Monday, January 30, 2023

John Bellamy Foster - Capitalism in the Anthropocene: Ecological Ruin or Ecological Revolution

Over the last quarter of a century, John Bellamy Foster's work on ecological Marxism has been hugely influential on the international left. His book Marx's Ecology, published in 2000, was incredibly timely. Coming as the world was increasingly aware of the environmental crises that people faced and offering new insights into how Marx and Marxists have understood nature and the way human society changes the world that we are part of.

As editor of the US socialist magazine Monthly Review Foster continues a prodigious output of articles that grapple with many different topics, but his work on the environment and ecology continues to develop. This new book brings together and updates many of Foster's articles from various different sources, with a particular focus on the way that capitalism transforms nature. Even those who regularly read Foster's articles in Monthly Review will find new material here as it includes articles from a wide variety of popular and academic journals and all of them have been brought up to date.

Foster's argument can be summed up with quote from the introduction where he explains the peculiar relationship that capitalism has to nature. Quoting Karl Marx, Foster writes:

Nature in this system is viewed simply as a 'free gift' to capital, while the vast majority of human beings are treated as an exploitable and expendable mass from which to generate surplus for the wealthy owners. The result is a system that knows no bounds, is oblivious to genuinely human needs, and is inherently unsustainable - now confronting its absolute limits in the Anthropocene.

Many of the chapters explore how exactly this process takes place. Foster looks at the growth imperative within capitalism, that drives accumulation and systematically degrades nature. He engages with contemporary debates about how this system can be challenged, including the degrowth movement. He notes, for instance, while discussing Naomi Klein's work that many critics of the left willingly confuse matters by arguing that degrowth is similar to "the austerity policies associated with neoliberalism" rather than a transformative project that fights for an economy based on "rational use of resources under conditions of absolute necessity and the promotion of equality and community".

As most of these chapters first appeared as articles over a number of years the reader will not a development of Foster's arguments through the book. This is frequently in response to evolving social movements. Foster notes, for instance, that "main thrust" of the environmental movement has changed. shifting "from demand-side initiatives aimed at reducing consumer-market demand for carbon fuels to supply-side strategies aimed at corporations and designed to keep fossil fuels in the ground".

Some chapters however explore more theoretical debates. A number of these are more challenging, and require careful reading. There's an interesting chapter on "the theory of unequal ecological exchange" which explores how Howard Odum's ideas of "emergy" might be synthesised with Marx's own dialectical understanding of society and nature to produce a clearer understanding of how the inequalities of global capitalism had led to an "unequal ecological exchange between center and periphery". There are some useful concepts here, but Foster cautions us that "learning from such a systems ecology approach is one thing; falling prey to the reductionism to which it can potentially lead is another. In any Marxian analysis, ecological materialism must take theoretical precedence over energetics".

Other articles deal with Engels and dialectics and several are defences of Foster works from his critics, particular those on the left who critique the "metabolic rift" theory that Foster develops from Marx's work. I have discussed some of this elsewhere and won't revisit that in this review. Instead I want to finish with a look at Foster's discussion of the struggle for a sustainable world.

What sort of society might this be? Foster argues that a sustainable society is one where there is a rational organisation of the interaction, the metabolism between society and nature. This would be a society organised by the "associated producers" whose aim would be to pass on the world to succeeding generations. This, he notes, contrasts with reformist strategies - even radical ones - where there is no fundamental transformation in economic organisation. For instance,

rather than dealing with the unemployment problem directly - through a radical program that would give people jobs aimed at he creation of genuine use values in ways compatible with a more sustainable society - degrowth theorists prefer to emphasize sorter working hours.

But, he continues, "it is hard to see the viability of shorter work hours and basic income guarantees on the scale suggested other than as elements in a transition to a post-capitalist (indeed socialist) society."

In fact one of the themes that runs though Foster work in this collection is a sense of urgency at the need for fundamental social transformation in the face of ecological collapse. As such, Foster argues that radical demands can only be successful as part of a wider struggle for systemic change. How does Foster envision social transformation? He writes:

Here it is important to recognize that an ecological and social revolution under present historical conditions is likely to pass through two stages that we can call ecodemocratic and ecosocialist. The self-mobilisation of the population will initially take an ecodemocratic form, emphasizing the building of energy alternatives combined with just transition, but in a context generally lacking any systematic critique of production or consumption. Eventually, the pressure of climate change and the struggle for social and ecological justice, spurred on by the mobilisation of diverse communities, can be expected to lead to a more comprehensive ecorevolutionary view, penetrating the veil of the received ideology. 

It is not immediately clear to me whether Foster's description here is intended to refer to the period after workers' have won state power and overthrown capitalism, or if it is intended to mean the whole period of revolutionary transition. A few paragraphs later he says, "The path toward ecological and social freedom requires abandoning a mode of production rooted in the exploitation of human labour and the expropriation of nature and peoples." In this case, we must understand Foster's earlier vision as being post-revolution, in the sense of taking place after the defeat of capitalism yet while the earlier social and economic relations continue to exist. 

Foster explains that "in general we can expect the Global South to be the site of the most rapid growth of an environmental proletariat, arising from the degradation of material conditions of the population in ways hat are equally ecological and economic". 

As I have written previously I am wary of the phrase "environmental proletariat" as it might be interpreted as downplaying the historical role of the working class as producers of surplus value under capitalism. But I am not sure that Foster means it quite in this sense, as he explains the term as referring to a "broad mass" of the population who gain awareness of the environmental threat leading them to revolutionary action. Having said that I do think Marxists need to insist on the centrality of the working class to revolutionary struggle. They are a class defined by their lack of ownership of the means of production and their need to sell their labour power. The working class is the class upon whom capitalist society depends, who have the power to stop the capitalist economy and through their revolutionary organisation build a socialist society. 

Of course their position in society will not lead workers directly to an ecological consciousness, but this is why campaigns by environmentalists remain so important - as they can bring ecological issues into the working class movement. On a small scale the presence of environmental activists, often encouraged by socialists, on picket lines in the current mini-strike wave in Britain, is a good example of this process. In this sense Foster's term "environmental proletariat" is a helpful concept. 

As with all of his work, John Bellamy Foster's Capitalism in the Anthropocene is enormously stimulating. The book covers many different subjects and readers will find much to grapple with. Foster's theoretical work has been crucial to a new generation of activists, socialists and Marxists trying to get to grips with the multifaceted capitalist crisis we all face. The strength of Foster's work is that it gives a clear theoretical base to the revolutionary struggles that we are engaged in. As such this, and Foster's earlier books, are a crucial tool for the fight for socialism.

Related Reviews

Foster - The Return of Nature: Socialism and Ecology
Foster & Burkett - Marx and the Earth: An Anti-Critique
Foster - Ecology Against Capitalism
Foster – The Vulnerable Planet; A Short Economic History of the Environment
Foster - Marx's Ecology: Materialism and Nature
Foster - The Ecological Revolution: Making Peace with the Planet

Sunday, January 29, 2023

Karl Marx - The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte

Outside of the radical left The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte is not one of Karl Marx's best  known works. This is a shame, because it is an engaging, humorous and brilliant work of historical analysis that showcases Marx's writing skills, his polemic and, as Engels notes, his "thorough knowledge of French history". More importantly it is where Marx uses his "great law of motion of history" to show how events are the "clear expression of struggles between social classes", and as Engels said in 1885 "after thirty-three years we must still say that [the work] has stood the test of brilliantly."

The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte deals with events in France after the revolutionary proletarian movement of 1848 has been defeated. It is not a straightforward history of events and readers looking for that will need to supplement their knowledge from elsewhere, including Marx's own Class Struggles in France, 1848–1850. Rather Marx shows how specific events in France arise out of the clash between differing class interests, in particular those of different sections of the bourgeoise colliding with each other. But Marx demonstrates how the working class is instrumental in driving forward some of those interests, before itself being isolated and defeated. This passage gives a sense of how Marx writes history - with the back and forth of class struggle shaping wider events:

The bourgeois monarchy of Louis Philippe can be followed only by a bourgeois republic; that is to say, whereas a limited section of the bourgeoisie ruled in the name of the king, the whole of the bourgeoisie will now rule in the name of the people. The demands of the Paris proletariat are utopian nonsense, to which an end must be put. To this declaration of the Constituent National Assembly the Paris proletariat replied with the June insurrection, the most colossal event in the history of European civil wars. The bourgeois republic triumphed. On its side stood the aristocracy of finance, the industrial bourgeoisie, the middle class, the petty bourgeois, the army, the lumpen proletariat organized as the Mobile Guard, the intellectual lights, the clergy, and the rural population. On the side of the Paris proletariat stood none but itself. More than three thousand insurgents were butchered after the victory, and fifteen thousand were deported without trial. With this defeat the proletariat passes into the background on the revolutionary stage. It attempts to press forward again on every occasion, as soon as the movement appears to make a fresh start, but with ever decreased expenditure of strength and always slighter results. As soon as one of the social strata above it gets into revolutionary ferment, the proletariat enters into an alliance with it and so shares all the defeats that the different parties suffer, one after another. But these subsequent blows become the weaker, the greater the surface of society over which they are distributed. 

Marx, of course, reserves his praise for the workers who fought, as against the cowardly, reactionary bourgeoisie.

But at least it succumbs with the honors of the great, world-historic struggle; not only France, but all Europe trembles at the June earthquake, while the ensuing defeats of the upper classes are so cheaply bought that they require barefaced exaggeration by the victorious party to be able to pass for events at all, and become the more ignominious the further the defeated party is removed from the proletarian party.

Marx wrote this to explain the success of Louis Bonaparte, a figure whose seizure of power, and his Janus faced policies, became a byword on the left for reactionary governments and figures. But reading the 18th Brumaire I was repeatedly struck by how Marx places historical materialist analysis front and centre of every event. It produces some of his most memorable and also clear statements on different groups in society, for instance the peasantry, who Marx says forms the class basis for Napoleon's power:

The small-holding peasants form an enormous mass whose members live in similar conditions but without entering into manifold relations with each other. Their mode of production isolates them from one another instead of bringing them into mutual intercourse. The isolation is furthered by France’s poor means of communication and the poverty of the peasants. Their field of production, the small holding, permits no division of labor in its cultivation, no application of science, and therefore no multifariousness of development, no diversity of talent, no wealth of social relationships... the great mass of the French nation is formed by the simple addition of homologous magnitudes, much as potatoes in a sack form a sack of potatoes... They are therefore incapable of asserting their class interest in their own name, whether through a parliament or a convention. They cannot represent themselves, they must be represented. Their representative must at the same time appear as their master, as an authority over them, an unlimited governmental power which protects them from the other classes and sends them rain and sunshine from above. The political influence of the small-holding peasants, therefore, finds its final expression in the executive power which subordinates society to itself.

The reference here to the peasants as being a "sack of potatoes" reminds me that this book is full of some of Marx's most quotable passages. It is where, for instance, Marx quips that history repeats itself as tragedy and farce, where he writes that people make history, but not in circumstances of their choosing and where he reminds us of the way the capitalist class subordinates all to their interests:

The bourgeois order, which at the beginning of the century set the state to stand guard over the newly emerged small holdings and fertilized them with laurels, has become a vampire that sucks the blood from their hearts and brains and casts them into the alchemist’s caldron of capital.

Without some knowledge of French history, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte is not an easy read, but it is worthwhile as it is perhaps the finest example of Marx's application of his own historical materialism.

Related Reviews

Marx - Value, Price and Profit
Marx - The Civil War in France
Marx - Capital Volume I
Marx - Grundrisse

Tuesday, January 24, 2023

Chanda Prescod-Weinstein - The Disordered Cosmos: A Journey into Dark Matter, Spacetime & Dreams Deferred

It is not uncommon, while looking at reviews of Chanda Prescod-Weinstein's The Disordered Cosmos, to see people describe it as a book of two halves, the first being the difficult science and the second the politics. But to read The Disordered Cosmos like this is to misunderstand a fundamental point about Prescod-Weinstein's powerful polemic. One of her key arguments is that science, and that includes the cosmology and particle physics that she researches, cannot be separated from politics. This is something that the author herself learnt, as she writes in to the introduction, "my new understanding that society would follow me into the world of physics was also something of a phase transition for me."

Prescod-Weinstein's research is complicated. That said, she has a gift for analogy and clear writing that makes the concepts she deals with as accessible as possible. Much of Prescod-Weinstein's work is related to "Dark Matter". This is the mysterious substance that dominates our universe yet is invisible to our detectors. We can infer its existence from experimental measurements and from the complex equations that Prescod-Weinstein loves (though she is careful to only include one of these in the book!). In her explanation of her own work, and the "disordered cosmos" we live in, she begins with the smallest particles and their components, building up and linking these to the enormous structures of galaxies and clusters of galaxies that dominate the galaxy we can see. It is fascinating and Prescod-Weinstein is a brilliant communicator and tackles some amazing science. 

But as she explains the science, Prescod-Weinstein also does two other things. She constructs useful metaphors that allow her to explain wider, political issues and tackles the way that capitalism shapes the very framework that scientists use to understand the world. Let's look at a good example of this. Prescod-Weinstein says:
Newton's conception of objects moving in space relied intensely on Euclidean geometry as an organising framework. I a sense, students are still introduced to calculus through this lens... Almost everything in my education about space eventually came back to Euclidean geometry, because it was supposedly intuitive.
But she continues,
The Palikur people of the Amazon see it rather differently. Their geometric system, which more accurately describes the movement of stars across the night sky than the Euclidean one, is what we would call 'curvilinear.' Understanding stars moving across the sky requires a king of intuition for curves - something that's hard to gain when you're always thinking in Euclidean terms. The Palikur system seems to train the mind to think in terms of curves from the very start.
This, is an important insight. The intellectual framework we have for understanding science arises out of a particular time and space - the European enlightenment. This was, as Prescod-Weinstein says, then imposed on the rest of the world through an ongoing process of imperialism and settler-colonialism. So our science is closely tied up with the interests of the capitalist system. 

Prescod-Weinstein points out that even a subject as seemingly scientifically "pure" as astronomy is tainted by its role in this process. She highlights the recent debates over a new telescope on Mauna Kea were administrators and scientists dismissed indigenous communities concerns. European astronomy expeditions needed the labour of slaves and indigenous people and their findings helped spread the capitalist system around the globe. Those astronomers and scientists who would dismiss the close links between astronomy and the interests of capital might like to note that the first thing a visitor sees when arriving at the Greenwich Observatory in London is not the brass meridian line, but a set of "Imperial Standards of Length" crucial to the organisation of global commerce. The meridian line itself carves up the world based on a line drawn through the capital of the British Empire. Time itself was transformed by capitalism, as EP Thompson famously wrote about in his article Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism

Our intellectual frameworks then arise out of the dominant economic and political interests of the system we live in - and this has shaped even the science that Prescod-Weinstein studies. The use of colour names as analogies in particles physics is problematic, and Quantum Chromodynamics was originally (and sometimes still is) called "colored physics". A name that would not have been used, as Precod-Weinstein points out, had Black people not been "excluded" from particle physics in the 1960s. The language of physics is "a hot mess".

Which brings me to one of the key points of this book - racism. Physics, Prescod-Weinstein points out, has a racism problem. Part of that is something that she calls "white empiricisms", this is 
a practice of ignoring information about the real world that isn't considered to be valuable or specifically important to the physics community at large, which is oriented toward valuing the ideas and data that are produced by white men... I developed this argument by using the specific example of how Black women are treated in the scientific workplace and juxtaposing it against a debate about whether actual observations and experiments are necessary to support theories of quantum gravity. Black women are constantly asked to provide hard evidence for our evaluations of our most common place experiences with discrimination, et white men are taken seriously when they suggest that more affirming data isn't necessary in order to test their theories of quantum gravity.
Physics is a subject that has been built upon racist structures and individual actions of racism and colonialism. As James Poskett has recently pointed out, Isaac Newton had enormous investments in the South Sea Company, which in turn made massive profits from the slave trade. Prescod-Weinstein shows how indigenous people, slaves and servants had their knowledge and labour stolen and used by white-male scientists who claimed it as their own. The scientific establishment has developed on a structural racism that has deep historic roots - both systemically in terms of the history of capitalism and institutionally in terms of the history of the science itself. 

The problems with structural racism, and misogyny that Prescod-Weinstein documents, mean that  physics is not a welcoming space for people who don't fit the white-male norm. Prescod-Weinstein gives us the unpleasant statistics. But she also tells us her experiences - the racism, the sexism, transphobia and homophobia and the difficulties that students who come from lower income backgrounds (something that is much more common for Black students) experience arriving in an academic environment that is shaped by the interests of better off white people. I suspect this is true of other sciences too, but Prescod-Weinstein argues it is particularly a problem in physics. She also highlights that trans and nonbinary people in physics are "particularly harmed by gender discrimination, including by advisers and colleagues who refuse to use people's correct pronouns". Too often the institutions say that its "too difficult" to learn how to do this. To which Prescod-Weinstein rages:
First-year college physics students are expected in just one semester to not only memorize Newton's laws of physics but also to learn how to apply them. If we can have the lofty expectations that our students will master the basics of gravity - a deeply mysterious force that pervades the entire universe - then surely they are owed mastery by their professors and classmates of a couple of letters that get their pronouns right.
So Prescod-Weinstein is under no illusions that more training in "microaggressions" or "antiracism" is enough to solve this problem. Nor is simply increasing the number of black or LGBT+ students. As she says, "My personal success will not end the structural racism that keeps so many Black people and refugees, especially single mothers, their children, and trans folks in poverty."

Instead what is needed is the destruction of a system that is based on oppression and exploitation. Prescod-Weinstein is very clear that the systemic and structural problems that she outlines are the consequence of centuries of colonial and imperialist rule, and are integral to capitalism. They distort science, and they distort scientists and they make it harder to practice science. As such the system needs to go.

Prescod-Weinstein's book is a powerful, beautifully written study of science and society. It is, at times, a difficult read, because the subject matter includes racism, sexism, transphobia, sexual abuse and rape. Towards the end of the book she writes that as a teenager she believed "that if we solved the fundamental equations of physics, the rest of the proper order of the universe could be derived". This chimed with my own experiences studying mathematics and physics at university. As a white, heterosexual male I certainly do not claim that I can share her experiences of oppression. But I did have a naïve belief in "pure science" that I thought would fix the world. Finding that this was not the case was one of the reasons I became a socialist activist. 

In reading The Disordered Cosmos I was reminded however that science, and education, do matter in and of themselves and that we want more people to enjoy them. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein's book is filled with her enthusiasm for the universe, as much as it is filled with a rage against a system that denies this to so many people. As she concludes, "We must demand liberation for all, including the right to know and understand the night sky, not as the context of desperate and generous searches for freedom, but as the beautiful place that holds the answers to how we came to exist at all."

Related Reviews

Monday, January 23, 2023

Bethany Clift - Last one at the Party

Regular readers of this blog (there are some, right?) might have spotted my predilection for "end of the world" dystopian fiction. The various threats to the world we live in - pandemic, war and environmental - have stimulated a resurgence in the genre and I have been enjoying their tales of doom. Bethany Clift's take on disaster was begun before Covid-19 impacted humanity, though it features in the opening chapters of her book as the disease she describes 6DM (Six Days Max) erupts out of the United States. "No one wanted to repeat the mistakes of Covid-19" quips her unnamed protagonist, just as governments take rapid, decisive and ultimately pointless action to try and protect their populations.

The United Kingdom as a brief respite from the disease, protected by its island status and a quick decision to blow up the Channel Tunnel, before, inevitably the disease makes its way in and everyone dies. Well everyone that is except for the author of the diary that this book purports to be. This then is the story of the only person left alive, of the minutiae of the end of the world - caring for your dying partner, visiting your dead parents, trying to work out how to find a working car, dealing with the lack of fresh food, and wondering what to do with the rubbish that is no longer taken away. It is a brilliantly believable account, told by a woman who is happy to admit she is completely unprepared for how to deal with this. She "can't change a lightbulb" never mind grow crops. So the story is in someway and account of how she does become equipped to cope with the end of the world, and also a moving account of how our past shapes our attitudes to crises.

Most end of the world novels deal with the fantastical - biker gangs and the like. Last One at the Party considers the mundane - how do we greave for a partner who has died when the relationship was on the rocks? How might our mental health, and the history of our mental health, affect our ability to survive?  How would our actions post disaster be shaped by who we were before the disaster? Clift describes how her character navigates both the loss of electricity and her panic attacks. Its a refreshing antidote to those end of the world novels where the central character is a jack of all trades who is also a crack shot. The book is not the dystopian "chick-lit" that some deride it as, its actually really thoughtful and compelling. Clift's prose is easy to read and we are drawn into a world where survival means remembering to fill the petrol tank on the Land Rover, but also not making irrational decisions about where to travel.

There are some intriguing bits too - the rats and seagull infestations evoked George Stewart's ecological end of the world novel Earth Abides. There's also the brilliant depiction of what happens when the last survivor finally meets another survivor. Last One at the Party was an enjoyable read for me, though I felt the ending was a little rushed and slightly unbelievable. But if you like dystopian nightmares, particularly those that develop the "cosy catastrophe" that John Wyndham excelled in, then this is likely for you.

Related Reviews

Wyndham - The Kraken Wakes
Christopher - The Death of Grass
Morrow - Is this the Way the World Ends?
Whiteley - Skyward Inn
Montag - After the Flood

Saturday, January 21, 2023

Helen Pilcher - Life Changing: How Humans are Altering Life on Earth

The ongoing way that human society is changing the species and ecosystems around us has roots in historic ecological transformations and the need for humankind to "first of all eat, drink, have shelter and clothing, before it can pursue politics, science, art, religion". It is a fact acknowledged by Helen Pilcher who begins her study of how humans are altering life on Earth, by examining how they have altered life. 

In her opening chapter Pilcher begins with her own "genetically modified wolf", a dog called Higgs, and examines how and why early humans must have domesticated wild animals. Dogs could hunt, defend and provide food and furs to hunter-gatherer communities, likely ensuring their survival. Pilcher then develops these points looking at how our ancestors would have domesticated animals and plants, to produce the cows, chickens, horses and agricultural crops that billions of us depend upon today.

Pilcher sees a continuity between these early domestications and the ongoing changes we are making to species today, what she describes as "our complicated relationship with the natural world and our growing sense of mastery over it". She takes up some important political issues such as environmental destruction and genetically modification, in the hope that the reader will find a "source of inspiration and of hope, because they show us that, when humans take time to care about [the] natural world, great things are possible."

Pilcher embarks on a whistle-stop, and accessible, account of how species change and evolve, before delving into the complexities of genetic modification. She looks at various examples of species, from cows to fish, possums to horses. While some of the science is a little superficial (the book is aimed very much at the general public) Pilcher doesn't shy away from the complex issues these subjects provoke, and links each story to wider contexts - such as extinction, ecological changes or the need to produce more food. Some of these accounts, such as the GM goldfish and the changing nature of farmed chickens touch on more fundamental issues - such as the way that animals are transformed in the interest of profit. Unfortunately Pilcher does not fully interrogate these issues. Writing about the genetic changes that result from selective breeding in cattle aimed at making cows that produce more milk Pilcher says,

although Holstein [a breed of cattle] breeders are beginning to adopt the genetic test for Chief's [an important sire] faulty gene, they too can look past this and see the broader economic picture. Although the faulty gene cost the dairy industry millions of dollars in losses, using Chief's sperm to inseminate dairy cows has still led to US $30 billion in increased milk production over the past 35 years.

She then notes that "we are now beholden to an industry that prioritise short-term productivity over the long-term health and sustainability of its herds". Here the word productivity could be more helpfully replaced by the word profits, as that is what the GM companies and breeding industry is actually interested in. In fact, a great limitation of this book, is that it fails to adequately examine the motivation behind such scientific developments tending to celebrate the science rather than query the motives.

Pilcher celebrates scientific and technology advance in the face of wider social and ecological issues. For instance she writes:

I agree that there are problems with our food system. If these engineered animals are used to prop up an already broken system, then I question their value, but I am open-minded to the use of gene-edited farm animals in different settings. If we could somehow ensure that big companies don't have the monopoly on these animals, and tat they could be made available to smallholders, it could make a big difference to their lives... African sleeping sickness, bird flu, mad cow disease... as scientists unravel the molecular mechanisms that confer immunity, animals could be modified to resist these blights.

But this hope masks a much bigger problem. The UN's Food and Agricultural Organisation has noted the close links between poverty and African Sleeping Sickness which had been seen "as a colonial disease that had been eliminated and could be relegated to history". Cuts in funding for "control units" had helped lead to a major resurgence in the disease. Repeated outbreaks of Bird Flu are closely linked to the way that industrial agriculture concentrates huge numbers of animals together in the interest of maximising profit, something the late Mike Davis wrote eloquently about. Mad Cow disease too is closely linked to the irrational way that cows were fed in the interest of fast growth and maximising profits. 

There are, of course, scientific, technological and medical advances that can help prevent and treat those affected by these diseases. But at their root they are a problem caused by a food system driven by big business in the interest of profit. We can hope big business will not have a monopoly on GM animals, but the reality is that big business has a monopoly on the global food system which drives unsustainable, unhealthy practices and encourages zoonosis. Looking for purely technological solutions to these problems ignores the origin of the problems themselves. 

This problem is also there in Pilcher's approach to ecological destruction, where she again looks to scientific and tech solutions. She says, "some find de-extinction unnatural. The scientists responsible have been accused of 'playing God', but don't we also play God when we destroy forests, over-hunt, pollute the planet and warm our word?"

While the science Pilcher describes is very modern, sadly her framework is dated. "As our numbers have grown, our impact on the planet has intensified. Now humans have become an evolutionary force of extraordinary influence". 

But here again Pilcher ignores the nature of an economic system that drives such ecological destruction in the name of profit. "We" aren't guilty of anything. Capitalism, and the big mining, logging, agricultural and fossil fuel corporations are guilty of destruction in their own interests. Looking to corporations to develop technological solutions to biodiversity loss and extinction allows these companies to continue their unsustainable behaviour while placing a green fig-leaf over the consequences. 

In the final section of the book we are introduced to some amazing work by conservationists and scientists trying to protect endangered species such as coral and the New Zealand flightless bird the Kākāpō. The people doing this work are clearly motivated by a desire to save their chosen species, and work incredibly hard to do so. Some of the science (not all of it GM) is incredible, and Pilcher's amazement at this work is infectious. She writes, "It's still evolution, but it's evolution that is guided by a well-meaning, informed human hand. This is conservation at its finest."

But again the focus on saving specific species seems a throwback to an earlier period of environmental activism. Today the struggle against biodiversity loss needs a much more systemic approach that looks at the way that ecological systems are placed at the mercy of capital. Conservation at its finest would be the integration of such science and technological insights into a wider challenge to the economic interests that are destroying the coral reefs, cutting rainforest or draining wetlands - an approach that would recognise the subordination of natural systems to the interests of profit.

Pilcher's book left me intensely frustrated. It is a book that attempts to understand how human society impacts upon the natural world, but divorces its discussion of the science of Genetic Modification and related technologies from human society itself. In particular Pilcher fails to really discuss the question of these technologies in the context of a world dominated by the pursuit of profit. She touches on some concerns about GM, but doesn't raise any real issues about accountability or democratic control of these technologies - or even the question of science under capitalism. Instead she seems spellbound by the science, isolated from social context, and that makes for a deeply unsatisfactory study of some of the most important questions of our era.

Related Reads

Davis - The Monster Enters
Wallace - Dead Epidemiologists: On the Origins of Covid-19
Wallace - Big Farms Make Big Flu

Weiner - The Beak of the Finch: Evolution in Real Time

Friday, January 20, 2023

Christopher St John Sprigg - Death of an Airman

There are several remarkable things about Christopher St John Sprigg's Death of an Airman. The first one is that despite its popularity when first published in the early 1930s, it has been out of print for many decades and has only republished by the British Library's imprint.

The story is an unusual whodunnit, set around a small airbase in the south of England in the early 1930s. Flying has taken off as a hobby for wealthy young people who delight in the thrills and dangers, and the reader is introduced to an excellent selection of unusual characters who form the basis for the mystery. The reader arrives on the scene with the Bishop of Cootamundra, an Australian bishop, "on leave" in England who wants to learn to fly so he can better visit his scattered outback flock.

On the first day of his instruction the Bishop witnesses a crash and determines that there is something odd about the death, concluding that murder has occurred. Here's were the book gets a more unusual and interesting. One thing is the aerodrome's characters - most of these are women, including the young woman, Sally Sackbut, who manages the business - Sprigg clearly did not baulk at giving women characters key roles. Another thing is the motive behind the murder which is related to drugs trafficking. Drugs are an unusual plot device for a mainstream murder mystery in the 1930s and it leads our detectives into an international hunt for the killer. There are some fascinating period aspects to this, at one point a policeman expresses surprise at a murder being linked to drug trafficking, "We don’t often get that mixed up with drugs. Have you brought the stuff you found?" he says! Aircraft from the continent stop for customs checks in Kent!

Another interesting part to the book is the detailed descriptions of aircraft and flying. The author was a expert pilot himself, and in fact the most interesting thing about Death of an Airman is the author. Christopher St John Sprigg is better known to history by his pseudonym, Christopher Caudwell. In 1934, the year Death of an Airman was published, Caudwell was starting on a very intense engagement with Marxism and a few years later would publish his first Marxist book of literary criticism about poetry. Caudwell was also an accomplished poet and critic, whose life and work was cut short when he died fighting for the Republican cause in the Spanish Civil War. He died firing a machine gun to cover the escape of his comrades in February 1937, having joined the British Communist Party in 1935. 

Reading Death of an Airman to find hints of Caudwell's emerging Marxism is a pointless task, though his inclusion of numerous female characters points to an individual who didn't accept at least some of the most common fictional stereotypes. In fact while Death of an Airman is an unusual novel, its not a brilliant detective one. The cast of characters, the unusual setting and the period details make it a worthwhile read, but the overall dramatic story was a little disappointing.

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Sunday, January 15, 2023

Arthur C. Clarke - The Fountains of Paradise

Despite a lifetime spent reading classic science fiction, for some reason I had never read Arthur C Clarke's The Fountains of Paradise. This 1979 novels is considered one of his best and while I devoured many of his books, this one escaped me. In some ways I am glad I did not read this as a youngster. Then I tended to look for the hard science fiction in works by authors like Clarke. I was particularly fond, for instance, of the spaceship Rama and its secrets in Rendezvous with Rama, and its less successful sequels. True, The Fountains of Paradise, has its giant technological marvel, though in this case the story is much more focused on the people who create it.

The book takes the form of historical fiction, telling the deep story behind the creation of Earth's first space elevator. The book is set on a thinly veiled Sri Kanda which Clarke moves closer to the Earth's equator to make the science, and plot, work better. The elevator is conceived of by the engineer Vannevar Morgan whose earlier work includes the first bridge between Europe and Africa. Morgan's proposal to build an elevator is denied by the religious monks who live on the island's tallest peak. But in a framing story going back into the ancient past Clarke cleverly sets up a reason for the monk's to move, leaving Morgan free to build his tower.

There's no doubt that this is Clarke's greatest work. The three linked stories each need the others in order to work, but in many ways they all deal with the creation of marvels - the first is the building of a giant pleasure garden, the other with the bringing of Earth into a galactic empire. But it is the main story, which frames the building of the space elevator through the story of Morgan's life that is the most poignant. Here Clarke returns to the classic idea that technological development is inseparable from humanity's progress. Morgan exemplifies the urge for humans to push outward to the planets and stars. The reader hears little about the other challenges on Earth - poverty and hunger perhaps - these are neglected for a wider story of progress. But nonetheless Clarke makes Morgan's story a good metaphor for human technological development.

That said readers in the 21st century will be amused by the technology itself. Clarke was a renowned futurologist, who made many predictions and came up with some breakthrough scientific ideas. Here he imagines a space elevator and his character uses technology that mirrors the internet, even to the extent of google news alerts. But there's still only one terminal per house! 

I enjoyed The Fountains of Paradise a great deal. It is a classic of 1970s science fiction, and probably deserves a suitable film version. It is one of the few classic science fiction novels from this era were the characters are not blurred out by the big science object, and retain a real humanity.

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Sunday, January 08, 2023

James Holland - Fortress Malta: An island under siege 1940-1943

Between 1940 and 1943 Malta became one of the most heavily bombed parts of Western Europe. Under siege by the Axis forces because of its crucial strategic position in the Mediterranean, the fact that the island was not captured is testament to the remarkable resilience of its population and tactical mistakes made by Adolf Hitler.

James Holland's Fortress Malta is a detailed account of this story that spares none of the grim details. His accounts of the impact of the siege and the heroic defence of the islands are based on archival material and interviews with men and women who experienced these events. Their stories, frequently laced with personal tragedy, are remarkable. It is particular impressive that Holland was able to capture them given that many of those interviewed were speaking nearly sixty years after the events.

Several things stood out to me from the book. The first was that Malta's story is remarkable because of the unique experience of the island. Far from Britain, low on supplies but of high strategic importance, the defenders experienced  events that few civilian populations in Western Europe had to deal with. During the heaviest siege this meant that mass starvation was real, as rations were cut to minuscule levels. 

British people are used to imagining that only they experienced the bombing in the Blitz, ignoring what happened to people in Europe - especially Germany. But Malta had it far worse than anywhere on the British mainland. On one day more bombs were dropped by the Germans on a single airfield than hit Coventry during the whole war. Almost no buildings in Malta's towns remained standing, and had it not been for the excavations that could be made into Malta's soft sandstone civilian deaths would have been much higher. 

In this context the military made decisions they would not have done anywhere else. Mavericks who couldn't follow orders were not disciplined, but rather tolerated - and Holland focuses on the stories of several of these.

I was struck by how the British saw Malta. Admiral Andrew Browne Cunningham, who was Commander-in-chief in the Mediterranean, and was closely associated with the defence of Malta, commented in his April 1942 farewell message to the islanders, that "The very extent of the success of the forced based on Malta has led to a ceaseless battering of the fortress, but one has only to think of the air effort the enemy is diverting to this purpose to realize that this is but another of the services that Malta is rendering to the Empire". The horrific reality of siege for the Maltese was to be understood solely in terms of "service to the Empire".

Reading Fortress Malta I got the distinct impression that the British leadership cared little for the inhabitants of the island, so long as they continued to help the greater objective of strategically aiding the defence of the Empire. This is particularly noticeable when thinking about how the high command repeatedly failed to understand the real situation and the need to significant numbers of the latest Spitfires. Long after the Battle of Britain had been won, Malta's pilots were outnumbered 30 or 40 to one in air battles. Despite understanding the strategic importance of the island the British military were unable to offer the material support that would have drastically reduced the suffering on the ground. This failure was not solely because of the difficulties of convoy supply.

These mistakes were only surpassed by the idiocy of the German commanders, particularly Hitler. Malta was bombed into the ground and an invasion would have been easy for the Germans who could have severely undermined the Allied efforts in North Africa, and protected their own supply routes. Yet Hitler intervened to stop this - great for Malta, but an appallingly bad military decision.

Holland tells this story well, and I was certainly drawn into his remarkable account. He also does justice to those men and women, not all servicemen, whose lives were utterly destroyed by the war. The strain of months of siege caused enormous trauma, which today we would know as PTSD or "shell shock", but was dismissed then. Holland quotes a statement from the military, which demonstrates a horrible callousness towards those who had seen real horror, day after day:

Anxiety neurosis is the term used by the medical profession to commercialise fear. Anxiety neurosis is a misnomer which makes 'cold feet' appear respectable. To give way to fear is to surrender to the enemy attack on your morale. To admit to anxiety neurosis is to admit a state of fear which is either unreasonable or has no origin in your conception of duty as a soldier. If you are a man, you will not permit your self-respect to admit to anxiety neurosis or to show fear.

I was a little frustrated that he didn't develop some of these larger themes, and perhaps explore Malta's later history in the context of the siege and British rule. The military focus meant that Holland tended to concentrate on the experiences of the British (civilians and military personnel) with very little on what ordinary Maltese people thought and said. I would have liked to know what they thought of the British, and was interested in passing reference to a number of people who were clearly supportive of the Italian regime - how general was this? Altogether though, this is a good military history that visitors to the islands and those interested in World War Two will get much out of.

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