The joys of passing through airports with bookshops! Hong Kong airport has pretty much banned bookshops – the Chinese Communist Party doesn’t do freedom of speech – but on the way through Dubai I was able to pick up some new books which, along with some old ones gathering dust in our friend’s flat near Lake Como, brought me a little up to date.
The pick of a good crop was, for me, The Baghdad Clock by Shahad Al Rawi. This is a story of growing up in the ravaged Iraq between the first and second American Gulf Wars. It is a fictionalised recounting of the author’s own upbringing, and her friendship with Nadia. The book has a magical spell and invention which serve it well; the innocence of childhood is beautifully written in the early pages, and the gradual awareness that comes with the move to adolescence and adulthood sharply depicted. Here’s a passage from the protagonist when she’s about to enter university, which I quote at length because carving it up would butcher it:
Yes, I am afraid, very afraid of the war. Afraid even of its declarations, its songs, its music and its patriotic poems. How could I not be afraid when planes hover in the sky and deal out death in straight lines?
Why did I have to witness all this in a single lifetime? A war in my childhood, sanctions as a teenager, and a new war with advanced smart bombs when I have not yet reached twenty. How can a normal person tell their personal life story when they move from one war to another as they grow up?
Is there anything uglier than war? How ugly is this world that understands itself through war and blockades! What does civilisation mean when we starve children and adults and then launch missiles at them?
What does it mean for humanity to progress when it keeps inventing ever more hideous paths to mutual annihilation?
Warlight is the latest from Michael Ondaatje, author of The English Patient. I bought Warlight with some misgivings as I gave up on The English Patient less than half-way through: the plot was so thin and the writing so self-conscious that I lost interest. Warlight is a different kettle of fish. Nathaniel grows up in post-war London, abandoned by his parents when he is a young teenager. As he grows up, he is able to recreate his mother’s life (his father’s appearance is little more than a biological necessity) and, towards the end, reconnects and reconciles with her. It is obvious that a lot of background research has gone into the book, but it only rarely distracts from the plot – I found Americanisms such as bookstore for book shop and sweater for jumper, not to mention a drive of “a few hours” from Northumbria to London which, in the early fifties, couldn’t have been accomplished by any land vehicle in less than a very full day – more distracting. What both makes and breaks the book, though, is the language. When the editor allows the author to use his natural style, which is for long sentences, the book flowed, but this was inconstant and staccato bursts such as this not only broke the rhythm but detracted from the whole:
Only in our habits of clothing was there a difference. My journeying from place to place had made me responsible for my neatness. Something like ironing my own clothes gave me a sense of control. Even for working in the fields with Mr. Malakite I washed and ironed what I wore. Whereas my mother would hang a blouse to dry on a nearby bush, then simply put it on…
A new to me but old (2010) book is Elif Sharak’s The Forty Rules of Love. The main character, Ella is a bored housewife who is sent a manuscript to read – which we read, too – and who falls in love with the novelist. This is not so much a novel-within-a-novel as two stories intertwined, one set in fourteenth century Baghdad and the other in modern New England, and both of them love stories even if the loves are of a different quality: Ella’s is more of an escape from, while that of the dervish and Sufi, Shams, in the manuscript, is a journey to: in this case to Rumi, a holy man, with whom he forms a deep spiritual bond. The book cracked along at a reasonable pace and, although I did find myself becoming distracted by minor characters who didn’t seem to add anything much, the ending pulled the threads together very nicely.
Another new-to-me-but-oldie is my friend James Tam’s Man’s Last Song. Set in a future-world Hong Kong, and following a decline and termination of human fertility, Song is the last person ever to have been born. Now entering late middle age, he and half a dozen or so folks are the only ones left on an island that was once home to several million people. More a vignette than a novel, the book is an often hilarious satire, yet retains enough narrative tension to be difficult to put down.
The last of the fiction pile is Natasha Pulley’s first novel, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street. Nathaniel (a popular name in fiction this summer, it seems) is a clerk with no future until he discovers a watch, while Grace aspires to be a great scientist in a man’s world. From this unfold two semi-fantastic and intertwined romances, set in nineteenth-century London, with mysterious Japanese men and the making of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Mikado opera. “Your science can save a man’s life, but imagination makes it worth living” says one of those Japanese men, and imagination is the great strength of this novel. It is playful, energetic and, above all, hints at magic without ever straining the credibility. What does, unfortunately, strain the credibility, is an inattention to historical background facts: Thaniel, for example, wakes in a hospital at one point to the smell of “fearsome disinfectant” when any disinfectant, fearsome or not, would not be invented for another seven years, and worries about leaving fingerprints which would not be a tool of forensics for another twenty. These, however, are minor irritations. The book’s a delight. Read it!
Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, today apologised – again – but with words and not actions. She apologised for failing to read the hearts and minds of Hong Kong’s youth, but not for attempting to ram through the extradition bill that provoked the huge demonstrations over the past two weekends; she refused to withdraw the bill, suggesting that it would die anyway. (No, I can’t follow the logic, either. Maybe its a moral objection to euthenasia). She asked for a second chance without saying what she’d do with it.
So here are my suggestions:
- Withdraw the damn bill.
- Move out of your mansion on Albert Road and into a public housing estate.
- Donate 95% of the vast salary you earn to charity and see how it feels to scrape by on $15,000 per month.
- Take the MTR or bus to work instead of being chauffeur driven everywhere.
- Clean your own toilet, buy your own food and toilet paper.
- Hang out outside 7-11s near universities and schools. Young people tend to congregate there because they don’t have the money to hang out in $1,000-a-head restaurants.
Etc, etc. The sad thing is that even that exercise in eating humble pie would change nothing. The problem is simple and structural. Hong Kong people expect to have a say in choosing what sort of society Hong Kong is to become. When 70% of youth have been told without being asked that they will never – as a matter of government policy – own a house in the city of their birth; when their money – let’s be clear: it’s not the government’s money but the taxpayer’s – is frittered away on white elephant infrastructure without the taxpayers and taxpayers-to-be being asked; when the government decrees without asked the population that the population will grow by 20% over ten years – without thinking to build 20% more hospitals, schools and retirement homes – people get pissed off.
None of that litany of complaints is about Carrie Lam. It’s about the legitimacy of the decision-making process. There’s an old theory that that legitimacy is grounded in the consent of the governed. A large part of that consent comes through competence, and a large part of competence comes through responsiveness. The Hong Kong government is structurally incapable of being responsive, and therefore structurally incapable of being competent. It is a deep irony that mainland China, while it does back up responsiveness with a fist, has means to funnel good ideas up the food chain. This gives its government a legitimacy to Chinese citizens that Hong Kong lacks.
The letter X, as in Xi Jinping, is pronounced “Sh” in Chinese. Xi Who Must Be Obeyed is the ultimate owner of the current debacle. Until his eyes and ears in China’s shadow government here choose to live in public housing, take the MTR to and from work, and hang out around 7-11s near universities and schools, the disobedience can only grow.
The Ta Kung Po is the most unapologetic of the Communist Party of China’s various propaganda rags. To say that it tows the party line is an understatement – it is a window to the heart and (non)soul of the CCP.
However, that it is unvarnished propaganda doesn’t mean that the high-tech era has passed it by. The Ta Kung Po has a massive public LED display on the exterior wall of their offices in downtown Hong Kong. Last Sunday, 9th June, on the first Million+ march, this display board was displaying patronising nonsense explaining why the extradition law that is the focus of the protests was a good thing, how it would make HK a safer and more harmonious place, etc.
Yesterday, 16th June, on the second Million+ march, the Ta Gung Po’s signboard was back to advertising holiday destinations in China. Not a mention of the extradition law. Though later, it apparently displayed a message saying that the CCP support the suspension of discussions.
I can think of no clearer indication that the marches worked. So I’m happy today.
As a genre, I tend to avoid the self-published memoir. While they sometimes contain amusing incidents, too many are written by Colonel Blimp types with an instructional message for young men and women seeking the benefits of elder counsel for their improvement, and the rest stretch 20,000 words of content into 80,000 words of waffle. Remembering Shanghai by mother and daughter Isabel Sun Chao and Claire Chao breaks the mould on all fronts. More than a memoir, it is a five-generation family history, but of a family whose main forbear shaped modern Chinese history and whose descendants, if they were not shaping history, at least had front row seats to many of its main events.
The Communist Party of China (CCP) is quick to blame foreigner aggression for the century of chaos that lasted from the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century. The CCP date the start of this to the First Opium War, a war of aggression started by foreigners, it’s true, but the CCP tends to gloss over the far bloodier – and indigenous – Taiping Rebellion that started ten years later, and in which millions were killed while China’s ruling class basically ate cake.
Sun Zhutang was born in 1841, the year of the First Opium War. His beginnings were poor, but at the age of twelve he was sent to work as a servant for a lawyer who recognized a bright spark, taught Sun how to read and write and prepared him to work as legal counsel for government. When the Taiping Rebellion came to his area, Sun, knowing the minds of the peasants better than the generals, rallied the peasants and, after some successes, aligned himself with two of the leading government generals who put down the rebellion.
Sun was rewarded. He was appointed to high government positions, made lots of money, and retired early to make even more money. As was normal in that era, he married and had several concubines, one of which gave birth to two surviving sons. They grew up to be scoundrels, pulling off a brazen heist of their own father’s money, which they promptly blew on fast living. Number 7 son died young, but not before siring the authoress’s father.
“Diedie” (daddy), as he’s referred to in the book, was a man of refined tastes, a lover of artwork, calligraphy and poetry. Although the family fortune had been much diminished, it was still substantial, and he was able to provide well for his family.
Isabel was the youngest of three children who survived infanthood and, as such, “had none of the pressures [her elder sister] endured as a first born, nor the responsibilities of [her elder brother], the only son.” Although her father was strict, she was his favourite: where, for example, her elder siblings had to wear traditional Chinese clothes, Isabel was free to wear Western fashions. LIke her siblings, Isabel was educated at the exclusive McTyeire School for Girls, where only English was spoken, and went to St. Mary’s Hall, an equally exclusive institution. Despite this largely English-language education, Isabel picked up her father’s ear for the allusions that make Chinese poetry so rich:
On summer evenings, soon after dinner was finished, the heavenly scent of night-blooming jasmine floated indoors. I would join the servants gathered outside the kitchen on rattan lawn chairs to gossip and savor the breeze. I can still hear the cicadas grinding their songs to the rustle of plane trees and glimpse the fireflies flitting to and fro, as though connecting the stars in a velvet sky.
This was to be short-lived, however. The family fortune was already in decline, and the family moved to a smaller (though still substantial) house when Isabel was young. Just as Isabel’s grandmother had divorced her grandfather, so too did her own mother divorce Diedie. Just as her grandfather had ripped off his own father, he himself was kidnapped and ransomed only with the help of Shanghai’s top gangster, Pockmarked Huang – who was also the police chief of Shanghai’s French Concession.
On a wider scale, the Japanese invaded when Isabel was still young, and that invasion and the Second World War caused the family, despite its wealth, many privations. These were exacerbated by the civil war that followed the defeat of the Japanese. The communists won, at which point Isabel was dispatched to Hong Kong to join her mother. It was to be many decades before she returned. Her father, sister and brother would remain in China, suffer through the Cultural Revolution, and struggle back.
There are many things that set this book apart. The descriptions of Shanghai in the interwar period are spectacular, not just in wonderful passages such as that quoted above, but also of a society in transition, away from traditional Chinese morality with men free to philander and foot-bound women and towards a less unequal role for women; from the warlord era of Isabel’s birth to the communist era, and from foreign aggression to indigenous brutality (in the Great Leap Forwards and the Cultural Revolution, but in many other quotidian ways).
Much of the historical research for the book was done by Isabel’s daughter, Claire. This could be a liability, but mother and daughter adopt a Ping-Pong approach, with the main narrative written by Isabel and the family history inserted. This works well – it’s clear that Diedie’s literary gifts stayed in the family.
Also, the book is beautifully produced. It has many illustrations, all in full-colour, and is speckled with entertaining break-outs between chapters. My only criticism is that it’s not available in hard-back. Buy and enjoy: you won’t regret it!
Erratum: It is available in hard-back: here.
The Australians voted this weekend to destroy their own home. To their credit, the election just passed is the first election in the English-speaking world to hinge on climate change, which is itself a huge step. But ScoMo stayed in power on a platform that commits Australia to being Asia’s coal mine and China’s factory farm.
I’ll leave the political classes to dissect the political results, but here are some random observations on the Australian view of the world which led them to vote to become Lostralians.
First, nature. Australia is as urbanised as every other developed economy, but Australians stand in a uniquely mechanistic relationship to their country. Fraser Island, for example, is a singularity: it’s the world’s biggest island made completely of sand. As such, it has all sorts of weird geographical and ecological features. When I went there, I was hoping for something special; what I got was Disneyland on four-wheel drives.
A friend of mine’s aunt decided it was time to drive around the continent. She purchased a massive mobile home – essentially a truck – and put a trailer on the back. The trailer was for her four-wheel drive. Fuel consumption aside, she created an environment which put a layer of metal between herself and the country she purported to be exploring. Nature, but from behind the windshield. Another friend has been through the red centre on the Simpson Highway using – you guessed it – a four wheel drive. Not on a camel, not on a horse, not part of the environment, but an observer from inside a car.
Nature seems, for many Australians, to be something you vanquish or hide from. There is no equivalent of the Appalachian Trail, the West Highland Way, or the other multi-day and multi-week walks in other parts of the world. Nature is not a place for contemplation and quietude; it’s somewhere you go for school trips and thrills.
Second, although a “No one’s going to tell me what to do” attitude prevails everywhere, it is very strong in Australia. This, I think, is an expression of the split in Anglosphere politics, described by many as that between right- and left-wing politics. This distinction is well past its sell-by date; the split is between selfishness and public-spiritedness in politics – and I mean in politics, not private life. Many people’s politics lean to the right, but those same people are generous in time and money on public-spirited causes. The distinction is whether politics should institutionalise that public-spiritedness.
In the case of many charities, the distinction amounts to whether I donate time and money to my own pet causes (“no one’s going to tell me what to do”), or whether I have it collected as tax dollars and redistributed according to the politico-social consensus that democracies are supposed to encapsulate. I won’t address the general case, but I will say that for climate change, relying on public-spirited private action amounts at best to doing nothing, and at worst to destruction.
On the hand of doing nothing, those who protest most loudly about the incompetence and arbitrariness of public support for social goods are those most blinkered to the massive subsidies that the fossil fuel and agri- industries have claimed for themselves. We are continuously hectored by the mantra of free markets, but many mines and factory farms would go broke, unsubsidized by tax dollars, in a true free-market system.
On a more quotidian basis, doing nothing amounts to maintaining the status quo, and look where it’s got Lostralia: the Murray-Darling River system is more or less trashed; business-as-usual threatens a large swathe of the Great Barrier Reef so that Lostralian coal can spread Australia’s carbon footprint yet wider by worsening India’s already appalling air quality; inaction has seen drought, floods, heat waves and desertification become the norm in ever-widening swathes of the country.
On the hand of active destruction, “no-one’s-going-to-tell-me-what-to-do” is a notion of freedom that amounts to license; to the idea that I shouldn’t be prevented from driving my SUV just because some greeny tells me, that I shouldn’t have to eat less meat just because some bunny-lover gets offended. You don’t have to take this argument to ridiculous lengths – I shouldn’t be prevented from murder just because of some grieving relatives – to see how shallow it is; but it is this argument that underpins the frontier mentality that dominates the way Australians think of themselves.
But climate breakdown is fuelled first and foremost by private excess, and it is only through public action that behaviour will change. Only if tomorrow’s SUV-carnivores are treated with the same public disgust as today’s drunk drivers, will we avert disaster (and not only in Australia). The ecosphere is the most public of all public goods, and as such, should be publically managed, not privately apportioned. If that means putting limits on behaviour, so be it: not driving drunk is the price we pay for safe streets; consuming less is the price we pay for a planet that’s habitable.
The great irony is that Australia was the last continent to adopt a carbon economy. Until the white settlers arrived in the late eighteenth century, Australians lived a carbon-neutral existence. Given the newcomer’s attitudes to those who preceded them, the hardest pill for many to swallow would be to learn from those who arrived forty millennia earlier. That learning may or may not have happened under a Labor government; it won’t even be considered under ScoMo. So welcome, Lostralia, to climate collapse.
The Hong Kong government succeeded in stitching up nine people for the peaceful protests that shook the city in 2014. Their convictions are a death knell for civic society in Hong Kong. This is for them:
Nine innocent men face prison today
A priest, a lawyer, what can we say,
Public nuisances all of them, they
Incited inciting others to play.
The prosecution had work to do
Set up a show trial, witnesses few,
Archaic doctrines exhumed for view,
Whose meanings they could easily skew.
The defence in turn stated its fears
A chilling effect down through the years;
The verdict was writ, it became clear,
Before the counsel rose from his chair.
The ruling elite who run this place,
Their arrogance like a spit in the face,
Gloated away with absence of grace,
The masses put back again in their place.
Too far removed in their own Holy See,
They took their revenge, savoured with glee,
Killed the bête noir of democracy,
Revelling in their hypocrisy.
As to the other ninety percent,
Lacking a means to their grievances vent,
No legal channel for civil dissent,
Given up now, their energies spent.
Hopes for a voice, the Party won’t meet,
The law now a stick, dissent to beat,
No longer shall we take to the street.
But do the right thing: vote with our feet.
Dedicated to: Chan Kin-man (16 months), Benny Tai (16 months), Rev. Chu Yiu-ming (16 months, suspended), Raphael Wong (8 months), Siu Ka-chun (8 months), Eason Chung (8 months, suspended), Lee Wing-tat (8 months, suspended), Tommy Cheung (200 hours community service), Tanya Chan (sentence delayed pending medical treatment).
I first came across Angela Clarke at last year’s Writers’ Day put on by The Literary Consultancy. She gave a great talk about how she maintains a web presence – tips I have aspired to live up to – but her fiction was a genre I’m not a great fan of so I didn’t, ahem, read any of her books. Until, that is, she sent me a pre-publication one for free.
On My Life is a book I read in three sessions and which will stay on my shelf rather than being given away. This is a psychological thriller that transcends its genre, with an indictment of how the UK criminal justice system fails women prisoners in general, and the unborn babies of pregnant women prisoners in particular. Add to this the underlying themes of class and addiction, and this is one powerful novel.
The plot is simple: Jenna is arrested for a gruesome crime she did not commit. She is thrown in jail, and has to find a way to survive. The system in which she finds herself is brutal and that brutality is reinforced by being impersonal. Her case grinds on almost in her absence with her access to her lawyer, and to the courts, being through video rather than in person; as there are hints of sexual deviancy in her crime, she is forced to shun the other prisoners lest they find out. And, to add to this, she finds out (it’s on the front cover, which I think is a mistake by the marketing department) she is pregnant.
The story is narrated in two times streams, now and then, the then narrating the events leading up to the crime, and the now narrating Jenna’s bleak and increasingly violent time in prison. Both streams move at a cracking pace, with short sentences, short chapters and hooks to keep you reading. Yet, despite this, the author manages to convey the claustrophobic atmosphere, the oppression, and how there is little in prison to do but brood.
And Jenna does brood. In the then time stream, she stumbles upon bits of information, little hints and giveaways that ultimately solve her crime: how the man of her dreams turned out to be a flawed man from a flawed family, how her own past with a substance-addicted mother and no father came to catch up on her, and how in leaving her past behind, she had also left behind an important part of her identity. The passages describing how her dream relationship forced her to be someone she was not were amongst the strongest in the book:
But I do love him. I love him and Emily [his daughter] so much. I have never felt as happy as I do when we’re together. And every relationship involves compromise, doesn’t it? That’s just what this is. Robert is not your average man, he needs a wife who will support him and the business. Plenty of Emily’s friends’ mothers don’t work. It’s normal in this world. I squash the panicked thought of a life full of charity lunches and organizing Robert’s shirts.
The sense of self-deception is wonderfully portrayed, and much of the crime hinges on it. But the now, too, has some wonderful passages:
I don’t tell her that I’m into my second [trimester], that I should have had my scan, that I’ve been so frightened of anyone finding out I haven’t fought for my baby’s rights. That I’ve already failed by child. I should get up. I should be working on a new plan. A baby can’t live in here.
And this part of the underlying message of the book is what carries it beyond the genre: the author does voluntary work with prisoners, and what she’s learned shows.
There are a couple of loose ends. The book mentions in the earlier passages that Jenna’s dream man, is part of the “Freemasons Club.” As a freemason myself, I often have a chuckle at what authors think we get up to (Jo Nesbo had us standing around with our willies out, which I found downright hilarious), but that particular aspect of the plot went nowhere. I also found myself becoming impatient with Jenna’s inability to come to terms with the fact that the system is broken – deal with it, survive, I found myself shouting. But these flaws are trifles. This is a great read, fast-paced and intelligent. Keep an eye open for when it hits the shelves.
I didn’t think it could be done. Me, a died-in-the-blood European, spinning on a dime to become a Brexiteer. But – hats off, put out the flags and bunting – the EU did it. It wasn’t the EU’s disastrous Common Agricultural Policy, which locks in long-term environmental damage and vastly wasteful agricultural practices; it wasn’t the pseudo-democratic system in which only EU commissioners can propose legislation and all the elected representatives, the MEPs, can do is vote on it; it wasn’t even the madness of promoting wood-chips as biofuel.
No, it was this: as a long-term vegetarian, no longer am I allowed to eat veggie burgers, quorn sausages or even the utterly innocuous soya milk, but am now compelled to call them veggie patties, quorn cylinders and soya drink.
And “The meat lobby is not involved in this” quoted in the article from – I name him to shame him – MEP Éric Andrieu, is the crowning touch. If Éric is not a bare-faced liar, he is an imbecile.
Brexit for veggies. Bring it on!
Here’s the petition: https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/241584
Whatever your position on Brexit – and I’m no great fan of the EU – the past three months have proved beyond doubt that Britain is quite incapable of ruling itself. Even if you support Brexit, consider that rescinding article 50 need not be permanent.
What Britain needs is not Brexit / Remain, but a common view of what Britain will be in a generation’s time. Once that’s formed, we can work out whether being part of the EU serves or detracts from that vision, and whether the EU can be reformed to fit it, or if Britain would be better off out of the EU to realize it.
I enjoy George Monbiot‘s columns. He is incisive, informed and, even if I don’t agree with some of his views, the world needs people like him to be a thorn in the side of the complacent. But his most recent post pissed me off. Framed as an apology from my generation and his (born in the 60s and 70s) to younger generations, he shoulders the blame for first failing to spot the coming environmental (and other) apocalypse(s) and, when we did, for despairing rather than acting.
What bollocks. Firstly, he wasn’t and isn’t the only one out there who recognised the science early on and tried to do something about it. Second, the science we had in the 1990s, when it was starting to register that we were damaging our home, the planet, is nowhere near as good as the science we have now (ditto for the food crisis and, though to a much lesser extent, soil erosion), so we had less of an idea of the urgency of the problem and the scale of the solution. But third, and most of all, to quote Philip Larkin “They fuck you up, your mum and dad / They don’t mean to but they do”: the generation on whose behalf George Monbiot takes it upon himself to apologise may have fucked up, but we didn’t mean to.
Elder generations have been fucking things up for younger ones, without meaning to, since the dawn of time. My father’s generation bequeathed my generation a world on the edge of a nuclear holocaust, so my generation walked the streets and agitated until we got nukes under control. My generation inherited a world in which over 50% lived in dire poverty, so we spread the money around and dire poverty is now down to about 10% – still 10% too many, but an improvement. Going back in time, my father’s generation inherited a world of infant mortality and colonialism; his father’s generation inherited a world turning to fascism, and their children’s generations turned those around. Those evils, of nuclear proliferation, poverty, avoidable infant diseases and fascism were not planted there as a trap or a test of manhood by one generation for the next; they were unintended consequences of the solutions the previous generation deployed to solve problems they themselves had inherited. Each generation must fix the ills the last unintentionally bequeathed it, and invents the tools needed to do so.
And this is one of the many areas in which Monbiot’s dismal column falls short. Yes, vested interests have held back the introduction of cleaner technologies; yes, the oligarchs who run the planet are babbling about green this and sustainable that from the cocoons of their gas-guzzling private jets; yes, global corporations have subverted democracies and purchased autocracies. But when in history haven’t they? That’s why we have politics.
But Monbiot also misses a bigger picture. I rolled my eyes when I heard Trump boast – as he did in his State of the Union speech – that America is producing more oil than ever, as if that’s a good thing; I was angry when Bolsonaro turned control of the Amazon over to the agribusiness that will clear cut it; when the US, Russia, Saudi and Kuwait used procedural niceties to torpedo the latest set of climate talks. But, when I hear these boasts, I remind myself change has never come from incumbents. Apple was a (failing) PC manufacturer when it invented the smartphone, pushing Nokia, Motorola and Ericsson to the edge of bankruptcy; Nokia in turn was a timber company when it produced the world’s first mega-cheap mobile phone. Trump and his backers have the money and the political power to switch off fossil fuels and switch on solar, switch off the internal combustion engine and switch on the brushless AC motor, switch off mono-cultural farming and switch on food that tastes like food. But they won’t. Because they know no other way.
And that’s when I stop being depressed and laugh. Trump exemplifies the people who brag about how “smart” they are yet, rather than take advantage of the massive opportunity cleaner technologies bring, position themselves to be squashed by history’s juggernaut. Solar and other renewables are coming whether Trump and his backers like it or not; electric (and probably ownerless) vehicles are coming whether the automotive industry wants it or not, farming is set to transform whether Bolsonaro’s ranching buddy’s like it or not. Even if the first investors in these technologies invested for ideological reasons, the reason fossil fuels, electric cars and sustainable food are coming is not ideological, it is because these new technologies do things better.
We know today how to harvest today’s free sunlight straight from source, for a fraction of the cost of extracting fossil fuels; anyone still extracting yesterday’s buried sunlight from a deep hole in the ground will join the dinosaurs in that hole. We know today how to build cars with a couple of dozen moving parts (four wheels, the four motors that power them, the steering train and the doors); anyone still building cars from thousands of moving parts is going to be sitting on a scrapheap surrounded by them. We are rapidly finding out how to use much less ground, fertiliser and pesticide to produce far more – and tastier and healthier – food; anyone producing food the old way is sitting on compost. Incumbents are nearly always the losers when new technologies come along, and there’s little indication that this round of technological innovation will be any different. When there’s better product for less money, we change our behavior, fast.
Very fast. In 1915, New York city was debating the traffic arrangements to keep cars and horses separate; by 1925, nothing remained to debate – no horse-drawn carriages were left. I was one of the first buyers of a CD player in 1984; by 1994, although there was a nostalgia for vinyl ,no one spun ’45s. In the 1990s, entire countries leapfrogged over fixed-line phone systems and went from nothing to mobile networks. The then incumbents fell by the wayside. Monbiot’s guilt and pessimism is misplaced.
That is not to say that the technology we use to get climate change under control will have its own unexpected and nasty consequences, and – “They fuck you up, your mum and dad” – we’ll leave those consequences to the next generation. This is the human condition.
But Monbiot’s apology is meant not as such, but as a call to arms: I get it. But the tone is so self-righteous that it borders on the obnoxious, and the language is so steeped in Marxist rhetoric – rise-up-ye-masses – that it will likely repel more than it attracts. This is a shame because, despite the allusions, he is onto something that matters. It is all very well saying – hoping – that better products and technology will save the day, but incumbents are protecting their interests, the lengths to which the current global incumbents are going are dangerous. That these lengths are an expression of desperation is neither here nor there: these guys will go down fighting, and if that means taking us with them, along with the natural world and this beautiful planet we call home, that’s a price they seem willing – if not determined – to pay.
Political movements are part of the solution. But so is understanding the problem. The examples I cited above, of new technologies shoving old ones to the side, are well-known and often quoted by the rah-rah technology crowd. But while technologies come and go, what cherry-picked examples can obscure is that there are underlying systems of incumbency that are far more difficult to disrupt. And here lies the deep problem. It isn’t only about oil, cars and food. It’s about a way of conducting our affairs. And here, the need is not merely for innovation – which is a constant of human endeavour – but for a paradigm shift in the way we deploy them.
Let me draw an analogy. There are two big voices in the philosophy of science: the first is Karl Popper and the second, Thomas Kuhn. Popper characterised science as being a long series of incremental, very minor advances, each building on what had gone before, mostly by trying to replicate what had gone before, but replicating it a little better. Kuhn characterised science as being a series of “paradigm shifts” – think Newton, Einstein and Hawkings in physics. Spectacular as smartphones have been, I believe such innovations are in fact minor advances of the type Popper writes about. The spectacular technological innovations are systemic, not incremental. Democracy is a technology; so are political and civil rights. Urbanisation is another one; real-time communications one more – and I don’t mean the smartphone.
These changes were systemic, sweeping and societal. Much blood was spilt in achieving some of them; many lives were saved or made possible in others. If we are to rise to challenge of saving our planet, we need to understand how these societal and political paradigm shifts have worked in the past in order that we can at least prevent the next from being bloody, and perhaps even tailor one that makes the future brighter.
So, between the top of this post and here, I’ve decided that this will be the first of a series of posts, spread over many months, that will look at some of those paradigm shifts and see what lies for their futures. It won’t be as easy as slagging off the Great Confusicator and holding my head in my hands with despair at the antics of the Tin Lady, but it may perhaps be more useful.