Richer than you think

I was struck by this article which showed that the carbon emissions of the top 10% by income of the global population are as high as those of the bottom 50%. The top 10% ‘encompasses most of the middle classes in developed countries’, the article points out, or anyone earning more than £32,000 ($40,000).

(The article doesn’t make clear, annoyingly, whether it is talking about disposable income or gross income, but £32,000 is roughly the median disposable income in the UK. The median disposable income of the UK’s poorest 20% is £14,500.)

The article makes the point that failing to allow for this fact can mean that those least responsible can end up paying a proportionately higher price for measures intended to reduce carbon emissions than those who are much more responsible, which helps to explain resistance to such measures from poorer people (the article gives the example of the ‘yellow vests’ movement in France protesting against a hike in fuel prices.) This is not the only instance, I think, of measures supported by the liberal middle classes which are resisted by poorer people on whom they more directly impact – a phenomenon that can result in a rather spurious sense of moral superiority on the part of liberal middle class folk.

The more general point I take from this is that many people who do not see themselves as rich, or as extravagant consumers – indeed many people who think they are entitled to be richer than they are, and identify themselves as being among the victims of injustice – are in fact, in global terms, rich and extravagant.


I watched the BBC series Wild Isles, presented by David Attenborough. It was beautiful to look at, but it left me wondering about ‘nature’, as presented by these programmes.

In the first episode we were shown a pod of Orcas off the coast of Shetland (or was it Orkney?). I’ve watched enough of these shows to know the kind of spectacle we can expect from Orcas – they typically harry their prey to a slow and terrifying death and I still vividly remember, from Attenborough’s Arctic show, the closeup shot of an exhausted seal looking straight at the camera, as orcas dragged it off an iceberg to be torn to pieces. It felt wrong to be staring into its eyes.

This time round a baby seal, which had swum out some way off the shore, was caught by a member of the pod. The orca then took it, still alive, to a group of its companions, where, after a certain amount of playing with its victim, the successful hunter demonstrated to younger orcas -Sir David sounded quite aroused at this point- how to hold it under water and drown it.

Later on, though, we were shown an orca that had itself drowned in a fishing net. Sombre music played. This drowned cetacean was apparently a tragedy, while the slow torment of the baby seal had been presented as something rather thrilling. Why, I wondered? Why should I care about one and not the other?

The same pattern persisted throughout the series. Predators hunting and killing -and quite often targeting the young of their prey- dominated most episodes, and were presented as an exciting spectacle, accompanied by rousing, if sinister, music,as you might hear in an action scene in a movie. We were being offered animal-killing as a voyeuristic entertainment, not unlike the animal slaughters that the Romans put on in their arenas, except that this was ‘nature’ so we could savour it guilt-free. But then there would be a sudden switch of tone and talk about the fragility of ‘nature’ and the need to protect it from the depredations of humanity. I found this no longer worked for me. I grew bored of the slaughter, and even sickened by it, and it certainly didn’t put me the mood for ‘only man is vile’ pieties. My thoughts were more on the lines of Kurtz in the Congo jungle: ‘The horror, the horror.’

After hunting scenes, the next most frequent dramas depicted in these shows are the endless combats between male animals fighting to obtain, or defend, access to females. In one episode a huge, repulsive male seal spotted an equally huge and repulsive rival that had emerged from the sea, and flopped and wriggled his blubbery bulk across the sand to do battle. They ripped each others flesh, they roared, they reared up to look as big as possible. The much less repulsive female seals meanwhile hurried to get their babies out of the way, because the males in such battles are apparently so indifferent to anything except their need for dominance, that they will crush their own children to death without a thought if these are foolish enough to get in their way.

It all felt rather familiar actually, like the story-line for much of human history. Not so much a case of ‘only man is vile’, as ‘nature is vile, and we’re a part of it.’

See also:


Utopia can wait

Two kinds of statement seem to come from the more radical wing of climate change activists:

(1) Unless we end greenhouse gas emissions in the next few years it will be too late and we will see a catastrophic collapse of civilisation and of the biosphere,

(2) We will only end greenhouse gas emissions if we completely get rid of the present capitalist political/economic system.

While I accept the possibility that both these statements may be true, I really hope they’re not, because there is absolutely no way that a completely new and fully functional political and economic system is going to be constructed in the next few years.

I mean, it’s not even as if we have blueprint of how such a system might work. You can’t just say you want ‘a society that values people more than profits’, or ‘a society that lives in harmony with nature’, and call that a plan! How are resources going to be distributed? Who is going to be in charge? (Oh, the people are going to be in charge are they? Is that the same ‘people’ who voted for the governments you say aren’t doing enough?) What is going to prevent the pursuit of short term gains that lead to long term harm? What incentives for work are there going to be? What is going to prevent the system being hijacked by its own elites, like Communism was? etc etc.

Lots of different kinds of people have their place of course, and this may in part be a matter of temperament, but speaking for myself, I am much less impressed, when it comes to combating climate change, by radical heroics than I am by meticulous practical work. XR cofounder, Roger Hallam, apparently thinks that nothing will change without a major insurrection that leads to large number of activists going to prison. I can’t see myself that large numbers of people being sent to prison will necessarily have the desired effect. I can imagine all sorts of possible consequences of insurrections of that kind, including the rise of authoritarian governments with no interest in climate change at all.

Remember that Lenin believed he was leading the Russian working class on the fastest route to socialism – and that Russia ended up with petro-capitalism and Putin.

Personally I’d rather see large numbers of people working on problems such as mass energy storage, affordable green fuels, and carbon neutral cement. It’s solving problems like these -and the political and business headaches that come with them – that’s going to stop climate catastrophe. Utopia can wait.


I haven’t read this book yet – it’s on its way to me- but I’m keen to do so because it connects with something that I’ve been thinking for a while, which is that, even in their concern to protect ‘nature’ against the depredations of humans, human beings are anthropocentric. The ‘nature’ people seek to protect is a kind of much loved park or garden that they don’t want to change in any way.

For instance, people who worry about species becoming extinct are often in favour of measures that would involve killing large numbers of animals that are thriving and prospering. Red squirrels (‘indigenous’) must be protected. Grey squirrels (originating from North America) are ‘vermin’ to be controlled.

‘Vermin’, like ‘weed’, is an entirely human category which means ‘successful species we don’t like’. Some flightless bird that stumbles about on a small island off New Zealand, and survives only because there are no ground-living animals to prey on it, must be protected by killing any new arrival that threatens it. But possums, introduced to New Zealand by humans, and now thriving there, are vermin to be wiped out.

I don’t say that people aren’t entitled to make these choices -I’d be sad myself if red squirrels died out, and sad if New Zealand’s flora and fauna became simply a compendium of European and Australian species. I’m just pointing out that they are essentially aesthetic choices, based on human preferences, and have nothing to do either with animal welfare (I’m sure British grey squirrels and New Zealand possums enjoy being alive every bit as much as the animals they are supplanting) or with protecting nature. Species evolving in isolation, and species competing with one another when circumstances bring them together are equally natural processes (see for instance The Great American Interchange) and are both important drivers for evolution.

So, if you deliberately protect species against their competitors, you are actually stopping one of the ways in which new species come into being. British grey squirrels and New Zealand possums may threaten indigenous animals, but, given time, they themselves will evolve and diversify into new indigenous forms. (Llamas, for instance, those most iconic of South American animals, are actually descended from the North American mammals that came south when the two Americas collided, and drove many of South America’s indigenous mammals to extinction.) Admittedly this takes tens or hundreds of thousands of years, and often much, much longer than that*, but the fact that this is longer than the lifespan of human beings or human cultures is our problem, not nature’s.

*PS Having since read the book, which gives many examples, I have now learned that new varieties, and even new species, can sometimes emerge far more quickly than this. Nevertheless evolution is a slow process, and presumably even slower if things are done to stop it happening.

What next?

Although the current Corvus version of The Holy Machine was published in 2010, I actually wrote it in the mid-nineties. The backdrop for the book is a global phenomenon called The Reaction, in which people all over the world, alienated by liberal, secular, scientific modernism, have reverted, violently, to older religious ways of seeing the world. (I had watched the Iranian revolution and I thought something similar might happen in the West.) In the world of the story, the old liberal order has been overthrown and replaced by theocracy in most countries, including Britain and America. Among others, scientists of any kind are actively persecuted.

(My second novel, Marcher, had a similar theme, though here I described a threat to modernity posed by pagan intruders from other dimensions, whose desire to take the world back to the age of the Vikings had a strong appeal among those on the margins of society. The short story, ‘To Become a Warrior‘ was a precursor of this novel).

In a way, I was proved right. The real Reaction is much more complex and varied than my fictional one -among other things, it was naive of me to think that fundamentalist theocratic regimes would not be perfectly happy to make use of science when it suited them- but it has happened (or would it be more accurate to say, ‘it has begun’?) We’ve seen a shift away from secularism in Palestine, Israel, India, Turkey, America, and the rise of Hindu nationalism, Islamism and Christian fundamentalism. We’ve experienced the phenomenon of Trump, and so-called populism in many countries (a rather vague word, but it seems to mean a kind of politics that privileges the values of the general public over those of the most educated section of the population). And, while scientists are not (yet) actively being persecuted in the way described in the book, there is a distinct anti-science strand in all this: anti-vaxxers, creationists, climate change denialists are all part of it.

Continue reading “What next?”

Good guys and bad guys

I was very pleased to be asked to take part in a conference at University College Dublin earlier this month called Alternative Realities: New Challenges for American Literature in the Era of Trump, and then to take part in a panel discussion at the Museum of Literature in Dublin with the other keynote speakers, Aleksandar Hemon and Karen Bender, and the conference organiser Dolores Resano. I had a great time.

The following is (more or less) the text of my keynote speech.

Continue reading “Good guys and bad guys”

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:

Continue reading “Telling the story of us and nature”


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.


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’ .


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.  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 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.  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?

No, of course not!  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 the discussion. It’s an exercise in denial.