Wednesday, March 13, 2013


         The glossy and spectacular towers of Shanghai’s new financial district, an iconic symbol of this 21st-century New York, are right opposite the ‘older’ city, with its immaculately restored European-style waterfront and its 6-mile long shopping district. But the Huangpu River which flows between them is an icon if anything of runaway industrialization and reckless disregard for the consequences. By the 1980s it had been reduced to a toxic black syrup, virtually anoxic and biologically dead.

         It’s a lot better than that now, which is fortunate since 30% of the city’s drinking water still comes from the Huangpu – but it still has to be very heavily treated chemically,  and few citizens drink from the tap, preferring bottled water.  In a country where 20% of rivers are toxic to skin contact, and 40% of the remainder are biologically dead, Shanghai is considerably better off than average – than Chongqing, for instance, where the mighty Yangtze turned crimson earlier this year for reasons which are yet to be identified.

         So it came as a huge shock to discover the corpses of thousands of dead pigs floating down the river earlier this month, and accumulating in the creeks along with the usual bouillabaisse of food wrappings and fragments of plastic and polystyrene. The authorities assured citizens that there was no risk to the quality of drinking water (a double-edged affirmation, surely?), but the images have been propagated all across the country by armies of microbloggers and have aroused enormous anger and disquiet. Where exactly the dead pigs come from no one knows, but Shanghai’s hinterland is densely populated and its property prices rocketing, so that farm animals are kept in grossly overcrowded conditions and are constantly subject to epidemic infections. The cost of hygienic disposal is high – ergo, the river by night is the obvious choice.

         Before we all start hating the Chinese for their callousness and indifference, let’s travel to somewhere as far away from hectic, crowded Shanghai and its bustle as it’s possible to get. This is Midway Island, a Pacific atoll midway between the Eurasian and American landmasses, uninhabited except by millions of seabirds who roost on this tiny crop of land, 2000 km from the nearest place of human habitation.

         What should be an oasis of uncontaminated nature has become a graveyard for bird chicks, thanks to the presence nearby of the Pacific Garbage Patch – a floating mass of plastic debris which is now bigger than the Continental United States. Albatross chicks alone on Midway are estimated to consume 5 tonnes of plastic debris a year, with the inevitable consequences. It’s the biggest single reason why this magnificent bird is endangered.

         Or let’s come to Europe with its supposedly higher standards of environmental care, and look at a sperm whale recently found dead on a beach in Spain. Its stomach had ruptured, and researchers found it hard to believe the quantity of plastic waste it contained: two dozen sheets of greenhouse roof covering, plastic bags, nine metres of rope, two long hosepipes, plus flowerpots and spray canisters. Can one even imagine the agony of such a death, one’s stomach distended with completely indigestible and toxic plastic garbage, leaving no room to take in anything nourishing?

         Speaking for myself, when I read such things I experience rage, grief – and shame. At times I’m ashamed to be a member of a species which, gifted this wonderful planet with its abundance of treasures, uses it with such contempt – like someone who, inheriting a baroque palace, burns the furniture to keep warm and uses the priceless carpets as a toilet. And the rage is also about my impotence to do anything about it, knowing that these problems would persist for centuries even if we stopped producing plastics today – which is far from the case. On the contrary, with 3D printers we’ll soon all be able to produce our very own plastic gewgaws and trinkets at home to add to the existing mountains. And then, because I don’t like feeling impotent rage or helpless shame, I let it go; my attention goes to something else – something in my own life, perhaps – leaving behind a residuum of guilt, a little private emotional garbage patch if you like.

         And none of these emotions is helpful; they won’t help to resolve the planetary crisis any more than they help to deal with other crises: collective or individual alike. When we experience rage, shame or guilt in relation to someone our response is to blame and reject them – i.e. to project the hateful feelings onto them. (Alternatively, for some of us, to buy the guilt and to wear it like a hair shirt or a ball and chain.) And exactly the same thing happens in a social/environmental context – look at the hatred and negativity which was directed at Al Gore for ‘An Inconvenient Truth’. Guess what, we don’t like inconvenient truths, and we tend to shoot messengers who bear them.

         Even people who somehow contrive so to furnish their mental worlds as not to ‘believe in’ man-made global warming can’t deny that we’re treating the planet as a garbage dump. Yet they still furiously oppose simple measures like banning throwaway plastic bags or limiting food packaging and rage against ‘tree-huggers’ and ‘environazis’ – in the same way as someone who consistently abuses his partner or children knows deep inside how profoundly he’s betraying them, but rejects that unbearable knowledge by blaming them for his actions.

         Or others – and many active environmentalists fall into this category – are consumed with guilt and with the burden of the knowledge of what we’re doing to our planet, and it’s this that drives their actions. Whether or not the actions themselves are helpful, the attendant emotions certainly aren’t. We only break out of the cycle of guilt and shame through love and forgiveness – of ourselves, of other people and of the planet itself.
         Let’s allow ourselves to tremble with love and wonder at the beauty of what still remains, let’s celebrate and try to propagate that love, and let it drive our actions – all of them. We naturally cherish and care for what we love – and Gaia includes and embraces all the people who live on the planet and their states of mind as well as the whales and seabirds, the phytoplankton and the trees. It’s not an easy way out, quite the reverse – love if anything is a tougher discipline than hatred and projection. But it’s the only way that we can bring about change for the better, change that lasts.

Sunday, January 13, 2013


                We’re among a tribe of fifty or so proto-humans, around 50,000 years ago, living in a clearing in the semi-forested plains of Eastern Africa. One of the males is bigger and stronger than the others – he wears the dried skin of a large gazelle which he killed by himself. All the others, male and female, go naked, their copious body hair just about protecting them against the chilly savannah nights. Two females, one quite a bit older than the other, and their offspring, gravitate around the alpha male; the other males rarely make the mistake of approaching them sexually, nor do these females ever solicit sexual attentions themselves except from their mate.
                One of the brighter, livelier young males – we’ll call him Beta Male Three, as neither names nor language have yet been invented – has reached manhood: his voice has deepened, his hair has thickened and coarsened, his penis has become fully and longer. He’s marked this milestone by going out into the bush and killing an antelope by himself; bringing it back to the community, he announces (partly with sounds, partly through gestures) that he is ready to join with a woman.
                He knows already which one he wants: the daughter of the second most powerful male, the most likely to topple the ‘chief’ in the near future. She, too – let’s call her Beta Female Two – is ripe and ready. ßM3 can see for himself that her breasts and buttocks are full and nicely rounded, and her eyes bright, particularly when she looks at him.
                So they take themselves off into the bush to mate many, many times over the next few weeks. ßM3 is a happy man: when out hunting, or clearing scrub, or even when going out into the bush to relieve himself, the image of ßF2 comes constantly into his mind. He can see her bright, happy eyes, feel her soft breasts against his rough pelt, and her warm moist sex pushing against him, enclosing him. (As is becoming increasingly common at that time, they usually copulate face-to-face.)
                And ßF2 also constantly sees his image before her: his powerful shoulders, his white teeth, his eagerness for her body, his shout as he comes inside her. And she caresses her growing belly, happy in a way she could never have imagined before…
                But the months which follow the birth of their child are uneasy and difficult. A long drought has settled on the savannah, and the antelopes and gazelles have died, or migrated to distant marshlands. Every time ßM3 and the other males have to travel further to find food, every time they bring back less. Following all these disruptions, the community have a new leader now: the father of ßF2 has defeated the old man with the gazelle skin, and has confiscated his two wives. Though he proudly wears a magnificent leopard pelt, the new chief cannot make the rain come, or the animals return, and a dull lassitude, mixed with anxiety, settles on the tribe.
                Still, ßM3 and ßF2 always make sure that the least meagre and fly-ridden tidbit of flesh is given to their little boy. Though his parents are only in their mid-teens by our reckoning, he represents a future that they will probably not live to see.
                But worse is still to come: the famine has caused another of the nearby communities to break up altogether. A ‘rogue’ group of young men have taken to wandering around the plains, searching for animals, searching above all for women. They come upon the old males, the females and children during the day, while the other males are out hunting – such is the shortage of prey that even the chief has had to take part. In the battle that follows two of the invaders are stabbed to death with sharpened sticks, but the other four manage to carry off ßF2 and one other young female. (The child doesn’t interest them; fortunately he is rescued and cared for by his grandmother.)
                When ßM3 returns with the other men, and learns what has happened, he is devastated. Lying down that night, by himself, he cannot sleep for rage and sorrow – his only hope is that they haven’t killed her.
                In the weeks that follow he stays out hunting for longer than ever; now he is searching for human, as well as animal prey. And when he comes home, tired as he is, there’s no woman to receive him, to slake his ever-mounting desire. He dreams constantly of his young mate, but that only makes his pain harder to bear, his passion more urgent. His hungry eyes scan the other women in the community: all are too old, too young, already spoken for, except …
                No one would take her as a mate: her mother, too, was half-crazy, squinting and muttering; whoever her father was, he had never staked a claim to her. We’ll call her Gamma Female One, to indicate her position in the hierarchy: always hungry, always the last to be fed, slightly stooped, always looking out fearfully, hopefully from large brown eyes. Now that he is available again, she looks long and expectantly at ßM3 every time he walks past; sometimes she touches her genitals suggestively.
                So eventually he mates with her: roughly, hastily, brutally compared with the embraces he enjoyed with ßF2 – even as he comes inside GF1, the image of his lost love floats before him, and he is once more stabbed to the heart. He gets up hastily, wiping himself with a leaf, leaving the girl in a ragged heap on the ground. Nonetheless, he comes back and takes her again a few days later.
                Meanwhile, ßF2 has no choice but to mate, with the alpha male among the young men who carried her away. But her heart, too, is broken – even more than her former partner, since she has lost not only him but also her child. Whenever she has a moment’s solitude she closes her eyes and, weeping, imagines the three of them all together again.

The conclusion of the story depends, of course, on whether or not the two original lovers are reunited. Let’s look at both possibilities:
Scenario 1
                A few days later the men, out hunting, come across one of the kidnappers. They force him to show them where their women are; greatly outnumbering the others, they have no difficulty in recapturing ßF2 and the other young woman, joyfully killing their captors in the process.
                Reunited with ßM3 and with her child, ßF2 is happy once again. ßM3 has nothing more to do with GF1, of course – and if ever she looks at him again with desire and longing, his true mate hisses and spits at the unfortunate outcast.
                The rains return too, and the plain is soon covered again with lush green grass, grazed by massive herds of antelopes and gazelles, come as if from nowhere – even the oldest in the tribe can’t remember them ever being as plentiful.
                A few months later GF1 gives birth to a little girl. Her old mother, crazier and lamer than ever, wants no part of it; the young woman quietly and sorrowfully abandons her child one night in the bush, far enough from the clearing for its cries not to be heard.

Scenario 2
                The kidnappers wander far away, into the distant marshlands, driven by hunger and by fear of running into the men whose women they have taken. But as time passes ßF2 gradually thinks less and less about her former mate and child – she realises on some level that she will never see them again. And soon she has a new child of her own to take care of – as does the other woman in this new tribe which is forming.
There is so much to do every day; and her new mate is a man too, after all. The past seems very far away now, out of reach, except sometimes, softened and transformed, in her dreams…
                ßM3 carries on searching for the men who stole his mate, but with less and less hope of finding them; gradually the agony of losing her changes into a tedious, droning ache. From time to time he still fucks GF1, though it brings him little enough joy. He’s inside her only physically – in himself he’s miles away, in a private world of rage and misery he has no way of naming or talking about.
                He becomes ever more reckless when out hunting, taking far too little care to avoid the large and hungry animals searching for the same dwindling prey as him. One day the inevitable happens, and he is attacked by a lion. Fortunately a companion – let’s call him ßM5 – is nearby at the time: together they manage to wound the animal enough to drive it away, but ßM3 is seriously injured, and the saintly but unwise ßM5 is killed.
                Some of the other men bring the young hunter back to the clearing, where his mother cares for him, bringing him water and licking his wounds clean. As he gradually recovers, he notices another young woman who frequently comes to see how he is, bringing him water or fruit. (GF1 has been around to see him too, of course, but he just growled at her threateningly, and his mother chased her away, hissing and spitting.)
                It’s ßF5, mate of the late and unlucky ßM5 – she’s taller and slimmer than his previous love, and seems bolder and more confident. Shortly afterwards, when he’s recovered from his wounds, they go into the bushes and mate; from then on they are a pair.
                Her embraces are more urgent and more intense than ßF2’s – sometimes she wraps her legs around him, digging her heels into his buttocks as if to force him deeper inside. Once or twice, when he stays in her long enough, she closes her eyes tight, gasps and shudders with pleasure.
                ßM3 has never known such joy with either of his previous women. He spends all the time with his new mate that can be spared from communal activities – and ten months or so later she gives birth to the first of many children, a little girl.
                ßM3 spends less and less time with the child of his first union, who has developed into a timid, frail little creature – his aged grandmother, 38 by our reckoning, finds his care more and more of a strain. When the boy dies of a whooping cough during the rainy season, ßM3 is hardly affected; all his energies are directed towards his new family.
                And, of course, he never even thinks about GF1, just as he never asked himself what she was up to when she left the clearing one still moonlit night, walking awkwardly, clutching her huge belly, out into the whispering, chattering bush, never to come back…

Monday, December 24, 2012

Breaking Beauty

Rouen Cathedral, 1820
       How have we changed the world over the past 200 years – both landscapes and townscapes? It’s an impossibly huge question, but a recent exhibition at Dulwich Gallery in London gave me a chance to get a partial but very specific idea by looking at Normandy - a part of the world I know and love well. John Cotman was among a small tidal wave of British artists enabled to visit France when the defeat of Napoleon and the restoration of the monarchy brought an end to 30 years of enmity with England. Cotman focused his attentions on Normandy, principally because he found there a sublime and compelling combination of evocative landscape and grand architecture.

       Normandy had been for many centuries one of the wealthiest and most developed provinces of France, trading with the world through its ports at Dieppe, Harfleur and Rouen. Being relatively near to Paris, its rich fields and pastures provided much of the butter, cheese, eggs and milk consumed in the capital – and the places which Cotman depicted, just before the Industrial Revolution started to transform them, seem to have grown slowly and literally organically into their present condition, whether crumbling ruins or vast busy cathedrals, great sweeping water-meadows or brooding jagged outcrops of grey-brown rock.

Rouen from a distance, 1823
The same, today
       I too love Normandy because much of it still has that quality, but how much of it has been wiped out, smashed, swept away since Cotman’s day! Take these two views of Rouen from a distance, for a particularly grim and telling example.
       Much of the damage to Normandy, of course, came from the Second World War, which reduced many glorious old towns like St-Lô and Lisieux, which so entranced Cotman, to piles of smoking rubble, and their inhabitants to homeless refugees.
Falaise, 1944
Falaise, 1822
              Incidentally, most of the damage to Norman cities during the war had nothing to do with German actions. It was the result of the huge Allied bombing campaigns which preceded the invasion: over 50,000 French non-combatants were killed – far more than Germans – during repeated air raids which destroyed over 75% of all major Norman towns near the coast.  And when they were rebuilt – hastily – during the 1950s, it was in the cheerless and charmless reinforced concrete which today is the first and last impression of most British visitors to Norman cities like Caen, Le Havre or Lisieux.

Rue St Jean, Caen
Rue St Jean today
         No wonder they’re so eager to put as many kilometres behind them as possible on their way to the sun-charmed South. It’s difficult to imagine today how still lovely these places were even in the not so distant days when Jean-Paul Sartre taught in a lycée in Le Havre, or when the future Saint Thérèse became a novitiate in Lisieux.

       So where am I going with this? To point out that most of the picturesquely coiffed peasant women in Cotman’s pictures wouldn’t live past 40, worn out from years of gruelling physical labour and almost annual childbirth in appallingly insanitary conditions? Or that the Second World War became inevitable as soon as Hitler came to power – and that it couldn’t have been won without dislodging the Germans from France? All true, and obvious, and irrelevant:  no one was ever asked how much destruction of their heritage they were prepared to accept in exchange for material progress and the defeat of Nazism.

Mont St Michel
          And what would they have said; how could anyone make such an exchange consciously and deliberately? It’s only the fact that these things have happened in an area which seems to lie beyond anyone’s volition or conscious choice that has made them possible.

       Or here’s another way of looking at it: a Buddhist might say that the only problem lies in our attachment to form. Forms will change, of course, over 200 years, that’s their nature, and we make ourselves unhappy through value judgements about them and preferences for one rather than another.

Mont St Michel, parking lot
       Yes, but. A very big but: the forms which Cotman and his contemporaries show us – the forms we see today in what remains of that heritage – are far more than arbitrary shapes. His was the generation who grew up reading the Romantic poets – and before visiting France he had been attracted to the wilder parts of Britain: to Wales, North Yorkshire, and the Lake District. In such landscapes, as Wordsworth put it:
     “… with an eye made quiet by the power
     Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
     We see into the life of things.”

        So there’s the question for us: how able are we today to feel ‘the power of harmony’, and ‘to see into the life of things’? Cotman and his contemporaries in their travels around Europe were consciously in search of that lifting and ennobling of the spirits which great landscapes bring – with a humility of the heart which can only have been enhanced by the slowness, the dangers and the difficulties of the journey in those days before railways and before metalled roads.
       In our conquest and domination of the physical world around us we’ve laid waste to our internal landscapes, as well as those outside us – and the process is not only continuing but accelerating, as climate change starts to bring about even more dramatic changes. What will be recognisable of these or any other landscapes after a further 200 years to inspire quiet joy in the hearts of our distant descendants?