Category Archives: History

Review – Amitav Ghosh’s “The Great Derangement – Climate Change and the Unthinkable”

Ghosh’s non-fiction, short book on climate change The Great Derangement is a departure from his forte – the great Asian historic novel. It has all the classic Ghosh hallmarks with meticulous research: instancing the use of coal, oil and gas in pre-colonial Burma and China; a keen understanding of science previously revealed in his novel The Calcutta Chromosome; and the virtuoso use of language we expect from him.

The question the novel poses is why literature has been so perfunctory in its engagement with climate change. The evidence of clear-and-present danger from climate chaos has been with us for decades. As Ghosh observes, first hand in the case of a Delhi tornado, extreme weather episodes are becoming more common place despite their statistical non-likelihood. This could provide a human backdrop for any budding author of climate change fiction.

Ghosh’s explanation of literature’s silence is one of artistic viewpoints and time-scales. Classic novels have a small number of actors and the action occurs over periods extending from a few days to a few decades. Few novels attempt to handle people en masse or engage with time frames of centuries which is the horizon over which the impact of heightened greenhouse gas levels will fully manifest. Would Life in a Gulag been as successful as A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich?

But, according to Ghosh, few authors have attempted the great climate novel. Ghosh’s list – Atwood, JG Ballard, McEwan, Le Guin, Lessing – puzzled me because scarcely any of the books listed were about climate change, they were largely big literary figures’ journeyman efforts at dystopic/alt-future novels. For instance, JG Ballard’s The Drowned World (1962) quite understandably given its vintage doesn’t go into the science of why London is submerged. Lessing’s excruciating Canopus series uses sci-fi to unsuccessfully examine many social issues aside from climate change. McEwan’s Solar is a “McEwan” book starring a scientist working on solar energy. You could search and replace “solar” with “herpetology” and not notice any disruption to the plot.

Novels have engaged with climate change. My own novel The Rising Tide is more firmly rooted in climate science, in its consideration of the aftermath of collapsing Greenland ice-shelves, albeit fast-forwarded, seen through a teenage prodigy’s eyes. Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140 writes of a post-sea level rise world which engages with how the human spirit will continue, after the climate fall. The YA book After Tomorrow talks about by refugee flows and monetary collapse triggered by climate change.

The last section of Ghosh’s book is a quirky textual analysis of two decidedly non-fiction documents produced in 2015, the hottest year on record, Pope Francis’s encyclical letter Laudato Si’ and the UN-FCCC’s Paris Agreement. Literature’s disengagement is all too evident 2016’s Booker was awarded to a book about someone selling weed and water-melons!

For someone like me who works on climate change and energy issues as an economist, policy wonk and author the book was a fascinating exposure to some different perspectives on familiar material. Ghosh’s main weakness was the incomplete efforts to engage with the sci-fi genre which is the style of literature that best engages with long term social issues.  Thoroughly recommend.

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Filed under Environment, History, Review

Hangzhou and Disruptive Technology

Hangzhou is regarded by many Chinese people as the country’s most beautiful city. Its Xili (West Lake) is garlanded by stunning villas that have inspired artists and poets for centuries. Its delicate pagodas are filled with newlywed couples spooning over the water. The lake’s sub-divided waters are criss-crossed by delicate stone and wooden bridges and garrotted by a 3km grassy causeway. Around it but within the city’s boundaries are lovely restaurants, mountains, many excellent museums, rice fields and tea plantations all easily accessed by bus or bike. It’s always been famous within China and was even briefly capital during the Southern Song dynasty.

But apart from plaudits from Marco Polo it is little appreciated by westerners. For those that follow these sort of things – it briefly made primetime news when in hosted the G20 Summit last year. But few of our gweilo friends knew about it, or had visited it.

Maya and I went there during the mid-autumn festival in October. Along with Chinese New Year it is the biggest migrations of mammals anywhere in the world, no matter what David Attenborough silkily tells you about his wildebeest. Shockingly, Maya and I weren’t Hangzhou’s only visitors that week. Hangzhou’s gazetted must-see tourist attractions were rammed with tourists from seven in the morning till bed-time. I’ve always been baffled by how Mao persuaded his fledgling People’s Liberation Army to tour China’s inhospitable southern perimeter in Long March. Then I saw Chinese
mass tourism in action. Being frog-marched by a flag touting commander is in the genes.

As well as being beautiful Hangzhou has been punching above its weight in communications, trade and technological disruption for two thousand years. Fourteen hundred years ago it became the southern-most point of the Grand Canal. This immense and extraordinary engineering feat was constructed to transfer food from the arable Yangzi water basin to the hungry northern Yellow River basin. The canal is a 1000 miles long and its locks allow boats to climb 40 metres to bridge the different water sheds, thus integrating the North and South Chinese economies which has been so important in holding the immense state together the past two millenia.

More recently it has become a technology powerhouse. Not quite Shenzhen but it is the city where Jack Ma was born, studied and set up Alibaba. This US$460 billion market company is by some measures the world’s biggest internet company. Not only does this company own Taobao the world’s largest online market place by volume, it also runs Alipay China’s biggest online payment system as well as a whole swathe of other concerns including the second largest instant messaging site in China, a share in Didi the ride sharing app that beat Uber as well as my local paper the South China Morning Post. (You can hear so-so talk show host Barack Obama speak to Jack Ma about innovation, business and environment here).

But the real disruption I wanted to write about is the humble bicycle. Private ownership of bicycles was an emblem of communist China. Seas of clanking bikes threading through packed Chinese streets was a cinema cliché. Then it became car choked congestion. But in Xi Jinping’s communism with a Chinese flavour market economy bikes have made a comeback, and they’re shared. It seems a paradox but the sharing culture and other forms of communal ownership are displacing private vehicles in China. Bike sharing is being bankrolled by the tech giants: Alibaba (Ofo), Tencent (Mobike) and in Hangzhou half a dozen others. The industry is hugely competative with network economies of scale similar to online market places, and it’ll take time for the industry to settle down.

Our hotel owner suggested Maya and I download one of the app. (We communicated with him via Wechat’s incredibly effective speech translator.) For the next three days we’d pick up and drop off bikes bikes where we liked. Holding our phones over the bikes’ QR code unlocked it, when we were done we locked the bikes up again. There were occasional hitches but it worked pretty smoothly. It is obviously hugely popular with young and old. In some locations people scrambled for our bikes the moment we disembarked. (Hong Kong’s service set up by Raphael Cohen is good but still glitchy, without the big-bucks backing of its Chinese rivals, that operates in Hong Kong’s New Territories.)

The same as many other cities in China a fast growing subway system is being rolled out in Hangzhou. Two lines are open so far, another eight are planned. The bus service is already incredibly cheap and effective. Why own a car? This is where the disruption comes in. The public transport system in China combining high-speed trains for inter-city travel, excellent subway for intra-city, and shared-bikes for the last mile is getting to be so good why own a car. It is hard to overstate what an immense impact this will have on the economy. The manufacture of cars, petrol/diesel extraction, their refining and sales, and the allied industries like car insurance, private car hire / taxis are a mainstay of every economy. But in a decade or so they may be superseded by vastly smaller public equivalents. And it will have effects on the topography of streets may change. Cars like wide roads and acres of parking, their socialised equivalents like narrow shady lanes and smaller compact city forms. It’s healthier too providing us around two hours of aerobic exercise each day.

Zhejiang (the province containing Hangzhou) GDP per head is US$12,000, California’s GDP per head is about five times higher. But the difference in living standards is far from correlated. The Chinese city is safer, less congested, its 2000-year heritage rapidly being restored, and had visibly less income inequality at least in the 50 or so miles we cycled. If this is what relative poverty looks like it doesn’t seem so bad.


Filed under Economics, History, Technology, Travel

Vladivostok: the edge of the Belt and Road

IMG_8141Vladivostok is a city of 600,000 in the Far East of Siberia. Russia grabbed it opportunistically in 1860, back when the Qing Empire had been enfeebled by the Opium Wars and the vicious Taiping Rebellion that left 20 million dead. Russia quickly consolidated its grip expelling the Chinese and transferring people from Ukraine and Belorussia: first by land and ship and by rail once the Trans-Siberian Railway was built.

Even though it’s only a stone’s (or perhaps a Scud missile’s) throw from North Korea, there’s no hint of the East in the local gene pool. Lonely Planet calls it San Francisco of the East, I suppose, because of its steep, low hills and wide roads, but the gaudy, mid-19th Tzarist buildings in the center, ringed by newer Soviet concrete blocks make it look more like Aberdeen or Edinburgh.

IMG_8149I’ve long wanted to go to Vladivostok. The word Vladivostok conjures a far-away, mystic place of exile like Timbuktu, Mandalay or Coventry. Over summer I read A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich vicariously commenting on many drafts of my son’s school essay. In the book the bleak Siberian gulag is set in a vast open terrain and a bitterly cold climate. The book gets the vast, openness right. Far East Russia is 20 times bigger than UK, but its population of 6 million (and declining) is but a tenth of UK’s.
I came to the city to attend a WWF meeting about the Belt and Road Initiative. In a sense this Chinese policy is a reversal of 19th century balance of power. The Trans-Siberian Railway was totemic of Russia’s colonisation of the East; BRI’s signature investments are a series of railway lines and maritime routes linking China to Europe, Africa and Asia. Once upon a time all roads led to Rome, today Xi Jinping’s big idea is for Beijing to assume a similar co-ordinating role in the world’s nervous system.

Certainly you smell Asian money everywhere. Our hotel had Chinese, Korean, Japanese TV channels and a single English one (checkout the excellent RT state sponsored propaganda channel: my fave is the witty show Redacted Tonight). The menus and museum proffer information in Cyrillic, Chinese and Kanji scripts, Roman letters is fast vanishing.

IMG_8158I found the contrast between Hong Kong and Vladivostok jarring. The flight is only four-hour but you land in an alien environment. Everyone on the plane was young, Slavic and athletic looking, or they were me. The lack of diversity is at least in part due to Russia’s anti-tourism policy, you couldn’t invent a more Byzantine process to get a visa. The other big difference is Vladivostok has space to burn. There’s no jostling for territory on the roads, pavements, lifts, or restaurants. You can finally stretch your wings. Instead of Hong Kong’s fastidious maintenance of its infrastructure we have Russia’s worrisome neglect. Outside the center’s conference-friendly ambit roads are cratered and the paint on the old buildings peeling. A funicular rattles and creaks as it climbs from the touristic shore – where you can explore the inside of Submarine S-56 – to the hill-top’s viewing point. The people have so much environment, trashing it doesn’t seem to matter. Unlike Hong Kong’s 24/7 work culture, Vladivostok is more interested in having fun on the beach, going for a beer, playing football with the kids.

IMG_8131I liked the phlegmatic can-do-ness permeating the culture. Channel surfing you can catch Putin looking inscrutable and insouciant, not harangued and shifty like a Hong Kong politician. Instead of a shopping channels, I found a DIY channel where the presenter showed us how to repair a broken pair of glasses with glue and Sellotape (you too can sport the Michael Foot look).

But the trip left me curiously depressed. Vladivostok’s pocket museum reminds us that over the last 35,000 years the fertile lands were denuded of mammoths and the other megafauna by the aborigines: Udege. These were conquered by dynasties of Chinese, white Russian, communist USSR, Japanese finally reverting to Russia. Does wildlife have a chance within Xi Jinping’s Ecological Civilisation? My excellent WWF colleagues helped rescue a tiny Siberian community of Amur Tiger from extinction, as part of our wider Tx2 programme. Can the WWF network reverse the millennia long trends for development to obliterate wildlife and worsen climate change? I hope so.


Filed under History, Politics, Travel

Review of “Gweilo: A Memoir of a Hong Kong Childhood” – Martin Booth

GweiloJust finished reading Martin Booth’s autobiographic book, the third of the Gweilo canon I’ve read these past few months. The three books couldn’t be more different. John Lanchester’s novel Fragrant Harbour covers the period between the end of the first world war and the turn of this century. He skilfully weaves three narrators and three narratives into an intergenerational saga.  James Clavell’s Taipan is a swashbuckling story of  an early Victorian privateer who outwits mandarins, pirates and business rivals to found an enduring business dynasty that loosely based on  the Jardine story. Gweilo is set in the two-year stretch of time between 1952 and 1954 as seen through the eyes of the 8 to 10 year-old Booth. Booth’s father is a low ranking civil servant and his mother a vivacious and wise homemaker.

Reading it you realise a place is not so much geographic location as a period of time and a human perspective. So while you can spot familiar place-names which only another local might know – Old Peak Road, Mount Austin, Sham Shui Po – you also realise you’re reading about an entirely alien country. The Hong Kong being described in this book still has opium dens and people spitting in the street. The excellent public transport system is still in its gestation. Sha Tin and Tai Po are sleepy fishing villages accessed by single track roads already fully utilised by unswerving farmers herding their geese and cows. Nowadays both New Towns are settlements with quarter of a million residents each reached by MTR from Kowloon in 20 minutes. The Hong Kong people are colourful refugees fleeing the Mao’s communists’ predation of Chinese petite bourgeoisie. There is a hilarious description of a well-meaning relative who sends the family food and toiletries from a post-war rationed UK unbelieving of their pampered and sumptuously catered expat lifestyles.

Booth regards every fettering of his right-to-roam as a challenge. On being told he should not enter the notorious and lawless Kowloon Walled City: “To utter such a dictum to a street-wise eight-year old was tantamount to buying him an entrance ticket.” KWC has since been reformatted as a bucolic park and his description of the kindly triads, and brothels seems unimaginable . Surely even the most casual reader must see the contrast between Booth’s colourful childhood and the shopping mall-grade 8 viola lessons-Dr Spock maths crammer class existence that passes for childhood in Hong Kong these days.

The other striking feature of the book is the Oedipal complexity of his relationship with his inadequate, bullying and ultimately hated father. It’s an honest and often uncomfortable account of how a bad parent slips off their filial pedestals in their child’s eyes.

The book ends with the family boarding the boat back to England. There is a tantalising hint of a second book in which Booth and his mother return to HK sans father, but sadly the author dies soon after Gweilo is published so the next chapter remains untold. Curiously, I too spent the two years of my childhood between ages of 8 and 10 away from the UK, in India, when my parents tried to make a go of it back in the “mother country”. I only wish my recollections were as vivid and my days in India as eventful as Booth’s.

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