I realise I’ve not actually linked to any of my recent Ecologist reviews, which have taken up the bulk of my reading time over the past couple of months. The one I enjoyed the most was actually a book I’d bought myself – J.A. Baker’s The Peregrine, which I enthused about here. It is, quite simply, an incredible piece of nature writing:
Buried within the poetic language and the seemingly eccentric quest to observe nature is a manifesto. Beneath this quiet observation, this passionate hunt, The Peregrine is a book about connecting with nature on a level that many of us probably would not consider. It teaches us many things, the most important of which is that the natural world will not be understood online, or from a day trip somewhere. We can only scratch the surface in this way.
The other books I’ve reviewed are the No-Nonsense Guide to World Population:
Chapter by chapter, Baird picks up some larger themes. Agriculture in an ageing population, and what that means for us. Women’s control over their own bodies and fertility, and how that is being challenged by religious traditionalists. The way that the rich attempt to control the birth rates of the lower classes – ‘“Stop poor people breeding” has been the mantra of the privileged for some time’.
And finally Water Matters:
It’s not yet summer and already the prospect of drought is on the horizon. It’s only when things get bad and our vulnerability is highlighted – when it is really too late – that concern begins to increase. And issues with water aren’t just a local problem. Far greater ones are faced by communities across the world. So how did we come to be in such a dire situation with respect to water resources, and just how bad are things?
There’s a brief chat with me over at Rowena Cory Daniels’ blog, in which I say Many Things, and talk a little bit more about the new series:
The lead character, Lucan Drakenfeld, is a bit like a young lawyer-slash-detective, and certainly the polar opposite of a private eye (if anything, he’s a public eye). I’m really trying to steer away from noir pastiche because I feel that would be disrespectful to crime readers. The book is as much a crime novel as it is a fantasy novel. Imagine a mainstream writer trying their hand at a fantasy novel, and filled it with a paint-by-numbers story – they’d be strung up by the fanbase, which is why I’m not doing a paint-by-numbers crime novel, either.
There’s a video interview with my agent, John Jarrold, for those of you who are interested in tales and tips of publishing.
And I review a book about making compost for the Ecologist. More interesting than you might think…
Rather than becoming a taxonomy of political movements, Counterpower focuses its arguments on the key, shared characteristics that unite political movements. By adopting this approach, he neatly provides a framework for the morass of loose and imprecise rhetoric that so often surrounds political debate. To do this, Gee examines the notion of what power actually is, both in the linguistic and physical senses – in other words, how governments and elite groups exercise their power over people. In response, people and movements have ‘counterpower’ at their disposal, which Gee splits into three main categories: Idea Counterpower, Economic Counterpower, and Physical Counterpower.
My latest book review is up at the Ecologist: Ecological Ethics, by Patrick Curry:
Earlier this year, the National Ecosystem Assessment estimated the value of British nature (National Parks, forests, lakes) to be in the billions of pounds. It assigned a monetary figure to nature’s value to humans in the hope that this would inform and guide UK planning policy. It generated headlines across the country in a manner that focused people’s attention on the businesses eyeing up the environment in this commercial, human-centric manner. Such an attitude, it seems, pervades modern life and dominates political decision-making processes. It is as if they ask the question: how is nature, which is separate from us, of value to us?
While I was away, my latest book review went up at the Ecologist online for Fast Forward: Ethics and Politics in the Age of Global Warming.
The book is written by two influential US politicians, one of whom was a US Deputy Secretary of State, while the other served on the White House National Security Council staff and was a US Negotiator of the Kyoto Protocol. All in all, they present a pretty interesting read and dig deep into the process of climate negotiations on an international platform.
However, the book goes to reveal just how inept governments are in reaching a global climate deal, how important domestic politics is in influencing such deals, and how the US practically destroyed the climate negotiations at Kyoto before they even got there. Ultimately, it’s a pretty depressing. Everyone knows their science; it’s simply a case of dealing with it – which is pretty unlikely to ever happen.
What this book begins to reveal is a frontline account of nations failing to agree on anything and the triumph of nationalism and domestic policies over co-operation and a long-term vision. The failure of the UN has been, ‘in large measure, the flip side of its virtue… The smallest, poorest and weakest countries have a forum where they can be heard along with the largest, strongest and most prosperous. That capacious representation is particularly important on the issue of climate change since small and poor nations are among the most vulnerable to desertification and flooding. Yet the UN is too large, too inclusive, and too limited in its authority to move quickly and decisively.’
After I reviewed the Dark Mountain Project’s latest collection of writings, I managed to send Paul Kingsnorth, one of the co-founders of the project, a few quick questions for the Ecologist. As I hoped, a few controversial points came out of it:
In my view, mainstream green activism is now overly technocratic, wilfully unrealistic in its aims, divorced from the everyday reality of most people’s lives and, increasingly, simply a faction of the consumer growth society it was supposed to reject. But Dark Mountain is not about ‘giving up’ or wallowing in doom or anything like that. Some people think it is, but they’re the ones who haven’t been paying attention. Dark Mountain is a process. First you give up on the unrealistic ambitions of both the mainstream growth narrative and the mainstream green narrative – creating a “sustainable” consumer democracy for nine billion people, stopping climate change, making capitalism nice and all the rest of the utopian stuff.
I just wanted to briefly mention two reports, both from the Ecologist. First, the above video looks into how financial speculation in maize inflates food prices in Mexico – therefore threatening the lives of the poor. A more in-depth report here.
There’a another article that looks into how Goldman Sachs convinced governments that gambling financial resources on food prices was a good idea – and for anyone who cares about understanding global development, or even the plight of the poor, it is worth a quick read.
Food no longer made for just a balanced diet. It balanced portfolios too, opening the doors for millions of investors to have a personal stake in food and energy markets beyond their groceries and gas tanks.
Raj Patel, in his fabulous book Stuffed and Starved, explains how famines are mostly not caused by a shortage of food, but because people can’t afford to pay for it anymore. Given the role that food speculation plays within the bigger picture of global food distribution, it beggars belief that it can continue without people being protected from its effects.
My review of Dark Mountain issue 2 is up at the Ecologist. The book is a fascinating read around the themes of new and thought-provoking political movement.
The essays within collectively reject much of what we have become used to in environmental philosophy. Notions of stewardship are abandoned. Humans are no longer separate to the natural world; they are a part of it. Many of the results of current environmental thinking will simply contribute to a system that is inherently destined to destroy the natural world. The anthology attempts to grapple with these concerns and does not always use direct science as the method of exploration. In the construction of a greener society, there is plenty of room for philosophy and the creative arts.
Read the rest of the review here. I recommend taking a look at what the Dark Mountain Project is all about. Even if you’re not all that interested in environmentalism, the project manages to combine creative writing and the arts with a political movement – something that’s not all that common. I summed it up as: “part dystopian poetry along the lines of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road; part post-apocalyptic River Cottage with the rest being a slice of philosophy”, which means I found it very unique indeed, and a genuinely different way of thinking.
My latest book review for The Ecologist is now online, and it deals with Virtual Water:
Water is becoming an increasingly precious resource and as the global population grows, so will demand. Add to this a future dictated by the brutal effects of climate change, throw intensive farming into the mix; and the result is that water consumption and conservation will prove to be one of the defining issues of our time. With that in mind, Virtual Water takes a very different, and somewhat revolutionary, look at water usage. Its aim is simple: to shock and to force a re-evaluation of the way we use water.
To do this, Allan introduces the titular concept, Virtual Water, by way of an illuminating example. How much water do we think goes into a cup of coffee? Is it what we pour from the kettle? Allan claims that 140 litres of water goes into making a single cup of coffee, and then explains how it is the hidden ‘virtual water’ that is at the root of the problem. Virtual water includes ‘the amount of water used in growing, producing, packaging and shipping the beans that make the coffee.’
I have to say, I really am enjoying reviewing non-fiction. It’s a different art to writing about fiction, admittedly, which, for me anyway, encourages a reading that can seem a bit solipsistic at times. At least with the non-fiction, I’m generally looking for where it fits in in the broader sphere of environmental issues.
I also enjoy the fact that it tends to firm the text in question in my mind, that I remember it more clearly, and the whole reading process is a thoroughly active one. I’m not sure I’d enjoy reviewing fiction quite as much at the moment.
Broad Beans, in fact, from the garden. This is the first time I’ve grown them. For a short while, I thought nothing was going to happen after they flowered. Suddenly there they were! With the number of these, and climbing bean plants I’ve got on the go, I will be absolutely sick of beans by August.
More green things: my next review is up at the Ecologist, looking at a fascinating little portrait of Monterey Bay in California.
And while we’re on the subject of greenery, British nature has been valued in the billions of pounds, in what is a fascinating study. While it’s obvious to anyone who’s not an economist that you can’t really put a value on the environment, in our market-based world it’s probably a pretty useful thing to throw some numbers around.
My broad beans are currently a tenner to you – this isn’t mass produced crap, you know.