Sunday, April 25, 2010

Fred Pearce - PeopleQuake, Mass Migration, Ageing Nations and the Coming Population Crash

Fred Pearce's latest book is a polemic that never quite reads as a polemic. He is tackling two important myths. The first is that the world is over-crowded, the second is that it cannot sustain the existing, or predicted population.

Pearce points out, that in large parts of the globe, in particular the developed nations, population is crashing as fertility rates fall. Countries like Italy and Germany face loosing over 80% of their "native" populations. Russia is loosing half a million from it's population figures every year. Iran has a below replacement fertility rate of 1.7 children per woman. The USA's population is growing, but thanks to migrants. This is of course the irony. Despite the anti-immigrant racism and rhetoric we see so much these days, many countries will be crying out for young workers in the coming decades to help keep the wheels of industry turning.

Secondly, though Pearce takes up the arguments of people like Robert Malthus and his followers. The world can, he argues sustain a much larger population. Partly it's because more people means more hands to work and partly this is because technological innovation can provide more food and improve how we use resources. Most obviously we've seen this with the "Green Revolution" of the 1970s. Pearce quotes one researcher: 
If during the next 50 years or so, the world's farmers reach the average yield of today's US corn    grower, ten billion could be fed with only half of today's cropland, while they eat today's US calories.
But it's also because it's not the areas of high or rapidly expanding populations that are the most destructive to the planet. What really matters is the consumption of a society:
The richest billion people on the planet, their average consumption of resources and production of waste today is 32 times that of the average for the remaining almost six billion. 
Pearce continues, "the richest 7% (about half a billion people) are responsible for 50% of emissions."

The point is not to argue that our developed world needs to become like the undeveloped, but to show that an increase in population in say India or China, will not have the impact of an increase in population in say, the US, Britain or France. Strategies to deal with climate change must include tackling how our societies are organised in the wealthiest nations, rather than putting the blame on the developed world.

There is much else of interest in this book. The way that Overpopulation arguments have always meshed with racist ideas or Eugenics for instance. Something that still continues today. The ideological arguments through the cold-war that led the US to develop better crops, to help stave off revolution in the third world.

Pearce is perhaps overly optimistic, there is still a battle on to save the planet. But the falling population we are likely to see within a generation may help this process. Ultimately though, the question of saving the planet must move on blaming the poorest in the world and start to challenge the priorities of a system which is so inherently destructive.

Related Reviews

Pearce - The Last Generation
Pearce - When the Rivers Run Dry
Patel - Stuffed and Starved

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Alastair Reynolds - Zima Blue

This months overindulgence in Alastair Reynolds' science fiction continues with this very recent collection of short stories. Rather like some of the collections of Isaac Asimov's early work, the author mingles in comments on how the stories came to be written and published.

Shockingly, however I have to admit to not being that impressed. Similarly to the most recent novel Terminal World, Reynolds has chosen stories that aren't particular in the realms of his larger space opera. With the exception of three linked tales at the heart of this book, most of the fiction deals with near future or contemporary times. One stories, as the author admits, contains no elements of science fiction at all, simply a meditation on quantum mechanics and the many worlds theory.

This shouldn't matter, but some of these tales come across as very weak. Partly I think this is because they fail to engage with the world we live in. Badly written though they might be, many of Isaac Asimov's stories worked precisely because they could link with our own lives.

Two stories that do work well, do so precisely because they manage to link into our own world. "Signal to Noise" and "Cardiff Afterlife" are set in world's where we can communicate with other alternative universes. The Many World's theory is a theme in this collection. In these universes we can talk to and encounter our ownselves after the universe has branched from our own. Cardiff Afterlife deals with two universes, one where Cardiff has been destroyed by terrorists, the other were it survives. Reynolds imagines future anti-terror agents abusing the link to interogate criminals who perished in one reality and not the other.

The three linked stories I mentioned earlier are a return to wider grand standing sicence fiction. They deal with the quest for a super weapon to save the human race. It was only after finishing the third that I noticed that the character at the centre of the stories, Merlin, is engaged in an almost Arthurian Quest. It's this sort of large scale SF that Reynolds excels at, and these three stories make the collection worth having for his fans.

Related Reviews

Reynolds - Terminal World
Reynolds - Galactic North
Reynolds - Redemption Ark

Friday, April 16, 2010

Alastair Reynolds - Terminal World

With his latest novel, Alastair Reynolds turns away from the galaxy spanning tales of much of his previous works. This time he is Earth-bound, indeed this novel is mainly centered on one city. Spearpoint is an enigmatic place - stretching high into the upper atmosphere, it is clearly deliminated into seperate areas. These areas of varying technological sophistication are kept seperated by an unknown and unexplained force. This means that the different zones don't allow technologies from different regions to function there. You can't bring an internal combustion engine from "Neon Heights" to "Horsetown" without it seizing up. Guns, clocks and every other mechanical device slowly stop working if taken to an area of lower technological development.

Humans travelling between these zones also suffer adversely, but because they aren't mechanical, they can, to a certain extent heal. This process requires medicine, which is in short supply.

The bulk of Reynolds' story deals with the collapse of Spearpoint due to a shift in the boundaries of these zones. The hero escapes and brings together a fleet of dirigibles (not blimps as the pilots insist) with medicine.

On his website, Reynolds describes the novels as "a far future, steampunk-influenced planetary romance about the adventures of an exiled pathologist, and a city in need of medicine..." It's a fairly apt explanation, though existing fans make find it a little light compared to his earlier works. While I enjoyed it, I felt that Reynolds was trying a little too hard to get lots of ideas into the book - in Horsetown people wear wide brimmed hats, like cowboys - the upper zones are populated by "angels" - humans who have the ability to fly.

The end of the book is a slight disappointment, as it seems entirely about setting up a sequel, something that I hate. In particular, I was left feeling that none of the great unknowns about the novel were even close to being tied up. My interest was held by the strangeness of the world that Reynolds was describing. It was a disappointment that there were no answers. Perhaps the author had none.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Barbara W. Tuchman - A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century

Barbara Tuchman's book on the 14th Century is surely one of the great works of popular history. It's scope is impressive, less from geographical coverage than from the depth of her research and coverage. Concentrating on life in the areas that we now know as modern France and England, Tuchman explores the lives of people living in the 14th Century and how those lives changed through the developing years.

Out of neccessity, Tuchman has to concentrate mostly on the lives of rich men. This is because, as Tuchman points out any woman whose life was adequately documented would be "atypical" and commoner's lives aren't documented enough, as well as failing to have the scope for her method of showing what the century was like. Tuchman shows the century by concentrating on the life of a noble, Enguerrand de Coucy VII, one of the last of a great dynasty of knights who lived from 1340 - 1397. The reader shouldn't imagine though that this is a biography in a normal sense. While de Coucy, as some sort of real-life Flashman seems to actually have been present at much of the important events of those years, the author uses de Coucy's life as a backdrop to the story of the century.

In contrast to de Coucy's life though, the experience for the majority of the population wasn't as nice. As Tuchman summarises of the six decades that marked de Coucy's on life;

"If the sixty years seemed full of brilliance and adventure to a few at the top, to most they were a succession of wayward dangers; of the three galloping evils, pillage, plague and taxes; of fierce and tragic conflicts, bizarre fates, capricious money, sorcery, betrayals, insurrections, murder, madness and the downfall of princes; of dwindling labor for the fields, of cleared land reverting to waste; and always the recurring black shadow of pestilence carrying its message of guilt and sin and the hostility of God."

For Tuchman, the 14th Century was the end of an ideal, a period of change, she quotes with recognition, one description of the era as a "period of anguish when there is no sense of an assured future". The rise in mercantilism and capitalist relations was shifting the centre of power away from the nobility towards a new class. The hundred years war had left the most prosperous nations poorer, and the peasents on which their wealth was based, sickened and tired. The Black Death that decimated the populations over and over, meant that the old relations of production were no longer set firm. Peasents could and did leave their Lords to find better pay and conditions. There wasn't enough labour to maintain fields. In one haunting passage, Tuchman describes a Paris whose population was so diminished, that wolves patrol the empty streets of the suburbs.

Out of neccesity, Tuchman covers much of this briefly. There are central themes running through the work - the end of the age of chivalry being one, the changes to the church and organised religion being another. I am sure that scholars of the period would find fault, particularly in areas of speciality. I felt that the one bit of the time that I knew fairly well, the English Peasant's Revolt of 1381 was dealt with briefly as an aside - though Tuchman does acknowledge it's importance in representing the end of an era.

These are minor criticisms. Tuchman's book deserves to be read widely, not simply for its fascinating insights into previous times. Nor because it exposes how corrupt and nasty some of the most powerful dynasties in Europe have been in the past (in particular religious ones). It deserves to be read for it's grasp of history as a sweeping story, punctuated by moments that alter it's course, driven by forces that are sometimes, but in no way always, out of human control.

She also understands though, that the forces in 14th century society that would develop and shape the history of the next few centuries were present and developing in the 14th. These new forces could be directed and shaped, but weren't yet ready.

"The times were not static. Loss of confidence in the guarantors of order opened the way to demands for change, and miseria gave force to the impulse. The oppressed were no longer enduring but rebelling, although, like the bourgeois who tried to compel reform, the were inadequte, unreadym and unequipped for the task."

The history of the next few centuries would show these forces developing, first to break through the old order, at the same time as engaging in mutual bloody conflict. That battle continues on new terrain, but a terrain that has been shaped by the past.

Related Reviews

Tuchman - The Guns of August

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Meredith Hooper - The Ferocious Summer: Palmer's Penguins and the Warming of Antarctica

Just how does a changing climate impact on flora and fauna? Can we learn anything about global impacts by looking at localised effects of climate change?

Meredith Hooper happened to be at the right place at the right time, to try and answer these questions. She travelled to the Palmer station in Antarctica to research a book, and arrived for the "Ferocious Summer" of 2001 / 2002. Palmer is a research station and one of its key areas of research is the ongoing study of the local penguin populations. The Adélie penguins who nest in huge colonies around the station. Or rather they did. During her time there Cooper was witness to the effective collapse of the local penguin population. A simplistic explanation would be that the warming Antarctic, evidenced by the melting ice, snow and glaciers that the author describes, was destroying the habitat of the Adélies, leading to their deaths.

But Cooper paints a more complex picture. The warming water should in fact lead to an increase in the Adélies' favourite food - Krill. And though this was observed, the populations were falling. Fewer birds were having fewer chicks, and fewer of these were surviving. Some of this was to do with more predators, some because there was more snow (one of the quirks of a warming Antarctic is initially more snow in some areas), and in part because of the loss of their "haul out platform" - the sea ice. As Cooper points out, "A warming peninsula was forcing a mismatch between the resources Adélies need and their ability to access them."

Cooper's point is that there is no simple cause and effect - a changing climate doesn't have a simple effect. Some changes might actually increase the numbers of particular plants or animals, or a change in the places they live in. But climate change does have a major impact and the general trend will be towards decreasing biodiversity.

This is perhaps not news, but by focusing on a particular aspect of the world, Cooper brings home how quickly a changing climate can impact on the world, even in a remarkably localised way.

Sadly Cooper's style leaves a lot to be desired. In places, some of the paragraphs are almost incomprehensible. I also found her reporting of people's speech difficult - rather than it being verbatim, often it is short disjointed sentences, making it hard to follow.

In part this is a diary and Cooper details the life and work of the station. Fascinating stuff, particularly if you are interested in the day-to-day experience of scientists and their support staff. I was struck by how often the scientists bemoaned a lack of equipment, which they were denied for cost reasons. Then the prices would turn out to be a few tens of thousands of dollars. A pittance when compared to the expenditure on, say, the Afghanistan war. But money that could and should be used to increasingly understand one of the greatest threats to our own species.

While this might not be the first place to start if you want to read up on climate change, it is certainly a useful read for those who want to look at the subject in greater detail.

Related Reviews

Lopez - Arctic Dreams
Flannery - An Ecological History of North America and its Peoples
Monthly Review - Ecology, Moment of Truth