Guest Review: The High House

the high house

Today it is my pleasure to welcome a guest reviewer to my blog. Peter Wild is the editor and founder of Bookmunch, a book blog I regularly contribute to. He kindly agreed to review The High House for me. I was interested in his take on a book I consider a must read.

The High House by Jessie Greengrass

The world as we know it is going to hell in a handcart (although if the latest opinion polls that demonstrate only 4 in 10 people think the most corrupt Government the UK has ever had is in fact the most corrupt Government the UK has ever had, it’s highly likely that only 4 in 10 people think the world is going to hell in a handcart too). Whether you dabble with the kinds of nonfiction we see from Naomi Klein (On Fire) or David Wallace-Wells (Uninhabitable Earth), watch documentaries a la I Am Greta or This Changes Everything, dip your toe into the waters of dystopian fiction (I Am Monster, Gold Fame Citrus, The Road, Things We Didn’t See Coming) or simply, you know, watch the news – you’ll likely have an idea what I’m talking about. Jessie Greengrass (of An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk, According to One Who Saw It and Sight) has contributed to this burgeoning fictional inlet with her latest, The High House.

What we have here is an arresting novel described by Max Porter as being “about the great crisis of our time” but played out in “an unconventional domestic drama performed on an intimate stage.” There are three narrators, Caro and Pauly (brother and sister) and Sally (provisionally a sort of guardian figure for the two children, along with her Grandy, who is the resident handy man and fixer of all things in a small village). Caro and Pauly’s mother Francesca is herself a sort of Naomi Klein figure, given to travelling here, there and everywhere, a Cassandra for the coming doom – but in the midst of her clarion calls she and her husband also work hard to create a sanctuary for her children in a house formerly owned by her uncle. The eponymous high house. Sally and her Grandy are drafted in to help make the place habitable for as far into the future as is humanly possible.

Just as Klein writes about her own children in her nonfiction, so we are told Francesca react to criticisms of her own parenthood with “a kind of furious defiance… a kind of pact with the world that, having increased her stake in it, she should try and protect what she had found to love.” And yet still there are “moments when the outside world intruded” in a way that seemed “extraordinarily violent”:

“…photographs of people knee-deep in mud, of children lying in rows on mattresses, their eyes huge in their skulls…”

The heart of the book, really, is an attempt to foster “a small survival”, “a way to live which was not notable, which did not aspire but did not, either, take more than it put back, nor push off the cost of enterprise elsewhere, outsourcing, as we often did, our suffering.”

The novel darts back from an ostensible ‘now’, in which Caro, Sally and Pauly are older and have weather travails together, to take us through what led up to the establishment of their home against a backdrop of climatic unrest (“a set of circumstances which could have been prevented, once, but now had gone beyond repair”).

The High House certainly contributes to the sense that any right thinking person has, that we are, in various ways, in a parlous state, that we rely on often corrupt decision makers too busy stuffing their pockets (or decorating their official residences) to actually make a difference in a way that the future of the world might go on to hold them in high esteem for, making the rest of us somewhat helpless in the face of the ask.

Towards the close of the novel, Sally refers to the fact that “more and more of that which we have salvaged is exhausted, or lost, or starts to rot” and Pauly himself wonders what will happen when and if he is the only person left, and this reader wished Greengrass had done more with this. If we had been told the story of what led to the establishment of the High House and had a chance to view the other end, the end of their end, it’s possible The High House would have been exceptional indeed. As it is, it’s a good novel seeking to grapple with (as Max Porter says) the biggest question of our time, and it makes a good fist of things. There is just the slight, niggling feeling at the back of my mind that if the book were more equally weighted between the then and the now – and if the now had more to say than simply “all things tend towards their ruin” – it would be a bigger and bolder read. (One example of a bigger and bolder book would be Jim Crace’s Harvest, which imagines a rural setting far in the future, long after whatever tremors and aftershocks we are to experience as a race have come to an end.)

Peter Wild

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Book Review: The High House

the high house

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“It is not enough to have an ark, if you do not also have the skills to sail it”

This is the third book by Jessie Greengrass that I have read. All have been enjoyed. Her writing just keeps getting better.

The High House is set in the near future. It explores the impact of climate change, particularly rising sea levels. More than that though, it revolves around a small cast of characters skilfully rendered. Few words are wasted on what they look like. What matters is how they feel and react to each other, and how events they must live through shape them.

The story is told from three points of view with chapters headed by their names: Sally, Caro, Pauly. The timeline is non-linear with much of the narrative filling in gaps. Structured in short sections, pace is pitched perfectly to maintain interest and momentum. There is an underlying tension in knowing what is to come.

Caro is raised in London by her father, an academic. When he marries Francesca, a scientist, they spend holidays at the High House. This is a large coastal property left to Francesca by an uncle. Visits cease after baby Pauly is born. Caro, now a teenager, helps care for the child. A respected expert in the field, Francesca is becoming more concerned about the impending climate disaster she can see coming – that the world appears wilfully blind to. She spends increasing amounts of time away from home.

Sally is raised in the village below the High House by her grandfather, Grandy. He has lived there all his life, watching it change from a farming and fishing community to a place filled with holiday homes. Grandy is employed as caretaker by the absent owners. When Francesca decides to make the High House an ultimate refuge for her family, he becomes involved.

Caro is not made party to Francesca’s plans. She feels abandoned, believing her stepmother has chosen work over her son. At the same time she enjoys the role she plays in Pauly’s upbringing. Francesca’s wider concerns bring tension to the home that affects them all.

News reports tell of increasingly unpredictable weather events in other places – the refugees created when floods wreak havoc. Viewer shock is short lived when events feel distant, while they remain okay.

“drone footage of torn buildings and flooded streets which showed the water lying still and calm and deep across places people had thought they owned.”

Sally is unimpressed by Francesca, resenting the attention Grandy pays her as she talks of what is to come. Grandy understands the power of the weather having experienced the lasting impact on his and neighbouring villages of the last great flood.

“-This isn’t going to be like that,
Francesca said.
-There won’t be memorials in church halls. No one is going to make up songs. There will be nothing left.
-Nothing?
I asked, and I felt gleeful, as though I had found the point at last, and now could press it home.
-Or only nothing of yours? People have nothing already. People are dying already. How can a threat to you be an apocalypse when the rest of the world is drowning and it’s only a fucking preamble?”

In London, residents and visitors enjoy the lengthening seasons of warmth and sunshine. Caro takes Pauly to their local park to play, aware of changes to plants and wildlife but not paying attention. There are day to day concerns to deal with whatever is happening beyond.

“We had the habit of luck and power, and couldn’t understand that they were not our right. We saw that things were bad, elsewhere, but surely something would turn up, because didn’t it always for us?”

From the first few pages the reader knows who ends up at the High House and that Francesca’s efforts enable their survival. The story is of what happened and how they got there. The writing is incisive but also empathetic. The denouement is quietly devastating.

There are elements of domestic drama – jealousies, irritation, resentment, love – that draw the reader in, yet what this story offers is so much more. It is painfully easy to see the reflections of our current situation. When resources grow scarce, what is anyone willing to share and with whom?

Any Cop?: A tale so well crafted it may be enjoyed despite the warnings therein. Book reviewers are sometimes mocked for employing certain overused phrases. In this case I have no qualms in saying, The High House is a must read.

Jackie Law

Book Review: The Last Bear

The Last Bear, by Hannah Gold (illustrated by Levi Pinfold), is a magical tale about a lonely girl and her unusual friend. Set on Bear Island, an outpost between Norway and Svalbard inhabited only by wildlife and research scientists, it offers a warning about the impact of climate change wrapped around an exhilarating adventure, beautifully told.

The protagonist is April Wood, the eleven year old daughter of an academic still grieving the loss of his beloved wife seven years previously. April is happiest when alone with nature – in her back garden or on visits to her grandmother on the coast. She finds school a trial.

“April didn’t like school, or the girls at school didn’t like her. She didn’t know whether it was because she smelled of fox or the fact she was the smallest girl in her class or even that she cut her own hair with a pair of garden scissors. Either way, April didn’t mind too much because she preferred animals to humans anyway. They were just kinder.”

When April’s father is offered a six month position at a weather station in the Arctic Circle, his daughter is delighted. She imagines the fun they will have spending time together, sledging and exploring. Her father is often so wrapped up in his work he barely seems to notice she exists.

On the journey to Bear Island, April meets Tör, the ship captain’s son, who mentions that there are no longer any bears at her destination. However, three weeks after she arrives at the small cabin she and her father will call home for the arctic summer, she comes face to face with an injured and emaciated polar bear. She calls him Bear and sets about earning his trust.

Contrary to expectations, the important work her father is doing for the Norwegian Government takes up all of his time. April is therefore left to her own devices. She explores the island, slowly forming a bond with Bear. She intuits his backstory from the knowledge she can glean and the affinity she has developed with all wildlife. She determines to help Bear but must work out how.

The author has taken certain liberties with what would be reality to paint the island and April’s adventures there as an enchanting time. Throughout, however, tension builds to the almost unbearable climax. The reader will become invested in Bear’s prospects as April risks everything to try to offer him the chance of a less lonely life.

Such a story couldn’t work without the skill of the author in creating her fully formed characters with the lightest of exposition. April’s attitude, bravery and stoicism will appeal to children and adults alike. The young girl takes her disappointments and turns them into opportunities. Her observations of people and place bring them to life.

The author writes in her note at the end of her passion for the planet.

“how it needs our protection and how anyone, no matter how big or small, can inspire hope and create change”

Although weaving this into her story she succeeds in avoiding polemic. At its heart this is a tale of a lonely girl seeking love, finding it, and choosing to set it free despite the personal cost. It is an adventure crying out to be made into a dialogue free animated film, preferably harnessing the illustrator’s stunning pictures. I adored the story and recommend it to every reader, whatever their age.

The Last Bear is published by Harper Collins.

Book Review: It’s the End of the World

“It is much better, psychologically as well as practically, to greet the impending disastrousness with a cheerful hopelessness. After all: we are all doomed. Everybody dies. There are no exceptions, and it demeans us to deny that fact.”

It’s the End of the World, by Adam Roberts, is strap-lined But What Are We Really Afraid Of? The author’s thoughts on this are expanded in six chapters, bookended by an introduction and an epilogue. He opens with the comment, ‘It’s always the end of the world’, and goes on to explain why, given the average existence of any species of mammal, humans may well be facing extinction in the not too distant future – in planetary timescales at least. He also posits that this need not concern us unduly, that it is what happens while we live that counts more than our eventual demise.

In exploring the wider picture there is the suggestion that disaster followed by reset may be a regular occurrence – that a Big Bang could eventually lead to a Big Crunch (the universe collapses in on itself) resulting in a Big Bounce as matter is flung away from the centre. All of this is speculation but what is interesting is how parochial, how miniscule, is the timescale most humans will consider about their species’ existence.

“Why should the universe we’re living in at the moment be the very first? Maybe our current reality is the millionth version”

This isn’t, however, what we’re afraid of. What many people struggle to accept is their own mortality.

“we’re not really worried about the end of the world. We’re worried about the end of our world”

Popular culture has long been fascinated by the prospect of a catastrophe that threatens to wipe out, if not all then most humans. This is an important distinction. It is regarded as disaster followed by reset, in which good men face an opportunity to build a different world than that which we currently inhabit. Sometimes the threat comes from space – such as aliens with no concept of how important man believes he is – but often the catalyst is man-made war or natural disaster. Films and books present stories triggered by an event where the moral is it could have been prevented had actions been less thoughtlessly selfish.

“Climate change is a result of us treating the world as a resource that we should exploit rather than a life-support system to nurture”

It is pointed out that one such resource is people – exploited by the more powerful for as long as they have existed.

“We are Monty Python’s Black Knight, gaily lopping off our own limbs while loudly boasting about our invincibility”

The author name-checks a great many works of literature and films. These include the Armaggeddon that closes the bible and Ragnarök from Norse mythology. In the present day, popular video games feature futuristic locations where avatars destroy and rebuild. Endings are rarely acceptable unless there is at least some chance of a new beginning.

Do we really want to live forever? A favourite chapter was on those who do not die, instead changing form. The author explores the recurring trope of zombies as harbingers of apocalypse.

“perhaps our fascination with zombies comes not from our fear of death but our fear that we won’t die […] This is perhaps connected to the different indignities we might suffer as we age. We might be fully in command of our faculties, but trapped in a body that is deteriorating before our very eyes. Or our bodies are fit and healthy but our minds are slowly being taken over by dementia.”

The book was completed in 2020 so Covid 19 is mentioned, the author pointing out how small a percentage of the world population has been killed by this virus compared to previous pandemics. Medieval plagues in Europe enabled survivors to fight off future viruses. When these countries started to conquer and colonise other continents the effect was truly devastating to native populations.

“The Wampanoag population of Native Americans, mostly located in modern-day New England, suffered up to 90 percent loss of population as a European disease, now thought to be leptospirosis, spread through their tribes. In the cocoliztli epidemic of 1545-48, in what is now Mexico, 12 million people – a staggering 80 per cent of the native population – died of a disease brought by European settlers.”

It is pointed out that such diseases do not wipe out literally everyone. However grievous and horrific, these episodes have never come near ending the world.

Although this may all sound rather depressing to read, the tone of the book is more one of irony and interest in man’s ability to ignore the wider implications of choices and lifestyles.

“Our own life, our own experiences, are the only frames of reference that we have for existence. This is why the idea of the world carrying on beyond our deaths is so troubling”

“Through our stories we have constructed a version of the world that gives an illusion of security – one made out of societies, laws, religions. But that world of our creation is vulnerable to change and upheaval; even though physically it might not end, those structures can, and have, come crashing down. Imagining the end of the world is an expression of our collective anxiety over life as well as death.”

The uber-wealthy may plot and plan to colonise another planet. The next economic level down may stockpile food and build bunkers. The poor are left to fend for themselves – we are a selfish species. Yet most of what is feared does not happen – although sometimes worse occurs in a way not yet imagined. An asteroid may strike, climate change accelerate beyond our species’ ability to survive the changes. Both these events are known to have happened in our planet’s past.

I found this a fascinating book in the ideas expounded. We use stories to work through our fears while largely avoiding the facts around the damage we cause. Man may wipe himself out but the end of the world, if or when it happens, is unlikely to be caused by us. Other than to ourselves, on a world building scale, we are really not that important or impactful.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Elliott & Thompson.

Robyn Reviews: The Ministry for the Future

tmffff

Kim Stanley Robinson is a big name in sci-fi, best known for the Mars trilogy and 2312. His work tends to focus on ecological sustainability with a utopian rather than dystopian slant – less common in modern fiction. However, despite being a sci-fi fan, before picking up ‘The Ministry for the Future’ I’d never read any of his work. I’ll be interested to hear from other reviewers how this compares – the idea is fascinating, but the execution doesn’t have me completely sold.

‘The Ministry for the Future’ is established in 2025 in Zurich by the United Nations, an organisation aimed at conserving the future of humanity by battling the largest threat of the time – climate change. It brings together experts from around the world in various fields to tackle the problem from all sides – policy, economics, artificial intelligence, and direct action. However, the wheels of change are slow, and the effects of climate change are starting to be felt. The book follows the Ministry – primarily its leader, Mary Murphy – over decades, chronicling how the Earth might change and society might change with it.

The narrative style is what makes or breaks this book. It’s exceptionally factual, almost textbook-like. There are entire chapters dedicated to theory – of ecology, economics, engineering. Mary is the main character, but there’s still a level of detachment between her and the reader – and her chapters can’t make up more than a third of the book. The rest resolve through other perspectives – major characters, minor characters, unknown characters, even a carbon atom and a photon – and reels of information, regularly breaking the fourth wall to address the reader. As far as I can tell, much of the science is sound, although the feats of engineering are perhaps a little far-fetched for only happening ten or fifteen years in the future. However, it can be a hard-going slog reading multiple chapters of pure theory, especially when the characters remain superficial rather than pulling the reader in and making them care.

The major characters – Mary Murphy, Badim, Frank May – are all interesting, but very much characters. Mary always feels two dimensional. A career woman with no family (her husband died young), she moves between meetings and summits, taking breaks only to swim or wander aimlessly around Zurich. It’s hard to figure out what she cares about – if she’s even passionate about ecology and climate change – as she doesn’t seem to know herself. This may be a deliberate choice; an underlying theme in all of the characters is trauma and how this affects the psyche. However, this apathy can make her as hard to engage with as the reams of economic theory.

Frank is by far the highlight. The only survivor of a horrific heatwave, he suffers from severe post-traumatic stress disorder. He’s unstable and regularly makes terrible choices, but deep down he seems like a nice man – and he cares, which is enough to persuade the reader to care.

I am, by my own admission, a character-driven reader. The stories I love the most are those with intriguing, engaging characters – they don’t have to have a strong plot, just characters that feel real. This, with its carefully maintained distance from the characters, and arguably barely a protagonist at all beyond climate change, was never going to be a favourite. I think that some readers – especially those with a science background – will love this, but it’s very much a Marmite book. Recommended for fans of more complex sci-fi that emphasises the science over everything else and those looking for a bit of hope for humanity’s future.

Thanks to Orbit and NetGalley for providing an eARC – this in no way affects the content of this review

Published by Orbit
Hardback: 8th October 2020

Book Review: Planet in Peril

“This anthology was founded upon the belief that words have the power to change.”

Planet in Peril, edited by Isabelle Kenyon, is an anthology of poetry, photographs, artwork and think pieces focusing on climate change, pollution, and man’s impact on Planet Earth. Whilst timely given current interest in the subject matter, it is not exactly cheery reading.

An early poem, Mother Earth by Rachael Ikins, injects early controversy with a possible solution to the humans causing so much damage to their beautiful home and life support system.

“She urges them to genocide, war, the moon;
sends in viruses, bacteria, her fiercest warriors the smallest –
anything to rid
the plague that consumes her”

I was entertained later in the book by a poem written by one of the younger contributors, Niamh Hughes, whose Animals reversed imagines the outrage a person would feel if Earth’s other animals treated people as humans treat their fellow creatures. Throughout the book human actions are shown to be selfish and damaging to all, including themselves.

Early entries explore the importance of trees and the true cost of deforestation.

There is a section focusing on the polar regions – a sanctuary under which people dump their nuclear waste.

Preserved in Ice by Dr Sam Illingworth offers a strong portrayal of man’s grasping invasions. Information provided after the poem explains that researchers have collected and radiocarbon dated samples of ancient plants in the Canadian Arctic continually covered by ice for at least the past 40,000 years, until now. Whilst I understand the concerns about melting ice and rising sea levels, I was curious about the time when these plants grew. Planet Earth has experienced fluctuating global temperatures throughout its existence.

The many photographs included of our world and the beautiful creatures that inhabit it are a joy to peruse. I did wonder at the footprint left by the scientists cited and the artists who captured the images. Habitats and species are best preserved if left to nature rather than adapted for man’s convenience, even when intentions are worthy.

In some ways this book felt like an elegy to the world as we know it today. Life on Earth is constantly evolving. Whilst it appears obvious that modern man is a scourge, our own actions may eventually provide the cure. This is a difficult process to dwell on and one many refuse to contemplate despite their lifestyles bringing it ever nearer.

The blazing sun and what to do about it by Peter Ualrig Kennedy takes a wry look at human attitudes, capturing typical responses to growing but ignored crisis. As is pointed out later by Geoff Callard,

“we humans are incredibly bad at trading off short term gratification for long term gain”

There is suggestion that the speed of current change prevents other species adapting. In the futuristic Specimen by Joanna Lilley, Homo sapien is described as “architect of annihilation”. Our unwillingness to radically alter our behaviour is cleverly captured in Sleepwalking by Amélie Nixon.

“we are tired
put your alarm clock on snooze;
shove your head back under the pillow.
just 10 more minutes.”

Another young contributor, Jenna M, provides a poignant hand drawn picture of Planet Earth and the creatures suffering man’s pollution and incursions.

Automachine by Aviva Rynne Browne brings vividly to the fore how wasteful we are with resources, and how little we seem to care about this.

The contributions may be moving but are somewhat didactic to read. The lack of hope would be my main criticism however realistic the portrayal may be. The purpose of the anthology is to inspire change in human behaviour. The bleak picture painted puts into question how possible this is.

There is talk in the news of tipping points, and perhaps the damage wreaked has already taken us beyond what can be fixed. As a species it is troubling to consider that Planet Earth may only flourish if we are removed.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Fly on the Wall Press.

A proportion of the profits from this book will be donated to The Climate Coalition and WWF.

Reality doesn’t conform to the models, therefore reality must be wrong

It is very difficult to discuss climate science with those who believe in anthropomorphic global warming. The warmists state that the science is proven; that there is consensus within the scientific community. When it is pointed out to them that many eminent scientists have questioned their orthodoxies, they claim that these scientists are not relevant experts or have been discredited. If it is mentioned that their experts have been publishing incomplete results skewed in their favour then this is explained as being taken out of context or misunderstood. Their experts are always better and more trustworthy than your experts.

When the results of scientific studies do not back up the warmists point of view then it is often claimed that the studies must have been funded by Big Oil or some other dubious source, thus skewing the results. When their own studies (funded by their own interested parties) do not prove their point of view then the results are not published or only ‘relevant’ information is released. There are plenty of people now looking more closely at the available data and debunking the arguments. There are gaping holes in the explanations that bluster and shouting will not hide. Climate science research has become closed and secretive, but carefully worded Freedom of Information requests alongside leaks from scientists who are unwilling to hide uncomfortable truths are uncovering facts that the warmists did not wish to see in the public domain.

I am not going to attempt to debate the science in detail here; plenty of blogs are written by those with more knowledge than I, which clarify the reasoning and publish links to the original research and the lies told to the media about what has been proved. No doubt these will be cast aside contemptuously by those who do not wish to believe. I find it immensely frustrating that the lack of reasoned debate amongst climate scientists is giving science a bad name. Scientific research should be open to questions; if facts can be proven then nothing need be hidden.

What I wish to explore here is the impact of the drive over the past thirty or so years to convince the public that global warming exists, is life threatening and that something can and should be done about it.

The drive to cut CO2 emissions has spawned a plethora of money making schemes. Companies that manufacture and fit solar panels benefit from government subsidies, land owners rent out fields for wind turbines and solar ‘farms’, appliances that meet prescribed environmental ratings do not last as long as those they replace so ensure more sales. The cleaner air produced will rarely offset the pollution caused by the manufacture, fitting and disposal. Householders pay for these schemes through the direct cost of purchase and through taxes that are used to provide the subsidies. Those with solar panels on their roofs may enjoy the short term benefit of subsidised electricity but at what cost to everyone else?

The cleaner air demanded from power stations has made burning fossil fuels uneconomic. Thus, the coal fired stations have been allowed to become run down and will soon be decommissioned. As yet, there is no viable alternative that produces enough power to meet demand. Already we are seeing the cost of heating our homes rise, but how great will be the hardship when enough power cannot be generated? It is estimated that some 250,000 people in Britain have died from the cold in the last ten years. In contrast there have been around 10,000 heat related deaths over the same period of time.

Setting aside such local concerns and looking at the situation from a global point of view, the warmists love to talk of deserts being created and peoples displaced as sea levels rise and land can no longer be farmed. The problem for them is that the models that they have used to generate their predictions have failed to work; the changes predicted are not happening. This does not stop them ascribing every significant weather event to anthropomorphic climate change. It is quite amusing to hear weather forecasters talking of unprecedented events and then telling us when such a thing last happened. I recently read a newspaper article which asked the question ‘Arctic Ice Melt; Is the North Pole Going to Melt entirely?’ This was published on Thursday 5 April 1923. Arctic ice melts are a normal and recurring event. 

Climate change happens and has always happened. It should also be remembered that CO2 is needed for life; plants love it! Man may be a destructive force on earth but not in the way the warmists are describing.

The costly policies that we are being forced to adopt are not going to change global weather patterns. Even if some of what the warmists are predicting were to actually happen, the measures being taken in an attempt to prevent this are futile. The cost is not just monetary (think of the damage to the poorer countries of the world caused by the rush to produce bio fuels) and will, as ever, adversely impact the poor whilst benefiting the wealthy. These policies are a deluded madness.

At a local level I can see the benefits of cleaner air. I walk or cycle rather than use my car, but that is my choice. I can see that it is not going to noticeably change the air that I breathe. The exercise will benefit my health, but I will not campaign for others to do as I do; I cannot know when someone needs to use their car due to mobility or health issues.

If the resources being poured into attempting to prevent climate change were being used to help those in need then perhaps we could effect an improvement of global proportions. Changing perception will be an uphill battle though. With so many of the wealthy and powerful benefiting from the public’s belief in the great global warming scam there will be little appetite for sacrificing the goose that lays the golden egg, even if this can be proven to be for the greater good.

Global Warming

Learning from history

I love history. From Mary Beard’s ‘Meet the Romans’ to Simon Schama’s ‘A History of Britain’; through fictional novels woven around historical facts to memoirs of growing up in cultures I find hard to imagine; the places, times and experiences relayed show how much has changed about the way we live, yet how little the people portrayed differ from ourselves. Humanity may have adapted to a different way of living, but we still think and feel as our ancestors did. We still react to our immediate, personal circumstances and cope, because we have no other choice if we are to survive.

So much of the history that we are taught as fact has been gleaned from the merest scraps of information. Archaeologists and anthropologists become very excited when new finds are uncovered as they may revisit premises and further their understanding. They are not afraid to question established orthodoxies; to share and build on knowledge gained elsewhere. They will interpret the artifacts, location and any other information available from elsewhere to establish the historical story as best they can. They make educated guesses based on what is already known; what has gone before and what we have now; they use their expertise, but do not try to claim that they can explain everything fully. It is often the unknown, the what might have been, that makes the tale so compelling.

More recent history benefits from information preserved in writing. The oldest scripts would have been written by the very few scholars; wealthy or religious, educated men with time to write and resources to allow this pastime. The writers may have had employers or sponsors; they were most likely under the influence of the rulers of their age. The histories of the time need to be read in this context to be understood. The physical evidence preserved in land and grave can often tell of a more sinister undercurrent pervading the culture of the time. Social history is complex and often disregards the impact of events on the poorest yet most prolific.

As literacy spread, so too did the nature of the writings preserved. Life expectancy and leisure time increased for many allowing the slightly less wealthy and even some women to start writing accounts of their lives and times. The official records would still be produced by the powerful victors and, through the ages, some have tried to destroy accounts of histories that did not tell the tales that they wished to be perpetuated. The power of propaganda was well understood and the general population considered too stupid to be trusted with interpreting events for themselves.

Eminent historians are well aware that context and bias must be taken into account; authenticity can be scientifically checked but reliability is harder to gauge. Talk to a sibling about their memories of an event from a shared childhood and differences in recollection become apparent. When a history is recorded it is from the perspective of the writer whose own recollections will vary over time.

With the advent of the internet it sometimes seems that we can research the true facts with just a few clicks. Unfortunately the very opposite is too often the case. The hidden agendas of the powerful come into play as their influence and subterfuge skew the perceptions of the general population, still considered too stupid to be trusted with interpreting events for themselves. One of my pet grievances is the way in which global warming, now referred to more accurately as climate change, has been presented to the public over the past thirty or so years.

I am not an expert in science or climate science, merely an interested observer. I can see the sense in not polluting the soil where we grow our food or the air that all living things need to survive. I understand the benefits of biodiversity and the importance of being good stewards during our time on this earth. What I object to is the pervasive anthropomorphic climate change industry and the lies woven as facts to influence decisions made by the wealthy countries of the world to financially benefit the few at a significant cost to so many.

The Natural History Museum in London has a display in it’s dinosaur section showing temperature fluctuations over millions of years. It is clear that the earth’s climate changes regularly and has always done so, even before man walked this earth in his present form. These climate changes are very gradual in terms of a human’s lifespan but obvious in the geological evidence that exists. Keeping detailed records of temperature, rainfall and other weather phenomena are a very recent practice (from around a century ago) and the data collection methods have changed over even this short period of time making reliable, scientific comparison tricky. Examples of extreme weather are mentioned in some historical documents but these do not provide a clear picture (mentions refer to the effects of the Little Ice Age which was a period of cooling that occurred after the Medieval Warm Period but climatologists and historians working with local records cannot even agree on either the start or end dates of this period just a few hundred years ago).

Given that this is a controversial topic in which I have an interest, I will save my opinions on recent climate change pronouncements and their impacts for another post. I see it as a prime example of the wealthy and powerful trying to force their opinions on a gullible public with a clever mix of carefully placed publicity and misinformation. More than anything though, it is a lesson in how history can be skewed to suit the influential of the time.

It can be hoped that, in the not too distant future, the truth will be uncovered by those who are capable of unearthing the evidence and interpreting the facts with critical and impartial deliberation. Hindsight is a wonderful thing and we can learn from history if we open our eyes to how and why it has been written. Our descendants may well look back on our gullibility and wonder how we could not have questioned what was being done ‘for our own good, and that of our children’. I hope that they do not judge us too harshly for not taking more affirmative action to prevent the inevitable impact of our inaction; for passively complying with the wishes of those in power.

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