Friday, August 30, 2019

Review of 'Some Remarks' by Neal Stephenson

This is so not 'a definitive collection of Stephenson's writing' - it's a rag-bag of old journalism and short fiction, some of it really good, some of it almost embarrassing. I love Stephenson's work, especially the Baroque Cycle, but some of the essays here make me wonder whether I've projected a deeper understanding into it than is there in his head - a sort of fictional ink-blot thing. A lot of his unexamined political assumptions about America, and Capitalism, seem not all that clever and insightful to me, and that does come out in some of his contemporary-set books like The Cobweb.

I bought this for £1 at a remainder shop - it had been marked down from £9.99 to £4, then marked down again. I'm glad I didn't pay either of the higher prices. Still, he's a great, clever, elegant writer, and the insights into his process of writing make this worth reading.

Review of 'Popco' by Scarlett Thomas

An intriguing mystery book set in the world of multinational toy corporations, with lots of clever insights into marketing and demographics. Nicely written, with a good central character who's a bit on the spectrum but no less interesting or sympathetic for that. There are a number of nested narratives, including a rather good C17th bit, and - for me the best part - a portrait of the awkwardness and misery of secondary school life. As is often the case the denoument of the mystery is less interesting than the mystery itself; I actually wrote my first ever fan letter to the author before I was finished with the book, on the understanding that MI might not feel like doing it when I'd got to the end. But still a very enjoyable read, slightly enhanced by the somewhat odd physical characteristics of the paperback.

I actually picked this up from one of those 'little free libraries' in someone's front garden, which feels entirely appropriate - almost as if the book found its way to me.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Climate change and the abolition of slavery

The comparison is often made between the struggle to abolish slavery, and the climate change movement...and other progressive movements, too. The comparison often includes the argument that slavery was once legal and seemed normal, and that the people who successfully fought to abolish it sometimes broke the law, which now seems fine.

But there is another aspect of the history of emancipation which might shed some light on the climate movement, and on one particular aspect of the resistance to climate action. It's not an entirely pleasant lesson from history, though.

It's not well understood that in most countries where slaves were emancipated, the slave owners were compensated by the government. That happened in Britain, where the amounts involved were huge, and where the debts that the government acquired as a result have only just been paid off. It happened in the French empire, the Spanish colonies, in Brazil, and in the little-known Danish Caribbean colonies. It was tried in the United States too, though only actually implemented in the District of Columbia - other states failed to pass the required legislation.

The USA was an outlier as a country that abolished slavery without compensating the slave owners. Instead, emancipation happened as the culmination of a very bloody civil war - the bloodiest war in the country's history.

Perhaps this helps to explain what might be seen as a puzzle; why do the rich and powerful, or at least some of them, fund climate change denial? After all, if failure to act on climate change really does mean that we, and most other life on the planet, are heading for extinction, then their money won't be much good to them. They - or their children - will die like everyone else.

As far as I can see there's only three possible explanations as to why rich people might want to promote delay on climate action:
  • They really don't believe climate change is happening
  • They think it's happening but it won't affect them
  • They are promoting denial and delay as a deliberate strategy aimed at maximising compensation
It's easy to see that the first two of these apply to some extent. Some rich people are aware that climate change is real but promote denial to the masses, but others might actually believe the bullshit that they spread. Despite what they say, the rich aren't cleverer than everybody else, and even clever or educated people can be stupid about particular subjects.

And it's not surprising if rich people think they can escape the consequences of climate disaster. Much of their experience of other disasters teaches them that money can insulate you from the consequences. Some of the fantasies about escape from a dying earth (nicely illustrated in the film Elysium) play to this belief, and as David Wallace Wells points out in The Uninhabitable Earth, belief in this is quite common among wealthy Silicon Valley folk. Even if they don't think that they can escape off-world, there are plenty of rich people preparing, in a survivalist sort of way, to save themselves from climate catastrophe.

But I think the third explanation is the most important. If the political system ever really does deliver on action to prevent runaway climate change then a huge part of the world's capital will become 'stranded assets' - "assets that have suffered from unanticipated or premature write-downs, devaluations or conversion to liabilities". That's not just all the unburnable fossil fuel that is still in the ground, but also all the infrastructure associated with it - pipelines, refineries, tanker fleets, etc. It's possible that the financial system wouldn't survive such a write-down; at the very least it would be a major impact, and would hit some asset-holders much harder than others - though as the 2008 crash showed, the complexity of the financial system may mean that simply everything would crash.

Now, consider that fossil-based assets are not by any means worthless (and read this paper from Schroders if you fancy a chill as to how 'the markets' think about fossil-based assets). That means that 'the markets' don't think we're going to simply leave them in the ground - exactly what we must do if we are to avoid climate catastrophe.

So my hypothesis is that the asset owners expect that at some point they'll be compensated for their holdings, just like the slave owners were. And promoting division and delay on climate action is their way of driving the price up for when the negotiations begin.

The movement for climate justice is partly about making sure that the poorest don't suffer most from climate change, and don't have to pay disproportionately for measures taken to prevent or mitigate it - for example, through fuel or carbon taxes where the burden falls most heavily on the poorest. But what if the price of getting the asset-owners to call off their denial-promoting dogs is that governments have to pay them compensation? Either that compensation is paid for out of austerity-squeezed goverment budgets, or it's paid via some sort of quantitative easing. Either way it's a recipe for more climate injustice.

Recognising this rather concentrates the mind and ought to inform political strategy for the climate action movement. If the asset-owners are playing chicken with the climate, then it's important for them to create the sense that they are prepared to not swerve. If the alternative, and the price of confronting this strategy, is preparing for a conflict on the scale of the American Civil War, then strategies that we have pursued to date will be insufficient. Just saying.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Review of Animals

I intended to like this film; the trailer had made it look like a film about what happens when one of two friends grows up into a more mature adult while the other wants to remain in extended adolescence. But it wasn't really like that; both the women were actually pretty wedded to a dissolute post-teen lifestyle of booze, drugs and parties, though one of them (the pretty one, played by Holliday Grainger) seems to be drifting ever-so-slowly away from casual sex towards a monogamous relationship. Nothing really developed with either of them, and their back-stories didn't become much clearer either.

I note in passing that though they are both supposed to be in precarious low-paid jobs (one works in a warehouse, the other is a barista) they never seem short of cash, and there is absolutely no sign that their work makes any demands on their time. Every frame of the film has at least one large glass of white wine in it, to the point that I was beginning to think about going teetotal. I also note that the place they live, in a beautiful Georgian house in central Dublin, would have been gentrified in any British city, while the bourgeois suburban house that the one girl's parents live in would have been an outer-city working class suburb.

Watched at the Phoenix cinema.

Friday, August 09, 2019

Review of 'Red Mars'

I wish I'd liked this more. It's very long, and while some of it is great - especially the political discussions, and the dynamics between the characters - there's huge swathes that I found unreadable, about Mars geology, or descriptions about technical solutions to problems. I'm sure other people have exactly the opposite reaction, loving the detail and bored by the politics. I'm sure that, as in The Martian, the point of the technical detail is to make the whole thing convincing, but as there, it doesn't work for me.

I note in passing that KSR (who is great, by the way - I heard him talk a few years ago and he's marvellous on climate change and politics) can imagine people moving to Mars without either nation-states or capitalism coming to an end...lots of the stuff on Mars is supplied by familiar corporations, though the big names that dominate our lives now - Google, Amazon, etc are of course not there. Prediction is hard, especially about the future.

Review of 'The Photograph'

A rather odd film, directed by Ritesh Batra, who made The Lunchbox. It's billed as a 'romantic drama', and it has all the elements of a romcom but without any comedy, or indeed much drama - and yet it's compelling, though a bit too long.

I don't want to spoil the plot, but the main impression I had was of being teased, because all the scenes that were flagged up as plot points - are either not shown or not dwelt on at all. The girl agrees to pretend to be a girlfriend for the photographer she doesn't really know, but we don't see the discussion where she agrees. Later, he manages to obtain, at considerable effort, a bottle of a long-existinct soft drink that she remembers from her childhood, but we don't actually see him giving it to her, or her response. It's almost like watching the out-takes from a romcom, or the bits that happen in the narrative that don't make it into the film - and for this I liked it.

It also avoids almost all of the cliches of cinematic India, and touches on issues of class. He's not nearly as wealthy as her, but she's not super-rich and he's not super-poor - not a slum-dweller or a beggar, just a street hustler sharing an attic with several other men from the countryside. Mumbai was such an awful, terrible shock to me, as was the behaviour of middle-class Indians to the poor and street people, and this film brought a lot of that back even though it didn't show it.

Watched at The Phoenix in East Finchley.

Thursday, August 01, 2019

Review of 'The Blind Assassin' by Margaret Attwood

I read this a couple of weeks ago, and loved it, and decided not to write a review straight away because I wanted a bit of time to process it. At the time I felt quite emotionally churned up by it - there was death, and betrayal, and sibling relations...but now, a few weeks later, I'm surprised that I don't remember all that much about it. There's a story within a story, which is the eponymous 'blind assassin', a fantasy tale that the narrator's pulp-writing lover tells her during their occasional assignations. It's meant to be pulpish, but this is Margaret Atwood, so it's actually very good - a sort of parody of bad fantasy that can't help becoming ever-more literary. There's a lot about high society in Canada, and political and labour unrest in the 1930s Canada, most of which I didn't know about.

Anyway, despite my failing memory it's good and well worth the long time it took to read.