Wind Power

In the third quarter of 2019, for the first time ever, more electricity generated in the UK came from renewable sources than from fossil fuels. 20% of the total came from wind power. We ought to be celebrating this milestone.

Of course this is not enough, and of course electricity generation is only one of the sources of human-generated CO2 in the atmosphere. There is also transport to address, and deforestation, and meat production, and fossil fuel use for heating… And if there is to be any possibility in the long run of establishing some kind of equilibrium again, the human population of the Earth needs to stabilise.

But the growth of renewable power is something to celebrate all the same. Windpower was a hippy pipedream when I was young, but now it’s a giant industry that generates one fifth of the electricity we use in Britain. People say nothing is being done about global warming, but this isn’t true, and is not helpful because it just invites cynicism and resignation. Some of the right things are being done, and on a pretty large scale too. They just need to be scaled up even more.

No longer a hippy pipedream! Wind turbine blades passing through Edenfield . Photo by Paul Anderson.

Telling the story of us and nature

I was very pleased to be asked to take part in the ‘writer’s rebel’ event last night as part of the Extinction Rebellion protest going on in London. The request was that I do a short reading of my own choice, as one of a number of writers doing the same. Having agonised all week about what to read, I ended up sitting down and writing the following a few hours before the event:

The fragile Earth…  The delicate web of life…  Nature as a wounded thing, desperately in need of our protection… 

The ecological crisis, it seems to me, has tended to be presented in those kinds of terms and I’m struck by the fact that this is really a new variation of an old story, a story in which ‘man’ is the master, and the rest of creation lies stretched out beneath ‘him’.  (I’m using the traditional gendered terms: it’s worth noting also that in many mythologies, Earth is personified as a woman.)

“God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.”

Genesis, 1:26

Things have changed of course since that was written and in our new, ecological version of the story, humankind is not so much the imperious lord of creation, but rather its custodian or curator. But in the new version, as in the old, humans are powerful, humans are godlike, humans are strong, while nature is weak: a wounded animal by the roadside, perhaps, or a beggar holding out a bowl.  It is something vulnerable that needs us. 

One problem with this, it seems to me, is that vulnerable things that need us can invite a tough response. You can walk away from wounded animals and beggars and still carry on with your life.  We all do it.  ‘I’ve got enough problems of my own to worry about just now,’ we say to ourselves. 

And this, after all, in practice even if not in theory, is the response most people give to the environmental crisis: ‘We’ve got enough problems to worry about already. The environment will have to wait.’   You can get a measure of the extent to which that’s true by imagining a world in which the media and Parliament and the general public expended, lets say a tenth, or a twentieth, or even one hundredth as much time and energy on the climate crisis, as they are doing now on the actually rather trivial and local question of Britain’s relationship with the European Union. 

And it’s not just Parliament or the media.  If I’m brutally honest, even for me, the climate crisis is quite a few rungs down from the top of the list of things I worry about most frequently.   Even people who are worried, even people who make some effort to speak out, aren’t anything like worried enough.

And I’m wondering if part of the problem is that we’ve been prone to think about this the wrong way round?  Wounded things that need us can be walked away from, but the idea of the rest of creation as being vulnerable and under our dominion is actually an infantile fantasy, like the fantasy of a little boy who plays at being big and fierce when really he depends on the care of others for everything he has. 

The Earth isn’t really fragile.  It’s five billion trillion tonnes of matter.  Drop a hydrogen bomb on it, and it just shrugs.  Life isn’t really that fragile either.  Life on Earth is getting on for four billion years old, and has survived asteroid strikes that completely blotted out the sun, and periods of cold so intense that almost the whole planet was covered in ice… As for ‘Nature’… well, nature is everything, and we’re inside it, totally and utterly subject to its laws. How can that be seen as weak? 

So perhaps the story we should be telling isn’t the story about fragile Earth and delicate nature, but the opposite?   We aren’t the masters of nature, in fact nature is ours (or our mistress is you prefer to give Mother Nature her traditional gender).  But nature is far stricter than any human ruler.  It can’t be bargained with, or flattered, or coaxed, because it doesn’t listen to us, it doesn’t hear us at all, it just responds to what we do, applying its own rules with an unbending impartiality that makes even the hardest and most rigid of bureaucrats look like bleeding hearts.  ‘Do this and the Earth gets hotter, do that and it won’t,’ says Nature, stifling a yawn and looking at its watch as it leans back in its office chair. ‘Those are the rules. It’s entirely up to you.  I really don’t mind either way.’  

And it really doesn’t, any more than electricity minds whether or not you stick your fingers into a socket, or gravity cares if you jump off a cliff.

The truth is that we and our loved ones, all our achievements, our societies, our cultures, our histories— all of the things we value and treasure and that give our life meaning— are just a small and recent outgrowth on the surface of a ball of rock that doesn’t even know we’re there.  The question isn’t ‘How do we help the poor fragile Earth?’ or ‘How do we mend the wounded web of nature?’ because the Earth is fine and nature as ever is in perfect health.  The real question is a much simpler one: ‘Do we want to be here or not?’

Greenland

President Trump’s proposal to buy Greenland has been greeted with ridicule and cited as evidence of his mental instability and inability to govern. I’m not so sure. The very existence of America demonstrates that countries grow by acquiring territory from others, whether by conquest, manipulation or purchase. Alaska, at the time another very sparsely populated Arctic territory, was obtained by purchase, and Trump is not the first American president to propose buying Greenland as well: Truman suggested it in 1946.

Greenland was a strategic asset even then because of its position in the western Atlantic. And now it’s far more valuable. As the Arctic melts, new seaways are opening up to the North of Canada, for which Greenland would be a gateway; Greenland’s mineral wealth is becoming more accessible; and Greenland itself is a very substantial piece of real estate -at 2 million square kilometres it’s three times the size of Texas – with a tiny population (less than 60,000), and a small and distant mother country (Denmark). Farming is already possible in a small area of the country, and global warming will make more and more of its territory available for development and human settlement. As I tried to show in America City, as many parts of the world become uninhabitable due to global warming, Arctic territory is going to become a very valuable asset indeed.

The history of oil demonstrates that when big powers need something that’s in another country, they find ways of taking it. (So does the history of rubber, or spices, or gold…) I’m sure Trump has blurted something out that is being seriously discussed behind the scenes. And perhaps it’s not even a case of blurting it out, but rather of deliberately softening the ground. The more often a thing is spoken about, the more possible it seems.

Greenland would be laughably easy for America to acquire. I very much doubt if Trump will be the last President to talk of taking it, and my bet would be that Greenland will indeed be annexed to America at some point in the coming century.

Meanwhile the Amazon is burning. The politics of climate change are truly upon us. A time will soon come when obsessing about whether or not Britain should be part of a European bloc will look like the displacement activity it really is.

Population

I saw this post some months ago and saved it because it jarred and I wanted to write about it.  It’s a review by Abigail Nussbaum of the movie Avengers: Infinity war, and I came across it on Twitter because someone posted it as an instance of a really good review.  I daresay it is a good review at that.  I’ve never seen the movie so I can’t comment. What troubled me was the following paragraph:

It should go without saying that Thanos’s overpopulation bugbear and his proposed solution for it are hideous claptrap.  Reducing a population by half, whether through violence as Thanos used to do, or by making people simply disappear as he wants to do with the Infinity Stones, would result in immediate economic and industrial collapse, and therefore mass starvation and most likely war.  It should go without saying, but because Hollywood continues to linger in the grip of Malthusianism decades after the rest of the world saw it for the racist nonsense that it is…

As I say, I haven’t seen the movie and don’t know who Thanos is, but if he’s proposing genocide that is clearly VERY VERY BAD INDEED.  No dispute there!  But, unless I’ve completely misunderstood her, what the reviewer seems to saying (and she’s not the only one I’ve heard say it) is that the very idea that overpopulation is a problem is ‘hideous claptrap’ .

Really? 

I’m 63.  I’m living on a planet whose population is over seven and a half billion, which is getting on for three times what it was when I was born.  It’s a planet in the middle of one of the great mass extinction events of its history, a planet where the biomass of human domestic animals is now greater than that of all other animals of similar size, a planet where human activity has destabilised the climate itself and is threatening to acidify the ocean to a point that marine animals with shells may not be able to survive.  And I personally am so far from seeing the idea of overpopulation as claptrap that I find it hard to imagine being inside a head that thinks it is.

It seems I’m with Hollywood on this one.

It’s true that population is not on its own a reliable indicator of the human impact on the rest of the planet, because the impact of any one human being is dependent on his or her behaviour.  If we eat meat and diary products, for instance, we have a much greater impact than if we are vegan, because meat and milk production are, in nutritional terms, far less efficient uses of land than growing edible plants, meaning that much more land is needed to feed a meat or cheese eater than to feed a vegan.  In the same way, if we drive a car and use aeroplanes, we will have a much greater impact than if we only walk or use a bicycle.  And if we have a centrally heated house with a TV, a fridge and a washing machine, our impact will be much greater than if we live in a hut and don’t use electric power at all (although it must be said that, even if we rely entirely on firewood for heat and light, that can still have a considerable impact.)  

The odd idea that being concerned about population is ‘racist’ originates, I imagine, from a time when people in wealthy countries expressed concern about the rapidly growing populations in developing countries without acknowledging that their own extravagant patterns of consumption were at least as much of a problem.  I get that. But still, it is pretty poor logic to take from that the idea that concern about overpopulation is necessarily racist per se

The fact is that all human behaviour impacts on the environment and the impact of any given human behaviour has to be multiplied by the number of people on the planet who behave in that way.   A billion people driving cars X number of miles per year generates a billion times the amount of carbon dioxide as one person driving a car X miles per year.  A billion people clearing forest to grow crops to eat will need a billion times as much forest as one person.  Etcetera, etcetera. So, yes, population is only part of the story, but it is an indispensable part nevertheless.  Say the human race were collectively to change its behaviour in such a way as to reduce the impact of every person on the planet by 50%.  The population only has to double for the benefit of that change to be lost. And since, however much the human population increases, the surface area of the planet remains unchanged, it must be the case that, for any given pattern of human behaviour, however frugal, there must be a physical limit to how many people the planet is able to support.

Which takes me to the second charge made (in this particular film review but also elsewhere) against the idea that overpopulation is a problem.  Not only is it racist, but it is Malthusian. 

The implied argument goes something like this:  We know that Malthus was concerned about human population, right?  We know that his predictions were wrong.  We also know that some of what he said was pretty obnoxious.  QED being concerned about overpopulation is ‘Malthusian’ and therefore both wrong and obnoxious.  Right?

Wrong!  That’s not a logical argument at all.  We are not living in the age of scholasticism, and arguments do not stand or fall on the authority of whatever famous name happens to have become associated with them.  Calling someone a ‘Malthusian’ for being concerned about overpopulation, like calling them racist, is not an argument at all, it’s a way of shutting down argument altogether, it’s an exercise in denial.

Optimistic writing

Science fiction is usually set in the future.   It’s true that quite often it is only nominally the future -much science fiction is set in worlds that are no more plausible as a depiction of a real future than, say, Arthurian romances are plausible as depictions of a real past-  but even so, one of the functions that SF performs is providing an imaginative way of thinking about where we may be headed.

An SF writer must primarily be a story-teller, though.  There has to be tension and jeopardy in the imagined world, in order to generate a story.  Fictional utopias, worlds where all humanity’s problems have been solved, are notoriously screamingly dull.  (Which sometimes makes me wonder if we would really even want to live in a utopian society, or whether, like David Bowie’s Saviour Machine, we’d feel compelled to destroy it in order to get away from the tedium of it all?)  It’s much easier to set an interesting story in a dystopia, or at least in a world which is at least as flawed as the present, and I’m not sure its even possible to set an interesting novel in a utopia unless the utopian society is placed under some kind of external threat ( as in Huxley’s Island, or Le Guin’s The Dispossessed).

I mention all this because I like to read about positive developments that might improve things in the future, and as someone who writes about the future (and worries about it, as we all do), I always feel that I’d like to disseminate what I read, but in fact it is very hard to do so through the medium of SF.  I think maybe I just need to accept that non-fiction is a better medium for writing about such things.

the switch cover

The Switch (by Chris Goodall) is a very readable book about the hopeful possibilities arising from the fact that solar power is becoming cheaper year on year, to the point where it will soon be a much more cost-effective source of energy than fossil fuels.  Early solar panels cost many thousands of dollars per watt of power,but ‘by the mid 1970s the figure had fallen to $100 a watt.  Now the cost is about 50 cents and the decline still continues’ and ‘in the sunnier parts of the world, photovoltaics already offer electricity at lower total cost than other forms of power’.  Even in more northerly countries, PV [photovoltaics] is dramatically reducing in cost: ‘In Britain the dramatic fall in the price of solar panels has already pushed PV almost to cost parity with planned gas-fired power stations’.  And ‘because PV is so utterly reliable and almost maintenance-free, it is a perfect investment for pension funds seeking consistent yearly returns for the thirty-five years of a panel’s life.’

But there’s an obvious problem with PV which is that sunlight isn’t constant and can’t be turned on and off to meet demand.   Actually no other source of power can be turned on and off at will like that without at least some cost, but clearly PV doesn’t work at all in the night,  generates power in the middle of the day whether it is needed or not, and generates less power when the sky clouds over, even if more is actually needed during those times.  Most of the book is therefore about developments around the world aimed at addressing this problem, which the author sees as eminently surmountable.

There are a number of layers to this.  One is to manage demand more effectively.   There are already schemes whereby companies are paid to enter into an agreement to cut energy use at short notice when there is a spike in demand, which can often be done without affecting productivity.  For example, a papermill produces pulp and stores it, and then turns the pulp into paper.  Provided there is a sufficient store of pulp, pulp-making can be paused at any point, without reducing the overall output of the mill.  In the same way domestic fridges and freezers can be turned off for short periods without ill-effect and chargers for electric vehicles can be set to stop charging at periods of peak demand, and resume charging at periods of lower demand.

Another way is to store the energy.  Pumped storage – that is: using surplus power to pump water uphill, and then allowing that water to flow down through a turbine to generate power at times of energy shortage- has been the main means of doing this on a large scale, but there are a limited number of suitable sites for this.   There are also new solar powerstations being built which, instead of using PV, concentrate solar energy to generate heat that can be used to power turbines even when the sun is down (Morocco has made a big commitment to this approach and is currently developing the largest such scheme in the world).  Increasingly though, large-scale storage in batteries is becoming an option, because batteries are reducing in cost year on year, much like PV, albeit not quite so quickly.   In countries where there is steady sun throughout the year, this book suggests, a combination of PV and banks of batteries may on their own be able to provide sufficient power for household use.

However in countries with long, relatively dark winters, batteries will not be sufficient.  The later chapters of this book explore emergent technologies, not yet as far advanced as PV or batteries, which can use surplus power to synthesise  fuels, by extracting hydrogen from water and combining it with carbon dioxide to make methane or ethanol.  One of the attractive things about this approach is that there is an existing infrastructure of storage tanks and pipelines which are currently used for fossil fuels, as well as gas powerstations that could equally well run on synthesised fuel.   The book describes a range of different approaches being taken around the world towards mimicking what plants do naturally, using sunlight to make fuel, and doing so on a commercial scale.

I couldn’t make a novel out of all this -perhaps some people could, but I couldn’t- and yet it is a fascinating story.  I guess the truth is that the really creative people here are not story-tellers who imagine worlds, but the scientists, engineers,  entrepreneurs and politicians, who actually make things happen in the real world that we all inhabit.  I know that a lot of people would argue that the rate of change towards these new technologies is still far too slow to tackle climate change, but that’s a question about political will.   The political choice to shift away from fossil fuels is only even theoretically possible if viable alternatives are available.  The encouraging story this book tells is that they are, and getting more viable all the time.  The other encouraging point -and I’m simply not qualified to judge how realistic it is- is that a time is arriving where market forces themselves, regardless of politics, will pull us in the direction of solar power and power storage, and away from fossil fuels.

A climate of hope

Nick Brooks drew my attention to this article about the three way relationship between science, art and imagination when it comes to our response to climate change.  My thought, as someone who plans to write a novel about climate change (I have written a few short stories about it, including Rat Island, which you can read here) is that the difficult three-way link to pull off is between (a) depicting just how bad the future could be if climate change takes hold (b) nevertheless encouraging hope rather than resignation (a lot of people are simply resigned to climate change, much as they are resigned to their own deaths) (c) managing to do both these while actually being an engaging story.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve actually heard quite a few things that have made me feel encouraged about the possibilities for the future.   The Swansea tidal barrage has moved a step nearer being a reality (harnessing a moon-powered energy source that that has the potential to generate a good deal of the world’s electricity).   A new kind of aluminium battery, durable and capable of being charged very quickly, has been developed (electricity needs to be more storable and more portable if we are going to move away from fossil fuels for power generation and transport).  A new way has been developed of producing hydrogen in a carbon-neutral way from plant waste (hydrogen being another potential clean and portable power source).

It’s very easy to pick holes in these kinds of developments as solutions to our problems.  They can be dismissed as tokenistic or impractical gestures in the face of the scale of the task to be accomplished, and of course many of them will prove to be blind alleys, like steam cars or digital music cassettes.  But blind alleys are inevitable in any dynamic evolutionary process.  It seems to me that what we have in front of us are the early prototypes of technologies that, when developed and linked up together, could take us into a post-carbon economy.  Are the technical challenges really so much greater than those involved in developing the modern car from its primitive forebears, or the modern airliner from the Wright brothers’ ramshackle flying machine?

Stanley Steamer
Stanley steam-powered racing car 1903. Public domain image.

I’ve no idea how to make these hopeful developments into interesting fiction, or how to combine them with dire warnings about what will happen if we don’t puruse them, so I’ll just lay them out right here.

I guess technology and fiction just don’t necessarily mix.   There’s plenty of fiction about space travel, because it can be used to create extreme and exciting scenarios, but how much interesting fiction has been written about communication satellites, the one application of space technology which most of us actually use?

Where are the aliens?

I enjoyed this article by David Brin.  It seems to me to exemplify the way the science fictional imagination works, connecting together, in a single speculative sweep, ideas that come from astronomy, mathematics, biology, history, politics and economics.

Beginning with the Fermi Paradox (that is: if we are not alone in the universe, how come we aren’t detecting any aliens?), Brin moves on to consider the question as to whether we should actively seek to identify ourselves to putative alien civilizations.  He’s cautious about this, and considers there to be a real possibilility of alien species having very different priorities to ours: “would our favorite models of ‘human nature’ … apply equally to a sapient race descended – say – from pack carnivores, like wolves? Or solitary hunters, like tigers? Or solipsistic omnivores (bears), or herd herbivores? Or ants?”*

Brin then discusses the way that even human societies (societies developed by “gregarious apes”) have a strong tendency to form pyramid-like hierarchies. Our present western society he sees as an exception to this:

Across the last two centuries we have experimented with a different attractor model – one that is diamond-shaped, with an empowered middle that both outnumbers the poor and is unafraid of the rich. In the Enlightenment Experiment, arenas like markets, democracy, science, courts, and sports successfully harness regulated competitiveness to create tsunamis of wealth and free exploration, while also allowing and encouraging countless opportunities for willing cooperation. The resulting society roils and froths. It may seem chaotic, especially for those who dream of simple, perfect utopias. But inarguably it has outperformed – in just two centuries – all of the preceding feudal pyramids… combined.

He thinks that this diamond shape is constantly under threat from forces seeking to pull society back to the old, stagnant, feudal pyramid, and takes a swipe here at those who think of free markets as somehow ‘natural’ states that thrive without external intervention:

Anyone who claims that competitive arenas can remain effective without carefully negotiated regulation to suppress cheating should try this experiment: set up a sports league without rules, in which the strongest players are free to unite in a single team, if they so choose. (To make the experiment perfect, establish it without even laws against violence and murder: think Rollerball.) …

When the strong can side with the strong against the less-strong, you quickly get cartels and monopolies, then inherited ruling castes, and the old cycle is re-established. It is being attempted as we speak.

It is indeed.  People like myself, whose political instincts are on the ‘leftward’ side of the political spectrum (insofar as that is even a meaningful concept: but that’s for another time!), are prone to conflate the idea of ‘free markets’ with the idea of ‘capitalism’, but in fact the idea of a free market is a false front behind which monopoly capitalism hides, much in same way as the idea of people’s power is the false front behind which communist tyrannies hide.  By calling on the idea of ‘free markets’ capitalism resists the very regulation that is necessary for genuine pluralism in the market place, and, if still unchecked, it becomes first monopolistic, and finally a new kind of feudalism.

Brin wonders if the pyramidal structure is an ‘attractor state’ so powerful that it provides a possible explanation for the Fermi Paradox.  If stagnant, rigidly hierarchical pyramids are the default structure towards which societies of sentient beings are inevitably drawn, then perhaps this explains why there aren’t societies out there which are dynamic and technologically advanced enough to be detected?

At this point, though, I find his argument a bit of a stretch.  We need to bear in mind, I think, that those ‘tsunamis of wealth and free exploration’ have been acheived, not simply by a certain kind of social structure, but through an unprecedented level of exploitation of the resources of the planet**.  I’d suggest that a much more plausible explanation of the Fermi Paradox can be found in what we now know about climate change.  Perhaps to achieve a sufficient level of technological sophistication to be detectable across space, a society has to draw so massively on its planet’s reserves of stored up chemical energy, that a civilization-destroying ecological catastrophe becomes inevitable?

Obviously I hope I’m wrong, and that societies of sentient beings can find other ways of progressing that don’t involve self-destruction.   Or at least that we can, even if none of the others out there have yet managed it.

* I had some slightly similar thoughts about wolves and bears here.
**And indeed, exploitation of people: which actually suggests to me that the diamond shape is something of an illusion, and has always looked much more like the old-fashioned pyramid when seen on a global scale.  (Much as apartheid-era South Africa might seem ‘diamond-shaped’ if you only looked at the white population, but was very decidedly pyramid-shaped, if you looked at the population as a whole.)

Heat

It’s like being in a disaster movie or novel.  Not in the main story, though, not in the drama itself, but in one of those little flashback scenes where the narrative glances back at how it all began: the small apparently innocuous signs, the little details that people noticed but didn’t think much about, the other preoccupations that now look so trivial, but which seemed more pressing at the time.

This is the hottest year on recordNext year looks like it may be even hotterFourteen of the fifteen hottest years ever have been in this century.

The movie returns from the flashback to the main narrative.  “Why didn’t they see it?” the characters ask one another in bemusement.  “Why didn’t they do anything about it?”

Climate Wars by Gwynne Dyer

Dyer Climate Wars coverWhile the political class still appear to give a very low priority to the problems that will be caused by climate change, the military are already planning for them.  The following quotation, cited in this book, is from a federally funded study called National Security and Climate Change, published in 2007.  Retired generals and admirals from all four of America’s armed services were invited to comment on the the security aspects of climate change.   This observation is from a Marine Corps general:

We will pay for this one way or another.  We will pay to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions today, and we’ll have to take an economic hit of some kind.  Or we will pay the price later in military terms.  And that will involve human lives.

Conflicts occur when different groups of people are competing for scarce resources.   As climate change plays out, areas of the world that can now feed themselves will no longer be able to do so, in some cases because of flooding (for example Bangladesh) in others  because of low rainfall (southern Europe and much of Africa, China and central America), in some cases because the loss of mountain glaciers mean that rivers will run dry in the summer (Pakistan and California are both dependant on glacial meltwater to irrigate their farms.)   This will lead to pressure on land (China, for instance, might resurrect land claims in Siberia), and disputes over water. (What would Egypt do if countries upstream were to divert the waters of the Nile?  What would happen if India diverted more water from the Indus, on which Pakistan depends?)  It will also lead to huge migrations across the world in which the still relatively viable countries will either have to seal off their borders, or face an influx of climate refugges.  (How will the people of Africa react when they are starving and the North won’t let them in, even though it caused the problem in the first place?)

One of the strengths of Dyer’s book (the second book with this same title that I’ve recently read) is that he offers scenarios set at various dates in the twentieth century that illustrate the kinds of conflicts that would occur.   Another is the clear, bold way it’s written, interspersed with interview material that is woven into the overall narrative.   It is a fairly grim read but a very engaging one nevertheless.

Dyer makes a number of arresting points.   One of these is that as conflict increases, the chances of collective global action to address the underlying cause  will dwindle to zero.  Another is that climate change is itself only one of a series of global challenges that lie ahead of us for the forseeable future: the size of the human population, and its expectations, are pushing the planet’s resources to their limits, and there’s no longer any slack.

Dyer’s concluding message, one that he knows is controversial, is that we aren’t going to be able to cut carbon emissions in time – we’ve simply left it too late – and that, in the short term at least, there are going to have to be some technical fixes which will either extract carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, or reduce the amount of sunlight reaching the surface of the Earth.

There are two reasons why this is controversial.  One is that it involves tinkering with some very fundamental things that we don’t fully understand.   (Dyer’s answer is that it’s a bit late to start worrying about that now.  We’ve already tinkered massively, and we’ve long since passed the point where we can simply hand the controls of spaceship Earth back to Mother Nature.)  The other is that it presents a moral hazard: as soon as we get a whiff of a technical fix we’ll stop even trying to address the real underlying problem.  Dyer acknowledges this danger – he’s already argued earlier in the book that human beings always push things to their limits – but what he seems to be saying is that, if we want to avoid the tipping point where negative feedback loops will send global warming spiralling upwards, we really don’t have much choice.

The Great Deluge by Douglas Brinkley

Bush

This is George Bush in Air Force One, flying back from Texas to Washington.  He’s requested that the plane divert over New Orleans, and he has invited the press to come through from their section of the plane to photograph him looking down concernedly at the city whose lower parts have now been flooded for two days, since Hurricane Katrina broke the levees.   If any single image captures the mediocrity of this man, this is surely it.   This was not a leader, but a dull little rich kid whose daddy’s friends had fixed him up with a job, and provided him with helpers to do the difficult parts.  In this case, even the helpers screwed up.

‘You’re doing a great job, Brownie!’ Bush told the Director of FEMA, the federal agency responsible, but of course as we all know the agency’s performance was very far from a great job.   In a curiously telling detail, Douglas Brinkley observes that Brownie was not in fact a nickname that anyone actually used.  The dull little rich kid was trying to suggest a level of engagement that did not in fact exist.

The Great Deluge is an account of what actually lies below him as he gazes down for the cameras: a devastated city, where bloated corpses are floating in the streets, sick and elderly people are dying alone in flooded houses, and thousands are crammed into a sports stadium without adequate food, water or medical attention, waiting for an evacuation which, for no obvious reason, has still not arrived.

There is lawlessness.  Some of the local police have simply abandoned their posts and run.  Women waiting for rescue have been raped.  Looters raid shops not only to steal but in some strange attavistic ritual (of revenge?  of triumph?) to defecate on cash registers and on goods that they can’t carry away.  But the lawlessness has been taken by many of those who should be helping the survivors as a reason for treating them all as criminals.  (Another telling moment: a new general arrives in New Orleans to get a grip on the military efforts, and one of his first acts is to instruct is to instruct National Guardsman not to point their guns at people when they’re talking to them.)

The very boundary between lawful and unlawful has in any case been blurred.  Is it really looting to break into a store for bottles of clean water, when the only other option is drinking polluted flood-water in which human and animal corpses are floating?  (Is it even exactly looting, I wonder, to steal a TV or some other valuable piece of hardware, when you’ve lost your home and have no savings to fall back on?)  In the Morial Convention Centre, some gangsters are taking it upon themselves to provide protection for the vulnerable in the absence of any formal forces of law.  Other are just terrorising the weak.

The fact that nearly all the people trapped in New Orleans are black and poor almost certainly doesn’t help.   Police officers and Guardsmen frequently treat them with undisguised contempt, and suggest that it is their own stupid fault that they stayed in the city after warnings were given that they should move.  But where would you go, if everyone you know lives in the streets around you, you have no money to pay for accomodation elsewhere and the government, though it can afford to pay for wars on the far side of the world, has provided nothing?  Some people who try to leave on foot are stopped at gunpoint by police from neighbouring areas which don’t want to take them in.

It’s outside the scope of this book but we know too that other communities which did initially respond generously were quickly to grow tired of the burden of caring for the incomers, and to begin to stigmatise them as lazy and undeserving of help.  In another book I read recently*, a woman relocated to Austin, Texas, describes her children being bullied and stigmatised at school because they are ‘people from the storm’.

I wasn’t completely enamoured of the way The Great Deluge was written – I could have done without some of the long, folksy biographies of various characters with which the account is punctuated, and the numerous quotations from songs and literature which never seemed quite as apt as the author seemed to think they were – but it provides a detailed and vivid overview nevertheless of what actually happened during that dreadful time, as well as of the things that one would expect to happen in the world’s wealthiest country but in fact did not.   I was left with a powerful sense of how quickly we human beings can shut down compassion when it asks too much of us, simply by relabelling our fellow humans as something other than ourselves.

Any one seriously interested in writing or thinking about the future should be reading this book, and books like it.   The way things are going, there are going many more flooded cities before this century is out, many more people who don’t have access to food or water, a lot more ‘people from the storm’.

*Community Lost: the State, Civil Society, and Displaced Survivors of Hurricane Katrina, by Ronald J Angel, Holly Bell, Julie Beausoleil and Laura Lein.