Thursday, December 31, 2020

Connie Willis - Doomsday Book

Could this be the pandemic novel for the Covid era? This question popped into my head on numerous occasions as I devoured Connie Willis' classic novel. Previously, and ought of series order, I'd thoroughly enjoyed Willis' later time travel story To Say Nothing of the Dog. But it is Doomsday Book that was the first book length exploration of her ideas.

Set in an alternative future were the globe has already experienced several pandemics, Oxford history academics prepare to send Kivrin Engle back in time to the Middle Ages so she can complete her PHd. Time travel in Willis' world is not an exact science. The universe seems to protect history from change by preventing travellers visiting certain moments in history. This leads to "slippage" when travellers are dumped miles, and hours or even days away from their target. Kivrin is expecting to reach 1320 so she can complete some studies of a small medieval village. Instead she arrives in 1348 able to experience the Black Death first hand.

The presence of the Black Death in the novel is enough to make it worth a read during our own pandemic. But while Willis' tells a brilliant story about Kivrin's trails in 1348 as she strives to save lives and cope with the disease, the real meat is what happens back in her original time. Here academic rivalries and cost cutting have led, in part, to Kivrin being misplaced in time. But the real problem is the arrival of a new flu pandemic which takes out many in the university and seems to have originated from the technician who is the only one who can help locate Kivrin.

It is the unfolding of the pandemic in the modern era, and the crisis for retrieving Kivrin that makes the book so contemporary. The NHS struggles to cope, lacking PPE and vaccines, disease deniers protest outside hospitals blaming immigrants and the European Union, and American visitors complain that their freedoms are being encroached upon by lockdown. This latter leads to the narrator commenting that it was such an approach to lockdown that led to millions of Americans losing their lives in the last pandemic.

Perhaps Doomsday Book will be a little too much for some people going through Covid-19 but I found it bother entertaining and pertinent. It reminded me that we experience disease in a similar way to people in 1348 - through out personal lives and relationships.

There are some bits that felt a little contrived, such as the role of the teenage boy who saves the day and the idea that time-travel is solely under the control of academia (and history departments at that )felt very far fetched.

But that aside, this is a classic work, and had I read it outside of a pandemic I'm sure I'd have enjoyed it as much - though perhaps I'd not have had a wry smile on my face quite so often.

Related Reviews

Willis - To Say Nothing of the Dog

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Anil Ananthaswamy - Through Two Doors at Once

Young's double slit experiment was perhaps the most fascinating piece of practical work I did when studying physics. As an experiment its perversely straightforward, yet its implications are so utterly profound that scientists have been amazed, inspired, confused and angered by interpretations of its results. There are plenty of excellent videos on the internet that demonstrate the working of the experiment and some of its conclusions - this video from a 2019 Royal Institution Christmas Lecture shows the experiment at its most basic.

The double slit experiment essentially shows that light can behave as both waves and particles. As Anil Ananthaswamy's book shows, the experiment provided evidence for both sides in the debates that were taking place in the 19th century about what light was. But in the 20th century they helped launch the new, and perplexing, science of quantum mechanics.

For those of us fascinated by the experiment and its scientific and philosophical conclusions, Ananthaswamy's book is a good read. He covers the history of the double slit experiment in the early chapters but quickly moves on to a more detailed study of extensions of the experiment. Some of these are theoretical experiments, concocted by scientists to explore the philosophical and scientific ramifications of wave-particle duality, others are incredibly complex experiments that require high precision equipment and years of research work by scientists.

The ramifications are extremely difficult to comprehend. For instance, a team of scientists tested a version of the double slit experiment between the islands of La Palma and Tenerife. The locations were chosen to reduce light and air pollution and allow a long distance between a receiving telescope and the source of light. This version of the "delay-choice quantum eraser experiment" showed that "events at Tenerife, in our usual way of thinking, happen later in time, yet still influence the outcome of measurements at La Palma, even though each measurement a La Palma is done and dusted well before the partner environment photon reaches Tenerife." As Ananthaswamy says, "language fails us at this point. Here and there, past and future don't quite work".

What the double slit experiment does is to give us an easy insight into the perplexing and counter-intuitive world of quantum physics. Most of the book is actually Ananthaswamy exploring different explanations and interpretations of what is taking place. Ever since the early days of quantum science there have been different explanations - some of the world's leading scientists, including in the early 20th century figures like Einstein - found the implications of the science unsettling. Ananthaswamy shows how there has been a tendency among the physics community to follow a particular explanation, the so called "Copenhagen Interpretation". But for more recent scientists this is proving, at best, in adequate. The various alternative explanations that Ananthaswamy explains, usually through interviews with the scientists involved, are breaks with Copenhagen to various extents. Some of these have profound philosophical interpretations - such as the many world's theory. Others simply highlight how little we know. Ananthaswamy doesn't come down on any particular side of the discussion, rather presenting each equally and drawing out links between the theoretical ideas.

Part of the problem that Ananthaswamy, and every other populariser of quantum mechanics has, is that the conclusions of experiments like the double slit defy understanding. As he explains when discussing a thought experiment known as Hardy's Paradox, "the paradox arises, because we are talking and thinking classically of space and time, of particles taking this or that path and reaching this or that detector. Nature has its own inimitable way of doing things." Later, when interviewing theoretical physicist Roger Penrose, Ananthaswamy quotes him as saying "quantum mechanics is a provisional theory".  

I liked this quote because I think part of the problem is that we approach quantum mechanics from an understanding of the world we live in (my first introduction to the double slit experiment involved a teacher discussing buses entering tunnels). This is wholly inadequate when trying to understand events where time and distance are irrelevant, or different. I wonder if we need a complete transformation in scientific approach before we can quite grasp all the implications of quantum physics and wed them to our understanding of the macro world.

For readers who have some physics in their background this book is a good introduction to the debates around quantum mechanics, though in places it is a little hard to follow what is going on as Ananthaswamy has to simplify explanations a great deal and, rightly, he tries to avoid including too much mathematics. I enjoyed the book and was fascinated to see how much quantum mechanics has moved on since I last studied it in the early 1990s. I wouldn't like to pretend I understood everything in the book, but that's a consequence of the material not the author. Readers also benefit because the book is based in large part of interviews with the scientists themselves, though sometimes this obscures rather than clarifies. One sad result of this was to realise how few women are leading figures in this field - only one of the dozens of interviews is with a female scientist Dr. Urbasi Sinha. Hopefully the popularisation of the science in this very readable book might lead others to follow in her footsteps and further uncover the quantum world.

Related Reviews

Greene - The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory
Clegg - Gravity: Why What Goes Up, Must Come Down
Clegg - Infinity: The Quest to think the Unthinkable
Johnson - The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments
Cathcart - The Fly in the Cathedral

Monday, December 28, 2020

Jonathan Sumption - Trial by Battle: The Hundred Years War 1

Trial by Battle is the first book in a multi-volume epic history of the Hundred Years War between France and England. It's a detailed historical work, based almost entirely on original sources of which the author is an acknowledged master. At nearly 650 pages long, including end-matter, the book is a hefty read, yet covers only the first part of the war - the feudal conflicts that gave rise to the sustained war and the first years. The reader is taken as far as the Battle of Crecy and the capture of Calais by the English.

Out of necessity, much of the detailed history of the 14th century covers the deeds of great men and a handful of great women. These tended to be the things that were recorded by contemporary chroniclers. So I was pleased to discover that Sumption has not written a history that simply covers palace intrigues, battles and acts of chivalry. Instead, as far as he is able, he draws out deeper historical processes and lesser considered events. For instance, a great theme of the this book is the way that the War was shaped by the difficulties that the two principal kings in the period, Edward III and Philip VI had in raising cash. This is a recurring issue for both, though a real problem for Edward who was trying to fight abroad. It affected everything - from numbers of troops to the alliances that Edward made. 

In part, the problem of ready cash was simply about the economic hardship that followed years of war, and the reticence of the lower-orders to stump up taxes. More deeply it was a problem that had roots in wider economic problems. As Sumption points out for France:

One of the things, however, which almost all of the nobility had in common was that they were encountering mounting financial difficulties from the second half of the thirteenth century onward, difficulties which were mainly attributable to the problems of the French agricultural economy but which the government exacerbated. The pressure on them came from several sources. In almost every case they suffered from a sever and continuous rise in their cost of living.

The problem for the wealthy was profound, but for the "lesser men" it was far worse. The implications of economic difficulties and changes played out across the continent. In Flanders where a nascent capitalist wool and cloth trade was closely linked to English exports and French agriculture, the masses led proto-workers revolts that allowed Edward III to drive a wedge between them and their traditional French lords.

Added to this were complications of geography and history. Today, in an era where international politics is dominated by the nation state, its hard to understand how different things were in the 14th century. England and France were much more nebulous concepts. Bits of the area that is now known as France were considered English and the people there had somewhat ambiguous relations with the government. As Sumption reminds us

Between Brittany and England there were ancient connections which made the dukes uncertain friends of France for all their exalted status in the French peerage. It could scarcely have been otherwise, their geographical situation being what it was.

Sumption doesn't point it out, but this worked in the other direction to. Cornwall, which had close economic, language and cultural ties to Brittany, had loser ties to London - a significant factor in the 1497 rebellion against Henry VII's government. But these links meant that rulers in 'England' could legitimately claim rights to huge chunks of 'France' in ways that seem impossible today - and various local lords might change allegiance depending on how the wind was blowing.

Edward III's relations with the ruling classes in Flanders ebb and flow through the book based on economic and military changes. Philip VI's own fortunes are buffeted by similar issues, though he is less flexible from a military point of view. In part this must be because by mid 1340s Philip is forced to keep an eye on three areas of potential military strife, Gascony, Brittany and the Normandy area where Edward is likely to invade.

But it is also because he has a inaccurate view of how Edward III's fortunes have changed. The early years of the Hundred Years War are dominated by ineptitude on the part of Edward whose financial problems undermine his ability to fight freely. But by 1340s these have been partly overcome, and the English have developed their own military skills. Sumption argues that the English had gone through a "military revolution", in part because of the associated wars with Scotland.

After 1327 the "whole [English] army was paid wages, from the principal earls downwards... They fought together with their friends and neighbours, sometimes year after year in the same retinues... The retainers of the nobility were no doubt less diligent, but it is clear that they contributed a great deal to the progressive militarization of English provincial life during the 1330s. War became another field for the elaborate web of interest and obligation which bound their world together."

The debacle for the French at Crecy has much to do with the skills of the English longbowman, but also the way that an underprepared Philip was forced into fighting by public pressure and found himself engaging with a new type of fighting that the French were not prepared for.

The length of this book, and no doubt the whole series, allows Sumption to draw out how these factors play out. One of the great strengths of the book is that Sumption can paint a very broad picture of the context and then zoom down to details of a particular battle or siege and show how these play out.

I noted that many histories of the Hundred Years War rely on retelling the tales of kings and battles. But Sumption repeatedly notes how ordinary men and women were affected, and on occasion shaped events. I was particular surprised to see that on several occasions during the struggle for succession in Brittany, when rival lords fought to be king, and different sides were backed by the French and English, ordinary people refused to allow their towns to be placed under siege. Either forcing the commanders to parlay, or simply opening the gates up themselves. It meant that there was a tendency for the French to blame the lower orders for their failures in battle - but also demonstrates that there was as "mass politics" that is often neglected in historical accounts of the Middle Ages.

This mass politics were shaped by wider forces. The successes of the English in 1345/6 led to a groundswell of support for the war that made raising cash easier. The opposite happened in France as people refused to pay taxes or demonstrated "indifference" to events. But even before this there was little active hostility to the war, with "muted" resistance to English drive to recruit troops. This would change later, with the war weariness and resentment of taxation playing a role in the Peasant Rebellion of 1381, but by the end of the period covered in this book, Edward III and his ruling class could look confidently towards the future. 

Having said this, I feel I should warn my left-wing readers that Sumption hasn't written a Marxist history of the Hundred Years War, or even "history from below". In fact I am sure he would recoil at any such suggestion. Readers wanting more on this aspect of the history might be interested in David Green's The Hundred Years War: A People's HistoryNonetheless this is a honest and far-ranging history of the period which tries to cover every aspect of the conflict in the years covered. I look forward to reading the following volumes and recommend it to people interested in knowing more about these 14th century wars and the context in which they took place.

Related Reviews

Green - The Hundred Years War: A People's History
Barker - Conquest
Barker - Agincourt

Saturday, December 26, 2020

Geoffrey Chaucer - The Canterbury Tales

I embarked upon reading The Canterbury Tales with a little trepidation. Oddly I was inspired to read it by my enjoyment of Dan Simmon's science fiction novel Hyperion which uses Chaucer's model of a disparate collection of travellers telling their tales to tell his own epic story. Having heard that that Nevill Coghill's translation made it all very accessible I embarked upon my Chaucer journey.

How glad I was. Coghill's translation makes the book readable, but most importantly it brings it alive. Here are men and women, rich and poor, tired and pampered, brusque and joking, telling tales that illuminate their life, times and beliefs. The stories range from religious morality tales, to epics of chivalry and comedies of village life. There are some aspects to the stories that do jump out to the modern reader. What people in Chaucer's time no doubt saw as sex comedies are often stories about people trying to trick women into sex by pretending to be someone else in the dark. There are not a few scenes of sexual assault dressed up for laughs. There is also a deeply anti-Semitic story of Jewish blood libel.

On the other hand Chaucer also shows us the ways that women and Jewish people were more than just oppressed groups. The famous "Wife of Bath" story is often considered a sort of proto-feminist tale, but I read it as a exemplar of how women strived for their own power in a system were wives were mere extensions of the husband. The Wife of Bath doesn't just use her sexuality to strengthen her position, she also challenges the rest of the travelling band about the way women are treated and what they themselves want. 

There are great moments of comic genius too. The tales of the Friar and Summoner are based on mutual loathing between the two classes and Chaucer happily plays with prejudices about different peoples - the Friar who "knew the taverns well in every town and every innkeeper and barmaid too, Better than lepers, beggars and that crew" or the Cook who has "an ulcer on his knee" but made blancmange "with the best" stands in for every grubby cook the world over. 

While The Canterbury Tales is a fascinating and entertaining collection of stories, it is also a parable that reminds the reader that everyone has their station in life. We laugh alongside the characters at the foibles of each class of person, but the characters are summed up by their roles and jobs. The Wife of Bath might be striving for a stronger say in her life, but she is always going to be a merchants wife. The prioress who learnt French "at Stratford, near bow" will never be at the Royal Court and the lower orders will always be lower orders. The pilgrimage that they embark upon is a great leveller. But only for a brief order, when they share stories that remind them of the real world.

There is the briefest of mentions that sometimes things are different, when Chaucer makes a brief mention of the Peasant's Revolt in the text. He refers to the infamous moment when rebels massacred Flemings in London during the uprising, blaming Jack Straw's men. Its a deliberate libel on those who wanted a different world, but its inclusion at least references that there were, at various points, demands for change. Chaucer's a social conservative, but the world he faithfully reflects was not quite so simple.

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Andy Merrifield - Marx Dead and Alive: Reading Capital in Precarious Times

Karl Marx's Capital is a book that stays with you. Its multi-layered exploration of capitalism is one that repays study, but it is also a deeply human work, one that rages at exploitation and oppression and seeks to explain the world so that its readers can change it. It is also a book that remains with you - a book that can change your life. 

Andy Merrifield is someone whose life was changed by Marx and Marxists. His exploration of Capital begins with a visit to Highgate Cemetery in the aftermath of the most recent attack on Marx's gravestone. In seeking to understand this event he explores the origin of Capital and what the book tells us. Marx was, Merrifield explains:

the intellectual champion of the underdog principally because he was one. He learned about the brutality of capitalism from political activism and mammoth reading sessions in the British Museum; yet his knowledge of working-class domestic oppression came firsthand, was lived out. A prophet of genocide? Give me a break.

Merrifield continues:

What Marx is up to early on in Capital is something today we might call coding. He is programming capitalism, and reading him is our first attempt to download the critical app he's created for us, the conceptual software that allows us, step by step, contradiction by contradiction, to trace out capitalism's whole evolutionary movement, its value hieroglyphic.

In this short book Merrifield explores how Marx wrote Capital, and the influences on him. Merrifield isn't the first to point out Marx's debt to various authors, like Balzac, nor interpret Capital as a great work of literature. Despite Capital being portrayed as a dry work of economics, Merrifield highlights, for instance, the "sheer number of voices we hear talking". These came from the reports and eyewitness accounts that Marx devoured in the Reading Room of the British Library - on those days his coat hadn't been pawned.

But the meat of Merrifield's book is to look at Marx's ideas in Capital. In particular he draws out how the book's description of the dynamics of capitalism is so relevant to today's world. There's a particularly poignant moment when Merrifield quotes Foxconn defending using school children as workers in its factory. Foxconn's argument is that the children get valuable experience for their future working lives. Merrifield digs out a similar quote from Capital when a Sheffield steel mill owner celebrated how "Boys must begin young to learn a trade" and, points out Merrifield, "their station in life". 

Merrifield shows how some of the key arguments in Capital are enormously important today - the way, for instance, that capitalism creates a pool of unemployed workers, and a huge section of the working class that might never work formally, relying on informal employment or illegal actions to stay alive. This, Marx shows, comes in part out of the way that capitalism uses machinery - to replace human labour, at the same time as undermining capital's own viability. 

Today's debates about precarious labour - zero hours contracts etc - are nothing new. In fact Merrifield rightly points out that all work under capitalism is precarious. Booms and slumps cause unemployment to rise and wages to fall (or occasionally rise). Capitalism, Merrifield says:

creates a relative surplus population who feel the brunt of capital's business cycles, sucking people in when the economy soars, evicting them when it dips. Ditto now in the city, capitalism's new factory of valorizing capital, where accumulation's messenger boy is interest-earing capital circulating through spaces, searching out hose titles to future ground rents. The process renders workers superfluous, not only from work but from the totality of living space, displacing from dwelling pace as it downsizes the workplace. 

These brief lines hint at some of the deeper topics that Merrifield addresses - ground rent, and the economy of the capitalist city. The book isn't long enough to explore these to satisfaction, and Merrifield encourages the reader to dig out David Harvey to satisfy any curiosity they might have. 

I was disappointed though that he didn't draw out more about contemporary struggles - those precarious workers who do organise, strike and protest - from delivery drivers in Europe, to Amazon workers in America and Foxconn labourers in China. 

I however agree that we must never lose sight of the fact that Marx's book is a revolutionary work, and the most important thing that we can do today is learn that lesson. Merrifield suggests that we need to emulate Marx in building underground revolutionary organisation; groups that can relate to those forgotten masses, especially as the factories and workplaces are harder to find. While I agree that we need, desperately, bigger, stronger, revolutionary parties. I'm less clear on the centrality that Merrifield places on underground organisation. At a time in the UK when hundreds of thousands of socialists are looking for a new home following the end of Jeremy Corbyn's leadership, a secret network would seem unable to relate to them. That said, these are quibbles of organisation. Merrifield is absolutely right to demand that socialists organise, publish newsletters, newspapers and zines.

Perhaps my greatest disappointment with this interesting book is the lack of discussion of Marx's ecological thought, something that comes through so strongly when re-reading Capital in a time of pandemic and environmental crisis. Sadly Merrifield doesn't discuss what Marx had to say about capitalist agriculture, or the relations between society and nature. The precarious times we live in are not simply about short-term work contracts but also about the very precarious situation that human society finds itself in.

Nonetheless, Andy Merrifield's book is interesting and entertaining and I hope it will lead to many more activists reading Marx and building socialist organisation. There lie all our hopes.

Related Reviews

Marx - Capital
Marx - Grundrisse
Marx - The Civil War in France
Fine & Saad-Filho - Marx's Capital
Choonara - A Reader's Guide to Marx's Capital

Monday, December 21, 2020

Barry Commoner - The Poverty of Power: Energy & the economic crisis

When I read Barry Commoner's seminal The Closing Circle (1971) last year I was blown away. It was a book that had a refreshing approach to exploring the relationship between capitalist society and the natural world, demonstrating the dialectical relationship between the two and the way the drive for profit destroyed nature and people. Written 50 years ago, it felt like a contemporary radical book.

So I was looking forward to Commoner's Poverty of Power. This was written a few years after Closing Circle in the aftermath of the economic shock caused by the main oil producing nations withholding oil to drive the price up. The mainstream explanation of the crisis in the 1970s was that the US was deficient in energy production (particularly oil) and this placed them at the mercy of the oil producing countries. Commoner argued the problem was much more complicated, and more fundamental, and the crisis was "a symptom of a deep and dangerous fault in the economic system".

Commoner then deploys a series of analytical tools to understand how energy is used by the capitalist system. The most important of these are the laws of thermodynamics, which he deploys to prove that the US energy system was inefficient, wasteful and designed to maximise profit for energy corporations. He writes that "The Second Law of Thermodynamics is perhaps our most powerful scientific insight into how nature works... it is perhaps time that we should begin using it to govern the ways in which energy is employed". But Commoner argues that there is a dangerous potential problem with this use:

What has gone wrong, I believe, is that we have failed to use thermodynamics to ask the right questions. As a result, we are burdened by powerful and overbearing answers to the wrong questions, or to questions that no one has bothered to ask. For example, one reason some people are so enthusiastic about nuclear power is that they assume that its sole product, electricity, is an essential and unquestioned good. However, behind this assumption lies an unasked question: What is electricity good for?

Answering this means looking at precisely how energy is used by society, and in whose interests. How well are the First and Second Laws of Thermodynamics, reflected in the economic system? 

Commoner answers his own questions through an in-depth analysis of key segments of the US energy system. While this is interesting the age of the book is clearly exposed here. Commoner takes apart the oil, nuclear and coal industries to show how inefficient they are, and how they are motivated by profit, not anything else. Despite fears about lack of home-grown energy production, Commoner shows, for instance that much of the profits of oil companies are invested abroad. His detailed proof of this is interesting, but enormously out of date. Nonetheless his conclusions are pertinent to the 21st century - the motive of the energy producers and their friends in government is not national security, keeping prices down for consumers, or avoiding pollution, but profits. This fact itself, Commoner highlights, was a particular public grievance during the oil shock years. He concludes that the oil companies were not a "reliable vehicle for the production of US oil".

Dated though these parts are, they nonetheless contain much of interest. However the relevance of Poverty of Power begins to come through when Commoner looks at renewable (solar) energy. In passages that will be breath-takingly relevant to environmental thinkers today, Commoner shows how the power of the oil companies, and their centrality to US capitalism, undermine the development of solar energy technology and infrastructure. The author quotes a 1973 report of the US National Petroleum Council on solar, "because it is so diffuse and intermittent when it reaches the earth, solar energy can be put to no foreseeable large-scale use over the next 15 years, even with appreciable improvements in technology."

Commoner responds: 

What is most unfortunate about such evaluations of solar energy is not so much that they are pessimistic putdowns and perhaps motivated by the self-interest of the purveyors of oil, coal and uranium. (The chairman of the NPC task force quoted above was an officer of the Gulf Research and Development Company, the research subsidiary of a firm engaged in producing all three non-renewable fuels.) Much more distressing is the fact that the supposed disadvantages of solar energy - its diffuse nature and the economics of constructing solar devices - turn out, when properly understood, to be precisely the reverse.

He concludes in words that could be taken from an anti-capitalist response to climate crisis today:

Solar energy enjoins us to attend to the task: to find the best way to link the task to resources; to cherish the resources that nature lends us: to find value in their social; use, rather than profit in their private possession.

The way that the profits of energy multinationals has negatively transformed US society is a key part of Poverty of Power. There is a fascinating account of the much discussed process by which the US tram and light rail system was systematically destroyed by a combination of car manufacturers and oil companies. These companies "motorised the city". By 1949 General Motors had been involved in the replacement of over 100 electric transit systems. The result, pollution, congestion and expensive commutes to work remains a blight on millions of US citizens decades later, but demonstrates the way that the interests of profit undermine wider social concerns. Commoner explores similar issues when related to US agriculture and other aspects of the economy.

Commoner argues that the centrality of fossil fuel technology has led to a situation where production - of energy, food, transport etc - in ways that are inefficient, wasteful and destructive.

Before the postwar transformation in production technology, food was grown and eaten, shirts, shoes and handbags were manufactured, freight was moved and people washed dishes and clothes - all in amounts ,per capita, that are about the same as they are now. But the methods were different: farms used manure rather than synthetic fibres; shoes and handbags were made of leather rather than plastics; freight and people were carried chiefly by railroads and small, lower-powered cars instead of by trucks, airplanes and large cars; dishes and clothes were washed with soap made out of natural fat rather than with synthetic detergent made out of petroleum. The amount and energy and capital needed to accomplish the same task has increased; the amount of labour used to produce the same output has decreased; the impact on the environment has worsened.

Commoner argues this as a change in the means of production. But continues to argue that it is a symptom of a much more profound change:

These changes, which surfaced first as the chief cause of the environmental crisis and later of the energy crisis, have a much deeper, and more immediate, economic meaning. They have seriously affected the relationship between the output of the production system and two major economic inputs: capital and labour. The two effects are diametrically opposed; Most of the newly introduced production technologies have reduced capital productivity... and have increased labour productivity... As new production technologies have displaced the older ones, energy has displaced human labour. 

These processes have deep roots in the economic system itself. For Commoner, writing in the 1970s, this was important because it proved that the economic stagnation in the United States was not about where oil came from, or who pumped it out of the ground, but the way that an economic system based on profit was driving and energy and economic crisis, unemployment and pollution. 

The last point about pollution deserves a brief comment. For readers today there is a gaping hole in The Poverty of Power: climate change. This is, it must be emphasised, not a criticism of Commoner. Despite him discussing the greenhouse effect, he is not aware of global warming as an environmental issue. This is simply because it wasn't yet an issue for anyone. Yet for the modern reader it is the thing that will be in the back of your mind as you read all of the book, for it is the final proof of what Commoner is arguing throughout. Climate change is the consequence both of the how capitalism is run, and the nature of the system itself.

Commoner was not afraid to draw radical conclusions. Some of his readers in the US in the 1970s must have been shocked to find his conclusions drawn from Karl Marx. Today the environmental movement often draws on Marx's insights to understand capital's destruction of the natural world. But Commoner goes further and argues that what Marx does is to show that there is an urgent need to transform society. His conclusions are worth quoting here:

The inherent faults of the capitalist system will now appear in full force. Although economists can, of course, provide alternative explanations for these phenomena [environmental and energy crises], their general similarity tot he faults which are the substance of the socialist critiques of capitalism suggests that there are grounds to at least consider the possibility that the pervasive and seemingly insoluble faults now exhibited by the United States' economic system can best be remedied by reorganising it along socialist lines.

Related Reviews

Commoner - The Closing Circle

Saturday, December 19, 2020

Robert Seethaler - A Whole Life

Describing, quite literarily "a whole life", this lovely short book tells the story of Andreas Egger a "mountain man" in the Austrian Alps. Beginning with a cruel childhood on a farm Andreas spends almost his whole life in the mountains, mostly working for cable car companies as the tourist boom takes off in the 1920s, but then as a guide. His only interruption is a brief period on the Eastern Front during World War Two, and a longer period as a Russian prisoner of war. The mountain is Andreas' life: it forms his sustenance, his home and is also the mechanism for his courting the love of his life. His life, as the reader discovers, is in a very real way written into the hills themselves.

It is difficult to say more without ruining the book. But not much else needs to be said. This is a delightful, poignant tale of how we are shaped by the world we know and how we are buffeted by forces beyond our control. But it is also a celebration of our capacity to love and to survive. When I finished A Whole Life I had to double check it was a novel, and not a very clever biography. That perhaps the greatest compliment I can pay it. Read it.

Saturday, December 12, 2020

Ian Angus & Simon Butler - Too Many People? Population, Immigration & the Environmental Crisis

I first read Ian Angus and Simon Butler's Too Many People? when it was being prepared for publication in 2011 and was happy to endorse it then. Sadly, in the decade since it was published, the issue of population, immigration and the environment has not gone away and so I picked it up again to refresh myself of its key arguments.

Angus and Butler are both eco-socialist activists and authors. This book is simultaneously a critique of "over-population theories" and an argument about the type of politics that environmental activists need if we are to stop irreparable damage and degradation to ecological systems. But this is more than just polemic, it is a detailed refutation of the key arguments that have been associated with what might be called neo-Malthusian politics. Perhaps of particular relevance is that the authors take on the issue of migration in the context of environmentalism. Sadly the environmental movement does not always have the most progressive of record on these questions and so their centrality in this book is to be welcomed.

Over-population theory has many strands. At the most basic is the crude argument that more people equals more resource use. In the past this has focused on food, but today the argument extends to the degradation of the environment through the consumption of resources and the production of pollutants such as greenhouse gases.

The problem with over-population theories is that they tend to take crude correlations between (say) growth in population and increase in emissions and see a direct causation. As the authors' argue the problem with this approach is that it isolates one number from all the other factors. There are many problems with the approach, as the authors explain:

The correlation between emissions growth and population growth, a connection that seems obvious when we consider only global figures, turns out to be an illusion when we look at the numbers country by country. Almost all of the population growth is occurring in countries with low emissions; almost all of the emissions are produced in countries with little or no population growth.

Some of the facts quoted by the authors are very useful in challenging over-population theory. For instance, between 1980 and 2005, high income nations had 7 percent of the world's population growth and 29 percent of the growth in carbon dioxide emissions. Sub-Saharan African had 18.5 percent of global population growth, but just 2.4 percent of the increase in emissions.

Other than the straight facts, another useful thing about Too Many People? is the way it deconstructs key planks of over-population theory. For instance there is a clear critique of why per-capita figures are so problematic for determining causes of environmental degradation. I particularly liked the example about the expansion of car use in this regard, which on a per-capita basis, has to assume children are driving when the real cause is the increase in cars per household, driven by social and economic changes such as more women going to work.

A second extremely helpful section is the critic of the IPAT equation. This argues that Environmental Impact I, equals Population time Affluence times Technology. The authors say:

One of the most powerful critiques of IPAT is... by Patricia Hynes who points out that IPAT treats the three elements P,A and T, as equal factors: increasing or decreasing any of them changes the environmental impact proportionately. That mathematical equality ignores the absence of equality in the real world... Hynes also points out that IPAT is based on a 'singular view of humans as parasites and predators on the natural environment.'

This argument is powerfully put in an appendix by economist Donella Meadows who explains her own turn away from explanations using IPAT after hearing activists from the Global South critique its implicit argument that they were as much to blame as the richest in society.

These arguments run through many right-wing environmentalist approaches and can lead to reactionary positions of questions like immigration. Here the crude populationist argument is taken from the global to the local, by suggesting that people entering wealthy countries like the UK from countries in the Global South lead directly to increases in environmental destruction. This crude mathematical trick, which takes per-capita emissions in one country and replaces them with per-capita emissions from another as people cross borders, is a vile insult to individual migrants, refugees and immigrants.

This view, which simply sees people as passive consumers of natural resources and producers of wealth will lead people to blame immigrants for destruction. Such odious politics belong to the far right, not those trying to fight for a sustainable world.

The real problem, as Angus and Butler articulate, is that environmental destruction is driven by production, not consumption. The problem with a per-capita approach is that it treats everyone equally. The worker in an office is not the same as the billionaire living on a giant yacht and nor are their environmental impacts. But more dangerously it ignores the way that pollution and environmental degradation arise out of production, and in particular capitalist production. Under capitalism, production is driven by the need to make profits, not to conserve resources or satisfy human need. As the authors conclude, populationist arguments obscure this:

The environmental crisis demands rapid and decisive action, but we can't act effectively unless we clearly understand what is causing the crisis. If we misdiagnose the illness, at best we will waste precious time on ineffective cures... The 'too many babies' argument is an important case in point... it weakens efforts to build an effective global movement against ecological destruction by dividing our forces, by penalizing the principal victims of the crisis for problems they did not cause. Above all, it diverts attention from the real sources of the crisis: an irrational economic and social system.

Arguments around over-population are accepted by many, even on the left, because they seem to fit a simple reality. But the truth is more complex and Ian Angus and Simon Butler's excellent book explains both the mistakes of the neo-Malthusians and the real cause of environmental destruction. As such the book ought to be read by every activists concerned with stopping capitalism's race to environmental disaster.

Related Reviews 

Angus - Facing the Anthropocene
Angus - A Redder Shade of Green: Intersections of Science and Socialism
Morland - The Human Tide
Malthus - An Essay on the Principle of Population
Pearce - PeopleQuake, Mass Migration, Ageing Nations and the Coming Population Crash
Meek (ed) - Marx and Engels on the Population Bomb

Tuesday, December 08, 2020

Claire Tomalin - Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self

When reviewing Claire Tomalin's biography of Samuel Pepys it is difficult not to fall into the trap of reviewing Pepys himself. As Tomalin points out, Pepys left an unparalleled and extremely detailed documentary record of a period of his life. It was also an unashamedly honest account, and as such we see Pepys warts and all. Those, like me, whose knowledge of Pepys' life and diary was limited to the accounts he made of the Plague and the Great Fire of London will find Tomalin's biography illuminating. As Tomalin draws out, his life before and after the diary, straddled a period of English history that saw momentous changes. As a young man, Pepys was at the execution of Charles I, he began working at the Naval Office during the Cromwellian wars with Europe and than for Charles II and James II after the restoration.

But Pepys' diary and Tomalin's diary also show a man who we would find deeply unpleasant today. He hit his wife, and recorded it in his diary. He visited prostitutes and slept with the wives of subordinates who hoped to get promotions. While acknowledging that Pepys lived in very different times, it is deeply uncomfortable to read about his sexual exploits, which included targeting of children. As Tomalin herself writes:

Young girls were his regular targets, some apparently pre-adolescent, like 'little Mrs Tooker', the 'very pretty child' he made fee with in his lodgings during the plague winter of 1665. She seems to have been accustomed to such treatment; there was no age of consent, and her mother was perfectly willing to hand her over and she to cooperate with Pepys; but to us she appears as a child victim, and by today's standards what he did would have earned him a prison sentence. In his own household he launched himself routinely on the young women who served as his wife's companions.

Reading Tomalin's book I found myself drawn into an incredibly detailed account of Pepys' life and times. But the groping, sexual assault and pursuit of young women and girls makes for difficult reading at times. I couldn't bring myself to agree with Tomalin when she writes that "however sorry you feel for some of the girls and women he pursued, you rarely lose all sympathy for him. He so often makes a mess of his attempts at wooing..." 

Nonetheless this is a compelling book. Tomalin shows us the world of a man rising, through the 17th century, from very lowly origins to the very heights of power. While Pepys' never becomes super rich, he is very wealthy and is in a position which allows him to give others access to wealth and power. Today we'd see corruption in Pepys' granting of contracts for cash, or placing friends and family members in jobs, but then it was an accepted practice. 

Tomalin argues that Pepys was more than someone writing a diary. He was a gifted author with a talent for observation and perhaps a compulsion to record everything. She sees him as a figure of the scientific enlightenment, determined like the scientists he knew in the Royal Society, to study and record himself. It is notable, Tomalin highlights, that Pepys did not destroy his diaries. In fact she thinks it likely that he took time out to read it cover to cover, before cataloguing it with his other books and including its shorthand guide. The books and the diary, were left to Oxford University where eventually it was published, firstly without the sex and then, much later, in full. 

In writing a biography of Pepys, Tomalin has source material that other biographers would kill for. As a result the pace and detail tails off during the 34 years of Pepys' life post-diary life - Tomalin has to use other sources to draw out details, for instance about his relationship with Mary Skinner (Mrs Pepys) after the death of his first wife. Pepys stopped writing a diary because his eyesight was failing, though he never went blind. Tomalin also notes however that when in later years he began a brief journal during a trip to Tangiers, the quality of his writing was not the same. Perhaps he'd lost his enthusiasm, or his eye for detail and desire to record everything. 

It is hard, of course, not to be pulled into a man's life when you are so intimately connected. Tomalin's work is one of the best biography's that I've read. But I think I should emphasise that this is not simply because of the material she has at her disposal, or the particulars of Samuel Pepys' life - rather it is because she weaves this into wider events giving us a real insight into a rapidly changing period of British history. It's a wonderful read, whatever you end up thinking of Pepys himself.