The Elephant in the Shed

There’s an elephant in the room, but there is also one out in the garden and another in the shed. In fact I’m thinking of buying the field next door to accommodate more elephants. Very few people will notice them, because these are elephants we really don’t want to see, and want to tame even less.

The elephant is human population growth.

This spring I went to Cambodia, which suffered the most horrific conflict during the 1980s which killed up to a third of the population of six to seven million. A few decades later the figure has bounced up to 15 million. Tour guides proudly told us of the burgeoning industrialisation of an economy once almost entirely based on agriculture. Expecting to see the infamous jungle of ‘Nam movies, I mainly saw fields, fruit groves and rice paddies. Family size is falling with industrialisation, but the transition was stark. Farmers are cutting back the forest to create more land and I saw new roads leading to cleared wasteland and raised platforms designated for ‘new cities’ in flood-prone areas.

Moving on to Vietnam, the jungle was mainly absent too. Paddies and farms stretched along the banks of the Mekong. At over 90 million, ‘Nam has 2.5 times the population it had at the start of what they call ‘The American War’ despite the widespread slaughter and economic destruction. Whilst Cambodia still has a more traditional feel, Vietnam is on the path to looking like everywhere else: skyscrapers, billboards, traffic junctions, shopping malls and take-aways. At each major junction in Saigon (as most locals still call it), a phalanx of motorbikes eight wide and ten deep awaits the changing of the lights. They set off in a roar, weaving between each other in a great shoal. My thought was; ‘Whatever happens when all these people get cars?’

The tourist sites were heaving. Used to the ‘busy’ days in Guernsey when we were lucky to get 3 or 400 people turning up at the Castle I was in a whole different world. Hordes poured into the semi-abandoned jungle-clad ruin of Ta Prohm. Some 15,000 per day go into the Angkor Wat complex,  mostly Chinese, Koreans and a few Australians. Most will have flown.

Racking up my air miles, knowing I’m doing more damage to the climate than those motorcyclists, I looked out of my airliner window in the small hours, down into the darkness of the ‘stans from a few miles up. Or it should have been darkness, based on how blank all the atlases of that region look. Instead there were city lights, glittering as orange jewels, scattered in all directions. The world felt scarily full at that moment.

I came back to the interminable Brexit debate, and we know ‘Leave’ was in large part fuelled by fears over immigration. Those fears were bumped up by the exodus from Syria and Libya and other war-torn regions. We might imagine these wars are about one religious sect fighting another because they wear the wrong colour hat on Fridays, but like most wars resources are the root cause. Land is in short supply, fertile land is even scarcer and fresh water is at a premium across great swathes of the world. Bloody squabbles erupt over oil, diamonds, copper and so forth. Fuel is running out and shortages are likely to spark even more conflicts. ‘Rare earth’ metals on which much modern technology such as my smartphone relies are becoming rarer.

Millions are now living on mountains, volcano slopes, in swamps, in deserts, below sea-level, on tiny islands, in arctic regions and where jungle used to be. These areas could not naturally sustain more than a handful of human bands, yet we are building cities. Who is surprised when these areas are devastated by wildfires/ cyclones/ floods/ famine/ drought? Humans are not supposed to live there.

Nobody knows what the ‘carrying capacity’ of the Earth is but at 7.7 billion people and rising we may find out the hard way. It certainly cannot sustain 7.7 billion Americans, and who is to deny all those people the standard of consumption the Americans enjoy?

Environmentalists for the most part don’t want to talk about population. It smacks of poor-shaming and lets the resource-guzzling West off the hook. The UN doesn’t want to talk about it either; why should the West have it so good and not everyone else? Government control of population smacks of authoritarianism; it offends liberals, libertarians and ultra-conservatives alike, whilst the left would rather blame capitalism for the world’s problems. Birth control of any form also offends numerous religious groups.

Last year the world hosted an extra 82 million people, that’s an additional 160,000 more per day. It’s more than died in the whole Second World War and it would take a pandemic on the scale of the Spanish Flu or Black Death to significantly knock it back. Most growth is in the poorer regions of the world already groaning under the weight of numbers and environmental degradation. Their cities are choking with pollution.

foffIt is not surprising millions want to move to Europe or America, and it is unsurprising that Europeans and people who have already made it to America don’t want their already overcrowded lands crowding even more. I saw a t-shirt on sale in South Dakota reading ‘Fuck off, We’re Full’. You can buy them on Amazon, car stickers too. Trump and his ilk use unpleasant language, but they articulate the fears of their electorate.

 

Migration is part of the human story, it has happened since the dawn of time. It has brought marriage and trade, the exchange of ideas and culture and it has brought prosperity to many. It has also brought war, exploitation, slavery, discrimination, disease, resource-raiding and extermination. Opposing migration is commonly decried as racist, a denial of human rights and a policy of the far right. Left-leaning Greens don’t have an anti-immigration/population control stance, yet population growth undermines efforts to consume less and preserve wild places. The net 270,000 people coming into the UK in 2018 is equivalent to a new city with the footprint of Newcastle, and even if they are poor when they arrive we can’t ban them from one day owning Range Rovers, flying to Florida or eating beef.

Across Europe we have seen the rise of ‘populist’ candidates with simplistic messages and ‘far right’ anti-immigration parties in a mood that smacks of the 1930s. A major problem is that Liberals and centre/right democrats have vacated the debate as too hot to handle. It is easier to attack the Alt-Right on the basis of their rhetoric than on the uncomfortable problems provoking it, so pragmatic discussion is almost non-existent.

No-Blade-Of-Grass-poster-468x330We are in very scary, apocalyptic movie territory; No Blade of Grass and Interstellar both play on the results of global crop failures. The crazy world of Mad Max fights over water and oil. As a teenager I was chilled by the overpopulated world of Soylent Green and J G Ballard’s Billenium.

History has shown us that people under environmental stress do not sit still and die. The Migration Period saw peoples from the east moving west in successive waves; Huns, Goths, Vandals, Franks and Saxons. Even the names of these groups still carry echoes of the violence that followed. Illegal immigrants by definition are breaking laws, and criminal gangs are exploiting desperate people from the south prepared to risk their lives for a new home in the north.

The displacement of five million people from Syria is a new factor destabilising the European order, fuelling Brexit, which and in turn threatens the break-up of the United Kingdom. What if 50 million desperate people were on the move? If the climate change Cassandras are even close to being right, a billion could be displaced by rising seas and expanding deserts. No country is going to want them, but who is going to stop them? Unless rational people start to address the difficult issues, irrational people will be left to take the initiative.

We’re going to need a bigger shed.

 

Lessons from a Litfest

Another year, another Guernsey Literary Festival. Unlike all the other festivals I go to, this event is more of a smorgasbord; a feast to suit many different tastes. Rather than bingeing on the whole, people I have met are picking at two or three choice morsels. In this way the festival achieves a broad ‘hit’ across the population rather than going for a sharply targeted deep engagement such as (say) Alderney’s historical themed festival or Crimefest Bristol where I’m bound next week. It is a markedly different strategy and local engagement is extensive. There were 60 or so authors and a variety of big names, and I donated a copy of Glint of Light on Broken Glass to each of the goody bags to make them welcome to Guernsey.

WP_20190503_15_32_51_ProThe opening party was fun, only an hour, but chance to hear from a quartet of speakers and mingle with many like-minded friends on the island. On the Friday I was asked to introduce Dr Matthias Strohn (who was quicker to smile than I was when the camera was produced!) speaking at the blow-up Festival Hub in the Market Square. I’d met him at the Alderney festival two years ago and his subject this time was the end of the Great War. As a German historian and reserve army officer who advises the British Army and lectures at Sandhurst, Matthias offered some unique insights. Most telling was how ‘Britain centric’ our view of that war is. The Germans on the other hand were far more concerned with the Russian threat to the east and the French to the west, until the final year of the war at least. He explained how the German view that their army had not lost the war came about via the observation that (1) Germany fought the war because it was surrounded by enemies (2) none of those enemies had any soldiers on German soil at the conclusion of the fighting. The scene was set for ’round 2′.

I was asked initially whether I would moderate a talk by crime writer Mark Billingham, but having seen Mark in action I knew he needed no moderation – he was once a stand-up comedian. In the event he was paired with Erin Kelly, in the bigger venue of St James where even the audience just shy of 100 rattled a bit. Writers’ forums endlessly discuss whether it is best to plan a novel or fly by the seat of your pants (‘planners’ vs ‘pantsers’). Erin takes the same approach as I do, essentially writing a first draft composed of the main scenes of the book not necessarily in order. She then revisits in draft 2 to knit these together into a coherent story. She and Mark also discussed research and the tip was not to write it down as if swotting for an exam, but to use the points that stick. In this way the writer avoids ‘information dumping’, on the reasoning that all this researc =h must show somewhere.

WP_20190506_11_44_27_ProOn the Monday it was a change of venue again, to the spanking freshly refurbished Frossard Theatre at Candie to introduce Dr Gilly Carr. Gilly has worked with the Museum on a couple of occasions and co-created its current exhibition ‘On British Soil’ about Nazi persecution in the Channel Islands. Gilly has worked consistently for the past decade to change the narrative on the German Occupation, which had become in parts saccharine encouraged by cosy tales of wartime make-do-and-mend, partly ‘boys toys’ enthusiasm for the many fortifications and weapons left on the islands and partly by the euphoria of Liberation Day celebrated every year on May 9th. Gilly was talking about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, as experienced by Channel Islanders who were persecuted by the Nazis. Victims deported to Nazi concentration camps belatedly got the opportunity to apply for compensation in the 1960s. Many were in no state to describe their suffering, and there was an added complication that PTSD was not recognised as a medical condition at that time. Claims could be made for wounds, diseases or disability, but how could people find recompense for damage that has not even been defined? More can be found on Gillys website https://www.frankfallaarchive.org/

So, I only managed four events, but I’m now warmed up and in the mood for Crimefest Bristol next week.

The Friendly Festival

It was my pleasure to attend the fourth Alderney Literary Festival this weekend, which incoming Chair Anthony Riches declared to be the ‘Friendly Festival’. It is small but perfectly formed, concentrating on historical fiction, non-fiction and biography. The audience is limited to 50 or so for each talk, so there was barely an empty seat throughout the weekend. People came and went, picking the talks that suited them and there was a programme of fringe events taking place about the island.

The intimacy of the venue at the Island Hall also meant that the dozen authors and the public mixed freely. There was no ‘Green Room’ for writers to be whisked away to by their agents or publicists. Refreshingly the talks were not simply a plugathon for the author’s new book, but plunged deep into discussions of historical fact and fiction, and indeed the point at which these transition into myth.

I wasn’t speaking this weekend, being principally a paying punter. I did however have the fun of introducing Professor Gary Sheffield’s talk on the end of the First World War, and brought away a copy of his book on Douglas Haig, from the Somme to Victory. The outcome of the Great War did much to shape the modern world, as did the outcome of the Second; the way we have built myths around that conflict were presented by Keith Lowe.

With Tony RichesIn what could have been the graveyard slot on Saturday evening, I also introduced Anthony Riches, energetic author of a dozen Roman epics which he writes at a dizzying rate. His talk on the evidence for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in the ancient world was thought-provoking and questions could have gone on all evening. Also taking no prisoners was outgoing Chair Simon Scarrow and his look at the so-called ‘End of History’, and where the deluge of data now available on the internet left the modern historian. Our own Liz Walton gave a talk on the Great War in the Channel Islands – I edited her book and was pleased to see it selling well on the bookstall.

Great fun, great conversations, great food washed down with a fair amount of wine. Local volunteers put a lot of work into this festival, which was supported by the Guernsey Arts Commission amongst others. With luck, and with the help of much-needed support from sponsors, Alderney Litfest will be back at the end of March 2019.

Follow the link for more on Alderney Literary Trust

And Now in German…

The Story of Guernsey is published in German this week. It is an introductory history of Guernsey profusely illustrated with images from Guernsey Museums’ collection, aimed at the general reader, visitors to the island and older children. The English and French editions of this book have already made it the Museum’s best-selling non-fiction work.

I’m pleased to see this out in German and have to thank my friend Tamara Scharf for translating it,  Elke Spangenberg for proofing the text and Christine Zürcher for the final proof-read. My schoolboy German wasn’t up to more than browsing through to check that the final copy looked okay. As usual Paul le Tissier laid out the book; always a complication when a paragraph in another language is not the same length as in English. The book is now on sale from outlets in Guernsey and via Guernsey Museum’s online Amazon shop.

Are we the good guys?

This month I visited the ‘War Remnants Museum’ in Saigon, formerly the ‘War Crimes Museum’ (and technically in Ho Chi Mihn City nowadays). The ‘war crimes’ of the USA, French and the South Vietnam regime are graphically illustrated with photographs and relics of torture, imprisonment, indiscriminate bombing, careless killings and trophy-collecting. It of course completely ignores the murders and atrocities committed by the NVA and VietCong. A superb retrospective of photographs by journalists killed in the conflict particularly shows the agony of the US war effort, whilst again the North Vietnamese photography was of cheerful NVA soldiers, sturdy peasants and so forth. Hardly balanced, and casting the USA particularly as the baddies. The Museum of the Revolution in Havanna does much the same, although with hilarious lack of credibility in places.

In my reading around the Vietnam War, one US politician looking at the corrupt and oppressive South Vietnamese regime wondered if the US was actually fighting on the right side. The reality of Cold War proxy wars was generally that the US would back unpleasant right-wing regimes with dismal human rights records, whilst the Russians, Chinese and Cubans would back insurgencies by ‘popular’ leftist groups equally comfortable with violence and murder. To the peasants and teenage soldiers forced to fight or flee it would be hard to tell who the good guys really were.

On holiday I read the classic ‘We Were Soldiers Once and Young’ by Moore and Galloway, concerning the first major bloodbath between US and NVA forces in 1965. Heart-wrenching stories of the NVA executing wounded Americans got no mention in the War Crimes museum, nor did their favored targeting of medics and medivac helicopters. I also watched the indifferent Brad Pitt movie ‘War Machine’ about Afghanistan, which drew its own parallels to the Vietnam War; the people we are fighting are the people we came here to defend.

It has been said that the mistake the West keeps making is to assume we are the good guys.

There are always two sides to a conflict, always two views, even if objective analysis shows one to be in the wrong. ‘Zulu’ is a cracking film of bravery against the odds, but did the Good Guys win? The Good Guys clearly won WW2, albeit with the British carpet-bombing German cities, the Americans nuking Japan and the Russians throwing mercy to the wind as they closed on Berlin. Afterwards, the colonies and liberated territories simply wanted us gone. We view Liberal Capitalist (Christian) Democracy as the gold standard, but a huge chunk of the rest of the world does not agree. Capitalism is widely viewed as a Bad Thing and destructive of the environment, democracy is despised as weak, liberalism as decadent. Newly created democracies easily succumb to corruption, infighting and sham elections, turning the reign of the last dictator into some kind of golden age. Some religious groups even argue that government comes from God, not man, so democracy is fundamentally wrong.

Because we believe we are right, we gain the moral justification to act in our interests with all the power at our disposal. This view has probably triggered more conflicts than any other in modern history.

When writing, one can flirt with the opposing viewpoints of each side to avoid being simplistic. MI6 or KGB operatives are simply doing their job for their country, and the moral ambiguity of the spy thriller means that the line between good and evil is blurred. War movies and westerns from the 1960s onwards moved away from the flag-waver to the ‘anti-war’ movie where the enemy is human too. We even see clumsy attempts in terrorist fiction to get into the hearts and minds of the suicide bombers and jihadi killers; but for the meantime, they are the baddies, period.

Back in the dangerous and unstable real world we yearn for the simplicity of a 007 supervillain to fight. Our film fiction grasps at hollow victories snatched from a mess of inconclusive or disastrous interventions. Watching say ‘Black Hawk Down’ or ’13 Hours’ where flag-waving AK-toting gunmen are shot down like Red Indians in a 1950s B movie, we can see articulation of that simplicity; an against-the-odds mission to save your buddies amid a geopolitical clusterfuck. However, looking at those heaps of bodies of fighters at the end of the movie, killed in their own countries by foreign interventionists, we have to ask; are we the good guys?

 

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