Saturday, June 29, 2019

Adrian Tchaikovsky - Children of Ruin

Children of Ruin is the sequel to Adrian Tchaikovsky's smash hit Children of Time and follows on directly from the end of that novel (excluding a tedious journey between stars). In CoT travellers from Earth seeded a planet with DNA to accelerate the development of a safe ecology for their colonisation. Unfortunately it ended up creating a species of intelligent spiders which, when Earth's technological society collapsed evolved on their own. Follow up missions led to war and the mutual collaboration. At the end of the novel they head off into space to investigate a planet from which human radio signals have been received.

Children of Time begins in parallel with the earlier novel telling the similar story of the failed attempt to explore and terraform an Earth like world. This time, arrogance, accident and technological sabotage also led to the creation of a hyper-intelligent community of octopuses, who in the absence of humans are able to utilise our technology to reach into space. Unfortunately, and in a somewhat crude Malthusian metaphor, the octopus civilisation growths too rapidly to escape over-crowding and pollution - leading to war.

Into this mix add a third, utterly alien (as intelligent octopuses and spiders aren't really alien) intelligence that absorbs all other intelligences into its collective mind. This is the complex mix that our human and spider heroes arrive to, and war, mutual incomprehensibility and a giant stalking alien made of stone and bits of shell, threaten to annihilate everyone. While it's all a bit of a rush, and suffers slightly from too many viewpoints, the plot is pulled together rather neatly.

As in the first book Tchaikovsky is able to use his aliens to make somewhat wry comments on our own civilisation. But I did feel that space-faring octopuses were a little over the top. Though it does mean that he get away with sentences that contain phrases such as "solar system of molluscs" entirely without a tongue in cheek. Tchaikovsky ponders a lot more in this book on intelligence, communication and social breakdown (as well as intelligent molluscs), which means the pace is quite different to the first book. I didn't quite enjoy it as much as the CoT, but its a satisfying sequel and fans of the first book should definitely get hold of it.

Related Reviews

Tchaikovsky - Children of Ruin

Saturday, June 22, 2019

Barry Commoner - The Closing Circle

Imagine a book that is written by a left wing scientist who is actively engaged in work with non-scientists to challenge environmental degradation. Imagine it is written in an engaging style, that explains complex ecological arguments clearly. The book highlights the impact of our economic system on the environment and how that then impacts negatively back on us. It challenges other popular explanations for environmental destruction - over-population and consumerism for instance, because it emphasises the way that the profit motive and the blind accumulation of wealth under capitalism destroys our ecosystems. This book offers a radical, but straightforward solution to contemporary environmental problems, but warns that without rapid and urgent action to transform the economy, humanity will find itself in a dangerous place. Its a book written to inspire collective action and social change through informed, politically engaged, social movements of citizens.

Its a book that could have been written today, but here I'm referring to a book first published in 1971 by Barry Commoner. In the 1970s The Closing Circle was a radical antidote to much of what passed for comment on what we now see as the first wave of environmental concern. But in finishing it I was filled with an, albeit brief, feeling of despair. For almost fifty years we've understood how capitalism is destroying our ecological systems and many people (Commoner's book was a best-seller at the time) understood exactly what was needed; but the environment is still being destroyed in the name of short-term profit.

Commoner begins with an overview of the science of ecology. He argues that one of the problems in trying to understand environmental destruction is that most scientists approach the issue in a reductionist way. Reductionism he explains, is "the view that effective understanding of a complex system can be achieved by investigating the properties of its isolated parts", but this is "not an effective means of analysing the vast natural systems that are threatened by degradation".

In contrast, and in possibly his most famous contribution, Commoner offers the reader four laws of Ecology. His first law, everything is connected to everything else, immediately shows why a reductionist approach is wrong. The second, everything must go somewhere is almost a restatement of the first law of thermodynamics, but applied to substances, rather than energy it points out how everything put into a system has an effect. His third law, nature knows best, is in my opinion his weakest argument. Commoner says himself it's the one that will get the most "resistance" because it "contradict[s] a deeply held idea about he unique competence of human beings". For me this isn't the problem - the real issue is that nature doesn't "know" anything. It operates and acts, but not in any conscious way. To be fair to Commoner he is making a wider point that biological entities and systems are the result of millennia of evolution, and that outside changes effect them negatively. Finally there is no such thing as a free lunch is both a return to thermodynamics and the obvious point that additions to systems are required for changes. Commoner puts it better than me:
Because the global ecosystem is a connected whole, in which nothing can be gained or lost and which is not subject to over-all improvement, anything extracted from it by human effort must be replaced. Payment of the price cannot be avoided; it can only delayed.

Using this framework, Commoner examines how post-war society destroyed the environment. He makes the same point that any serious observer of the capitalist economy highlights: "all modern economic systems are designed to grow by means of such self-generated expansion". While not a Marxist he was clearly aware of Marx's writings and in several places like this has either borrowed or independently come to similar conclusions. Writing about agriculture he argues that "once removed from this [ecological] cycle, for example to a city... bodily wastes are not returned to the soil but to surface water, the human population is separated from the ecosystem of which it was original a part". Marx, famously, used exactly this to develop his idea of a metabolic rift between society and nature in his own work.

Several contemporary environmental issues take up some space here - the question of smog, air and water-pollution and potential consequences of sonic booms from supersonic aircraft. In each case he demonstrates how these arise (and exponentially grow) out of the particular changes to the US Economy in the post-war period. I was, here, reminded on several occasions of discussions around the Anthropocene and locating its start in the same period. But what was special about this period according to Commoner. Firstly he makes his position clear:
I believe that the [environmental] crisis is not the outcome of a natural catastrophe or of the misdirected force of human biological activists. The earth is polluted neither because man is some kind of especially dirty animal nor because there are too many of us. The fault lies with human society - with the ways in which society has elected to win, distribute and use the wealth that has been extracted by human labour from the planet's resources.
The quest for profit, in Commoner's view, leads to the adoption of technologies that maximise profit and usually do so, he argues, at the expense of the environment: "There is evidence that a high rate of profit is associated with practices hat are particularly stressful toward the environment and that when these practices are restricted, profits decline."

While Commoner associates socialism with countries like the USSR, and notes their own environmental problems, he does also argue that a planned economy would allow societies to deal with the consequences of environmental destruction far better than an anarchic capitalist one. More importantly Commoner notes that Marx's theory (the ideology behind socialism as he says) certainly does envisage a society in balance with the natural world. Commoner's own solutions are based around fiddling with the economy to make environmental consequences part of the costs of production. But Commoner is very clear that it is the specific nature of capitalism as it stands that is the problem. Solving the issue, he says, does not mean
the people of industrialised nations will need to give up their 'affluence' as judged by conventional measures... is itself an illusion. To a considerable extent it reflects ecologically faulty, socially wasteful types of production rather than the actual welfare of individual human beings. Therefore, the needed productive reforms can be carried out without seriously reducing the present level of useful goods available to the individual.
He continues:

There are, however certain luxuries which the environmental crisis... will I believe force us to give up. These are the political luxuries which have so long been enjoyed by those who can benefit from them: the luxury of allowing the wealth of the natural to serve preferentially the interests of so few of its citizens... etc.

It is thus a specifically revolutionary alternative Commoner is offering, as it is one that challenges the very dynamics of the capitalist system. Commoner is clear on the need for an informed mass environmental movement. In fact some of the most interesting historical bits of The Closing Circle are those that show how scientists like Commoner and citizen movements have won real environmental changes.

Reading Barry Commoner's book I wished I had read it years ago. For many of those reading it in the 1970s it must have been inspiring. By rooting his understanding of the contemporary environmental crisis in both ecological science and a radical critique of capitalist society his work is inspiring. He also makes it clear that solving the problem required an urgent struggle for change. Sadly that did not happen, and fifty years later the environmental crisis has reached an acute point. One that Barry Commoner warned us would raise the very survival of humanity. It isn't too late to act, though time is now very short, and works like The Closing Circle remain an important contribution to our understanding of the struggle we need.

Related Reviews

Carson - Silent Spring
Angus - Facing the Anthropocene
Angus - A Redder Shade of Green

Burkett - Marx and Nature

Foster - Marx's Ecology
Wallis - Red Green Revolution

Friday, June 21, 2019

Danny Dorling - Population 10 Billion

Far too many books on population are filled with fearful predictions about what will happen if the world's population continues to grow. So it is refreshing to read Danny Dorling's much more sober study that argues for a more nuanced discussion of the subject. It is also entertaining, something that can rarely be said about demographic studies. Dorling sets his case out early on. In the opening introductory chapter titled "Stop Worrying" he argues that he problem is not over-population, or population growth, but a world that prevents people having what they need. Talking of 2011/2012 when population was predicted to reach 9.1 billion by 2100 he writes:
The main reason for the scare stories of 2011 and 2012 was that some demographers had been influenced by those with other agendas, people who were becoming interested in demography because they believed there were too many people already. Projections that indicate a 'soft landing' of human population growth do not help the agenda of those who want to cry wolf. As the world economy faltered in 2008, there were groups that wanted to put the blame for the fact there would be too little to go round in future on there being too many people, rather than not enough sharing.
As I've noted in other recent reviews on books about demography, there is a close association between the growth of global capitalism and population expansion. Dorling shows 1851 as the start of the "population explosion" but he argues that 1971 (ironically the year when Paul Ehrlich's book The Population Bomb was first published in the UK) as being the point when population when "global population acceleration... ended". In keeping with the "Stop Worrying" theme, Dorling argues:
The latest UN projections suggest that in the 14 years following 2011, we will increase in number from seven to eight billion humans. What king of world can we expect to live in by 2025?... Look at the graphs in this book of where population growth is forecast to occur - almost all the extra people are to be born where pollution by humans is least. And notice the deceleration. It is going to take longer, another 14 years, to add this extra billion as compared to the billion that came before. This is the first time we have ever seen an increase in the number of years it has taken to hit the next billion.
Dorling puts an firm case against those who argue that population growth is the problem and that we need to take drastic action to lower population. Instead, Dorling argues, the problem is inequality in wealth distribution: "There is suddenly a very obvious solution to a rich world plagued with greed and obesity and a poor world suffering oppression and starvation, a solution that is only possible because we are not going to have additional billions to be fed decade after decade.

He also argues that population growth will decline quicker if we "tackle gross economic inequalities". He also skewers those on the right who rail against immigration and migration. Rather than this being a problem, it is enormously  important for ageing populations in the developed world, and, he notes, encourages global population to decline because immigrants to rich countries have smaller families.

This facts are important because they contradict those on the right who argue population is inevitably growing to the detriment of the plant. It also gives anti-racists further arguments to defend migrants, immigrants and asylum seekers. But I'm not sure it's the best way to approach the debate because it gives some ground to the idea that population is an issue. Here, in my criticism I should reiterate how much I agree with 99 percent of Dorling's book. He says, for instance, "Children are not a cost to the planet". This is a fundamental point, those who argue that population is a problem forget that each life matters to our world, their friends and family etc. They are part of a solution, not a problem.

But I think what Dorling fails to do is really show how the problem is the capitalist economy which is driving environmental destruction and producing hunger, poverty and unemployment. For instance, Dorling concludes:
The "problem" with global population - if there is one - is too many rich people consuming too much, not too many poor people. There are not that many rich people on the world, but there are a few rich people who consume a huge amount of our collective resources.
I disagree. I think the problem is we have a system which gives a tiny minority vast wealth because it is based on the blind accumulation of wealth for profit. It's that economic organisation that destroys the planet. Its those multinationals that burn the oil and fossil fuels and encourage more consumption and production. It's not the consumption of the rich, (nor the consumption of the masses) but the system that puts profit before anything else. And, as a by-product, it is capitalism that also produces the inequality that Dorling rightly rages against.

But this criticism aside, Danny Dorling's book is a well written powerful destruction of the "over-population" argument. It stands out for its focus on inequality and his discussion of class in this context. Written in an accessible, entertaining style but not one that omits the crucial facts and figures. I highly recommend this to anyone wanting to understand population debates particularly those from the environmental movement.

Related Reviews

Bacci - Our Shrinking Planet
Morland - The Human Tide
Pearce - PeopleQuake, Mass Migration, Ageing Nations and the Coming Population Crash
Meek (ed) - Marx and Engels on the Population Bomb

Malthus - An Essay on the Principle of Population

Monday, June 17, 2019

Hallgrímur Helgason - The Woman at 1,000 Degrees

This unusual and highly entertaining novel begins with the hero Herra Björnsson, near bedridden and living in a garage in her eighties with nothing but a laptop, her memories and a hand-grenade. It wasn't until I'd finished the book that I'd appreciated that it was based in truth - the story of  Brynhildur Georgía Björnsson whom the author met on the phone when he was telephone canvassing for an election. Brynhildur's father was one of the few Icelanders who fought for the Nazis in World War Two. I have yet to find out precisely how much of the novel is historically accurate, but the books character tells the story of her life interspersed with contemporary events when she is mainly entertaining herself by pretending to be a much younger woman online.

As a young girl Herra is trapped on continental Europe by the outbreak of World War Two. Through a series of misfortunes she finds herself a refugee in various parts of Eastern Europe and Germany itself. Her father is a fanatically follower of Hitler who joined the SS and then loses Herra in a British bombing raid. The book tells of her experiences - both while lost in rural Eastern Germany and while an outsider living among the Germans with her mother. While the book is run through with humour, its also deeply honest about life as a refugee for a young woman in wartime. Rape and murder are part and parcel of Herra's life and on returning to Iceland she cannot cope with peacetime and those around her who've escaped the war's ravages.

The story of how Herra becomes the woman in the bed with the hand-grenade is beautifully written and very poignant. From wartime Germany to Argentinian farms and Iceland's fishing villages it's a story of how we are shaped by the world we are in, and the relationships we have. It's also a story about Iceland's place in the wider world - and how the nation was buffeted by wider imperial interests and the economic world. It's a lovely book - funny, poignant and difficult in places - but well worthwhile.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Timothy A. Wise - Eating Tomorrow: Agribusiness, Family Farmers, and the Battle for the Future of Food

Industrial capitalist agriculture is not sustainable. It produces lots of food, or plants that could be food if they weren't burnt as biofuels, but it does so in a way that generates huge amounts of greenhouse gases, destroys biodiversity and leads to unhealthy diets. It is also enormously profitable for a few multinationals which produce fertilisers, seeds and then package and distribute the food. Those who grow the food, and those who eat it, benefit little from this process. So what sort of agriculture can be both environmentally sustainable and benefit those who work the land?

Timothy Wise's fantastic book goes a long way toward answering that question. Based on his trips to food producing areas of the world, he talks to academics, scientists and politicians, but above all farmers, labourers and those organising among the agricultural communities to discover what practices are actually working for soil and people. The answers will surprise those who have been brought up on a diet of corporate propaganda that tells us the only way to feed the world is through giant, monocropped fields full of crops covered in pesticides.

Wise begins in Malawi, an area that is historically heavily dependent on maize, and which has recently seen a battle by multinational seed corporations such as Monsanto to introduce specific hybrid white maize. This maize is excellent for the corporations because it makes lots of money and farmers have to return year on year to get seeds, and also it has the potential for higher yields if watered and fertilised properly. But the reality is very different. Wise describes the situation as a "high-input treadmill" where:
The farmers are subsidized by the government to use imported inorganic fertilisers and hybrid seeds from outside companies like Monsanto. Sometimes they get higher yields - but not always, not if they can't afford extra fertiliser, which the seeds require. If the subsidies run out, the farmers can't afford the seeds or the fertiliser.... Farmers run hard mostly to stay in place.
Wise goes on to show how traditional seeds, combined with "intercropping" - the mixing of different crops, can produce higher, healthier yields, at lower costs and more sustainably:
Native orange maize, intercropped with out healthy food crops is a Malawian natural resource. It appears to be drought-tolerant in a changing climate, high-yielding even without imported fertiliser, well suited to intercropped systems design to restore soil fertility and offers nutritional qualities desperately needed by the population.
So why isn't it used? The answer lies in the privatisation of the seed system which has empowered multinationals to profit from and shape the country's agricultural system. Interestingly Wise shows how organisation based on giving farmers and producers access to proper seeds and local knowledge has been successful in spreading the word about more sustainable and better practices. Here, like his other descriptions, from the field really gives a sense of how a better agriculture is possible. In Malawi Wise describes a local co-operative that produces a variety of crops, healthy food and feeds families through the difficult dry season as well as producing plenty of food to sell at the market. With government subsidies that helped build the irrigation systems, "small can still be beautiful, with public support" Wise argues. Its a compelling vision. The problem was that most governments are doing the opposite. As Wise explains:
The peril, as I saw in Mozambique and other parts of Southern Africa, was that when foreign capital landed with both feet it was usually on land already occupied and cultivated by farming communities. And the wave of modernization didn't usually carry peasant farmers forward with a rush, it buried them along with their crops and communities.
Time and again, in the developing world and the developed world we see the same process repeated. Big corporations buying up land, imposing agricultural practices and damaging the environment in the name of profit and the farmers and their families being displaced. Government policy, and the "international community" promote these practices that undermine rural communities and our food supply. The advance of capitalism into farming has, since the enclosure of land in Britain from the 17th century onward, driven people off the land and usually into poverty. The process continues today as peasant agriculture is destroyed in the interest of making money.

One other aspect of modern agriculture that Wise explores is the limitations of the Green Revolution. This, he points out, was supposed to feed the world, but is based on the idea that more food feeds more people. The problem is, as Wise shows, that hunger is caused by poverty not lack of food. Despite this the Revolution is being exported to Africa where it tends to be even less successful. In places like Malawi, the high-intensive farming strategy used in Asia fails and leaves in its wake decimation of people and agriculture.

One final part of the techno-fix agriculture proposed is genetically modified crops. Here Wise uses the case study of Mexico to great affect to show how GM is driven by a desire to maximise profits, even at the expense of destroying the historic centres of maize - with a myriad of different versions. One of the most eye-opening parts of the book is when Wise is invited to a meeting to discuss GM crops with unusually candid Monsanto representatives - they happily spill the beans, confident that their methods and ambitions are correct. In contrast, again Wise argues that a "pro-poor investment in small-scale farming" is a viable alternative:
We estimated that within 10-15 years Mexico could increase annual production on current lands from 23-33 million tons. That would eliminate the need for imports from the United States which currently cover the country's annual shortfall of about 10 million tons, the imports costing more than $4 billion in 2008. Additional public investment in irrigation and infrastructure projects in the southern part of ten country, where water is plentiful and rural poverty is the most prevalent, could allow producers to grow another 24 million tons per year... more than enough to meet Mexico's growing demand for maize.
Throughout the book Wise emphasises the self-organisation of those who work the land and their families. As he points out "the pro-corporate agenda" blinds policy makers and it is social movements that can, and have, transformed the situation. Creating a food system that can feed the world will require more than simply having a few successful farming co-operatives. It will ultimately require challenging and then breaking up the multinational corporations that are only interested in profit. Already countless women and men are part of that process and it is a great strength of this book that Wise gives voice to them. This excellent book shows that the alternative agriculture that we need, in the developed and developing world, is both possible and practical. The real challenge is the struggle to get it.

Related Reviews

Yohannes - The Biofuels Deception
Holleman - Dust Bowls of Empire
Chappell - Beginning to End Hunger
Holt-Giménez - A Foodie's Guide to Capitalism
Magdoff & Tokar - Agriculture and Food in Crisis
McMahon - Feeding Frenzy
Lymbery - Farmageddon
GRAIN - The Great Climate Robbery

Saturday, June 08, 2019

Paul R. Ehrlich - The Population Bomb

Do any sort of campaigning around environmental issues these days and it isn't long before someone tells you that the problem is simple - there are too many people. This argument doesn't just come from the right, but is quite prevalent (though I don't think dominant) within the environmental movement itself.

Paul Ehrlich's book wasn't the first to put this argument when it was first published in 1971, but it was certainly enormously influential, selling hundreds of thousands of copies and propelling Ehrlich to fame. Ehrlich argues that overpopulation was the root cause of a whole host of social issues, though he did focus on two, questions that remain central to this sort of polemic today - hunger and environmental destruction.

There tends to be a very simple approach behind the "too many people" hypothesis. This is set out clearly in The Population Bomb:
Think of what it means for the population of a country to double... the food available for the people must be doubled. Every structure and road must be duplicated. The amount of power used be doubled. the capacity of the transport system must be doubled. The number of trained doctors, nurses, teachers and administrators must be doubled. 
In other words, there is a direct relationship between number of people and services required, as well as food eaten, and, he continues to point out, impact upon the environment. It should be noted here that Ehrlich's background in biology meant that this book reflects well the growing awareness and knowledge of environmental problems in the 1960s. While global warming is mentioned only in passing, Ehrlich highlights issues such as water and air pollution that remain problems today. We are less worried however by declines in atmospheric oxygen levels or supersonic booms from aircraft. Problematic however is that Ehrlich rarely gets beyond explaining these environmental issues as anything other than arising from population growth.

He paints a frightening picture of the future. Take one example from early in the book:
This problem [population growth in the developed world] is not as severe as it is in the UDCs [Undeveloped Countries] (if current trends should continue, which they cannot, Calcutta could have sixty-six million inhabitants in the year 2000). As you are well aware however, urban concentrations are creating serious problems even in America, In the US, one of meh more rapidly growing DCs, we hear constantly of the headaches caused by growing population; not just pollution of the environment, but overcrowded highways, burgeoning slums, deteriorating school systems, rising crime tares, riots and other related problems.
Almost all of Ehrlich's predictions failed to materialise. In 2014 Calcutta had a population of 4.6 million, far short of the potential 66 million Ehrlich feared. I am not going to spend more time here on his mistaken predictions, but wanted to draw out what I see as Ehrlich's cynical view of people.

In The Population Bomb Ehrlich saw population growth as fundamental to humankind. He compares it to compound interest early on, and repeatedly suggests that populations double automatically.  He also has a tendency to compare masses of people (usually when talking about the developing world) in terms that are highly problematic. His infamous description of his awakening to the issue while travelling through Delhi is a classic example:
The stress seemed alive with people. People eating, people washing, people sleeping, people visiting, arguing and screaming. People thrusting their hands through the taxi windows, begging. People defecating and urinating.... People, people, people, people...mob...dust... cooking fires gave the scene a hellish aspect... All three of us were, frankly, frightened.
Ehrlich didn't write this about the crowds in the New York or London underground and its tempting to see it as a racialised critique of the people of India. I also think it shares with Robert Malthus, someone not mentioned by Ehrlich, a fear of the poor masses. Malthus famously wrote his pieces on population as a riposte to radicals who saw, in the aftermath of the French Revolution, a possibility for a world without poverty and inequality. Malthus also shared with Ehrlich a belief in exponential growth of humanity without backing this up. This is clear in The Population Bomb where Ehrlich demonstrates a fear of revolution, communism and radical left wing politics. In one of his "scenarios" (which are better described as fantasies) he imagines "the last non-Communist government in Latin America" being replaced by a "Chinese supported military junta" following years of protest when "food riots have become anti-American riots".

Ehrlich's "cheerful" scenario, by contrast, imagines a US on population control where the government refuses to sell food to countries like India that it considers "beyond hope" population wise. Ehrlich's solutions, to be fair, don't begin with population control abroad, but start in the US where he suggests the introduction of a government department that has the power to use "whatever stepes necessary" to reduce population. This might, he suggest, in the future involve mass sterilisation, but in the short term he imagines rewards and tax-breaks for couples who don't have children, and increases on prices for toys and so on. Perhaps his solutions are deliberately provocative, but I found some quite sinister:

In short, the plush life would be difficult to attain for those with large families - which is as it should be, since they are getting their pleasure form their children, who are being supported in part by more responsible members of society.

The problem with all this, is that Ehrlich separates population from society. On occasion he notes how companies pollute to increase profits, but fails to see this as being an inherent issue with capitalism. He makes, for instance, when talking about air-pollution as simple equation: Smog comes from too many cars, which arises from too many people. But he fails to discuss the possibility of public transport using clean energy. Just as when he writes about the doubling of population requiring a doubling of nurses, or roads, he fails to show why this is true even under a system like capitalism.

The problem with The Population Bomb, leaving aside its scaremongering and its fear of the masses, is that at its heart it fails to prove its central hypothesis, and its examples don't justify how Ehrlich uses them. The famines that he foresaw happening in the 1980s did occur, but they were not because of food shortages - they were caused by the inability of the countries concerned to be able to buy grain. Thus what Ehrlich imagines is a problem of humanity is actually a problem of society - specifically capitalism. Thus The Population Bomb is a text book for people who want to blame individuals, not the system - a truly ruling class ideology.

Related Reviews

Bacci - Our Shrinking Planet
Morland - The Human Tide
Pearce - PeopleQuake, Mass Migration, Ageing Nations and the Coming Population Crash

Meek (ed) - Marx and Engels on the Population Bomb
Malthus - An Essay on the Principle of Population

Philip Ziegler - Omdurman

In September 1898, a British Army including units of Egyptian and Sudanese troops and numbering around 25,000 (the majority of whom were colonial soldiers) destroyed an enormous Mahadist force of over 50,000. The carnage was enormous, the heavily armed British force killed 12,000 enemies, wounding 10,000 more and capturing thousands. In the process they lost less than 100 themselves. The Sudanese Mahadist army under Abdullah al-Taashi, known by his title as the Khalifa, was only superior in terms of numbers. His forces were armed with few rifles, some small arms, but mostly spears. The British had maxim guns, repeating rifles and were supported by heavily armed gunboats. Victory was bloody, with accounts of British troops slaughtering the wounded, causing outrage back home. Even Winston Churchill, a man rarely bothered by unnecessary killing, called it "inhumane slaughter".

Philip Ziegler's book is a well written account of the military events, but little else. Ziegler gives a brief account of the death of General Gordon less than a decade before Omdurman, and shows how the latter battle was popularly seen as Colonial revenge for that defeat. But in reality the attack on Sudan in 1989 had little real purpose to it. As Ziegler explains:
What is certain is that the British had no economic incentive for invading the Sudan; the conventional caricature of the greedy imperialist grabbing the raw materials of the less developed countries has no application here... What in fact eventually induced the British government in 1896 to undertake the expedition was neither benevolent imperialism nor a belated lust for revenge but the needs of European politics. It was Lord Salisbury's wish to shore up the Triple Alliance and do something to please Italy and Germany which made intervention in the Sudan seem desirable.
Leaving aside the idea that Imperialism is only ever for resources or economic benefit, it is notable that Britain had little reason for entry into Sudan. When they did so it was very much driven by the self-interest of the British ruler in Egypt, the Sirdar, General Kitchener. Less than two decades before the outbreak of World War One, it is notable that a few senior figures in that war appear in the Sudan - Kitchener and Douglas Haig are just two.

The bloody victory at Omdurman was greeted with popular rejoicing back at home, not least because it was covered by a significant number of embeded journalists, some of whom, like Winston Churchill, were also officers and were certainly not neutral in proceedings. Churchill himself figures highly in these pages, not least because of his detailed account of the campaign and his self-serving arrogant letters home about events. The last cavalry charge in British Army history took place at Omdurman, with Churchill in pole position. For the public back home the charge became a much celebrated event, though Ziegler makes it clear that it was relatively unnecessary, confused and could easily have ended in tragedy. Ziegler details the aftermath - the British razing much of Omdurman and the Khalifa's palace - and the disappointment of the troops when they found little to loot. Churchill considered the victory to prove the superiority of his race and nation; though the inept and chaotic leadership described by Ziegler certainly doesn't back this up.

This is an easily read well written military account. Those looking for background to Sudan's later history or a greater understanding of Britain's imperial role in Northern Africa will need to go elsewhere. If you're simply after an account of Omdurman there's probably no better single volume history.

Related Reviews

Newsinger - The Blood Never Dried: A People's History of the British Empire
Mason - The Four Feathers
Macrory - Signal Catastrophe; The Story of the Disastorous Retreat from Kabul 1842

Tuesday, June 04, 2019

Guy Shrubsole - Who Owns England?

"Who owns England?" is a very good question, and a surprisingly difficult one to answer. That's not to say that various people haven't tried. One of the fascinating things about Guy Shrubsole's book is the discussion of the various historical attempts to understand precisely the question of ownership - from the post-Norman Conquest Domesday book to more recent studies. The roots of contemporary land ownership frequently do stretch all the way back to William the Conqueror. In fact Shrubsole gives a telling quote from one of the numerous Duke of Westminsters who, when asked how "young entrepreneurs" could be successful today answered, presumably not entirely tongue in cheek, "Make sure they have an ancestor who was a very close friend of William the Conqueror".

Today the aristocracy's persistence is traced out in part by land ownership. In 1873 just 4217 peers owned 18 million acres of England, about 50 percent of the country. Never mind the 1 percent, these people were the 0.01 percent. Trying to understand how much of England is owned by the aristocracy today is difficult. Shrubsole concludes that a third of land is owned by the wealthy descendants of William's friends (or those that bought into their class later). Despite some attempts to blunt their wealth, and a few donations of land (often for tax reasons), aristocratic landowners continue to get huge incomes from their ownership, often from land subsidies. It becomes even more obscene when you learn of the vast acreage of land used for grouse, undermining vital biodiversity for a bloodsport enjoyed by a tiny minority. It cannot continue. Shrubsole argues that the aristocracy must become "active stewards, nursing our land back to health... a reformed system of farm subsidies would provide a spur to this, but it will also require the aristocracy's active participation. Will they rise to such a challenge?" I'm doubtful that they can, and tend to think we need a much more radical challenge to their ownership.

However it isn't enough to reduce landownership to the remnants of feudal rule. Who owns land today is the result of enormous changes that have taken place over the centuries linked closely to wider political and social transformations. The land owned by the Church of England or the Crown has been dramatically altered over the years by events like the Reformation and the Civil War. But it's perhaps the development of capitalism which has had the most impact. As I've written elsewhere, this was not simply about ownership but also how land was used and understood. In this, the people who almost always lost out were those who worked the land. As E P Thompson wrote in The Making of the English Working Class about the development of capitalism and its transformation of the rural economy:
In village after village, enclosure destroyed the scratch-as-scratch-can subsistence economy of the poor. The cottager without legal proof of rights was rarely compensated. The cottager who was able to establish his claim was left with a parcel of land inadequate for subsistence and a disproportionate share of the very high enclosure cost. Enclosure, (when all the sophistication are allowed for) was a plain enough case of class robbery, played according to fair rules of property and law laid down by a parliament of property-owners and lawyers.
Shrubsole notes that in 1600 about 30 percent of land was in common. While there was widespread resistance, much of this was lost and never recovered. Today it, and the rest of the country, is owned by the Church, big landowners, massive corporations and various other institutions such as the military. Some of the figures that Shrubsole gives us are extraordinary and give a real insight into wider social issues in the UK.

Private companies own, for instance, about a fifth of the country's land. In doing so, major landowners like supermarkets have transformed our towns and cities in their own image. Often this is for short-term profit, and very rarely is it about providing services. As Shrubsole notes, "Consultants Molior have estimated that between 25 percent and 45 percent of sites with planning permission in London are owned by companies that have never built a house." In other words, ownership has become a method of making money through speculation. It is a situation that cannot continue and Shrubsole is absolutely right to argue:
Remembering that today we are landless because the commons were taken from us doesn't mean we should be looking to return to some sort of rural Arcadia, where we all live by toiling in the fields. A modern movement for English land reform is about solving the housing crisis, rewilding our landscapes and reconnecting ourselves to the food we eat. It's about both rural and urban land and about sharing the wealth that comes from owning land.
By coincidence the day that I write this review is the same day that UK Labour published its proposals for land reform. Guy Shrubsole and others have been part of drafting that, and this book sets out many of those ideas behind those policies. Few who care about the environment and ending social inequality will disagree with proposals to end privatisation of publicly owned land, abolishing "the last vestiges of feudalism in our system of land ownership" and, in particular, ending the madness of subsidies based on land ownership. I am also firmly in agreement that a proper "right to roam" must come as part of giving access back to the wider population. But I am more cynical about whether this legislation can happen with out a major fight.

As I read Who Owns England? I found myself identifying even more than usual with those revolutionaries who advocated the revolutionary seizure of land - its nationalisation - for use by all. The aristocracy has proved adept at fighting to maintain its possessions, and modern corporations are no different in that regard, and I wonder to what extent we'll really be able to reform away the inequalities that Shrubsole so ably describes.

This is a really important book. Many on the left, from Karl Marx onward have sought to understand how capitalism developed and what this meant for the land and its people. But who came to own the land as a result of that process has profound consequences for people today. Guy Shrubsole's book is written with humour and anger and offers a viable alternative. It is an essential read and I highly recommend it.

Related Reviews

Clutterbuck - Bittersweet Brexit: The Future of Food, Farming, Land and Labour
Howkins - The Death of Rural England

Holt-Giménez - A Foodie's Guide to Capitalism
Magdoff & Tokar - Agriculture and Food in Crisis
Mazoyer & Roudart - A History of World Agriculture
Linklater - Owning the Earth

Saturday, June 01, 2019

Robert Heinlein - I Will Fear No Evil

As I described in my review of Farah Mendlesohn's critical biography of Robert Heinlein, The Pleasant Profession of Robert A. Heinlein I have an ambiguous relationship with his novels. But Mendlesohn's repeatedly returns to a major novel by Heinlein which I had never read - I Will Fear No Evil and given what she says I felt I ought to read it before, perhaps, coming finally to terms with Heinlein.

First published in 1970 and written in 1968-1969 it bears all the hallmarks of that period. It focuses on the life of Johann Smith, an extremely wealthy billionaire (though he is implied to be even richer than that sounds today) who is coming to the end of his long life. Heinlein uses age, as he does in several of his books, to allow characters to comment expertly on the present through their experiences of the past. So at one point Smith's eventual character visits the home of a poor family and shows how to cook using "depression cooking" despite not having cooked for them-self in decades.

At the end of his life, Smith, uses his wealth to have his brain transferred to a replacement body. By coincidence the only person able to make this donation is the recently murdered, extraordinarily beautiful Eunice who was Smith's secretary. Once in Eunice's body, Johann (who renames them-self to Joan) appears to co-exist with Eunice in the new body's brain. Many reviews discuss whether or not this is meant to be real, or some form of psychosis on the part of Johann. I'm not sure it matters for most of the book (except, perhaps the ending). Of more interest is what Heinlein does with it.

About a third of the way in I had dismissed the book as a "masturbation fantasy", something the publisher of my 1970 edition appears to agree with when they write of the "mind-blowing results" that occur following the transplant. Mendlesohn also points out that it could be read as "soft porn" though it is pornography in the form of titillation - that explores questions of gender change, homosexuality, partner swapping and so on - without explicitly detailing it. Telling rather than showing, so to speak. Heinlein might in many ways be applauded for some of this - and he certainly is less hostile to homosexuality in this book than in others. It is notable, for instance, that Johann is very much straight before the transplant, but while sharing a body with Eunice, Joan is very much bisexual. It's explained that this is a result of Eunice's own bisexuality before her death. Thus Johann's sexual world is opened up after the operation.

The problem is that Heinlein isn't really being all progressive here. In fact what bothered me was two fold. Firstly Joan's rediscovery of the joys of sex, and the expansion of horizons that takes place, seems very much designed to please the males she knows. Joan enjoys the sex, but their enjoyment is almost secondary to ensuring the male partner is having a good time. Secondly, and linked to this, is that Heinlein uses a rather standard trope when it turns out that almost all the women around him before the operation were actually desperate for sex all the time and had hidden, vigorous sex lives. This isn't of course a bad thing. But Heinlein's use of this appears designed to titillate his readers, a sort of "every woman is read to have sex with all men as soon as it is offered". Heinlein takes this to extremes - one of his female characters enjoys a gang rape for instance. Mostly it is about Joan kissing, screwing and flirting with everyone they meet. It's particularly unsettling for some characters as Joan has Eunice's' body and they knew her before the operation. I found the section when Joan visit's Eunice's former partner quite disturbing as a result.

Written in the late 1960s when questions of sexuality and freedom were increasingly being discussed. Heinlein is both reflecting the wider world and putting his own spin on it, which in hindsight looks somewhat conservative. Behind all of this is the urban decay of America. Jobs are hard to come by and even illegal work is actively taxed. Drugs and illiteracy are a major social problem and Johann/Joan are able to hide from all of this - literally fencing themselves off through their wealth. Johann, and then Joan, also use their wealth as a means to buy off their own guilt - paying cash to those they like who are living in poverty - including Eunice's old husband. Though this is strictly for those who deserves it - Eunice's former mother in law gets nothing as she's an alcoholic on welfare.

Unusually for Heinlein there are no cats, though blood transfusion plays a big role (Heinlein was a major advocate of blood donor-ship - though here the metaphor is closely linked to the donating of a body). There is also only a passing mention of incest; though Joan impregnates herself with Johann's stored sperm - effectively becoming, at the end, mother and father of their own child.

Many of Heinlein's grander themes are explored here. For those trying to understand him, it's an essential read, but its marred by Heinlein's own limitations - politically, culturally and socially. Leaving aside the bad erotica, it seems initially to be somewhat progressive, but I don't think it is as progressive as the author thought it he was being. Far more interesting and innovative writing would come out of the new movements for liberation. Ironically, as I read the second hand edition I had, it literately fell apart in my hands. It felt like a fitting end to my engagement with Heinlein.

Related Reviews

Mendlesohn - The Pleasant Profession of Robert A. Heinlein
Heinlein - Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein - Starship Troopers
Mitchison - Memoirs of a Spacewoman