Category Archives: Book review

On Waging a Losing War with Nature

The obsidian scalpel

To mention nature is to invoke an infinite, mysterious, and supremely powerful universe, part of which is our own home-world. As story-telling mammals, it is easy for us to think of nature as our mother, and to describe our evolution as stages of growth or initiation. In this metaphor, we spent our childhood in the hard school of the Pleistocene era, under repeated stress from severe ice ages, and our adolescence in the less turbulent Holocene, in which we learned to think of nature, most of the time, as tolerant and generous.

But the Holocene is now ending, largely due to the impacts of our careless numbers, needs and technologies. The tolerance of nature – which once seemed, like the oceans, boundless – has run out. We might hope to be forgiven one day, but there is ample evidence that our mother is seriously angry with us. Worse, we suddenly realise that nature has many other children to look after, and that we are not as special as we had thought. Perhaps this unexpectedly steely-eyed mother will drag us to the altar, to face the obsidian scalpel of extinction that has ended so many of nature’s vast family before us?

But maybe not. We have no way of knowing what’s really going on or why, beyond the discoveries of scientists and the intuitions of mystics. But it does seem certain that we’re in for at least a thorough flogging, and our defensive gestures are far too feeble to do us much good. Nature cannot respond to appeal or negotiation, apparently cares nothing for inflicted suffering, and requires only compliance with her own laws. No, the only thing that might work is for us to understand our punishment, and to hope that we can guess how we are expected to behave in future, in case we get another chance.

And therein lies our hope or faith: we did learn, we did adapt, we are capable, we can survive. But first we must set aside the notion that we have powers that are greater than those wielded by nature herself. Powers we may have, for none of nature’s offspring are so quick to be clever, inventive and cooperative as we are when we need to be. The question is: can we understand how to use those skills to earn a survival niche, somewhere, in nature’s great coral reef, while nature grows back around and within us?

Origins and lessons of warfare

Much will be said about this, as the struggle unfolds. Meanwhile, we can contemplate some lessons from another rich metaphor: human warfare. This is an activity to which we are driven often, perhaps in line with behaviour inherent to one part of our evolutionary heritage as great apes – the ‘chimpanzee’ side with its tendency towards inter-group warfare, which stands in eternal tension with our more pacific ‘bonobo’ heritage. Thus we can imagine that humanity has been waging ‘war’ against nature for millennia, and that nature has now unleashed a ‘war’ against us.

But both are strange kinds of war, by human standards, being fought out by accident between adversaries who are largely unconscious (people) or entirely so (nature) of what they are doing and why. Moreover, it is between those who are grossly ego-inflated (people) and entirely ego-less (nature). And it is also absurdly one-sided according to any rational metric, leaving us with a losing war to endure and learn from, rather than a victory to attain.

Still, warfare is familiar to people, so there may be some concepts and experiences here that can point towards the terms of an eventual peace. In this spirit, I explore here a few lessons from A History of the World War 1914-1918, by B.H. Liddell Hart (Faber & Faber, London, 1930), and draw attention to what they might mean for us in our conflict with nature. I start in Table 1 by setting side by side the opening of Liddell Hart’s book and a statement by myself on the origins of the present climate and ecological emergency. My aim is to show that many years of barely-conscious effort were needed to prepare both the continent of Europe and the whole biosphere, respectively, to the point where a single spark could ignite calamity.

Table 1: Origins of a human war, and of war with nature, compared.

Origins of a human war (1930).

Origins of a losing war (2020).

“Fifty years were spent in the process of making Europe explosive. Five days were enough to detonate it. To study the manufacture of the explosive materials is within neither the scope nor the space of a short history of the World War.

“On the one side we should have to trace the influence of Prussia on the creation of the Reich, the political conceptions of Bismarck, the philosophical tendencies in Germany, and the economic situation – a medley of factors which transmuted Germany’s natural desire for commercial outlets, unhappily difficult to obtain, into a vision of world power.

“We should have to analyse that heterogenous relic of the Middle Ages known as Austria-Hungary, appreciate her complex racial problems, the artificiality of the governing institutions, the superficial ambitions which overlay a haunting fear of internal disruption and frantically sought to postpone the inevitable end.

“On the other side we should have to examine the strange mixture of ambition and idealism which swayed Russia’s policy, and the fear it generated beyond her frontiers. We should have to understand the constant alarms of fresh aggression which France had suffered since 1870 [and] study the regrowth of confidence which fortified her to resist further threats.

“Finally, we should have to trace Britain’s gradual movement from a policy of isolation into membership of the European system and her slow awakening to the reality of German feeling towards her.”

“Seventy years were spent in destabilising the biosphere, and now only a few days are enough to gestate storms, fires and epidemics that make life a misery for scores of millions at a time. Conditions have so ripened that these calamities and others are poised to unite in a devastating global riposte to humanity’s abuse of nature’s intricate living systems.

“To understand how these conditions arose, we should have to consider on the one hand American and Russian power at the end of Nazi Germany, their subsequent influence on their respective client states and non-aligned rivals and dependencies, including the UN, their proxy wars and arms races, and their competing visions for the regulation of human enterprise.

“We should have to note the proving of capitalism as the most efficient way to turn natural resources into surplus production, consumption, armaments, and pollution, the haunting fear among its owning classes of disruption by the externalities of social and environmental breakdown, and their frantic quest for eternal, super-normal profits.

“On the other side, we should have to examine the periodic growth and dissipation of ecological and social-equity movements since the late 1960s, but also a growing confidence among the neoliberal freemasonry in the permanence of their own power.

“Finally, we should have to trace the rise of social surveillance and control technologies that hold people against their will ever closer to the cutting edges of a doomed machine civilisation.”

Disaster overhang and transition

In the event, the ‘disaster overhang’ that had accumulated in Europe by 1914 took two world wars and 31 years to exhaust itself, like a forest fire that finally ran out of fuel after flaring and smouldering for decades. Similarly, it will take many decades to unravel and dissipate the poisonous overhang that threatens the current biosphere. Moreover, in the case of Europe a wholly new American-Russian hegemony was needed to stabilise the situation after 1945, combined with a post-war economic boom to replace imperialism as a source of elite profits, and social democracy to replace nationalism as a source of stable governance. These arrangements prevailed into the 2010s, followed by the start of a transition through chaos towards, one hopes, a more stable configuration based on new ideas of citizenship, governance, equity and sustainability. In mid-transition, however, as powerful forces both conscious and unconscious strive together with increasing violence, it is hard to foresee any particular outcome.

Practicalities of warfare

Table 2 explores three practical strategies that Liddell Hart considers key to military success:

  • elasticity in defence, against a locally-overwhelming onslaught that will exhaust itself in due course if the defenders can withdraw far enough while retaining their coherence;
  • duality in attack, where multiple blows from different directions can confuse and entangle the opponent as they try to respond to them; and
  • surprise in attack, where an action manages by some means to catch the opponent unprepared and vulnerable to shock and confusion.

Table 2: Some war-strategy concepts and their application to a losing war with nature.

Concepts and observations (1930 and 2020).

Elasticity. “Then on the 16th [April 1917] the main withdrawal began, the German forces marching back unhurried to the new line called by them the ‘Siegfried’ and by the Allies the ‘Hindenburg’ line. A consummate manœuvre, if unnecessarily brutal in application, it showed that Ludendorff had the moral courage to give up territory if circumstances advised it. The British, confronted with a desert, were cautiously slow in pursuit, and their preparations for an attack on this front were thrown out of gear.” (p. 391). When nature attacks, she overwhelms or finds a way under or around any fixed defensive position, requiring humanity to give way, fall back, absorb and dissipate the energies of the advance until the thrust becomes manageable with the counter-measures and resources available on site. Thus we abandon floodplains and coastal zones to water, storm and salt, and resettle on the boundaries of new habitability, where we re-establish barriers and plantings that are shaped by the lessons learned in the withdrawal. At the margins of habitability we can dig in and stabilise the front for a while, and maybe push back a little over time.
Duality. “Now duality is the very essence of war, although curiously overlooked. Duality of objective enables the attacker to get the opponent on the horns of a dilemma, and, by mystifying him, to obtain the chance of surprising him, so that if the opponent concentrates in defence of one objective the attacker can seize the other. Only by this elasticity of aim can we truly attune ourselves to the uncertainty of war.” (p. 574). When nature attacks, she often does so in one dimension after another, or else in multiple dimensions at the same time. Water-born or mosquito-born diseases and waterlogged fields all follow floods, giving us hunger and sickness as well as demoralisation and discomfort. Our fields may be seared by drought, our old and young slain by heat, and everything we know burned to ash by fire. Then the top-soil and ash may be blown away, or scoured by sudden floods, destroying soil structure and fertility. Such combination blows are terribly effective, and are the frequent means by which nature forces us to abandon places where we have been comfortable for decades or centuries. Property values collapse, tumbleweeds roll across deserted highways, real estate crumbles into the sea, and the poor gather in cities far away, where the lights are still on. Having many lines of simultaneous attack bestows overwhelming advantages upon nature as an opponent. Counter-attack requires a capacity to understand each of the weapons used against us, and how they work in combination so that they can all be neutralised to the extent possible. A gradual restoration and reoccupation of the devastated area might then become feasible, but the peace-building response would be to try to understand fully what provoked the attack, and promise never to do it again.
Surprise. “This final year [1918], indeed, read in the light of previous years, affords fresh proof that surprise – or, more scientifically, the dislocation of the enemy’s mental balance – is essential to true success in every operation of war. A lesson oft repeated, oft ignored. At the bar of history any commander who risks the lives of his men without seeking this preliminary guarantee is condemned.” (p. 526). “Now, to cut an army’s lines of communication is to dislocate its physical organization. To close its lines of retreat is to dislocate its morale. And to destroy its lines of ‘inter-communication’ – by which orders and reports pass – is to dislocate it mentally, by breaking the essential connection between the brain and the body of an army.” (p. 555). When nature attacks, a complete failure of morale can result from the ‘dislocation of our mental balance’ through unanticipated impacts or threats in new places, and/or overwhelming force majeur  (the Indian Ocean Tsunami of 2004 being a case in point), especially when each push reacts on and reinforces the others so there seems suddenly to be nowhere to turn and no hope of survival.
Blockade. “Helplessness induces hopelessness, and history attests that loss of hope and not loss of lives is what decides the issue of war. No historian would underrate the direct effect of the semi-starvation of the German people in causing the final collapse of the ‘home front’.” (p. 588). Now imagine nature causing a progressive breakdown in the opportunity to travel and trade, and in the supply of goods and services from beyond one’s immediate vicinity, and consider the decline in confidence, narrowing of imagination, and eventually the erosion of physical and social well-being from monotonous and inadequate diets. The 2010 eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland suspended air travel around Europe for a few days, while the 2020 coronavirus pandemic had far greater impacts on trade and transport, both being examples of natural ‘blockades’. It is not hard to imagine the dangers of social breakdown under the stresses of unfamiliar deprivations, as exploited by malign opportunists, nor the effectiveness of counter-measures that promote solidarity and the strengthening of society through education, networking, mutual aid, and fair rationing.

A false sense of security

In each case in Table 2, I have mentioned their implications for people in reacting to the supreme powers of nature, and finding ways to survive, minimise our losses, and buy time to seek a stable outcome, ideally through some kind of peace. I added blockade because this is a potent strategy for demoralising populations, can result from nature’s inhuman processes or her reaction to abuse, and because counter-measures can transform society and help to build peace. In all cases, the point is to consider what the situation would look like if nature was a human opponent, and what we as humans might do to protect and advance what we consider to be our own interests in the short or long term. The following might have been included as well, all of them with war-fighting and peace-building implications:

  • invention, including natural mutations among pathogens and pests, and the technological counter-measures that people design under pressure of necessity;
  • innovation, in war including the use of gas, tanks, submarines, aircraft, and guerrilla tactics, which can confer sudden advantages and help win battles;
  • learning from the past, where history and anthropology are rich sources of invention and innovation, and biology can teach us about the extraordinary creativity of nature in setting up and striking down survival strategies through evolutionary ‘arms races’; and
  • learning from each other, where networking with peoples experienced against certain threats can help naïve peoples obtain new ideas, again as a rich source of invention and innovation.

But all these human responses carry the risk of creating a false sense of security. They all offer tactical advantages, allowing ‘battles’ to be won and giving hope of ‘victory’, but by so doing they can discourage the asking of strategic and policy questions like whether we should really be at war at all. In a human context, those who speculate that their side’s commitment to war makes no sense, are likely to be condemned for ‘treason’.

More questions than answers

The war has become history, and can be viewed in the perspective of history. For good it has deepened our sense of fellowship and community of interest, whether inside the nation or between nations. But, for good or bad, it has shattered our faith in idols, our hero-worshipping belief that great men are different clay from common men. Leaders are still necessary, perhaps more necessary, but our awakened realization of their common humanity is a safeguard against either expecting from them or trusting in them too much.” (page 587). This paragraph in the book’s Epilogue is deeply relevant to our own current experience of the coronavirus pandemic, which raises such major issues of public policy as:

  • whether a country is better off on its own or in a network of cooperating countries;
  • whether the institutions of unregulated capitalism are ever capable of solving unexpected problems with major social and environmental dimensions without massive state subsidy;
  • whether spontaneous local mutual aid is a durable source of resilience and social well-being, both in a stressed society and once the stress has passed;
  • where are the political constraints on lying and hero-worship among leaders who have been caught out advocating irrational and antisocial agendas at times of social crisis; and
  • what are the hall-marks of good and necessary leadership at these and other times?

The answers to these questions can perhaps encourage and enable us relinquish our war with nature as unwinnable, and to use the powers that we do possess to make a lasting peace.

© Julian Caldecott, 2020

Bone Lines, by Stephanie Bretherton

Stephanie Bretherton’s Bone Lines (Unbound, 2018) is built around two brilliant intertwined stories. In one, our common ancestress flees the desolate wastes of the north, leaving her clan and lover as ‘bones under snow’ in the fallout from a super-volcano eruption in Sumatra 75,000 years ago. This is the gentle, piercing, plausible tale of her long and dangerous slog, a growing daughter on her back, to safety in what would one day become East Africa. In the other, her bones have been discovered and she has been named Sarah after Barack Obama’s granny, while her DNA is being extracted, sequenced and interpreted by scientists in London. Eloise is the leader of the research team, and as she muses about her own life and the meaning of her work, she offers pithy thoughts on the modern world. The quest for decent sex and rewarding partnerships by single, professional women is a recurrent theme – resolved near the end – but on the way there are useful, intelligent and, as far as I can see as an ecologist and primatologist, accurate observations on human evolution, medical genetics, climate change, consciousness, perception, anthropology, biogeography, and genocide, while she also puts the boot into Brexit, Trump, misogyny and fascism. All this is great! Meanwhile there is a conspiracy of religious nuts haunting the modern story, just as there were cannibals stalking the ancient one, who are satisfyingly defeated by medical compassion and lethal bear claws respectively.  And the book ends with the kind of hair-standing-on-end sentence that one half-expected but didn’t dare hope for. Faced with such a thoughtful, modern and often very beautiful read, all I can say is: go get it!

© Julian Caldecott

Same old ape, same old ecology

In the Lent 2018 issue of the Cambridge Alumni Magazine, Professor David Runciman argues that democracies cannot fail exactly as they did in the 1930s, since we now “live in a world that is much richer, older, more peaceful and more networked” than existed then.  This may rule out ‘back-sliding’ to a “time when strongmen ruled the Earth”, but leaves open the possibility that our democracies will instead be hollowed out from within by “heartless, conscienceless, super-capable” corporations and/or machines, using algorithms of power and process that we “lack the power to understand, never mind resist”.

This is all very well, but two questions follow. First, do the new forms and scales of human society truly imply an altered nature, or are we collectively the same old ape driven by the same personal and small-group motivations and vulnerabilities that we always were, easily confused and quick to prejudice, regardless of some extra memes and technologies? And second, does our apparent insulation from nature mean that we can actually afford to ignore the rules of ecology, or do we continue to depend utterly on food, water and environmental security provided by ecosystems that we are systematically destroying, regardless of some extra gimmicks and the reassurances offered by our elites? I suppose what I’m saying is: ‘yes!’ to a study of recent history and the social import of new technologies, but also ‘yes!’ to a much fuller understanding of deep history and ecology, without which the future may be both a surprise and a desolation.  Runciman’s new book (How Democracy Ends) sounds like essential reading.

© Julian Caldecott

Too many people

When Paul Ehrlich published The Population Bomb in 1968, there were 3.5 billion people on Earth, up from 1.4 billion in 1901 and heading for our early-2018 total of 7.6 billion.  Ehrlich feared the worst – accurately predicting, in general terms, the stress that meeting everyone’s needs would place on the living world.  He also proposed some alarming and heavy-handed remedies.  All this has just been been revisited in The Guardian’s over-stretched cities series, in a 50th anniversary interview with Ehrlich.

I once planned a book on population, since I’d noticed that it was a taboo subject yet, to an ecologist, one that simply had to be considered.  So I tried to find out why there was so little on population, which must surely be a starting point for the sustainable development of anyone’s country, or immigration issues, or ecological collapse, mass extinction or climate change.  And yet it wasn’t anything of the sort.  I concluded that this was because it’s all too difficult, far harder than any of the specific development issues since it’s connected to what we do as a species: competitive breeding among peoples, cross-contaminated by issues around patriarchy, family planning, sex education, adoption, immigration, juvenile pregnancies, class, honour killings, religion, euthanasia, test-tube babies, you name it!

Besides, for various reasons that have been perfectly valid for at least 99% of our species’ time on Earth, few people even see that there might be a problem with ‘population’.  Into this mess only the bravest or most foolhardy are likely to venture.  So I chickened out, and here we still are, heading for unimaginable global calamity and taking the whole living world down with us.  What to do?

© Julian Caldecott