Novelist Ian McEwan is fully aware of the dangers of climate change and concerned that renewable energy options be deployed with all possible urgency. His  memorable article in the Guardian in November 2008 makes that very clear. In 2005 he went with a group of artists and scientists to the Arctic to spend time on board a ship frozen into a fjord, a group, he says, “dedicated to understanding the effects of global warming on the remote poles, and asking ourselves what we as artists might do.” He writes about the experience in a prologue to the book Global Sustainability –- A Nobel Cause which arose out of the Potsdam Nobel symposium he was invited to in 2007.

We’ve known for some time that climate change would feature in his new novel, Solar, and wondered how. Comedy is the way he has chosen to come at so serious a subject. Climate change hovers in the background of the comic narrative around the central character.

Michael Beard is a middle aged Nobel laureate who received his prize for the work he did as a theoretical physicist in one brilliant summer in his youth.  Since receiving his leaureate he has for two decades done no work of consequence, but taken a variety of assorted tasks appropriate to his celebrity status.  Official roles with a stipend attached are his preference.

Beard is short, overweight and balding.  But the clever scientist holds attraction for a good number of women, and they certainly attract him.  His fifth marriage is coming to an end when the book opens in 2000.  He has numerous affairs whether married or not, and forthcoming sexual arrangements are never far from his mind. He is overweight because he can’t resist food.  He drinks large quantities of alcohol.  He is self-centred and self-indulgent.  McEwan himself sums it up in a television interview: “I made him rather fat and gross and rather cunning and thieving and lying and above all greedy.”

Not a very promising focus for reflection on climate change.  However McEwan deftly weaves strands of climate change concern into the narrative of Beard’s far from admirable but often highly amusing life.  This isn’t the place for a review of the novel as a literary work – there are plenty of those available elsewhere – but I’ll try to indicate some of what struck me as climate change commentary in the course of my very enjoyable read of the novel.

Early in the book Beard  is largely unperturbed by climate change. He’s not wholly sceptical. He knows the basic physics.  But he sees it as one of those background issues which governments can be expected to address and take action on.  He’s suspicious and dismissive of talk about peril or calamity.  In fact his mind is on other things and he doesn’t really take time to think about climate change.  At this point he struck me as fairly representative of a not inconsiderable sector of intelligent people who simply don’t focus on the question long enough to be disturbed by it. The indulgences which preoccupy Beard may be somewhat gross by normal standards, but they fit quite well into familiar societal patterns which preclude serious attention to serious matters.

Later in the novel Beard has had a change. Things are happening, thanks not to himself, but to the persistence of a young scientist at the renewable energy Centre that Beard nominally heads.  The young man had seen in Beard’s early Nobel work implications for a form of renewable energy which will use the power of the sun to perform artificial photosynthesis, to make cheap hydrogen and oxygen out of water, with the gases recombined at night in a fuel cell to drive a turbine. (McEwan is here drawing on the work of Daniel Nocera at MIT). After the bizarre accidental death of the young scientist Beard inherits a folder inscribed with his name in which the young man has placed all the relevant calculations of the process.  The attention Beard refused him during his life he eventually obtained after death when the older man finally read his work. As a result Beard emerges in 2005 as heavily engaged in plans to attract investment support for this new renewable energy.  In a notable passage in the novel he delivers a remarkable speech to a gathering of sceptical fund managers and investment specialists in London.  The need for renewable energy is set out with compelling clarity.  Never mind that the speech comes from an such unsatisfactory protagonist – McEwan gives his character’s scientific intelligence full range. And provides him with an audience on which it is largely wasted, for the vigorous culture of irrationalist denial has been nurtured in the solid institutions of the City.  In one luminous sequence McEwan captures both the promise of escape from the now disastrous energy path on which civilisation has depended and the thick-headed rejection of that promise in favour of business as usual. McEwan may have been cautious of didacticism, but he found in this passage a way of conveying the urgency and frustration that attends an understanding of climate change.

On to 2009 and at last Beard and his business partner are ready to launch the first project in New Mexico in which the new technology will go into production at a modest but useful level.  The necessary millions of dollars have been found, the components put to the test and everything assembled on site. On the verge of the grand opening his partner, no scientist but an excellent organiser and raiser of funds, is unnerved by all the talk he is hearing from business people and white coats on TV that the scientists have got it all wrong but don’t dare admit it.  The rise in temperature so far is negligible and now the planet is cooling.  McEwan manages to pack in most of the denialist hype which gathered strength prior to Copenhagen and make it sound like a genuine conversation.  The same goes for Beard’s scientific elucidation for his friend’s benefit.  The climax of the conversation is brilliant: “Toby, listen. It’s a catastrophe.  Relax!”   The passage is a portrayal of the extraordinary persistence of denial and the ease with which it has been able to percolate through some presumably educated sections of society.

The novel ends in a shambles befitting the life of its central character.  There’s no grand message for the world.  McEwan commented in the TV interview linked to above that novelists who try to sell too strongly a moral message usually find their novels are dead on their feet.  He clearly escaped that fate.  But along the way he fed in a good deal of the serious  concern to which he has given voice outside his fiction. The paradox that it should come through a character who personifies a good deal that is wrong with societal habits is part of the comedy.

We may expect to see writers and artists increasingly treating climate change in their work. It looms so large over society that it can’t be neglected by those who help shape our culture. Hopefully they will help prepare us for the acceptance which surely can’t be delayed for very much longer, and also help us to maintain a decent sense of humanity as we face up to the problematic future we have prepared for ourselves.

Whole Earth Discipline

Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto

When James Lovelock, Edward O. Wilson and Ian McEwan jostle to praise a book I assume it will be worth attention.  Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto doesn’t disappoint. The title echoes the Whole Earth Catalogue which he founded over forty years ago as an ambitious reference aid for skills, tools and products useful to a self-sustainable lifestyle.

Times have changed and Brand has changed with them. Climate change has become a clear and present danger. He has become more of a pragmatist, though no less of an environmentalist. His pragmatism leads him to regard with favour three factors which put him to some extent at odds with others in the environmental movement. The three are urbanisation, nuclear power and genetic engineering, and part of the purpose of the book is to urge the Green-inclined to consider how the three may now be considered significant contributions to facing up to climate change.

There’s no questioning the seriousness of climate change. James Lovelock is frequently Brand’s point of reference in this regard. He hopes that things won’t get as bad as Lovelock’s prediction that we are in the process of moving to a stable hot state 5 degrees warmer than now, but recognises that even the 2 degree rise which politicians seem to be regarding as an acceptable limit will mean large species loss, more severe storms, floods and droughts, refugees from sea level rise, and other expensive and inhumane consequences. It’s against the background of this concern that he sets his case.

Urbanisation is proceeding apace, and is to be welcomed. Brand takes a positive view of what cities mean for the people who are now flooding into them, even if they begin in the squatter settlements which can look so dismal to outside observers. He points to on-the-spot slum researcher reports which observe that cities are very successful in promoting new forms of income generation, that it is much cheaper to provide services in urban areas and that getting people to move to the city may be the most realistic poverty reduction strategy. From the environmental perspective, natural systems in the countryside fare better with fewer inhabitants. Subsistence farming on marginal land can give way to more concentrated cash-crop agriculture on prime land. Aquifers recover. Forests recover. Birth rates drop when people move to cities. Women play a more powerful role in city society. Urban societies become greener in their sensibilities, which can lead to increasing protection for the countryside.

This is only a sample of the wide-ranging survey Brand offers of the positives in growing urbanisation. He acknowledges the negative actualities as well. Cities are far from an unmitigated good. But he is firm that the prospect of 80 percent of humanity living on 3 percent of the land will be a net good for the planet. Infrastructure efficiency, energy use reduction, less pressure on rural natural systems, and the like, are adduced to support this conclusion.

Brand’s section on nuclear power is prefaced with a variously attributed quote: “With climate change, those who know the most are the most frightened. With nuclear power, those who know the most are the least frightened.” His own stance on nuclear power has flipped from anti to pro for two reasons. First, he gradually realised that nuclear waste disposal no longer looked like a cosmic-level problem. Second, nuclear power looked like a major solution in the light of growing worries about climate change. Coal is the enemy. He endorses Hansen’s statement in his open letter to President Obama, “Coal plants are factories of death”, and the accompanying observation “One of the greatest dangers the world faces is the possibility that a vocal minority of anti-nuclear activists could prevent phase-out of coal emissions.”

Brand is all for energy efficiency and for renewables, but impressed by the claim that renewables cannot be relied on for the baseload electricity currently provided by coal in many countries. The dangers supposed attendant on nuclear power generation are not now serious.  Much work has gone into minimizing the risk of accidents. The accumulated effects of low-dose radiation are no longer thought significant for human health. Waste storage arrangements are not as hazardous as once thought. There is every reason for it to be part of the energy portfolio we will need to replace fossil fuel sources.

Brand reserves his strongest accusation of the environmental movement for its opposition to genetic engineering (GE). “We’ve starved people, hindered science, hurt the natural environment, and denied our own practitioners a crucial tool.”  Noting the lack of alarm about genetic engineering among biologists he comments that “they know what a minor event it is amid the standard chaos of evolution and the just-barely-organised chaos of agricultural breeding.” Taking the example of GE herbicide-tolerant crops he points to the great ecological win they represent in that they encourage no-till agriculture. This offers major climate benefits along with improvements to soil structure because tillage releases carbon from the soil, which holds more carbon than all the living vegetation and the atmosphere put together. He regrets that organic farmers, whose work he values highly, can’t use GE but must continue to plough. Some of those farmers also regret it.

There is a great deal more than this example in the chapters which proclaim the green possibilities of GE and his hope that the organic farming and food industries will come to terms with the technologies of “ecology in the seed”.

Having dealt with the three developments which he considers need to be embraced, not rejected, by the environmental movement, Brand moves on to some general considerations as to how not to repeat the mistakes made in those areas. Greens need to be less romantic and more scientific.  “Environmentalists do best when they follow where the science leads, as they did with climate change. They do worst when they get nervous about where science leads, as they did with genetic engineering.”

Ecosystem engineering and niche construction are part of what humans have always done. Brand makes an emphatic case for tending the wild, for people being densely involved with nature. “It’s all gardening” is the chapter heading. Restoration is part of it, but so is agriculture which merges with the practices of tending the wild.

Humanity is now stuck with a planet stewardship role. The trend of the changes we have made lately indicates we are doing a poor job of it.  “We are forced to learn planet craft – in both sense of the word: craft as skill and craft as cunning.” For that we need a better knowledge of how the Earth system works. “We are model-rich and data poor.”

Brand writes with clarity and verve. He grips reader attention. Whatever one thinks of the positions he holds there is high interest in his explanations of them and no denying their importance in relation to the seriousness of the challenge of climate change. How in fact the balance between nuclear power and renewables will be worked out remains to be seen, and the whole question of non-fossil fuel energy sources seems still very open. Some who have no objection to nuclear power on principle still consider it unlikely to play a major role. But Brand’s concern is to establish that there is no reason to exclude it from consideration, or indeed to exclude anything else which science affirms as useful to ecological balance.

There she goes, my beautiful world

IanMcEwansmall.jpg Ian McEwan is one of my favourite writers. By chance, whilst reading George Monbiot’s latest offering in the Guardian this morning, I stumbled on a link to an essay by McEwan welcoming Barack Obama, outlining the considerable climate policy challenge he (and we) face. The world’s last chance is a superb summary of the current situation, and a masterful piece of writing. Any article that starts like this deserves a read:

‘I refute it thus!” was Samuel Johnson’s famous, beefy riposte one morning after church in 1763. As he spoke, according to his friend James Boswell, he kicked “with mighty force” a large stone “till he rebounded from it”. The good doctor was contesting Bishop Berkeley’s philosophical idealism, the view that the external, physical world does not exist and is the product of the mind. It was never much of a disproof, but we can sympathise with its sturdy common sense and physical display of Anglo-Saxon, if not Anglican, pragmatism.

Still, we may have proved Berkeley partially correct; in an age of electronic media, where rumour, opinion and fact are tightly interleaved, and where politicians must sing to compete for our love, public affairs have the quality of a waking dream, a collective solipsism whose precise connection to the world of kickable stones is obscure, though we are certain that it exists.

His take on the state of play echoes mine (and Monbiot’s), but he puts it much better than I (or Monbiot) ever will:

Within the climate science community there is a faction darkly murmuring that it is already too late. The more widely held view is hardly more reassuring: we have less than eight years to start making a significant impact on CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions, eight years to move from Berkeley’s solipsism to Johnson’s pragmatism. Thereafter, as tipping points are reached, as feedback loops strengthen, the emissions curve will rise too quickly for us to restrain it. In the words of John Schellnhuber, one of Europe’s leading climate scientists and chief scientific adviser to Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, “what is required is an industrial revolution for sustainability, starting now”.

If you read nothing else today, read this. And the Monbiot’s worth a look too, as is the Nick Cave title reference…

[Title reference]