Saturday, April 28, 2007

Primo Levi - If Not Now, When?

This is a work full of unimaginable pain and suffering. It follows a loose group of Jewish partisans behind German lines in the last few years of World War Two as they attempt to both survive and exact some military suffering on the German occupiers. Then as the war finishes, it follows their slow and difficult journey towards Italy and the hope of a ship to Palestine, where they dream of building a Jewish haven - Israel.

This isn't simply a work about the pain of war, nor the cold of the Soviet winter, though both of these are backdrops to an intense, difficult story. This is the story of people who have seen and survived horrors which we can't comprehend. The young Jew who watched the SS (boys scarcely older than himself) murder his family, the older Russian soldier who escaped a POW camp, and the man who watched all the Jews from his village forced to dig their own mass grave, before the Einsatzgruppen shot them all.

But these are people who don't give up. In contrast to those who would portray the victims of the Holocaust as men and women who meekly went to their deaths, Primo Levi celebrates those who never gave in. Those who fought back, those who took part in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and those who believed that Nazism could be stopped.

But we are also confronted with other difficult facts. The liberating Russian army was as likely to lock up Jews, the defeated German villagers would still take pot-shots at Jews and for all the Zionist talk of Israel, the British made it hard for those who had escaped persecution to try and find refugee in Palestine.

Because this novel's characters are living, breathing individuals, who debate history, politics and religion, who question everything around them, it is much more than a simple tale of war. And because this was the most brutal of wars, the characters are never simple. They love, hate and seek revenge. But they also have hope. It's this hope that keeps them fighting and the novel is brilliant enough to fuel our hope that we can stop fascism, racism and anti-Semitism wherever they raise their head.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Thomas Mann - Death in Venice and Other Stories

From the evidence of this collection of stories, Thomas Mann was not a happy chap. Or at the very least, he enjoyed discussing the inner conflicts of man, and those emotions that could tear the best of people apart.

Saying that though, Thomas Mann clearly is one of the 20th Century’s greatest writers – his text reads almost poetically, though the subject is often heartrendingly painful.

Here for instance, are the opening sentences from his 1897 short story Der Bajazzo (The Joker)

“The end of it all, the upshot of life – of my life – is the disgust with which it fills me. A worthy ending indeed! Disgust with it all, disgust with the whole thing, this disgust that chokes me, goads me to frenzy and casts me down again into despair – sooner or later, no doubt , it will give me the necessary impetus to cut short the whole ridiculous, contemptible business and clear out for good.”

Such an passionate suicide note at the start of a story, indicates that it might not have the happiest of ending. But the genius perhaps of Mann, is to use such emotions to illuminate the human condition.

The titular story, Der Tod in Venedig, (Death in Venice) written in 1912, far surpasses the other tales in this collection. The story of the aged writer, reflecting back on his life in the glorious city of Venice, while falling in love with a beautiful teenager holidaying there was itself turned by Visconti into one of the greatest films ever made. This isn’t surprising – the theme which mixes the beauty of the city, with it’s rotting core, and the impossible love for a young man with the growing pestilence around them – mixes up just about every emotion that can be thought of in a single tale.

Few can read a work like this without wondering at the inner turmoil of the writer, but whatever the authors own emotions; these are works that make the reader reflect on the very feelings that make us human.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

John Bellamy Foster – Ecology Against Capitalism

This collection of essays on a general theme of capitalism and the environment was first printed in 2002, though all the essays are from the previous decade. They predate, but predict many of the arguments that are emerging on the left (and within the wider environmental movement) as issues such as Global Warming become a serious mainstream political issue.

However the essays differ from many of the works coming out at the moment about the environment. In particular, they centre on what I believe should become a major debate within the environmental movement – whether capitalism can solve the environmental crisis we face.

Bellamy Foster is excellent on this question, which is approached from a number of different angles in the different essays. He examines for instance, how economists attempt to make the environment part of the market, so as to make a profit from it. He quotes Marx:

“For the first time nature becomes purely an object for humankind, purely a matter of utility; ceases to be recognised as a power for itself; and the theoretical discovery of its autonomous laws appears merely as a ruse so as to subject it under human needs whether as an object of consumption or as a means of production”

All the essays are fantastically written, clear, concise and informative. Several in particular deserve particular mention “Global Ecology and the Common Good” is a brilliant counter argument to the idea that “we are all in it together”. “Capitalism’s Environmental Crisis – IS Technology the Answer” looks at whether simple technological improvements or innovations can provide solutions. He examines the so-called “Jevons Paradox” which argues that the consequences of technological innovation in improving fossil fuel efficiency has led to more fuel being burnt (as it becomes cheaper and more profitable to use it), rather than reduction in it’s use.

Finally, the essay which Bellamy Foster wrote to mark the 200th anniversary of Malthus’s Essays on Population is an excellent rejoinder to those who, still today, argue that the environmental crisis we face is a consequence of over-population, rather than an economic system that destroys everything in it’s path in the drive for profit.

Bellamy Foster is absolutely convincing on this. There cannot be a good capitalism, nor can there be good capitalists. The exploitation of the earth’s natural resources, in an inefficient, unsustainable way is part and parcel of the mechanisms at the heart of society. The ultimate “saving of the planet” will only be won, through the destruction of that system and it’s replacement with one based on need, not greed.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Mark Lynas - Six Degrees

The February 2007 part of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's report made a number of stark predictions about climate change. In particular, it examined the science behind global warming and made a number of consensus predictions about the effects.

Mark Lynas's book looks at the consequences in great detail. The basic science is very simple, the world gets hotter and various changes start happening - ice starts to melt, deserts spread and so on. As the world gets hotter these changes increase, but more worryingly, a number of "feedback effects" kick in. In other words, the consequences of even quite small amounts of global warming are to make further climate change more likely.

Lynas looks at 6 scenarios, though really they aren't separate. He examines how the world will look as temperature increases by one, then two degrees, all the way up to six. A planet that is six degrees hotter will be one that is uninhabitable by the standards we set today. Lynas backs his arguments up by looking not just at computer models, though there are plenty of those, but also at historic times when the world was warmer by up to 6 degrees.

Lynas paints a frightening future, but as with many other writers he argues it isn't inevitable, we just need to change major aspects of our lives. In this section, the book is not as detailed or as clear as other works (in particular George Monbiot's Heat). However, to be fair to Lynas, this isn't the major point of his work either.

My one criticism, is that sometimes the book reads like the six degree world is entirely seperate from the one and two degree one. To get to sixth degree of temperature rise, the world will have to travel through a time when the horrors of the other times are inflicted.

This is important, because as the world gradually heats, the effects will be immediate and this will have horrific consequences for many people. It will also, however make it even more clear to millions of people that the environment is changing. Hopefully by then, it will not be to late to do something about it. in the meantime, this is a very readable book that will hopefully alert thousands to the dangers and get them to start campaigning now.

(*) Full title - Six Degrees, Our Future on a Hotter Planet

Related Reviews

Flannery - The Weather Makers
Monbiot - Heat
Pearce - The Last Generation

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Mike Davis – Planet of Slums

I suspect that most of the people who read this book (or indeed this review), will never have seen a slum. I don’t mean the run down bits housing estates that blight the cities of northern England; I mean a slum on a truly different scale. Mike Davis describes in terrifying detail just what sort of world it is, that huge numbers of people live in.

He starts of with the growth of the city, quoting UN reports he says

“In 1950 there were 86 cities in the world with a population of more than one million; today there are 400, and by 2015 there will be at least 550”

This explosion of growth for cities doesn’t bring with it prosperity or jobs. While the “world’s urban labo[u]r force has more than doubled since 1980, and the present urban population – 3.2 billion – is larger than the total population of the world when John F. Kennedy was inaugurated”, huge numbers of these people have no meaningful income from work. According to a CIA report in 2002, by the late 1990s, a third of the world’s labour force, a “staggering” one billion people, had no work, or were underemployed.

The figures for the growth of slums are similarly shocking. People flocking to the cities in the search of employment, or because they have been pushed off the land, form giant illegal or semi-legal areas of housing. 60% of Mexico’s growth is due to people building their own homes on “un-serviced peripheral land”, similarly in the Amazon, “80 percent of growth has been in shantytowns”.

The word un-serviced is important here. These are huge areas of human population with little or no running water, sewerage systems or electricity.

Davis documents two facts that flow from this – how governments and the state ignore or give lip service to the people living in such poverty, and how often the role of NGOs is limited to trying to make the slums slightly better, rather than look at the root cause of the problem.

But Davis’ real fire is reserved for international financial policies that have helped create the slums in the first place and limited the ability of the state and government to provide services to help the poorest of the poor. The neo-liberal policies of the World Bank and the IMF have, since the 1970s, caused unemployment through the destruction of industry and public services and have meant that services that are offered to the poor (such as water provision) are often privatised. It’s an irony, that privatised water companies end up charging the poor huge amounts of money for what should be a basic human right.

“The situation in Luanda is even worse: there the poorest households are forced to spend 15 percent of their income on water that private companies simply pump from the nearby, sewage-polluted Bengo River.”

What's true for drinking water is also true for sewage:

In “India – where an estimated 700 million people are forced to defecate in the open – only 17 of 3700 cities and large towns have any kind of primary sewage treatment before final disposal”.

Mike Davis paints a picture of billions of people living in squalor, poverty and unemployment, unable to find work and ignored by governments more interested in making a few people richer. However he finishes on an interesting point. Military thinkers around the world already plan how they might intervene in such slums. Fearful of insurrection and “anarchy” they worry about how the chaotic unplanned slums could be controlled – But “If the empire can deploy Orwellian technologies of repression, its outcasts have the gods of chaos on their side”, Davis concludes.

Related Reviews

Davis - The Monster at our Door

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Arthur Ransome - We Didn't Mean to Go to Sea

All the children's novels Arthur Ransome wrote are escapism. This one deals with the unlikely story of four children alone on a sailing boat that is swept out to sea during a night of fog and storm, and how they navigated it safely to Holland. Perfect reading material for the bored child.

Like many of his books, this is full of nautical detail - but not enough to drown the reader who doesn't sail. In fact much of the detail is of great interest to anyone, but Ransome's great gift was to describe adventure from a child's point of view - these kids aren't above crying for their mum when things get tough.

If you know the other novels, you'll remember Susan. The eldest girl, rather motherly in outlook - always responsible for cooking, cleaning and looking after the other children. As the ship is pummelled by the waves and she finds herself with uncontrollable seasickness, she cries bitter tears of panic. No one reading this will fail to identify with her - even if you don't know your sailors knots.

One final point of historical interest. These novels, written in the 1930s, are from an era when foreign travel was rare, even for the well off. So the children's arrival in Flushing in Holland, is cause for Ransome to spend time in detail describing the sights, sounds and smells of a foreign port, with all the excitement that would mean for his readers 70 odd years ago. Today in an era when children have crossed the channel by 'plane and ferry, crossing it in a small sail boat might seem at first unexciting. Ransome's skill is to bring more innocent era back to life, and make us wish we were kids then too.