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.

 

Writing on a Wall (part 2)

I’d like to continue the theme of my last blog, where I discussed established principles for writing text on a wall. These apply not only to museums and galleries, but other public spaces such as information boards.

It goes without saying that the writing should be grammatically correct. Less obvious is that sentences need to be kept short. People are reading wall text standing up, an arm’s length or more away. They may be tired and suffering ‘museum back’, and could easily be distracted by something more enticing in the gallery. Sentences beyond 15 words in length become increasingly challenging to read and some people will give up. By 25 words half the audience has been lost, and almost no-one is still reading at 30.

Punctuation is also the enemy of the curator. The ideal sentence contains no punctuation other than the full stop. A comma gives the reader an opportunity to pause, and indeed to stop reading. Subordinate clauses can make the meaning hard to follow, and people forced to back-track to fully understand may simply not bother. Colons, semicolons, em-dashes and brackets are beyond the pale. Question marks can appear patronising, can’t they? Exclamation marks can look childish – just ask the kids!

Without being simplistic, common words are preferable to long and obscure ones. Archaeologists ‘dig’ rather than ‘excavate’. Instead of them ‘evaluating’ or ‘elucidating’ or ‘extrapolating’, plainer English explanations need to be explored.

The objects are cool – so the text should be cool too.

Within these guidelines, the writing still needs to be fluid and engaging. Museum curators can borrow principles from magazine writers, who are aiming to entertain and inform without lecturing. The use of active verbs is preferred: “The dockers unloaded the ship” rather than “The ship was unloaded by dockers”. Excitement can be injected, where “The soldiers charged onto the beach” rather than “Soldiers were landed on the beach.” Weak nouns are also discouraged: “the soldier was brave”, he did not “display bravery”. This fights against the novelist’s training to avoid adjectives, so the truck “struggled to climb the steep hill” rather than “struggled due to the hill’s steepness”.

The above guidelines make it challenging to still write interesting text. Breaking up long sentences requires some skill and imagination. The text can become choppy. There is also a temptation to use a lot of T-words, namely The, Their, Them, They and That which makes for boring reading, especially when used for successive sentences such as in this paragraph. Curatorial knowledge is essential, good writing skills help, and editing to a ‘House Style’ becomes critical.

When you are next in a museum or gallery, have a look to see how many of these principles have been applied. You’ll never read a museum text board in the same way again.

With thanks to Guernsey Museum for use of images from their exhibition ‘Engage Warp Drive’.

 

Tell me something I don’t know

“Tell me something I don’t already know,” says Gordon Gekko in ‘Wall Street’. I’m rather like that when choosing a novel. I used to like science fiction because it was not us/here/now, and dislike kitchen sink dramas for the same reason. I know what it’s like to struggle in a grim northern town, I don’t want to read about it.

 Sci-fi and fantasy is escapism and we don’t learn many facts from it, unless very hardcore. One of the appeals of Tolkien is that you can research his world, learn Quenya and the lists of kings but ultimately the whole thing is made up. Movies and TV drama have a difficult relationship with facts, given they need to telescope timelines and adapt the story to whatever budget/set/costumes are available. It is dangerous to come away from something even as well made as ‘I Claudius’ thinking you are secure in the information you have absorbed.

 Historical fiction is a great learning tool – or as a writer, it is a teaching tool. For this reason, the facts need to be right and as much of the background must also be populated with truth. If I trust Patrick O’Brian I will learn a great deal about the Royal Navy in the Napoleonic Wars. Thrillers work in a much more us/here/now world which has both advantages and disadvantages. Much prior knowledge of the world can be assumed (readers know what the CIA is and are familiar with the concept of televisions) but there is a parallel danger in that those well-educated readers will also have detailed knowledge of much else. There is still scope for learning, however. I learned a lot about the Sahara as a young man reading Desmond Bagley’s ‘Flyaway’. Getting the facts right helps the suspension of disbelief. We allow the characters to survive deadly scrapes and fall into plots with unlikely regularity in part because everything else around them is so real.

 I strained credulity very little in writing Glint of Light on Broken Glass. Our three young people inhabit a very real island in 1913 and are pulled along by the riptide of history. Yes there is a magic-realist element, but I hope I’m forgiven for it given that everything else is solid and grounded. I also hope that readers will learn something they don’t know – something to take away about Guernsey in days gone by and its critically threatened language.

 Writers can also make things up with such authority that they are taken as real. John Le Carre famously invented a whole vocabulary for MI6, ‘moles’ and so forth, in such a convincing way that we have come to believe it. When lecturing, I’m aware that I only need to know 5% more than my audience about the given subject to be the expert in the room. I applied this thinking to the Jeffrey Flint books, all of which touched on obscure areas of archaeology or history. However as a writer my audience is potentially the whole world, not 70 people on a rainy Tuesday evening. One reader will be an expert in Soviet rifles, third century Roman armour or actually live in that obscure Greek town where your story is set. So the writer must strain an extra muscle to shrink our own spheres of ignorance to the point we can gloss over the bits it is not necessary to know.

 With luck, the reader will come away from the novel thinking “I never knew that…”

Glint of Light on Broken Glass is now published in paperback and e-book

 

 

 

 

Against a Dark Background

Space Operas we grew up reading such as Star Wars or Star Trek take interstellar travel for granted. They don’t even worry about the science – just push a button and engage the warp drive. Much science fiction literature takes the same route. In  Ian M Banks’ Culture series for example, the Culture are so far in advance of humanity that they smile at our lack of understanding of their technology. As Arthur C Clark said, advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

The hardcore end of SF, for example And Weir’s The Martian, takes a close-to-real look at space travel. In reality, putting humans into space is difficult, dangerous and hideously expensive. A human in Star Trek: First Contact on beaming aboard the Enterprise asks ‘how much does all this cost?’ Jean-Luc Picard merely explains that the economy of the future doesn’t think in those terms.

IMG_1182.JPGSuspending disbelief requires us to assume that there are technologies we have not yet  discovered that will take us from the crude rockets of today to the ion drives and warp drives of Space Opera, with artificial gravity to boot. Its only a blink of an eye historically from the sailing ship to the steam ship to the nuclear submarine; we went from unmanned Sputnik 1 to moon landing in 12 years. So our modern view of scientific progress expects that we will continue to progress. At some point a Stephen Hawking of the future will go ‘ah, so that’s it!’ and we will have a Theory of Everything; once we fully understand the principles that operate the universe, we should be able to invent those magical technologies.

But suppose they do not exist? Suppose the Theory of Everything proves there can be no warp drives, transporter beams or artificial gravity. The only way we can reach the stars will be aboard ‘Space Arks’ taking decades or even generations to reach their destination. But what if the experiments on human biology resulting from lengthy missions  aboard the ISS show the body cannot cope with more than a year or two in zero gravity? Or that humans could not survive long missions in deep space with solar radiation frazzling our DNA. If so, there will not even be ‘space arks’. Mars may be as far as astronauts get – and those heroes may have to accept that it will be a one way trip.

In 1950, Enrico Fermi posed the question that has become known as the Fermi Paradox.  If intelligent life is not an event unique to Earth, there should be countless other civilisations amongst the 100 billion planets estimated to exist in our galaxy. If this is true, we can’t be the first to invent space travel, and the others may have a couple of million year’s start on us. So where is everyone? Earth is such an obvious place for the alien Space Arks or even robot probes to head for. Yet they are not here, and there is no verifiable evidence they ever have been.

Maybe the Fermi Paradox demonstrates that interstellar travel is impossible.

One of Ian M Banks’ non-Culture novels is Against a Dark Background. The storyline takes second place to the key idea, in which a planet is situated so far towards the edge of the galaxy that there are very few stars in its sky. The limits imposed by the laws of  physics mean that its inhabitants can never leave. Everything that can be invented has been invented, then in some cases forgotten. Every political system has been tried, every religious experiment exhausted, and wars are fought over the same terrain for the same list of causes. Resources are basically what can be recycled.  Progress has been replaced by stagnation.

So is that humanity’s future? In a hundred years time, in a thousand years, in ten thousand years? If we can’t stretch out beyond our solar system, and nobody else can reach us, perhaps we’re stuck on this rock forever.

Image: Chris Foss, concept art for Guardians of the Galaxy (author’s collection)

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