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.

Podcast discussions of Dark Eden (and an interview)

13.2: Dark Eden post-read w/ Kevin Kelsey: From Stories to Legends to Myths to Religion.

Spectology have recorded not one but two very detailed discussions of Dark Eden. The ‘pre-read’ discussion is here. The ‘post-read’ discussion (i.e. the one in which spoilers are allowed) is here. They like the book a lot, which I’m obviously delighted about.

Following these two podcasts, Adrian from Spectology did an additional podcast in the form of an interview with me, which you can find here.

Launch events for Beneath the World, a Sea

Beneath the World, a Sea comes as an ebook and in hardback on April 4th.

(1) April 6th, 1-2pm, I’ll be signing at Forbidden Planet, Burleigh St, Cambridge.

(2) April 9th, 7-9pm, at Waterstones, Norwich (follow link for ticket information), I’ll be talking about Beneath the World, a Sea, with the great Tony Ballantyne. The also great Imogen Church (who recorded the wonderful audio version of Daughter of Eden), will do a reading from the book.

(3) April 11th, 6-7.30, at Waterstones, Cambridge, a launch celebration (please RSVP as per invite below).

The rivers swarm with fish

Sometimes a piece of writing that presumably wasn’t intended to be poetic at all has a poetry all of its own. The following is the section on flaura and fauna from the Wikipedia entry for the Russian island of Sakhalin. (Why was I looking at the entry for Sakhalin? Because, like Judith Schalansky, I love to go to islands in my imagination that I know I will never really visit. They too have a special poetry.)

The whole of the island is covered with dense forests, mostly coniferous. The Yezo (or Yeddo) spruce (Picea jezoensis), the Sakhalin fir (Abies sachalinensis) and the Dahurian larch (Larix gmelinii) are the chief trees; on the upper parts of the mountains are the Siberian dwarf pine (Pinus pumila) and the Kurile bamboo (Sasa kurilensis). Birches, both Siberian silver birch (Betula platyphylla) and Erman’s birch (B. ermanii), poplar, elm, bird cherry (Prunus padus), Japanese yew (Taxus cuspidata), and several willows are mixed with the conifers; while farther south the maple, rowan and oak, as also the Japanese Panax ricinifolium, the Amur cork tree (Phellodendron amurense), the Spindle (Euonymus macropterus) and the vine (Vitis thunbergii) make their appearance. The underwoods abound in berry-bearing plants (e.g. cloudberry, cranberry, crowberry, red whortleberry), red-berried elder (Sambucus racemosa), wild raspberry, and Spiraea.

Bears, foxes, otters, and sables are numerous, as are reindeer in the north, and musk deer, hares, squirrels, rats, and mice everywhere. The bird population is mostly the common east Siberian, but there are some endemic or near-endemic breeding species, notably the endangered Nordmann’s greenshank (Tringa guttifer) and the Sakhalin leaf warbler (Phylloscopus borealoides). The rivers swarm with fish, especially species of salmon (Oncorhynchus). Numerous whales visit the sea coast, including the critically endangered Western Pacific gray whale, for which the coast of Sakhalin is the only known feeding ground. Other endangered whale species known to occur in this area are the North Pacific right whale, the bowhead whale, and the beluga whale.

Beautiful!

The Black Prince

I find it quite difficult to immerse myself in a novel these days and often have to make myself keep turning the pages. (I don’t know whether is this me getting more fussy as I grow older, or whether perhaps it’s the business of writing fiction that makes it harder: I imagine a puppeteer finds it hard to surrender to the illusion of a puppet show). But never mind all that because I did find this book immersive, and read the whole thing very quickly and greedily.

This is a novel written by Adam Roberts, drawing on a film script and some notes by the late Anthony Burgess. I have to say that, in my opinion, the least successful parts of the book were the various interludes in the main action in the form of ‘news flashes’ and ‘camera’s eye’ views. In incorporating these, Roberts was being faithful to Burgess’ plan to make use of story-telling tricks invented by John Dos Passos. However I found them an unwanted distraction, and not really in keeping with the rest of the book, so that each time they came up I was impatient to get back to the main narrative. This, by contrast, I found entirely gripping.

Edward the Black Prince was the son of King Edward III and would have have been Edward IV if he hadn’t died before his father. He is famous as a warrior, defeating French armies much larger than his own at the battles of Crecy and Poitiers, and as a kind of epitome of the chivalrous knight in armour. In fact, as this book shows, the wars he fought to expand and defend his father’s realms in France were incredibly bloody and brutal. In an age when ordinary people had absolutely no say in the decisions being made by their leaders, it was nevertheless considered perfectly acceptable, and perfectly consistent with the theological doctrine of ‘just war’, to hack to death the entire population of a town, including children and babies, if the leading figures in that town had chosen not to surrender promptly enough. (Since carpet bombing of cities remains a pretty standard weapon of war in modern times, I suppose we haven’t really changed in this respect. We just do our indiscriminate slaughtering from a sanitised distance which allows us to call it ‘collateral damage’).

The savage and gleeful butchery involved, particularly at the sack of Limoges, is described by Roberts in remorseless detail. I was going to say harrowing detail, but that actually wouldn’t be entirely honest, because the truth is (and I’m not proud of this, but I’m guessing I’m not alone) that I actually find this stuff quite engrossing, and even exciting, to read about. The end result was that I emerged from the book disturbed not only by the events described, but by my own troublingly ambiguous response. Which is surely as it should be, because these things are not perpetrated by monsters but by human beings, drawing on the same instincts, desires and fears as the rest of us.

On this same theme, Roberts does a great job of conveying the humanity of the Black Prince and the other characters, as they move between ruthless slaughter and the ordinary emotions of everyday life. A professional mercenary for example, who fights and kills for plunder, grieves over his much-loved wife and regrets that he didn’t treat her better when she was alive. Occasionally characters feel some unease about what to us seem their most obvious sins, the industrial-scale killings in which they’ve been engaged, but they are human beings and have all kinds of defences and justifications that prevent them from worrying about these things for too long, much as we have defences, I suppose, that prevent us from worrying for any length of time about the exploitative sweat shops where people build the digital toys we play with, or the dangerous mines where the minerals for them are extracted.

One strand that was particularly fascinating was the Black Prince’s preoccupation with the Holy Spirit, and what that meant. As I gather from other writings of his, Roberts is not a believer in the Christian religion but nevertheless finds Christian theology imaginatively engaging (a description that could be applied to me too and, from what I understand, also to Anthony Burgess). And it is by exploring this idea of the Holy Spirit that he lifts this book from being merely a grim catalogue of human cruelty into something more profound and even a little bit hopeful.