London Fog by Christine L Corton

london fog coverThe story of The Smoke…

😀 😀 😀 😀

From the early 19th to the mid 20th century, London spent large parts of the winter months shrouded under dense and dirty fogs, so thick that people quite literally could walk into the Thames without seeing it. Corton sets out to tell the two stories of the fog – the actual one of what caused it and how it was eventually defeated, and the artistic one, of how it was used atmospherically and metaphorically in the literature and art of the period.

As the Industrial Revolution got underway, factories began belching their coal smoke into the air of a city that was already at the heart of a great Empire and, for its time, huge – a mass of people, living cheek by jowl, often in intolerable conditions of poverty. And in winter, these people would huddle round their coal fires adding to the polluted atmosphere. As the population grew, so did the smoke. The location of London meant that it was already prone to mists and with the addition of all this coal smoke, the mists became fogs – fogs that worsened throughout the 19th century, reaching their peak in the 1880s and 90s, but remaining significant for several decades after that, until finally legislation and health concerns abated the worst of the pollution.

The Thames above Waterloo Bridge by JMW Turner 1835
The Thames above Waterloo Bridge by JMW Turner 1835

Corton tells us that Herman Melville coined the expression “pea-soup” to describe the thick consistency and colour of the London fog – yellow, as pea-soup was commonly made from yellow peas at that time. But it was Dickens who first made use of the fog in literature, descriptively at first but later, as he developed as a writer and as fogs worsened, as a metaphor for the corruption and social degeneracy of the city.

Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards, and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little ’prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon, and hanging in the misty clouds…

… And hard by Temple Bar, in Lincoln’s Inn Hall, at the very heart of the fog, sits the Lord High Chancellor in his High Court of Chancery.

Bleak House, Charles Dickens

Gradually the fog became such an all-pervasive feature of London life that other writers began to use it in similar ways. Corton gives many examples, from writers famous or forgotten, showing the different ways they used fog in their work. Sometimes it would be used as a cloak for hideous crimes, sometimes as a tool to show the poverty, not just physical but also a poverty of aspiration, in society. Some writers used it as metaphor for the restrictions placed on women, while others allowed their female characters a freedom they could only have when shielded by the anonymity that the fog gave. And as the fogs worsened, a sub-genre developed of apocalyptic fiction – the fog shown as finally sucking the life from the inhabitants, or as a cause for moral corruption so severe that it and the inevitable destruction of the city that followed took on almost Biblical proportions.

Cartoon from the magazine Punch showing how fog could make even an innocent scene seem frightening
Cartoon from the magazine Punch showing how fog could make even an innocent scene seem frightening

Artists, too, became increasingly fascinated by the fog – the colours in it depending on the type of pollution and the invisible sun above. And not just local artists – famous artists travelled from Europe, America and even the Orient to try to capture this phenomenon. (I guess once they managed to pollute their own cities enough, they were able to stay home!) The book is wonderfully illustrated with examples of this art – I read it on my Kindle Fire which is good for colour illustrations, but I wished I’d been reading the hardback.

Alongside this, Corton tells the story of how the fog impacted on people in real life and of the long fight by reformers to have the use of coal smoke regulated and reduced. The story of the beginnings of the fog and the various theories that were propounded as to its cause fascinated me, as did the descriptions given in journals and newspapers of how it actually felt trying to get around during a fog. Corton shoes how real-life criminals could use its cover for their activities, including the linklighters – the boys who carried torches to light people as they travelled – who were notorious for their criminality. The dangers for women in particular are emphasised, with a feeling that they were unsafe in the fog without the protection of a man.

Ivor Novello in Hitchcock's The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog 1927
Ivor Novello in Hitchcock’s The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog 1927

At first, I also found the tale of the political fighting to do something about the fog interesting but, after a while, I began to find the telling of it too detailed, especially the Parliamentary side of it, and it began to drag. I found I was increasingly glad to get back to the literary and artistic sections. The problem of the fog decreased gradually over the 20th century, but wasn’t finally resolved until the 1950s. As a result, Corton continues her story of how it was used in literature and art well beyond the Victorian era, but as the fog faded, so did its usefulness as a metaphor. Corton makes the point that writers such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, though writing well into the 20th century, often based their stories back in the 1880s and 90s so that they could use the fog to its fullest effect.

Overall, I found this great in parts and rather dull in other parts. The effect of reading for review is that I have a tendency not to like to skip, otherwise I would fairly early on have been jumping the sections relating to the various politicians and reformers. The sections on writers and artists were of much more interest, to me at least, although here I did feel that sometimes Corton was stretching too far, and drawing conclusions about fog as metaphor that aren’t always justified by the reading of the books. But then this is a fault I routinely find in literary criticism. Despite that, one that I am sure will be enjoyed by anyone interested in either crime or literary fiction of the period. And it occurred to me it would be great as a research tool for any writer out there wanting to set their book in the London of that period…

Waterloo Bridge Sunlight Effect No. 4 by Claude Monet
Waterloo Bridge Sunlight Effect No. 4 by Claude Monet

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Harvard University Press.

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Atmosphere of Hope: The Search for Solutions to the Climate Crisis by Tim Flannery

A roller-coaster ride…

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

Atmosphere of HopeIn December this year, the next United Nations Climate Change Conference will convene in Paris to make decisions on how to cap carbon emissions at a level that will ensure that global temperatures will rise by no more than 2° Celcius compared to pre-industrial levels. This book is a summary of where we are now and an action plan for the future.

The book is heavily polemical, very much Tim Flannery’s personal attempt to influence the decision makers. As a scientist and leading environmentalist of long-standing, Flannery is Professorial Fellow at the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute, University of Melbourne, a member of the Australian Independent Climate Council and chairman of the Copenhagen Climate Council; so he’s certainly qualified to speak authoritatively on the subject.

This was a bit of a roller-coaster read for me, both in terms of style and content. In the introduction, Flannery lays out his stall. Taking as his starting point his own earlier book The Weather Makers, he sets out to show how things have developed over the decade since, where his opinions have changed over the years, and what he now thinks are the best ways forward if we want to avoid catastrophic climate change. At this stage, I was concerned I might find the book unreadable. His style is abrasive, self-aggrandizing and arrogant and much of the introduction and early chapters read like a piece of self-advertisement. He mentions his previous book umpteen times, dismissing anyone who has criticised any aspect of it over the years, and spends far too long justifying his then conclusions. In fact, at times there is a sense almost of paranoia – as if he is the victim of a conspiracy of vested interests trying to discredit his work. He is vitriolic about the Abbott government in Australia – still in power when he was writing but now gone. Of course, as the cliché goes, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you…

Hard to believe people are still building them...
Hard to believe people are still building them…

However, having vented his spleen, Flannery then settles down into a series of well-written chapters where he lays out the current situation very clearly. He starts with a bleak picture of what may happen if temperatures are not contained to the 2°C target – to the Arctic and Antarctic, to forests, wildlife and oceans, and not least to humanity in those parts of the world most sensitive to rising temperatures. It’s all stuff we’ve heard before, but brought up to date with the latest science. Flannery assumes throughout that by this time only those with vested interests in the carbon industries are still denying the link between man’s activities and climate change, and so is dismissive and even occasionally virulent about deniers. There is throughout a feeling of urgency – no time left to waste preaching to the unconverted, let’s just ignore them and get on with what needs to be done. Fine by me, but this is not a book to win over waverers with charm.

The next few chapters take us through individual aspects of energy production, starting with the dirty ones and moving on to the clean. This was the part of the book that gave me a sense of hope – assuming Flannery’s figures are correct, and I see no reason to doubt them, then fossil fuels seem to be losing their overwhelming attractiveness as renewables become both more efficient and cheaper due to economies of scale. We’re nowhere near out of the woods, but Flannery made me feel as if perhaps we’ve spotted the path.

North Western Glacier Alaska - 1940 and 2005
North Western Glacier Alaska – 1940 and 2005

In the final section, Flannery discusses how he believes we should proceed. His position is that, even in the unlikely (but not impossible) event that we reduce fossil fuel use to zero over the next few decades, we will still have the problem of existing CO2 in the atmosphere to deal with. He discusses the difficulties of the task and goes into some detail on some of the schemes that have been put forward. To my unscientific mind, lots of these sound like pie-in-the-sky schemes, or actually poison-in-the-sky, to be more accurate. Flannery himself isn’t keen on the kind of geo-engineering scheme that suggests pumping other stuff, like sulphur, into the atmosphere in order to induce cooling, on the grounds that firstly, we can’t foresee all the possible implications and secondly, the underlying problem of too much carbon still remains.

Hope - Harnessing solar power in Spain
Hope – Harnessing solar power in Spain

He suggests what he calls a ‘third way’ – a mixture of preparing for climate change by making necessary adaptations at a local level while attempting to remove CO2 from the atmosphere by a variety of schemes, from massive seaweed farms to storing carbon in rocks and plastics, that he feels could be effective without the risks of geo-engineering. To be honest, much of this sounded impractical and a bit like wishful thinking to me, but hey! Most of it was well over my head scientifically and he’s an expert, so I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt. It’s always been my opinion that it will have to be the scientists who solve this problem in the end, and the role of governments and the people should be to give them the finances and resources they need, while trying to stop any of them accidentally blowing up the galaxy in their enthusiasm.

Tim Flannery
Tim Flannery

However, after cheering me up in the earlier chapters, I’m afraid this final section plunged me back into gloom – the sheer scale of the task and the short-termism of so many governments make it all seem pretty overwhelming. I comforted myself with the thought that perhaps Flannery had done this deliberately, so that no-one would be approaching the Paris Conference feeling over-confident. Overall well worth reading – a good introduction for anyone new to the subject and a thorough update for those with a little more knowledge. Let’s hope the politicians attending the Conference will pay attention to the science more than the politics for once… the world will be watching. Won’t we?

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Grove Atlantic.

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Resurrection Science by M. R. O’Connor

“To be or not to be, that is the question…”

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

resurrection scienceIn a period called by scientists the ‘Sixth Extinction’, the question of conservation has never been more relevant or immediate. But what exactly are we conserving for? What are the moral, ethical and philosophical questions that surround the various types of conservation? In this excellent book, M.R. O’Connor highlights some of the species on the edge of extinction and uses them as jumping off points to look at some of the arguments, from the practical to the esoteric, that surround the whole question of species conservation.

It is a truth that should be universally acknowledged, if it isn’t already, that the most interesting books, especially in the field of science, are also the hardest to review. There is barely a page in this book that didn’t have me pausing for thought, taking a note, nodding in agreement, becoming outraged, puzzled, saddened, inspired. I could write 20,000 words on it (but I won’t!) and still only give the briefest flavour of the ground O’Connor covers. So rather than try to do that, I’m going to look in depth at the first chapter and then restrict myself to a brief overview of the rest.

Kihansi spray toad and baby at Bronx Zoo, one of only two remaining colonies, both in US zoos.
Kihansi spray toad and baby at Bronx Zoo, one of only two remaining colonies, both in US zoos.

The Kihansi spray toad has evolved to live in one tiny area of the world only – in the spray zone of a waterfall in the Udzungwa mountains in East Africa. Previously an unknown species, it was only discovered when plans were being developed to use the waterfall as a massive hydro-power project. In line with global rules, a biodiversity survey was carried out to assess the impact of the project, and the little toad suddenly became famous in conservation circles. In short, the project went ahead and despite all the technological efforts that were ploughed, at considerable cost, into saving the toad, it went extinct in the wild. But two colonies of them still exist in separate zoos in the US with hopes that they may one day be reintroduced into a specially adapted environment in their original habitat.

A common enough little story, but O’Connor uses it to raise some of the ethical and philosophical issues around the whole question of conservation…

Should the project have gone ahead knowing the likelihood of it causing the extinction of the toad? O’Connor discusses the desperate need for more electricity if this region of the world is to develop out of its current poverty. Hydro-power is clean energy – is this not exactly what we privileged Westerners want the ‘third world’ to develop rather than turning to fossil fuel? How will we eradicate poverty if we put biodiversity above human need?

The last remianing male Northern white rhino in the world being prtoected by armed guards. His horn has been removed to make him less attractive to poachers.
The last remaining male Northern white rhino in the world being protected by armed guards. His horn has been removed to make him less attractive to poachers.

Which leads to the next question – is nature there to ‘serve’ man or does it have an intrinsic value of its own? Are we its master or its caretaker? Was the toad’s existence important before we knew about it? O’Connor ranges fascinatingly through philosophy and ethics in an attempt to elucidate the arguments around this fundamental question.

Can a species really be said to exist if it can’t survive in its own habitat? In other words, if the only remaining members of a species are in captivity, is not that species effectively extinct? This leads on to other questions. How quickly do animals in captivity evolve to suit their new surroundings? One of the scientists working with the toads claims that there are already differences between the two colonies. So can they really be said to be the same species as the one in the wild? If they are reintroduced to the wild, what impact will that have? The habitat has in the meantime been evolving to take account of their absence – are we interfering more by trying to turn back the clock?

In order to create a liveable habitat for the toads, a sprinkler system has been installed at enormous cost – this in a region where children routinely die from poverty and preventable diseases. Could the money have been better spent? Bluntly, is the life of a toad worth more or less than the life of a child? How much are we prepared to spend to conserve a species that can no longer survive without perpetual human management? In these circumstances, can it really be considered ‘wild’ any more… or even ‘natural’?

Florida panther How important was the sense of wilderness to the formation of the American character? What will the loss of 'wild' animals mean for the American psyche?
Florida panther
How important was the sense of wilderness to the formation of the American character? What will the loss of ‘wild’ animals mean for the American psyche?

Along the way, O’Connor discusses the suspicion that sometimes greets conservation efforts in Africa caused by the fact that it has so often been done for the benefit of a white elite – for example, safari parks were originally preserved as private hunting grounds, and to create them native people were frequently driven off their traditional lands. And she shows how divided conservationists are over all these questions – with the pragmatic element feeling that the arguments will go on for ever in academia while on the ground extinctions will continue at an ever more rapid rate.

In later chapters, O’Connor goes much further into genetic conservation – gene banks containing millions of samples, including of species already extinct. Should we try to resurrect these species? How far back should we go – the toad? The passenger pigeon? The mammoth? Neanderthal man? We have the genes for them all. The science is nearly there, but what would the impact be? Are genes alone enough, or is a species defined as much by learned behaviour as genetics? And will these resurrected species be considered ‘real’ or ‘artificial’ – the answer to that will affect how far people are willing to go to conserve them should the species approach extinction again. Will the idea that extinct species can be resurrected in the future make governments less willing to spend money on conservation today?

Hunting and loss of habitat caused the passenger pigeon to go extinct over 100 years ago. Now some people plan to resurrect them...
Hunting and loss of habitat drove the passenger pigeon to extinction over 100 years ago. Now some people plan to resurrect them…

I hope I’ve been able to give a tiny flavour of how fascinating I found this book. O’Connor is an investigative journalist rather than a scientist and this shows through in her ability both to present complex arguments clearly enough for the non-academic reader, and to take an objective view of the subject. She raises and debates the questions, detailing the arguments put forward by the leaders in the field, but she doesn’t force answers on the reader. She leaves us to think it through for ourselves, and shows us that each case is different, creating its own unique set of questions. From Northern white rhinos and the effects of war, to the panther in the south-eastern USA and its impact on the American character and psyche, the book is stuffed to bursting point with the most current thinking on the ethics of conservation, all written in an immensely readable and accessible way. Without exception, the most interesting and wide-ranging book on the subject I have ever read and one that has made me much more aware of the complexities of the debate. Earns my highest recommendation.

Serious moves are already afoot to clone mammoths by creating an embryo from genetic material and implanting it in the womb of a donor elephant. Good idea? The elephant doesn't get to express an opinion...
Serious moves are already afoot to clone mammoths by creating an embryo from genetic material and implanting it in the womb of a donor elephant. Good idea? The elephant doesn’t get to express an opinion…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, St Martin’s Press.

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Gods of the Morning by John Lister-Kaye

gods of the morningA Highland year…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

In 1976, John Lister-Kaye bought an estate in the northern central Highlands of Scotland, and set up what is now Scotland’s premier field study centre, Aigas. Although a wide range of wildlife lives and is studied there, Lister-Kaye’s own main fascination is with the many varieties of birds that make their home there – his gods of the morning. In this book, he takes the reader through a year, showing the changes that come with each season, as different birds arrive, nest, breed and leave again. In the introduction, he talks about how he has noticed changes to nesting and breeding patterns over the years. He declares his reluctance to put the blame for these changes wholly at the door of climate change, but points to the growing unpredictability of weather patterns in recent years. His stated intention in this book is not to provide answers but rather, based on his personal observations, to pose some questions of his own.

Aigas Field Centre
Aigas Field Centre

Lister-Kaye is an established and respected nature writer and on the basis of this book it’s easy to see why. His knowledge of the natural world that surrounds him is matched by his passion for it, and his easy style and fine writing allow both to come through clearly to the reader. In truth, there isn’t much in here that adds to the debate on climate change and I wondered if perhaps nature writers currently feel they have to be seen to be talking about that, or be accused of burying their heads in the sand. In fact, the book is a fairly simple nature diary in structure, allowing Lister-Kaye to select topics that represent for him the progress of a natural year. For me, the suggestion of the climate change angle was something of a minor annoyance, since I kept waiting for it to be raised and, except for occasional references to changing migratory and breeding patterns, it really isn’t much. He makes much of the adverse impact of an early false spring followed by a big freeze in his chosen year, 2012/3, but points out himself that such anomalies have always happened.

…to do justice to nature, the nature of this mystical land of hills and glens, forests, lochs and rushing rivers, and to the confused seasons of what has proved to be a discomfiting and bizarre year, I need to start at a real transition, in late September when fidgets of swallows were gathering on telephone wires like chittering clothes-pegs; when the first tug of departure was fizzing in the blackcaps’ tiny brains; before moonlit frosts cantered rust through the bracken; before the chlorophyll finally bled from blushing leaves; even before the last osprey lifted and wheeled into its migration to Senegal or the Zambia. I need to start when the word was fresh on our lips, in the incipient, not-quite-sure-if-it’s-happened-yet autumn of 2012.

However, read purely for its description of the natural world of this fairly rugged part of the British Isles, the book is both informative and hugely enjoyable. The prose often heads towards lyrical without ever getting too overblown and, though he tells us a lot about the ‘science’ of nature, it’s done very lightly in passing, making it easy to absorb. The tone is personal, based on his own observations rather than textbook stuff, and is often interspersed with anecdotes about life in the field study centre or his own childhood. Like most naturalists, he combines a real passion for the creatures he observes with a hard-headed, non-sentimental approach, recognising that nature is indeed ‘red in tooth and claw’. But occasionally we see a bit of anger seep through at man’s behaviour towards nature, when for instance he describes the on-going poisoning of protected birds of prey, or the battery farming of thousands upon thousands of game birds, destined for slaughter by rich men (I considered saying ‘people’ but I think I’ll stick with ‘men’ in this case) who prefer to have the game fixed to ensure them a good ‘bag’.

John Lister-Kaye feeding a wildcat
John Lister-Kaye feeding a wildcat

Most of the book, though, is filled with delightfully told observations of the minutiae of life around the estate. His year runs from autumn 2012, and really gets underway in the second chapter as he shows the birds and animals preparing for winter – the red squirrels hiding their nuts, the woodmice moving indoors and making nests, the arrival of the geese, moving south from their Arctic summer. (I particularly enjoyed the bit about the geese, since my house happens to be beneath one of their migratory routes and twice a year for one or two days, the sky is dark with them passing and the noise could drown out a passing jumbo jet, except that happily no jumbo jets pass by here – it’s always one of the highlights of my own year, when I can be found standing in the garden gazing upwards in fascination at their squadron-like manoeuvres.) Also at this time of year, many birds are migrating away, and Lister-Kaye combines lovely descriptive writing with information on what triggers migrations, how they have been scientifically observed and some of the myths that have surrounded them in the past.

No sound in the world, not even the rough old music of the rooks, etches more deeply into my soul than the near-hysterical ‘wink-winking’ of pink-footed geese all crying together high overhead. It is a sound like none other. Sad, evocative, stirring and, for me, quintessentially wild, it arouses in me a yearning that seems to tug at the leash of our long separation from the natural world.

And this pattern of information and description continues as the long, harsh Highland winter rolls in with its short days, and we see the struggle for survival of those birds and animals that stay; then the welcome shortening of the nights bringing in the late spring, and moving on to the long days of summer when, this far north, darkness falls only briefly before the sun rises again.

Buzzard at Aigas Photo: rutlandjan via
Buzzard at Aigas
Photo: rutlandjan via

There’s almost nothing I enjoy more than reading or listening to a knowledgeable enthusiast telling of their passion, whatever it might be, and that’s what this book is. Whether telling us of the swan that couldn’t manage to take-off, or tales of his own beloved pet dogs, or of the nesting rooks he can see through the window while lying in his bath, this is a man talking about the things that bring him joy, and allowing the reader to share that joy with him. He doesn’t prettify nature but, even when its at its cruellest, he sees the glory in it. A most enjoyable trip to the Highlands with an expert guide.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Canongate Books.

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Feral: Searching for Enchantment on the Frontiers of Rewilding by George Monbiot

feral‘A raucous summer…’

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

In the past few years, I feel I have been observing a welcome note of commonsense and even optimism creeping into the arguments of some of our leading environmentalists. In this book Monbiot, while proposing ambitious and doubtless controversial ideas, confirms that impression.

Feral is his story of why and how he has come to believe that the future for nature conservancy is to stop conserving – to sit back, release the brakes and go on a wild ride with nature in the driving seat. He calls this process ‘rewilding’.

‘Rewilding recognises that nature consists not just of a collection of species but also of their ever-shifting relationships with each other and with the physical environment. It understands that to keep an ecosystem in a state of arrested development, to preserve it as if it were a jar of pickles, is to protect something which bears little relationship to the natural world.’

He scared me in the first couple of chapters. It seemed as if he had turned into a mini-Welsh version of Crocodile Dundee (Grass-snake Aberystwyth?) as he regaled us with tales of tracking and killing his prey with his bare hands and then eating it raw – it was a mackerel! When he set out to harpoon flounders with a trident, I genuinely thought he’d lost it; and when he became mushily sentimental over initiation rites for an African tribesman that involved tormenting and killing a lion, I nearly gave up on him.

wolfHowever, the point that he then went on to make eloquently and convincingly is that humanity has lost something precious by its disconnect with the wild world and that we in the UK have taken that disconnect to further extremes than most. He isn’t arguing for a return to the world of hunter/gatherer (although the first couple of chapters made it seem as if he was about to). But he is arguing for the return of at least parts of the country to true, unmanaged wilderness status and for the reintroduction of some of the top predators – wolves, for example – arguing that trophic cascades mean that such predators can have often unexpected effects on biodiversity and environment and thus are an important part of any rewilding project. However he maintains a sense of realism and commonsense, making it clear that his suggestions should only be implemented with the informed consent of the people, and wryly admits that his attitude towards the introduction of top predators may not be universally shared.

‘The clamour for the lion’s reintroduction to Britain has, so far, been muted.’

Along the way, Monbiot gives us a history of why our landscape is as it now is. He blames sheep-farming for the bareness of our hills and points out that the sheep is a non-native species to the UK. He talks about the vested interests of farmers and landlords and how these seem to be given excessive weight, considering the comparatively small numbers of people employed in farming and the huge subsidies required to make it economical. He points to the somewhat symbiotic relationship between farming organisations and government and suggests this leads to suppression of real debate around the subject of land use. And his anger shows through as he discusses how the subsidy schemes of the EU continue to distort and warp the productivity of the land.

George Monbiot
George Monbiot

There is so much packed into this book that I can only give a pale impression of its scope in this review. Monbiot discusses the damage that an uncontrolled red deer population is doing to the landscape in the Highlands of Scotland; the adverse effect on childhood health (not to mention imagination) of the more indoors, sedentary lifestyle of today’s child; the reasons for the growth of the myth of big cat sightings around the country; the Nazis’ adoption and corruption of the concept of rewilding. He explains the effects that Shifting Baseline Syndrome has had on the debate over the years – that because ‘the people of every generation perceive the state of the ecosystems they encountered in their childhood as normal’ then attempts are made to conserve back to a state of nature that was already seriously degraded.

Towards the end of the book he extends his arguments for rewilding to include the seas, building on the arguments put forward so impressively by Callum Roberts (whose Ocean of Life I heartily recommend) that areas set aside as protected zones actually lead to greater fishing productivity rather than reducing it. And as he set off in his kayak in the final chapter to hunt the newly returned albacore, I no longer felt that he’d ‘lost it’ but that, perhaps, if we listen to what people like Monbiot and Roberts are saying, there’s still hope that the rest of us may ‘find it’.

‘Environmentalism in the twentieth century foresaw a silent spring, in which the further degradation of the biosphere seemed inevitable. Rewilding offers the hope of a raucous summer, in which, in some parts of the world at least, destructive processes are thrown into reverse.’

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher.

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The Politics of Climate Change by Anthony Giddens

A clear and accessible summary…

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

the politics of climate changeIn this book, Giddens firstly urges us to accept the overwhelming consensus of opinion amongst scientists that climate change is real and caused by the actions of humanity, and then goes on to consider what actions will be required if we are to overcome this global threat.

Over the first few chapters, Giddens looks at where we are now. He starts by giving an overview of the scientific evidence and discusses the counter-arguments of sceptics and radicals, concluding that the science strongly supports the position that climate change is happening, is caused by human activity and is likely to have catastrophic consequences if action is not taken quickly. He looks at the availability of oil, gas and coal and how their production and use have shaped and changed international relationships and policy since the Second World War. He goes on to discuss the rise of ‘green’ politics and whether they offer any real solutions to the problems facing us.


In the next few sections, Giddens lays out his stall for the approaches he thinks are required. He argues strongly for a lead to be taken by governments of nation states individually (rather than waiting for the outcome of lengthy international negotiations) to develop policies that will encourage reductions in emissions – particularly through the use of the tax system and the encouragement of technological innovation. He highlights that climate change questions have, to some degree, become seen to be a ‘left-wing’ concern and points out that it is essential to success that all-party support is given to measures if they are to be accepted by those who will be affected. He urges strongly the principle of ‘polluter pays’ and suggests this should be extended to look at the developed world’s responsibility to ensure support for developing and undeveloped countries in combatting climate change and in adapting to its effects.

Anthony Giddens (
Anthony Giddens

Finally, Giddens looks at how international co-operation has developed to date and how he sees it progressing. He suggests that, as well as the various groupings of countries that are coming into being to tackle the issues regionally, the UN still has a vital role to play in monitoring and holding states to internationally agreed targets.

The book is well written and aimed at a general audience. It is a succinct account of where we are now and provides food for thought on how we might progress. I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in the on-going climate change debate (and, as this book makes clear, it affects us all). I found it a clear and accessible summary of the main arguments.

NB This book was provided for review by Amazon Vine UK.

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Ocean of Life by Callum Roberts

‘There is a tide in the affairs of men…’

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

Ocean of LifeIn this book, Callum Roberts sets out to argue the case that man is damaging the oceans of the world in ways that may be irreversible if not addressed quickly and determinedly. Prof. Roberts’ track record as a marine biologist and environmentalist is impressive – as well as a Hardy fellowship in conservation biology at Harvard University, he was awarded a fellowship by the Pew Environment Group, (one of the organisations behind the setting up of the new Global Ocean Commission) in marine conservation.

Roberts starts with a history of the oceans since the planet was formed, showing how previous episodes of warming, changes in acidity levels, etc., have had huge effects on the animals that live there. He then gives a very detailed account of the history of man’s interaction with the sea, through fishing, shipping and pollution amongst other things. As he piles detail on detail, his argument that we are causing major and probably irreversible damage is completely convincing and thoroughly depressing.

Tyre ‘reef’
(Source: Wikimedia)
Some of the images he provides, of mass piles of discarded plastic gathering in the ocean gyres, of dead zones caused by chemical pollution, of coral reefs bleaching and dying, of life at the bottom of the seas being destroyed by trawling, are stark and horrifying. Of course we knew all this, but Roberts pulls it all together for us and shows us the consequences, so that no-one reading this book could be left feeling that this is a problem that can continue to be ignored.

It is only in the last couple of chapters that Roberts offers solutions and not unsurprisingly these are fairly straightforward – to set up protection zones, to reduce the flow of chemicals and rubbish into the seas, to combat global warming. Straightforward but not easy, though Roberts also gives examples of some major advances that have been made over the last decade or so. (Who would have expected George Dubya to come out of a book like this as one of the heroes? Apparently he set up huge protected zones before he left office.) Roberts finishes the book by listing some of the many organisations working towards marine preservation and giving an idea of the approach each organisation is taking.

Callum Roberts
I did not find this an easy or enjoyable read. It was hard work in places as Roberts piled on more and more evidence to back his arguments, sometimes with greater detail than I felt necessary. However, the message of the book is a vitally important one and Roberts has succeeded in getting that message across. I would highly recommend this to anyone with an interest in environmental matters – and that should really be everyone, shouldn’t it?

NB This book was provided for review by Amazon Vine UK.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link