Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Fred Pearce - The New Wild: Why Invasive Species will be Nature's Salvation

Fred Pearce has been a longstanding writer and science journalist on ecological questions, and any book by him deserves a serious consideration by radicals and environmentalists. His books have covered topics as diverse as the population question and landgrabbing, and he has a new book out discussing nuclear power. This 2015 book looks at biodiversity and in particular the question of invasive species.

Why I was writing Land and Labour one of the people who read the first draft insisted that I should change the word "alien" when describing species that entered habitats from where they were not normally found. That reader was absolutely right to do so and Pearce's book shows why (though he uses the word himself). Alien implies outsider, but species have constantly moved around. Pearce explains that there is no pristine nature, unchanged since the beginning of time. Rather nature has constantly evolved, adapted and changed. Species come and go, and while humans have been part of doing this, through deliberate planting or accidental transportation, this process is also a natural one. Pearce gives a number of fascinating examples of the natural processes - from animals and plants that have moved across the oceans, to the colonisation of a brand new island created off the coast of Iceland. But humans have a particular socialised view of nature, and that means we often reject, or fear, intruders. But, as Pearce explains, what we think of as natural nature, is often anything but:
We forget that much that appears loveably native is actually foreign. Some vagabond species that we like can become so much part of the landscape that they get local names and even become adopted natives. In the US, old-world meadowgrass was renamed Kentucky bluegrass. Tumbleweed sounds quintessentially American - a metaphor of ghost towns in Western movies as it rolls across the landscape in the wind. But the most common tumble weed species is not native at all. Salsola tragus, Russian thistle, was brought by Ukrainian immigrants in flax seed.
When I was young every public building in the UK was festooned with posters warning of the dangers of the Colorado beetle. Today some local councils warn of the threat from Japanese Knotweed and Pearce's book lists numerous others. Pearce challenges the idea that invasive species like these are as dangerous as the authorities suggest. Often, for instance, such species actually do not spread as far as portrayed, and very often they prefer "disturbed land" such as brown field sites. But, as Pearce concludes, "they rarely invade the countryside" and "some natives are a much greater nuisance. Bracken, brambles, stinging nettles and ivy are all natives... If they were foreign there would be a hue and cry.... Imagine if the stinging nettle was an alien." One scientist quoted by Pearce "found that the locals caused four time more damage to local woodland biodiversity than the aliens".

The question of biodiversity is important in this context because one major accusation against invasive species is that they drive out "native" plants and kill biodiversity. But often the opposite is true. Pearce shows that a "usually-cited" source for an "oft-repeated claim" that invasive species are the second greatest threat to biodiversity is not true. More interestingly he shows that such species, "except in rare cases... bring greater biodiversity". This can be in several ways - new species that enter existing eco-systems and establish a niche, or new species offering existing species new food sources, or toe-holds for protection. When the Suez Canal opened tropical species moved from the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean, and 250 species established themselves in new areas, but there was only one recorded extinction.

Pearce isn't arguing that invasive species do not do harm, create problems, or economic costs. What he is arguing is that they are not the existential threat they are often accused of being, and more often than not they bring benefits. This, after all, is why humans have often transported species around the globe - as food sources, for profit, or even for aesthetic reasons. This is a process that began long before farming took place, and we cannot pretend it did not occur - to do so is to believe that there is a pristine nature that can be recovered, or protected like something trapped in amber.

Pearce argues that part of the problem is that the common understanding of ecology is based on the idea of "balance" between species. This, he says, is wrong. As one scientist Henry Gleason, argued (against the grain) in 1926, "every species of plant is a law unto itself, the distribution of which in space depends on its individual peculiarities of migration and environmental requirements." In the late 19th century Frederic Clements came up with the idea of a "matching permanent association of vegetation" (Pearce's words) which he called a climax. Counter to this Pearce argues that "species evolve to get by, not to attain Clementsian perfection". Because of the sort of crudities that Pearce argues against, it struck me that many ecologists would benefit from a dialectical understanding of biology, such as that outlined by Levins and Lewontin in The Dialectical Biologist.

Pearce argues a strong case. However, as the subtitle of his book puts it, he sees salvation in the ability of nature itself to repair and build anew. He concludes:
But the new wild is flourishing, and will do better if we allow it to have its head.... Alien species, the vagabonds, are the pioneers and colonists in this constant renewal. Their invasions will not always be convenient for us, but nature will rewild in its own way.
This is problematic. Pearce appears to be saying here that we should do nothing, and nature will simply rebuild given time. But Pearce also has numerous examples that show how human action - such as industrial farming - is driving biodiversity loss. He argues that climate change will lead to more destruction of nature, but will simultaneously be "a major driver of species migrations" which will lead to renewal. In other words Pearce appears to be trying to have his environmental cake, and eat it as well.

What is missing from his analysis is an attempt to locate the environmental crisis within the wider social relations that humanity exists in. While it is true that humans have always altered nature, capitalism has transformed the scale of the transformation, unleashing changes to the environment that are breaking fundamental ecological relations. Eventually, human driven climate change, will likely create feedbacks that can threaten the very existence of life on the planet. I know that Fred Pearce knows this, because he wrote a very good book about it called The Last Generation. But beware - I am not dismissing Fred Pearce's book, in fact I encourage people to read it. But I think it's flawed in its suggestion that "By seeking only to conserve and protect the endangered and the weak, it [conservation] becomes a brake on evolution and a douser of adaptation. If we want to assist nature to regenerate, we need to promote change, rather than hold it back." Maybe; but we primarily need to stop fossil fuel capitalism to give nature the space to "regenerate". In fact Pearce's dismissal of contemporary conservation reads more like a call to passivity in the face of ecological crisis than a call to action.

Given time, and and end to capitalism, nature will have enormous potential to rebuild damaged regions, part of that will involve invasive species of many sorts and human involvement in moving them. Even today, as Pearce's book shows, a proper understanding of the ecological relationships between species, can help regenerate areas and protect biodiversity. But this will not happen if we sit back and wait for nature to rewild on its own. That's a recipe for a world of utter chaos and complete ecological breakdown.

Related Reviews

Pearce - The Last Generation
Pearce - People Quake
Pearce - When the Rivers Run Dry
Dawson - Extinction: A Radical History
Kolbert - The Sixth Extinction
Lewontin & Levins - Biology Under the Influence
Levins & Lewontin - The Dialectical Biologist

Monday, July 30, 2018

Shaun Jeffery - The Village in Revolt: The Story of the Longest Strike in History

The story of the Burston School Strike, the "longest in history", is a seminal one for the British trade union movement. The story has often been told as one simply about two brave trade union activists, Annie and Tom Higdon who defied the local Norfolk establishment and fought for their jobs, and most importantly, their children's education.

But as Shaun Jeffery makes very clear, this struggle was in the context of much wider social and economic changes taking place. This is not to downplay the role of the Higdons however - they were principled individuals who were at the forefront of fighting against poverty, inequality and exploitation. But this brought them into conflict with their employers and the local representatives of the higher-classes.

The story of the Burston School strike begins then, not in Burston, but in Wood Dalling, Norfolk where the Higdons were previously employed. Here they came a cropper of the local employers after a series of disagreements of, what seem, relatively petty issues. Eventually dismissed and then re-employed in Burston it was immediately clear that the Higdon's would not simply agree to whatever the establishment wanted. They complained about the state of the school, light fires when not supposed to do so, and generally upset the local gentry and clergy by their non-subservience.

They were clearly adored by the children they taught. Fond memories from their students show that the Higdon's were good teachers, kind and generous. Helping the children whose clothing were inadequate, bringing gifts of sweets and toys, organising Christmas events and, most importantly, taking an interest in their general education when the dominant form of teaching was simply the rote learning of the "three Rs". I was struck that their generosity extended way beyond the village boundaries. Twice a year, for instance, Annie Higdon arranged for children from poor communities in London to visit for a holiday.

Jeffery begins with the background to Annie and Tom. Both came from poor rural communities, though Annie's family had money due to a lucky break by an ancestor. How they met we do not know, but it was clear that their politics meshed and they both had the self confidence needed to stand-up to their supposed "betters". Tom became a central figure in both villages in the growing trade union movement for agricultural workers, something that he was part of for his whole life. Annie was also a trade unionist in the teaching union, albeit it much more isolated, but her politics was nonetheless centered on trying improve to make the lives of the poorest.

When, on April 1st 1914, the two were sacked, almost every single child walked out on strike. While it's not clear if the Higdons knew of these plans, the students were clearly supported by their parents. Rapidly the strike became a cause for the wider movement, and as days spread into months, the authorities were unable to get the children to return. Eventually the union movement and the local population would come up with the cash to setup a "strike school" that taught Burston (and children from further afield) through the war and into the 1930s. Jeffery tells the fascinating story of how the strike became a cause célèbre for the wider union movement, particularly the railway workers union, who brought speakers and solidarity to the tiny village repeatedly.

The role of the railway union hints at the wider context to the strike. For it is clear from Jeffery's research that Burston was not an isolated event. In the months running up to the 1914 events there had been a rash of strikes by school students in England, and these were widely reported. Jeffery argues that these were in the context of widening class conflict and I think this is right. The run up to the First World War saw a growth in strikes, known as the Great Unrest, and children were not immune to the explosion in trade union membership and militancy. In the countryside this was tied up with the rebirth of agricultural trade unionism as the reality of rural poverty (something very clear to the Higdons) became unbearable.

A third factor was the breaking down of the old order in rural villages. In both Burston and Wood Dalling, it was clear that the local establishment was struggling to maintain its old role as total local authority. This was being challenged politically (by the emerging workers organisations and parties) and economically by the growth and development of new forms of agriculture (and other industries such as the railways). The spectacular rudeness and belligerence of the local school board (usually the local clergy and big farmers) in the face of what seem relatively benign demands from the Higdons demonstrates their firm belief in their right to govern. This could no longer hold and the rebellion (as well as other strikes etc) demonstrates this, as do the references by both the Higdons and the contemporary unions to "Junkers" in Norfolk. This refers to the landowning class in Germany and had a particular resonance in the context of the First World War.

Today the Burston strike is celebrated with an annual festival much like Tolpuddle. Shaun Jeffery has been part of making sure that takes place and helps us to remember this important struggle. His book celebrates the role of Tom and Annie, as well as the brave school students who went on strike, and their families who stood by and encouraged them in the face of the courts and the farmers. Their sacrifices should not be forgotten as they illuminate rural life in the early 20th century, and I am pleased to recommend Shaun Jeffery's excellent history which will both educate and inspire the reader.

Buy The Village in Revolt from Bookmarks, the socialist Bookshop - click here.

Related Reviews

Groves - Sharpen the Sickle
Marlow - The Tolpuddle Martyrs
Horn - Joseph Arch
Howkins - The Death of Rural England
Whitlock - Peasant's Heritage
Bell - Men and the Fields

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Arkady & Boris Strugatsky - Roadside Picnic

Beginning with an intriguing idea, this is a complex novel that will repay reading for a second time I suspect. It is set in the future, probably in the US, in a world transformed by a visitation by aliens. But, frustratingly for humankind, the aliens made no contact and left a series of zones which have been radically transformed in ways that humans simply cannot understand. The areas are rich with alien artefacts, some of which of marvels like unlimited power or potential weapons. But they are protected by, often invisible, threats that kill or maim those seeking to find these alien treasures. Frustratingly it is not apparent to explorers and scientists whether these threats are deliberate protections or other random leavings by the alien visitors.

A whole industry, official and unofficial, has developed around these zones. Scientists are desperate for more information and more artefacts. Other, less scrupulous, forces want to get their hands on the treasure for profit and power. The official expeditions into the zones are mirrored by illegal trips by "stalkers". One of these stalkers, Red Schuhart, has a dual life foraging the zone for illegal and legal purposes. Like many who lived near a zone during the visitation, his family has suffered as a result - unknown forces have mutated his daughter, and friends and other stalkers have died. He drowns his sorrow in alcohol, but he cannot escape the zone, returning again and again, in the hope of understanding its secrets and possibly finding salvation for his family.

The point of the book, however, is that no one can understand the zones, humans can only gain superficial knowledge and use from the alien leavings. The title derives from a analogy used by one of the scientists. The visitation was like a picnic visit to a field by a human party. They leave behind scraps of food and broken toys, radios or trinkets. These are incomprehensible to the insects and animals that live in the field, but are understood as wondrous creations. The humans finish their picnic and leave, not stopping to comprehend the impact on the roadside inhabitants.

The concept is clever, and was clever enough to encourage at least one successful film 1979's Stalker directed by Andrei Tarkovsky and with a screen play by the Strugatsky brothers. Its also been widely translated and my edition from the SF Masterworks series has a great introduction by Ursula K. Le Guin and an afterword by Boris Strugatsky that looks at the tortuous publication history in the former USSR. The book isn't simply a critique (or commentary) on the old Soviet regime, though there are clear elements to that, not least in Red's final demand. But it certainly has elements of a critique of a commodity obsessed society that appears to be set in 1950s America. Many of the objects found, as Le Guin, points out might be being misused by their human scientists. For all their successful applications are humans using "Geiger counters as hand axes"?

A clever story with a brilliant setting, I feel that Roadside Picnic will improve with a second and third reading. It's not quite as good as the Strugatsky's Hard to be a God but it comes recommended.

Related Reviews

A & B Strugatsky - Hard to be a God
Morrow - Is this the Way the World Ends?

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Julia Boyd - Travellers in the Third Reich

It is a cliche to say it but "hindsight is a wonderful thing". It's a phrase that repeatedly came to mind as I read Julia Boyd's highly interesting and critically lauded book that looks at Hitler's Germany through the eyes of visitors in the 1930s. It is with only a slight amount of tongue in cheek that she can write in an opening line to one of the final chapters that the "year 1939 was not a good one for Germany's tourist trade" because for much of the 1930s the opposite was true. With Hitler's grabbing of power in 1933 the regime was keen to promote itself was positively as possible around the globe and expanded its promotional work enormously. Thousands of people travelled to the country, encouraged by posters from travel agents like Thomas Cook who urged people to see the country for themselves. In particular many tourists came from England - Germany had been a popular pre-WW1 destination and the 1920s saw a resurgence of this.

The 1930s bought a variety of people. From political activists and diplomats trying to understand, change or negotiate with the Nazi regime to tourists, musicians, academics and fascists who each had their own reasons for travelling to the country. As Boyd explains many of them were bemused, but then caught up into the sights and spectacles of the Nazi state. The regime was adapt at linking propaganda with the tourist experience, and many travellers, not just politicians or diplomats received a heavy dosage of Antisemitism and anti-Communism with their operatic performances or encounters with Nazis. Even people from the left seemed unable to clearly understand what was taking place, and while they rarely feel under Hitler's spell, they often found their experiences jarred with their expectations. More often than not though, many visitors simply found their latent anti-Semitism confirmed:
John Mynard Keynes... who readily sang the praises of Jewish friends... wrote, 'Yet if I lived there, I felt I might turn anti-Semitic fr the poor Prussian is too slow and heavy on his legs for the other kin of Jews, the ones who not imps but serving devil, with small horns, pitch forks and oily tails'. He added how unpleasant it was to see a civilisation 'so under the ugly thumbs of its impure Jew who has all the money and the power and the brain'.
Boyd has an eye for anecdote and plenty of ironic humour. But beneath much of these accounts is a real sense of dread. Not everyone was blind the regime. The Summer Olympics of 1936 allowed many to get an understanding of what was taking place, even though the experience was heavily choreographed and sanitised of Antisemitism. One athlete remained behind after the games and went swimming to suddenly see signs forbidding Jews to enter, he was told that this was because the Olympics were finished. Others used the opportunity to tell the world what they thought of Hitler. Halet Çambel was the first female Muslim to take part in the Olympic games and "was astonished by her fellow athletes' apathy to National Socialism". She loathed the Nazis and would have preferred not to be in Berlin at all. When asked if she would like to meet Hitler, she famously said, 'No.' Others noticed the hypocrisy of their own countries. Archie Williams, a black 400 meteres gold medalist from the USA returned home and was asked in a newspaper "How did those dirty Nazis treat you?" He replied that he had not met any, "just a lot of nice German people. And I didn't have to ride in the back of the bus."

Nonetheless the over-riding theme of Boyd's book is that very few travellers actually did hate the regime and many came away after expecting to hate it, finding much to celebrate. In the case of some, like academics, Boyd argues that they
chose to travel int he Third Reich because Germany's cultural heritage was simply too precious to renounce for politics... They allowed their reverence for the past to warp their judgement of the present. As a result they wilfully ignored the realities of a dictatorship that by 1936 - despite the Olympic mirage - was unashamedly parading itself in all its unspeakable colours.
While this is no doubt true, I also think that one of the other factors is that the material Boyd works from tends to come from the higher class end of the spectrum who tended to have right-wing inclinations. This is not to say the lower classes did not travel to Germany in the period, on the contrary I was fascinated to find that 1000s did go on package tours. But the material that survives, letters, articles, diaries tends to come from the middle and upper classes, and their prejudices were more inclined towards the regime. Some of these were extremely anti-Semitic, and many of them approved of the key political line of the regime which was that Germany was a bulwark against Communism.

But it is also true that the Nazis were adapt at hiding their true faces. I was quite shocked by how many people visited Dachau concentration camp. It was a veritable tourist destination, yet few of these visitors realised that they weren't meeting real inmates, well fed and looked after. Instead they were meeting SS men in costume. The reality dawned for many, far to late, with Kristallnacht in November 1938 which Boyd sees as a moment of profound realisation for many of the naive visitors.

Boyd points out that even a serious a left-wing black thinker as W.E. Du Bois was confused by his time in Germany. That said, on his return to the US, he noted that he detested the antiSemitism, but enjoyed his time in the country, but realised that "It would have been impossible for me to have spent a similarly long time in any part of the US without some, if not frequent, cases of personal insult or discrimination. I cannot record a single instance here.... It was not at all deceived by attitudes of Germans towards me and the very few Negroes who happened to be visiting them... Theoretically their attitude towards Negroes is just as bad as towards Jews, and if there were any number of Negroes in Germany, would be expressed in the same way." He did conclude though, that "ordinary Germans were not naturally colour prejudiced".

With hindsight, many of the accounts in Boyd's book are shocking in their naivety (or for their latent racism). Hindsight gives us a much clearer picture, but it is still surprising that so many people accepted without question the demands of the regime when they visited - joining in the with Hitler salute, adorning their caravans with Swastikas, or even, for one highly respected conductor acceding to demands that he remove music by the Jewish composer Mendelssohn from his programme. It is easy to say "I would have behaved differently" and perhaps many readers of this blog would have. The question is why didn't more people behave differently then?

Today, as we witness a new growth in fascist and far-right movements in Europe and beyond, we should read Julia Boyd's book for its insight into how fascists organise and can conceal their horrific plans with more acceptable politics. But I also was struck by the similarities with a generalised acceptance of antisemitism in the 1930s by large numbers of people, and the way that a general Islamophobic mentality has been created by governments and the media today. We will do well to learn the lessons from Julia Boyd's book which uses a previously ignored set of materials to illuminate the darkest period of European history. An excellent, if frightening read.

Related Reviews

Browning - The Origins of the Final Solution
Moorhouse - Berlin at War
Kershaw - To Hell and Back: Europe 1914-1949
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Tuesday, July 17, 2018

James Hobson - Dark Days of Georgian Britain

History bookshelves groan under the weight of books devoted to kings and queens, famous generals and well known figures. Rarely do ordinary people get a look in, and it is even rarer to find a book devoted to their struggles. This is particularly true of the Regency, a period in English history where, if one was to focus on the output of television drama departments, everyone lived in a country house.

So it is with pleasure that I review James Hobson's Dark Days of Georgian Britain. Hobson begins with two quotes to illustrate his central thesis, one from Jane Austen's Emma where the titular character is described as living twenty-one years "with very little to distress" her. The other from Karl Marx noting that "the history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggle". It's an excellent juxtaposition, for the book deals with, both the actuality of those class struggles and the society that bred them.

The Regency period was not one were it was pleasant to be poor. England was in a period of transition. It was rapidly moving towards a society where the urban population would outnumber the rural, and the transition was painful for the majority of the countryside's population who were being forced from their land into poverty. It was, as Hobson, explains "a new society; one where it was every person for themselves and previous mutual obligations between the rich and poor were dissolving." The rich, of course, justified these changes as being either natural or inevitable. The poor existed so that there could be rich people, though the wealthy seemed to work hard to make life worse for the lower classes. As Hobson concludes,
Two sets of conflicting ideas existed. Britain was still a community-minded society where the rich felt the need to help the poor under certain conditions. However it was also one where market forces and laissez-faire economics were all the rage, and were used to condone the suffering of the poor. A more fatalistic view of suffering was developing as Britain industrialised.
Whether these changes were laws to maximise profits from agriculture, or changes to the game laws to prevent the poor catching and eating food, ordinary people resisted. Mass protests, demonstrations, riots and occasional strikes shook the establishment. Hobson looks at a number of these, including food riots and in two excellent chapters he discusses the Peterloo Massacre of 1819 though a discussion of the "establishment cover up" and the role of women. The latter is particularly interesting, highlighting the way that the role of women in the protest was considered shocking to the press and establishment, despite the attacking militia having no qualms in attacking both sexes indiscriminately. However many of these women had deep roots in radical movements that would continue long after the massacre; Mary Fildes was knocked off the platform at Peterloo, and slashed at by a member of the yeomanry but went on "to be an activist for women's contraception and supported the Chartists in the 1840s."

Not all of the chapters focus on resistance. Several look at wider contexts, such as the ideological role of charity, the disgusting Prince Regent, Crime and Punishment and so on. Some of these, such as the chapter on the Irish, remind the reader that divide and rule was a conscious strategy of the ruling class two hundred years ago, and there are some appalling stories of how this racism led to repression and exploitation of immigrant communities on a huge scale. Other chapters, such as the ones on adultery and suicide, show how society was beginning to change, but how it retained many dubious older prejudices.

Hobson's running theme through the book is the similarities between then and now. Economic discontent, racism towards immigrants, under employment and low pay and a ruling class only interested in their own wealth. It's not a bad thing to highlight, though perhaps what is missing is a attempt to explain why it is that capitalism encourages this sort of behaviour. Hobson's book is a good read, entertaining and shocking by turns. On occasion I was frustrated at the poverty of references. For instance Hobson writes about the "Stale Bread Act" and a quick look on the internet brings few references, and I would have liked more information. Also on occasion chapters finish two quickly, leaving questions unanswered. I was, for instance, surprised that Hobson did not write more about Oliver the Spy whose extensive career and unmasking at the hands of brave journalists tells us a great deal about the nature of the period. These, minor, criticisms aside, Dark Days of Georgian Britain is a great readable antidote to all those costume dramas.

Related Reviews

Hammon & Hammond - The Skilled Labourer
Reid - The Land of Lost Content
Navickas - Protest and the Politics of Space and Place
Sutton - Food Worth Fighting For

Friday, July 13, 2018

Greg Grandin - Fordlandia

In the 1920s Henry Ford decided to build a city in the Amazon. He was not the sort of person who was shy of self-promotion so he named it after himself. The purpose was to ensure a safe, cheap supply of rubber for Ford's car factories in North America, but Ford's real dream was the transformation of a section of the Amazon into a recreation of a highly stylised small town America. Doing this required a few things. Firstly it needed an enormous amount of money, something that the Ford corporation had in vast quantities. Secondly it needed land that could be transformed into rubber plantations and urban areas and, most importantly, it needed a large number of people who would work for Ford.

Ford famously built his empire by paying workers much more than the competitors. In theory they were paid enough to be able to purchase the cars they made. But Ford also made sure that his workforce conformed to a very strict set of standards. Alcohol was frowned upon, and often forbidden. Trade unions were strictly banned and Ford's hired thugs were prepared to use the utmost violence to prevent any hint of workers organising. Inspectors were sent to workers' homes to quiz the family on propreity and behaviour, even their sex life came under examination. While Ford liked to argue that he was the epitome of the good capitalist, at home and in the workplace he strictly controlled his workers' labour.

Ford has gone down in history for a number of things. He is credited with the transformation of factory work. Everything that could be done to improve efficiency was done. Today workers in call centres have their toilet breaks timed. In Ford's factory's workers had every movement calculated and analysed. The pay might have been good, but the relentless hard work meant turnover was high. Ford took his beliefs to all the logical, and illogical, extremes. According to Grandin he once sacked 700 orthodox Christians for taking a day off to celebrate a holiday. He believed that cow's milk was unhealthy and forced soy milk and food made from soy substitutes on his guests. Gardin writes, and  quotes one contemporary journalist, Walter Lippmann:
The industrialist's conviction that he could make the world conform to his will was founded on a faith that success in economic matters should, by extension allow capitalists to try their hands "with equal success" at "every other occupation." "Mr. Ord is neither a crank nor a freak," Lippmann insisted, but "merely the logical exponent of American prejudices about wealth and success." 
Importing this to the Amazon was fraught with peril. The rubber trade had brought capitalism to the rain-forest. But Ford brought it on an enormous scale. The heart of this book is the story of the consequent clash. Nature and people had to be shaped in Ford's image, and both resisted!

Firstly the people. Many of those that Ford's employees wanted to work for them in the Amazon had little or no experience of working to the regimes that Ford wanted. Some had no experience (or need) for money and wanted goods in kind - Ford refused to allow this, and so the workers refused to work for him. Others didn't want to work continuously, just enough to earn some money before returning to their own land. Still others wanted to bring their whole families with them. A year or so into the project, when Fordlandia was beginning to work, a huge riot destroyed nearly the whole complex. The trigger was management's insistence that workers had to queue in a canteen for food, rather than being served by waiters, behind this though was intense anger at the regime, the strict clocking in and out, and so on. One of the notable pictures in the book is of a clocking machine destroyed by the rioters.

Secondly nature. Like so many capitalists before and after Ford believed that he could simply force nature to do what he wanted. There's a famous quote from Fredrich Engels where he warns, "Let us not, however, flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human victories over nature. For each such victory nature takes its revenge on us..." This was very much true in the Amazon. The stripping of the land required far more work and money than Ford expected and, because he ignored local advice and refused to hire experts, his operations were repeatedly beset by problems. In particular, he and his managers, did not understand that rubber plantations cannot work in South America because of the native pests and diseases. This is why Henry Wickham had to steak Brazilian rubber seeds for plantations in Asia which were free from these threats. Ford's plantations repeatedly failed, costing millions. As Grandin explains, "The Ford Motor Company, with the endorsement of a well respected pathologist with experience on three continents, had in effect created an incubator" for disease.

Today Ford's plans seem unbelievable. He wanted to strip bare a massive area of the rain-forest and build a huge plantation, serviced by a town modelled on his vision of small-town America. Building an electric plant and a dock is one thing, but cinemas, bandstands and an 18 hole golf course seem utterly bizarre. But behind this, as Grandin explains, was Ford's own vision of society. He believed that men like him could transform the world into a system that would provide peace and prosperity through the control of workers and nature. Ford's pride and arrogance failed. Fordlandia was a disaster and as it declined, the aged Ford retreated further and further into his own artificial world populated with antiques and fake town life.

Ford, it should be emphasised, was not some benevolent eccentric. He was a ruthless capitalist, who drove his workers hard and held some extremely offensive views - particularly his Antisemitism, though his racism also affected his (and his company's) attitudes to the Brazilians. His attempts to shape people and nature where of course celebrated by Hitler's Nazis, a group that Ford famously courted.

In the Communist Manifesto Karl Marx and Engels wrote about capitalism's globalising vision:
The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all, even the most barbarian, nations into civilisation. The cheap prices of commodities are the heavy artillery with which it batters down all Chinese walls, with which it forces the barbarians’ intensely obstinate hatred of foreigners to capitulate. It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilisation into their midst, i.e., to become bourgeois themselves. In one word, it creates a world after its own image.
With Fordlandia, Henry Ford literally wanted to create the Amazonian world into the very image of an imagined America. At the same time he wanted to entrap the people into his factories and transform nature into something that could readily guarantee his profits. The story of his failure is brilliantly told by Greg Grandin, and I highly recommend this well-written, gripping history.

Related Reviews

Jackson - The Thief at the End of the World
Goodman - The Devil and Mr. Casement

Sunday, July 01, 2018

Richard Fortey - Survivors: The Animals and Plants that Time has Left Behind

When I was much younger, sometime in the 1970s, I had a picture book of animals and rather fascinatingly to me it had a drawing of a living fossil, the Coelacanth fish. I was captivated by the idea that animals that had been alive in the distant past were still alive today. Around the same time I also watched that terrible film The Land that Time Forgot but I don't think I ever believed that there was anywhere were dinosaurs continued to exist.

The Coelacanth jumped into my mind as soon as I saw Richard Fortey's book. Many years later I was still fascinated by the idea that animals could survive into contemporary times. While this is not a history of evolution Fortey does tell the story in a roughly linear way, and so we begin with very early animals and plants to understand how some examples of these remain alive today.

The first thing to point out is that Fortey never uses the term "living fossil". As he explains, no living thing remains still, a species is in a continuous process of evolution, but with some we can see something very similar to their historical ancestors. Sometimes this is because an organisms "niche" the "place where it fits in, earns a living, reproduces" remains constant and so little change takes place. Quite a few of the organisms in this book are like that, particularly bacteria and so on. Others may have evolved elsewhere but found in radically different environments today. Cacti, Fortey points out "are now specialists for life in arid conditions in the Americas, but did they originate in damp forests in Gondwana?"

Despite my youthful enthusiasm for the Coelacanth, I was particularly fascinated by the examples of lifeforms that are close to those that existed very early on in Earth's evolutionary history. Of these the Stromatolites must be the most amazing example in this book. They look like "flat-topped cushions and low pillars, or even giant mushrooms expanding upwards like plush stools".  They are built up by tiny organisms, year after year, and so are not a single organism, but a "whole ecology". Usually such microscopic organisms would be eaten away, but in the special conditions where they are found today, a warm shoreline in Australia, would be consumers are absent. Fossil stromatolites have been found from as far back as the Archean era, up to 3.5 billion years ago. They are found in many different places around today's globe (Fortey recounts finding them in Spitsbergen as an undergraduate) and must have been very common. Seeing pictures of them today gives us a tiny insight into what life was like very early on in its evolutionary career.

As with Fortey's other writings this is highly personalised. His career has taken him to many places to
see many things and this helps make his books highly readable. Unfortunately this book's illustrations are reproduced very badly - in black and white, on paper - and much of the detail is lost. Luckily the internet allows readers to quickly find more useful examples.

Fortey ends the book with a discussion of how these creatures in their niches or Time Havens, face the pressures of environmental change. He points out though, that even if catastrophic climate change wipes out the vast majority of living things on Earth, small bacteria will still be there and that "the wheel of life will have turned full circle". It's a great book that gives an unusual insight into evolutionary history.

Related Reviews

Fortey - Trilobite!
Fortey - The Earth: An Intimate History