbolic perhaps of the get out offered to a handful of lucky young men, is a chance on the football team - only to have that snatched away by the inevitable (in this novel anyway) injury - that forces him into opiate addiction.

It's a brutal book, and I found the despair and misery very hard work. But the misery is tempered by hope and solidarity - the community that does look after one another, the social workers that do their best, and the neighbours that support their friends and family. And there is also love.

But other than the individual escape there is little hope. One of Demon's better teachers tells them of the heroic past of the region - the people of the mining towns who fought pitched battles with the mining companies, to get a little more wages for their families. But it is these same multinationals that opened the doors to the drug crisis that blight's Demon's Lee County.  

One of the women who support and love Demon makes a point of pointing out to him that the crises he faces are his fault, they have been "done to him". She encourages Demon, and the reader, to think about who has been doing this. But this is not a Marxist tract - it is a beautiful, if painful, story of hope and personal liberation. Demon's escape - if it is that - is touchingly told. The ending makes the journey worthwhile and with it Kingsolver caps perhaps the great American novel of the 21st century. Let's hope we live to see a time when all the victims of capitalism in places like Lee County, get to see their oceans too.

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Kingsolver - Prodigal Summer