Summer 2022: the €9 ticket holiday – 2


Holidays often feature art – why would they not? In this journey we’ve been to Berlin, Elblᶏg and Dresden. The latter two are provincial cities with their own take on what should be shown and what not. And how.

Elblᶏg surprised me. The art is everywhere in the public realm. Seemingly in 1965 a number of artists were commissioned to make art and place it just about everywhere in the city. Examples of the work are below, but what it does to a place is interesting. In some cities the art would be defaced, damaged or vandalised. I saw none of this. 1965 – that’s 57 years! I assume that the art reflects the town and its people. Most of the artwork is made of steel, yet compelling. Maybe no one notices it, but it is there.

Gold Clock

In Dresden, art has a very different role. Dresden celebrates its kings or “electors” The Residenz – effectively the palace of the elector August the Strong (apocryphally he can snap a horse shoe by his brute strength). He was strong, but probably not in this sense. His art collection – or treasures – illustrate just what constituted his ego. There is no question that most of the objects in the galleries are exquisite. I simply cannot imagine how most of them were decorated. Some of them were linked to what was probably 17th Century high technology such as clocks. The example on the left is a roll-ball clock. The ball is rock crystal and it rolls down the tower. It takes exactly one minute. Inside, seemingly, another ball is raised “emporgehoben” (whatever that is supposed to mean in reality) which moves on the minute hand. Saturn then strikes a bell, and twice a day the musicians raised their wind instruments and an organ played a melody. It is an extraordinary piece; but somehow I prefer time keeping to be a little simpler, at least in its reporting.

Ivory galleon
Ivory carved frigate, 1620

The jewels are one thing, the ivory is quite another. I have to say I’ve never seen so much carved ivory in one place. It is quite sickening. The carving is amazing, however. Take this frigate (right). I do not know how many elephants died for this piece, but everything apart from one feature is obscene. It dates from 1620 and bears the signature of Jacob Zeller. Of course the frigate is supported by the carved figure of Neptune. The sails are not ivory, nor the strings. But there 50 or so small human figures climbing those ropes. They are extraordinary.

Ivory carved elephant

There is an ivory clock to rival the jewelled example above. But quite the most sickening is to carve an elephant from ivory (left). There’s a receipt for its purchase in 1731. It is actually four perfume bottles hidden the castle turrets. What gets me particularly is the failure of the gallery to say anything about the exploitation of nature. These are simply curated as exquisite objects of great value.

figure and coral

It was not only elephants from the natural world that were exploited. Here is something I absolutely did not know, coral was a material for artists and treasures in this period. The bizarre figure on the right is seemingly a drinking vessel in the shape of the nymph Daphne who metamorphosised into a tree (coral) to escape Apollo’s “harassment”. It is not just one piece, there’s lots of it in this gallery. Not a word about how the coral was gathered and where from.

But there’s more. There are some deeply troubling figures of black people. I am not going to upload the photos of a sedan chair occupied by an ivory Venus and carried by “Hottentots”. Venus is attributed to court sculptor Balthasar Permoser (1738 or so) and the figures to court jeweller Gottfried Döring.

I left this gallery feeling troubled and dissatisfied with the curation. They must do better.

Kneeling Figure
Nazi degenerate art

The Albertinum is another gallery in the historic centre of Dresden. There is some interesting stuff here. Sculpture is not usually my thing, but it has a number of examples of art that was deemed by the Nazis as “degenerate”. For example, Wilhelm Lehmbruck’s “Kneeling Woman” (1911, left) which is quite extraordinary, but obviously too extraordinary for the Nazis. Then oddly there is a piece by Barbara Hepworth, Ascending form Gloria, 1958). Odder still is a decorated wooden crate ascribed to Jean-Michel Basquiat (I am probably wrongly describing it). There are a couple of contrasting pieces by Tony Cragg – a wooden abstract sculpture and a cube made up of compressed rectangular objects ranging from lever-arch files to old VHS video players.

Kirschner's street scene

The upper floors are full of fine art. Again, keeping to the theme of degeneracy, climate and perhaps art that captures some of the potential consequences of unchecked warming, I start with Ernst Ludwig Kirschner’s Street Scene with Hairdresser Salon (Straβenbild vor dem Friseurladen, 1926). Kirschner was part of a group of artists known as the Brücke Group. Like many art movements the members were all against “old establishment forces” and following artistic rules. The bright colouring is an example. So shocking were the paintings that they could not be purchased by the City. Eventually, they became accepted and acceptable, only to find them labelled as degenerate in 1937.

Holstein Mill
Holsteiner Mühe

What was not degenerate was Hermann Carmiencke’s Holsteiner Mühe (1836, Holstein Mill). I choose this because water was a natural source of sustainable motive power. The steam engine was arguably introduced to break the collective power of labour and because the water resource ultimately could not be shared by the direct owners of capital.

Finally from the Albertinum I selected Wilhelm Lachnit’s Der Tod von Dresden (1945, The Death of Dresden). It is, of course, a reflection on the human suffering arising from the second-world war. The climate crisis will bring its own deprivations and a fight for resources. We will see these times again, I fear.

Semper Opera
Semper Oper, Dresden

A quick word on Dresden. The historic centre was essentially rebuilt from 1985. Many of the historic buildings were left as shells and rebuilt using plans and authentic materials. It was an exceptional achievement and good on the eye; the Semper Opera House, for example (above left). But this is not a city preparing for rising temperatures. Whilst there are green spaces, this central area is totally devoid of natural shade. The new centre around the railway station is largely concrete-based retail. Could be anywhere.

Menzel's Berlin-Potsdam railway
Adolph Menzel, Berlin-Potsdamer Eisenhahn

Meanwhile in Berlin, we visited the Nationalgalerie. I was taken by the work of Adolph Menzel. He obviously earned his money painting portraits of rich men, but he also had much to say about contemporary issues of the time – the mid 19th century. He is, by definition, a contemporary of Turner. And Menzel’s picture Die Berlin-Potsdamer Eisenbahn (1847) has some similarity to Turner’s Rain Steam and Speed which dates from 1844.

Flax spinners

Menzel also painted a number of factory scenes – Flax Spinners, dangerous women’s work. The only safety equipment is clogs on their feet.

Flute Concert

Contrast this image with that of his painting Flötenkonzert Friedrichs des Groβen in Sanssouci (1850-52). This depicts Frederick the Great playing the flute with a small ensemble and aristocratic audience. It takes place in a grand setting. At night with candles galore as illumination (expensive, if nothing else). It is incongruous. Those flax spinners will not be consuming high art at this hour, for sure.

Constant Troyon’s Holzfäller, 1965

The industrial revolution and the ruling (plutocratic) elite play their distinct roles in the journey to the current climate crisis. Images of trees being cut down are visual reminders of how the natural environment is the source of all exploitable resources. Constant Troyon’s painting Holzfäller (1865, Woodcutter) is a great illustration of this. Though I am sure this is not the actual meaning of the painting. Trees were, of course, felled well before the arrival of the industrial revolution for shelter, housing and agriculture. What is significant is how the deployment of technology turned it into a truly industrial process. Watch how trees are harvested in modern times as though they are bowling pins, to understand how the pace of destruction has increased.

There is one other theme here, to share. And that is “otherness”. Mihály Munkácsy’s 1873 painting Zigeunerlager (Gypsy Camp, right) expresses it well and nicely contrasts with Menzel’s Woodcutter (I note and am aware that both Zigeuner and Gypsy are pejorative terms. The Nazis, we remember, committed genocide against this group. Hence the word Zigeunerlager is particularly troubling. The correct term is Der Roma). That very same landscape lost to the axe is potentially a place of refuge for nomadic people. These are people who are seen as being rootless (and stateless), where in actual fact probably the opposite is true.

Summer 2022: the €9 ticket holiday – 1


There is a certain normality currently as I sit on ICE928 heading to Frankfurt and then Brussels. What is not normal is that the trains are running to time and my Eurostar connection is within reach. This is not normal!

Me waiting at Frankfurt (Oder)

Nor is a holiday facilitated by train journeys courtesy of the €9 ticket. This ticket has been available since June 2022 and allows unlimited travel on regional services, buses, U-Bahn and trams. It is wonderful and has taken us from one end of the country to the other. The DB Navigator app is the essential companion. The downside is that sometimes the demand generated by the €9 ticket has not been met by DB or the private rail operators. It has been difficult to board trains, let alone get a seat. But on the whole, trains have been on time and reliable. And people have been polite. On the whole.

So, we wanted to go to the Baltic coast. We also wanted to go into Poland to visit a place in Eastern Poland called Elbląg – the birthplace of my beloved’s mother and trace the movement of the whole family seeking to avoid a confrontation with the Red Army as it pushed back the Nazis and established what we now refer to as the “Eastern Bloc”.

We made it to Berlin on one day and then visited the Reisezentrum in Berlin Hauptbahnhof to book tickets to Elbląg. There were two substantive problems. First, demand for trains in Poland is high. It’s the summer and “walk-on” is not always possible. Second, as others have noted, booking trains – or even just getting tickets for cross-border services – is thwarted by insufficiently integrated IT systems. Or just insufficient systems. Buying tickets online or through an app is not easy. We did not try it. We used the Deutshe Bahn Navigator to provide times, as well as Koleo. Since looking more deeply into this, I have found another online option, Polish Trains, though I have no way of validating this site. (as buying tickets online or through an app in Poland is not easy).

Oder – the border between Germany and Poland

We delayed our journey by a day and bought tickets as far as Zbasznek via Frankfurt an der Oder and Rzepin. We thought that buying a ticket at Rzepin should be straightforward, but there is always something about border towns. The stations are often either not open or simply building sites. The towns themselves may be a good walk away. It was difficult to find a café, or a bank as we needed some cash (Poland is not in the Eurozone). We did find a bank and the bank machines dispensed cash, though in unwieldy-denominated notes. Most shops do have card payments, but I dare not look at how much it costs per transaction.

Ticket machine at Rzepin – not in the most obvious spot

We managed to buy a ticket using the machine (right) to Poznan. We stayed overnight and carried on the following day, but not without a 90-minute wait in the queue at the station ticket office. In the end we took regional trains from Posnan to Elbląg (via Bydgoszcz, Tczew and Malbork). For the return journey we did book ahead and got a seat on the direct InterCity service Elbląg to Szczecin. Another overnight stay and another ticket purchase problem. I asked the conductor on a Germany-bound train whether we could buy tickets on board (as there was another long queue at the ticket office and the two auto ticket machines were out of order). She basically said no, but as we discovered the following day, it is possible, but at a greatly inflated price. It was about €20 to get to Pasewalk (below left) – advanced purchased more like €2. By the morning the ticket machines were again functioning, but unable to sell tickets across the border. Though you have to go through the motions to discover this. The touch screens assume you have a paw rather than a finger, so it is easy to mess up and have to start again.

The semi-derelict station at Pasewalk – fantastic font though

I am learning something about border crossings. We crossed the German/Polish borders at two different locations (hin und zurück). Both services were operated by Deutsche Bahn – both were diesel traction and made up of two coaches. It is very similar to what I experienced in recent times crossing the border between Germany and Belgium. Welkenraedt, for example, is not an obvious place to cross from Aachen (Liège, surely?). But the border history of European countries cannot be ignored. They are located where checks could be made, identities validated.

Polish railways are quirky like in most countries. This is partly due to the EU which requires a split between infrastructure and operation, and partly to facilitate operational efficiencies – essentially separating longer-distance Inter City services from regional services and freight. To that end, in Poland the Inter City services are run by PKP (Polskie Koleje Państwowe) centrally and the regional services, (Przewozy Regionalne) are just that, regional and managed so. Additionally the Gdansk areas has its own brand, (SKM). There is no inter-operability between PolRegio and Inter City. Over many routes they compete with one another. Though those aforementioned auto ticket machines can dispense both.

InterCity train services, Poland

The Inter City services are fantastic. They run using refurbished rolling stock manufactured in the 1980s (the plates in each corridor specify exactly when they were built. The locomotives seem to be of more recent vintage. They are not high speed. They have many timing points. But they do seem to be reliable. Many have European power sockets, but no wifi. That is for East to West. North to South has some impressive new Pendolino trains but seemingly they run fast not so often as, again, the infrastructure cannot support it. That said, I saw lots of evidence of infrastructure renewal using equipment from Alstom and Bombardier.

The units used for regional services seem to be more modern, with a few exceptions – Malbork to Elbląg being a case in point.

The PKP (right) logo is interesting. It has a period design and the obligatory arrows associated with mobility – and railway mobility in particular.

Naturally, the younger company, PolRegio has a much more modern appearance and a bit more of primary colour. The livery of the trains reflects this, too. Though exactly what it is supposed to say, I’ve no idea. PolRegio seems to be enough. But what do I know about design?

Elblag tram
Elbląg tram

Most of the cities that we have visited have street trams. Elbląg, not a huge place, has a complex network of trams. Some of them are dated – rustbuckets, even (left). They run – in certain parts of the city over beautifully grassed avenues. They are a delight (we did not ride the trams, but they sat with me as characterful as the art – see blog entry 2).

Reflections on “The Pie at Night” by Stuart Maconie

It was at least three years’ ago that a colleague lent me this book, knowing full well that I am a regular listener to Maconie’s radio programme, the Freak Zone, on BBC Radio 6 Music. I have finally read it and have some thoughts on its content. Maconie is the same generation as I am and the cultural references are meaningful in a way they would not be for younger people and indeed people not from the North of England.

In the book Maconie discusses – effectively – the leisure pursuits of northerners – music, art, education, museums, fun fairs, eating, walking/countryside, sport/football/speedway/betting. Let me start with music. His Freak Zone show is sometimes inaccessible – or unlistenable. He says of the show’s playlists “[I like what] some people might call ‘weird shit'”. He also likes “well-crafted pop” such as Chic, Abba, disco and Tamla Mowtown. “What I do not like is the stuff in between: middle of the road rock, landfill indie, earnest singer songwriters, self-important rock stars who think they are old bluesmen or great poets, stadium rock bands, divas, legends, anyone who has got to the stage in their career when they now wear a hat thinking it makes them interesting, all the stuff that ends up in those rock critics’ list of the 100 Greatest Albums.” I love some of the phraseology without actually knowing exactly what it means. Landfill indie – I sense I could be partial to a bit of that. Earnest singer-songwriters…I have often struggled with this genre; not least because I wish music changed things, but it does not. Earnest, but fruitless. Anyway, does he mean Bob Dylan (who also wears a hat)? The rock critics’ top 100 albums…as he is a former rock critic, I defer to him on that. Interestingly he then admits to his dislike of opera. He has tried, he says. And then he tries again with Opera North and a performance of The Marriage of Figaro. I have seen some opera at the BBC proms and a little bit in Munich. I have also seen some Gilbert and Sullivan at the English National Opera. A hoot, but I am not sure it is really opera. I will never admit to it being a favourite genre, or anywhere close. It is potentially captivating. One problem is that I’m not so interested these days in stories. I stopped going to the cinema about 10 years’ ago. I just cannot cope any more with people getting hurt. An opera without betrayal and the odd stabbing is not really opera. I know most of it is not real, but even an edition of “Yes Minister” makes me feel bad.

On fun fairs and the places that host them such as Blackpool, I am reassured that people have always gone there to escape from their day-to-day lives (work is illustrated throughout the book from mills to mines). With a fun fair and “white knuckle rides”, the sheer terror is guaranteed to focus the mind – I’ve never been a great fan of such rides. The best I have been able to manage is the Waltzers. The side-shows, too, serve that purpose. I can still remember as a kid shaking hands with the “tallest man in the world”. He did have large hands. On the basis of this chapter, I am going to give Blackpool a pass.

His football chapter takes readers to Rochdale – the club that has never won anything – and FC United, a club that resulted from Manchester United fans who could not endorse the take-over of the club by the Glaziers. They did what was unthinkable for most fans – leave the club (relinquish the season ticket) and set up a new one that would start at the bottom of the most amateur of the amateur leagues. But FC United is a club with ambition – and now its own ground, Broadhurst Park.

Maconie – against a Lancastrian’s better judgment – visits my home town of Hull to go on the Larkin trail, named after the city’s adopted poet and librarian to Hull University’s students. When I lived in the city (from birth until I was 23), we had absolutely nothing to do with the University. I am not even sure that I knew who Larkin was. Or a library for that matter. We lived in the East. The University was in the West and across the river. And for others. So I now know that Larkin enjoyed an occasional drink in Ye Olde Black Boy pub. I confirm it is a dark cave. It is where I used to hold the animal rights meetings until we moved into the much-more welcoming Blue Bell (for animal rights people, that is). Larkin also enjoyed, seemingly, cycling out of the city to places like Broomfleet (Humber flood plain) in the West and the Holderness peninsular in the East. Both as flat as anything. Both always foggy and mysterious. Both offered silence – until my first (and only) Siouxsie and the Banshees gig at the City Hall that gave me tinnitus which remains to this day. Maconie concludes that “I like Hull a lot”.

Maconie is perhaps at his best when taking on the leisure activities that good Methodists like me would never contemplate. For example, where can one bet on crown green bowling? There’s one place, Westhoughton. Through a shabby green door on Wigan Road in the town is “the home of professional crown green bowling”. Inside, everyone knows everyone else – outsiders are easy to spot. The betting is not with bookmakers like at the races, but between punters. They square up at the end of the day having made their bets using a language that needs learning. But if you want to see the world’s best CGB player, Brian Duncan, play, this is where you come. If you dare.

A lot of the north is “if you dare”. I’ve been away for a while and going back can feel alien. I do recall being singled out one time as an outsider, so much must my accent have changed. I said I was born-and-bred. But perhaps leaving was a betrayal. Hull City is my football team. It was not when I lived there. I may be a citizen of nowhere now. Or at least in my head, a world citizen.

European travel by train, post-Covid

Köln Dom

Since leaving planes behind pre-Covid, I have been travelling by train regularly between London and Munich. It can be a very stressful journey because connections are invariably missed. Deutsche Bahn is not having a good time at the moment. For example, whilst writing this, I am writing this on a train that has picked up a technical fault and goes no further than Köln (it should be going to Brussels).

I cannot remember the last time that I had a trouble-free journey. There is always a problem. Here are the most common:

  • technical fault on train (the train does not arrive, or it does and gets cancelled on the spot)
  • detour to avoid damaged overhead lines and failed points
  • failed AirCon (whole coaches closed)
  • bad weather (which now increasingly means hot weather)

So, going out from the south coast of England a couple of weeks ago (midweek), my first leg was delayed (Hastings to Ashford, 0615). I took a slower train to London (0620), changing at London Bridge. I reached the Eurostar terminal (St Pancras Int) with 5 minutes to spare (before the check-in closed at 0830). Important here is just to go to the front of the queue and ask to get straight to the gates and through security.

I usually give myself a lot of connecting time in Brussels (careful of thieves, they are active and I have had a bag stolen, use the cafes). Eurostar arrives in Brussels at around five-past the hour. Deutsche Bahn ICE usually leaves at 25 past the hour. It is according to The Man in Seat61 a recognised change. But 20 minutes is not long. I usually allow more for the next train (in my case 1425, Brussels – Frankfurt). Often this train is cancelled or starts at Liège. If the latter, there are plenty of trains to Liège. Take one. But if the former, travellers need to get to Aachen. This is not possible from Liège. If readers end up there, then the place to go is Welkenraedt. From there, it is possible to get across the border on a small local train to Aachen, and from Aachen to Köln and from there options are available to go south, east or north in Germany and beyond.

Where delays are involved, DB conductors do not care whether passengers are on their booked train or not. So, It is not necessary to ask in the Reisezentrum to validate a ticket (I used to do this), for general travel. Just get on. I do not print out my tickets these days. They are stored on the DB app, DB Navigator (right). The app records the journey and sends updates. Take screen grabs where cancellations occur (DB does take them from your app shortly after the cancellation notification, so it is good practice – readers may want to claim back money, too).

On the way back, I was booked on 0746 InterCity train Munich to Frankfurt (left). The app had warned me early of a 10-minute delay; the train was 40 minutes late leaving Munich after experiencing engineering works between Salzburg and Munich (though the app reported a technical fault on the train as the cause). I had given myself a 45 minute change time. The app allows users to specify how many minutes are preferred for changing – I set mine to at least 30 minutes, but increasingly that is not enough. On this first leg of my journey the app kept saying that the connection would be met in Frankfurt. And then not. And then once again possible (erreichbar). In the end it was 4 minutes. A bit of a run from platform 11 to 18 (the station is a dead end, so there are no stairs). It was all rather in vain. The ICE to Brussels developed a fault at Köln and went no further. I waited for the next scheduled train two hours’ later (having given myself this extra time in Brussels to accommodate such a failure). I squeezed on, only for the train to develop a fault at Aachen. So then it was back to Welkenraedt, this time with two ICE trainloads to be accommodated on a two coach electric train! The Belgian rail staff keep their distance. Not everyone got on. From Welkenraedt there is a direct train to Brussels Midi (Oostende service).

Now I did not think that I was going to be confronted by two failed ICEs in one day. At Köln I could have taken a regional service to Aachen, and from there to Welkenraedt. That would have given me time to get to Brussels. Though I held back because the immediate next Aachen train was itself cancelled. I chose to wait for the ICE. I should have thought that something might have gone wrong as my way out was plagued by two failed trains. But I edged my way forward. But Eurostar is a bottleneck. There is only one tunnel (and not enough trains).

To finish the story I arrived Brussels at 1900 (missing the Eurostar comfortably). On the train I used to find a hotel in the vicinity of the station. The only meaningful option was Park Inn. Pretty standard. Been before. I also booked a Eurostar ticket for 0852 on Sunday morning. €200 – about double what I paid for the original ticket. Ultimately I was lucky to get a ticket as I had no seat options other than that allocated.

Advice –

  • keep a mobile phone charged/charging (use the power on DB trains – though do not forget an adapter)
  • ensure that you have roaming
  • always go forward – though decisions are tight. I am disappointed that I did not go for the Aachen-Welkenraedt option in the first instance. I would have made the Eurostar
  • always assume something will go wrong – ensure you have room on credit cards for unexpected payments (I heard some people on the train trying to book a hotel with insufficient credit).
  • I appreciate that is a bit of a privilege, but a bunk bed in a hostel in mid-summer in Brussels will cost €100. Sleeping in the station really is not recommended
  • always carry food and water.

I’ll work out how to claim back money for failed services and post again.

I’ve also got something to say about Germany’s €9 ticket. Great idea but comes with some systemic failures.

Book Review – Barnabas Calder, Architecture From Prehistory to Climate Emergency

Regular readers will know that I have much regard for the work of Andreas Malm. His book Fossil Capital was influential in my thinking about how to reframe my teaching of business strategy at my university. It tells the story of our addiction to fossil fuels. It posits the idea that it did not need to be so; the addiction arose primarily from the owners of capital using technology to outflank organised labour on the one hand, and competitors on the other. Organised labour was quite powerful in the British mill towns of the 18/19 Centuries because of the static nature or source of motive power – flowing rivers. Steam, generated by burning coal and heating water was so much more flexible and, what’s more, the owners could be confident the government would intervene to crush organised labour when called on. But equally, water was a shared resource and the owners proved themselves to be unable to agree how to share it.

Calder has made me think again in his extraordinary book (right). Calder is a historian of architecture, but very particular kind. In every building he sees energy. In the prehistory it is in the food that provides the energy to build shelter. In later periods of human advancement – particularly in respect of agricultural efficiency and yields – excesses meant that labour could be siphoned off by kings and emperors to build the great vanity projects of history such as the pyramids, the Parthenon, etc. With the advent of fossil fuels, not only was more labour displaceable from the land, but the building materials themselves were innovated as well as construction techniques. That bundle of stored energy found in coal and oil liberated architects, builders and clients. Later they were aided and abetted by information technologies that were able to do the calculations that legions of humans could not realistically handle (Calder offers the example of the challenge to realise Jørn Oberg Utzon’s vision for the Sydney Opera House and the pioneering work of Ove Arup crunching the necessary numbers).

The first part of the book examines culture, energy and architecture interesting pairings. Greeks and Persians; Rome and the Song Dynasty – different places, different times. Though he also uses this technique for the 20th Century in comparing New York and Chicago (chapter 9 – good value even if one does not read the rest of the book – difficult to keep Donald Trump out of the mind, however). In all cases through history, powerful men are deliberately trying to outdo one another. Rightly, we are constantly reminded about infrastructure, bridges, water supply and sewerage.

Photo: Ferdinand Reus from Arnhem, Holland – Teli, Pays de Dogon

What are some of the curiosities? I learned (always a good indicator of a worthwhile read) from prehistory, Dogon village houses (Mali, left) have low height forcing occupants to sit. This specifically prevents men from fighting one another. Uruk (in modern-day Iraq) is perhaps humanity’s first city. Not everyone worked the land and hence specialisms developed – bronze casting, currency and writing. The transformative agricultural technology was animal-drawn ploughs and, of course, irrigation. We are talking 5000 years ago. 2000 years ago, 172 men pulled crafted stones of 58 tonnes with a lone individual throwing water to keep down the friction. Though 200 tonnes was not unheard of as manageable by human strength – though the men needed to be fit and, crucially, well fed.

For the Parthenon, Calder tells us why the columns are not evenly spaced (of course, Doric order!), reveals that it bends upwards to the middle, there are other distortions too (entasis) and that these are a deliberate manifestation of intellectual debate and democracy prevalent in Athenian society.

Photo: by MM in

I learned about opus incertum (random), Opus recitulatum (standard square bricks), opus latericium (like a brick wall – rectangular fired bricks that overlap, right). I did not know about Roman concrete and that the Pantheon’s dome is made of it and that it gets lighter as the dome extends so that the whole structure does not collapse. It is impressive, notes Calder, that it has survived 1900 years!

Not surprisingly, religious buildings feature highly in the prose. There is a chapter on mosques and some insights on the architecture of what is now Istanbul (the text is not limited to Istanbul, there is an extensive section on the Great Mosque of Damascus – the initiative of Caliph al-Walid I c705-15 and the mosque in Timbuktu c1320, the product of Mansa Musa’s great wealth as emperor of Mali). I have visited the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, as well as the near-adjacent Sultanahmet Mosque (also known as the Blue Mosque), a private enterprise that, on cost grounds, sourced materials much closer to home than the builders of its neighbour. For Christian buildings (notwithstanding the Hagia Sophia’s regular changes of denomination), Calder discusses the 13th Century cathedral in Bourges, so big that it breached the city walls and so tall it reached to what we would now identify as 10 storeys high. To the locals living in tiny dwellings shared with animals the internal cleanliness, order and light, Calder says, would have seemed astonishing. But Cathedral building was not immune to ego – the next one needed to be bigger: Notre Dame, Reims, Amiens and Beauvais (left) all bigger than the rest. Though there were limits, Beauvais repeatedly collapsed under its own weight.

Next on Calder’s list is the impact of plague on European civilisations. Bubonic plague devastated populations in the 5th and 6th centuries leading to reduced cultivation and construction. With no surplus, building returned to basics and bricks were no longer fired. The Black Death did wonders for pay rates and educational opportunities. There is room, too, for the Renaissance, the Vatican and the Reformation. These are gems for readers of this blog to explore without my help.

Source: Wikipedia; original source not specified

Into modern times, and into territory that is really Calder’s heartland, modernism and concrete. There is rightly an extensive review of the work and life of Le Corbusier (asa Edouard Jeanneret). His influences included Giacomo Matté-Trucco’s Lingotto factory (Fiat’s manufacturing plant in Turin with its roof racing track, right). Le Corbusier was quite a self-publicist, it seems like he sold more books about his architecture and the attendant vision for concrete, steel, glass and electricity), as he did design buildings. I certainly did not know how awful the buildings were to occupy. Concrete and glass enabled a very particular spacious and well-lit living and work spaces, but with no insulation and relatively poor heating, the houses had serious condensation problems. It is not surprising that one famous building – Villa Savoye – ended up as a barn after its occupant-family fled the Nazis. Nor was I aware that the beautiful Bauhaus building in Dessau was similarly afflicted by intense heat loss rendering it totally unsuitable for its use as a workshop. Le Corbusier is, however, celebrated for his Unitè d’Habitation in Marseille – a huge block of 337 flats with a row of shops half way up. It’s founding principles as a community with its roof garden for children is visionary and only possible because of new building materials and the fossil fuels that generate the energy to make cement from limestone and steel from iron ore (Calder gives us the figures to demonstrate their consumption). The Barbican in London was a later manifestation of this principle.

My own alma mater – the University of East Anglia – gets a mention for its Ziggurat-shaped student accommodation (which was my home for some of my university career) for its modular design and manufacture. Concrete remained in the 60s the building material of choice for the new inclusiveness captured in school and university buildings. It is true, the building I studied in was one continuous block of concrete. Magnificent it was, too.

And so to conclusions. Calder is clear, we need more renovation of failing properties. Demolition might be a viable business proposition using current measures, but the energy needed cannot be justified in a carbon-reducing world. Calder does not find too many exemplars. Even buildings like the Blomberg HQ in London falls far short of being sustainable. Calder introduces us to the Cork House in London. Built from cork as the name suggests. But its limitations are such that it cannot accommodate current and future needs for buildings.

On his own sustainability, Calder tells us early on that some of the buildings he writes about he has not actually visited, to do so would have been to make the carbon problem worse. This is a brave statement and one that sets a standard. Modern technology gives us unprecedented virtual access to so many cultural artefacts, sufficient to be a scholar and produce work of this quality. If your summer is short of reading, this is 20 GBPs well spent.

Book Review – Super Charge Me: Net Zero Faster by Eric Lonergan and Corinne Sawers

If you have a spare evening, buy this book and join the conversation between two wonderful dinner guests, Eric Lonergan and and Corinne Sawers. That said, I’m not sure that you’d get a word in edgeways, even if you wanted to. I suggest just listening and learning.

In the first instance, the format spooked me. It genuinely is written as a dialogue. The two conversationalists flesh out their arguments – they do not challenge one another, rather they develop one another’s points – or invite further development: “go on…” says Sawers, to avoid a cliff hanger. Unless one is paying absolute attention, it is not clear who is speaking, such is the mutual expertise revealed in the exchanges. The book can be read in one sitting.

This is not, be rest assured, one of those “I’ve read this so that you do not have to” reviews. I have been known to write these. Readers are invited into a conversation that needs full engagement (my copy has plenty of page markers for future reference, top left). In addition, if we are in luck, the shelf life of this book will be short. If we, our governments, and the global community more widely, make the transition, the book will have served its purpose and become a cherished museum exhibit.

I’ve reviewed some other books – Alice Bell’s wonderful, Our Biggest Experiment, for example – that reveal how we got to where we are. What we could have done; how we could have avoided the precipice that humanity has now perched itself upon. Those perspectives inevitably lead to despair and inaction. Lonergan and Sawers are future-oriented. There is little dwelling on the past. They discuss a bright future: one that is fair and safe. Readers do not even have to have that much knowledge about climate change because a couple of to-the-point sentences – to paraphrase Douglas Adams – “avoid all that mucking about in hyperspace” and gets readers up to speed. There is no time to waste. It is just better to start using the language of Super Charge Me straight away: appropriately-named EPICs (extreme positive incentives for change) and Mini Musks (those intractable problems – aviation and cement, for example).

What are EPICs? They are extreme because moderate does not change behaviour. They are positive because the behaviour change cuts carbon emissions. They incentivise (never think about something else when you should be thinking about the power of incentives, says Charlie Munger, Warren Buffett’s long-standing business partner, p172). It is all about change. In particular, change that reduces carbon emissions.

But what are they in reality? I have been led astray, it seems. It has been known for me to advocate carbon taxes. My dirty vehicle is taxed – the vehicle licensing cost is high for that reason and it costs more for my on-street parking than for cleaner vehicles. But I still have it. The incentive to ditch is not sufficiently extreme. I’ve learnt recently, that keeping it is potentially better for the environment than buying a new electric vehicle, thanks to a recent BBC show, Sliced Bread. But this is the wrong thinking. I should not be replacing it, I should be using a substitute. I do not because there is no incentive provided by the relative price of that substitute. For example, to visit my family tomorrow using the train would cost me £153. Even with the high price of fuel, my dirty vehicle could do it for half that cost, and I could take two people and unlimited luggage (it is a van) with me. The substitute, if I read the authors right, needs the EPIC treatment by Government. It is their job to fix the relative price and provide the incentive to switch. More generally, it may need investment in infrastructure to do it (more trains/capacity), a change in work practices allowing slower and shared commutes or fewer and, ultimately, a change in the norms of behaviour – actually it is a bit passé to drive a dirty white van rather than take the train. What, no photovoltaics on your roof?! Etc.

These are obviously EPICs for individuals, but there are EPICs for states. EPICs are responsible for the collapse in the cost of solar/photovoltaics and wind power. My new favourites that are going straight into my curriculum are captured in the Green Bretton Woods and Green Trading Agreements. The institutions of the Bretton Woods post-war agreement include the IMF and the World Bank. In the context of the transition, Lonergan cheekily says that “I am not sure that the World Bank is up to the task” (p144), but credits the designers of the post-war economic system with bestowing upon the IMF a “magic power” that was apparently leveraged in the banking crisis of 2008 and more recently in the global response to Covid-19. This power is manifested in a “special drawing right” (SDR). Readers can discover the magic for themselves, but I would entirely concur with Lonergan that the designers of the Bretton Woods institutions covered all bases insightfully and provided utility well into the future.

Thanks also to the conversation, I now also know about Export Credit Agencies (they’d somehow passed me by). These agencies mitigate credit risk for banks lending to low-income countries. The authors argue that they can be repurposed towards carbon-reducing investments. They have served the fossil-fuel industry well in the past and can serve transition economies well, too, into the future.

The book also provides an strong argument for countering the “stranded assets” challenge. Stranded assets are long-lived assets that, if economies transition to net zero with haste, will lose their value and become redundant before their time. Shareholders will lose money. It is true, they will, but it is not really an argument against stranding them if it makes the difference between a liveable and non-liveable planet. Rather, the losers will be an energy elite who have made lots of money from the carbon economy in the past. Being an elite, they are so few in number and the impact overall is small. There is about $4 trillion locked up in fossil-related assets. A lot to us, but small in relation to overall assets in the global economy.

Be prepared to be (re)educated about how money is created, interest rates, why China is cleaner than it may seem, how to stop free-riding, leveraging state borrowing capability, why inflation is good (within reason), contingent carbon tax, sovereign wealth funds, border taxes and why activism is not futile. And trees.

An evening well spent. And no one noticed the food was vegan.

Ukrainian refugees

Regular readers know that I have been writing daily to my MP, Sally-Ann Hart (left), to raise the prospect of opening the UK border to Ukrainian refugees fleeing the warzone.

Ms Hart has now posted a message about all the measures taken by the government to support Ukraine both militarily and with sanctions. Whilst some of these are laudable, others are totally inadequate, particularly with respect to refugees – the focus of my emails in recent days. Here is an extract:

“Finally, and alongside the letter (below) that I was proud to add my name to as a signatory calling on Ministers to seek a flexible and pragmatic approach to those Ukrainians wishing to gain temporary refuge in the UK, I strongly welcome the humanitarian support package announced by the Home Secretary yesterday [1st March 2022]. With changes already announced that will allow an estimated one hundred thousand close family members of British nationals or other people in the UK to come here immediately, the Government has taken the laudable step of offering even more assistance. The Ukrainian Family Scheme will significantly expand the ability of British Nationals and people settled in the UK to bring family members to the country, extending eligibility to adult parents, grandparents, children over eighteen, siblings and all of their immediate family.
This Scheme is free and those joining family in the UK will be granted leave for an initial period of at least 12 months during which these individuals will be able to work and access public funds, and it will be compliment by the Home Office opening a Ukrainian Sponsorship Humanitarian Visa Offer too. This will provide a route to the UK for Ukrainians who do not have family ties here, and they will be matched with individuals, businesses, community organisations, and Local Authorities who are willing and able to act as a sponsor.”

I am pleased to see at the end of this statement that Ms Hart has put her name to a letter asking the Prime Minister to open the borders to Ukrainians. I take that as a positive. Ms Hart has been a firm supporter of government policy since the last election.

Full statement:

There is a long way to go, though, with respect to dirty money in our economy and in the coffers of the Conservative Party.

War in Ukraine

I feel helpless in this situation. Though the British Government is responding as we might expect with an unserious politician at the helm.

I have decided to write to my MP, Sally Ann Hart (right), every day about the situation. Short, so the message is clear. Here are the first three:

Dear Ms Hart,

Once again your Government embarrasses us in the international arena. Notwithstanding the failure to clean up London and indeed your party, my current understanding that visa applications for Ukrainians are closed at a time when their country is being extinguished by a foreign power creates a new low bar.

25 February 2022

Your PM lit Downing Street in yellow and blue last night while blocking entry to our country to fleeing Ukrainian women and children. Is that virtue signalling or solidarity?

26 February 2022

I hope that you are enjoying your weekend. The sun was glorious yesterday, and it looks like we might have a repeat performance today. It is great to see the people of Hastings and beyond enjoying the promenade, and even ice cream. Fortunately, there are no bombs, missiles or tanks in evidence unlike in Ukraine. The people fleeing Putin’s war are not looking for a holiday, they are looking for sanctuary. Your government is blocking entry to refugees. Please remove visa restrictions and open the border.

27 February 2022

Dear Ms Hart,

This is my fourth missive, as you are probably aware. I have repeatedly asked for your government to open the border to Ukrainians, but it remains closed to all but a select few who are related to British nationals. This is not good enough. Brexit was supposed to be about agile decision making, but the EU seems to be able to make decisions much faster and incorporate the humanitarian need and current situation.

Please open the borders.

28 February 2022

Easyjet and climate change

Regular readers know that I have been a major customer of easyJet over the years. So much so that they enrolled me on their frequent flyer special privileges list, known as Flight Club. However, when I could, I took the train; but this was rare, because most of my flights were for weekends only. I did not have two days to commit to travel and still work. I was not alone in this; at least ten of the people at the front of the boarding queue were weekend travellers with family in Munich. We were familiar to one another.

When Covid struck, easyJet took most of their aeroplanes out of service. The British Government compounded the whole thing by forbidding Britons from leaving the country unless they had a funeral to attend or, oddly, some property to sell!

When borders opened up again, easyJet’s flights remained few in number. But post-lockdown, many things had changed, not least my ability to work more flexibly and hence take the train more often. It takes about 11 hours or so to make the journey from London to Munich, connections permitting. I am hoping that I never need to fly this route again. The train is way superior.

But easyJet’s CEO, Johan Lundgren, is looking forward to services returning to pre-Covid levels for the summer. With the requirement for PCR and LTF tests being removed to enter the UK, mobility becomes easier and cheaper (both tests are expensive because they are only valid if undertaken by a private company/laboratory). The implications for aviation returning to pre-Covid levels are significant. Aviation contributes about 3.5 per cent of annual emissions of greenhouse gases. That does not sound much, but with a diminishing annual global carbon budget, that is 3.5 per cent the planet could do without.

Lundgren has an answer (of sorts). He claims that, whilst we are waiting for hydrogen-fuelled planes in 2035 (promised by Airbus), we can offset carbon. He does not tell us how the company is offsetting. Though the website states the following: “we offset all the carbon emissions from the fuel used, by supporting projects that protect against deforestation, plant trees or drive the uptake of renewable energy. These projects either avoid the creation of new carbon elsewhere, or directly remove carbon from the atmosphere.”

Offsetting is a flawed concept. The company knows it. Why else would they state on the website that it is not a long-term solution? The principle is that we calculate how much carbon dioxide is emitted per flight and then match that with something that absorbs or compensates that amount of carbon dioxide. Compensation takes the form of investing in solar and wind energy and projects that prevent deforestation.

The most obvious offset mechanism in the absorption category is provided by trees. Unfortunately, even if trees are planted to offset the emissions, many more trees are being destroyed to enable cash crops to be grown, particularly palm oil and soya, despite offsetting funded by airlines such as easyJet. The Amazon is under hourly attack sanctioned by the Brazilian government of Jair Bolsonaro. He is not the only one.

I calculated that to offset the emission caused by 100 desktop computers, we need to plant nearly 5 football pitches of trees per year to absorb the carbon. Imagine that scaled up to airlines. Just see how many aeroplanes are in the air currently – February when volumes are low and even lower because of reduced demand and capacity (right).

Offsetting by planting trees is not credible. What about carbon capture? Well I, probably stupidly, pay to sequestrate carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by a company called Climeworks. Climeworks charge US$1100 per tonne to sequestrate carbon dioxide. From my understanding, a round trip flight from London to New York (economy) generates 1.8 tonnes CO2. The price to sequestrate, therefore, becomes $1980 (€1680) on top of the ticket price. In the case of easyJet, a low-cost airline is unlikely ever to offset in this way, even if the capacity to do so existed.

There is another problem with Mr Lundgren’s approach. It is echoed by climate change deniers. And that is, there is a technological fix (hydrogen powered planes) just around the corner, or 2035. Even if easyJet can offset its emissions, I’m pretty sure the rest of the aviation industry will not. And the chances of Airbus delivering planes to all airlines by that date, is unlikely. Moreover, Airbus is working on planes that are ok for short haul, but not feasible for longer flights. There will remain a gaping hole in the carbon neutral aeroplane portfolio. We might ask, also, whether the airports will have in place the infrastructure to service these new planes. In addition, Boeing is going for biofuel and retrofitting existing planes. These are not carbon neutral and threaten to contribute to deforestation because the fuel needs land on which to grow.

There is one more dimension to Mr Lundgren’s arguments. While train travel is feasible – albeit with extended journey times – Mr Lundgren indicates that the European rail networks are insufficiently developed and have capacity constraints. Unlike with airlines, it is not possible just to commission a new aeroplane to meet demand. New trains and supporting infrastructure take time.

All of these airlines – but many more companies besides – are looking for business-as-usual when that is simply not possible if we are to stay within the planetary boundaries. The world has changed. It has heated up. Mr Lundgren, your planes have to stay on the ground.

easyJet plane Pic: Adrian Pingstone

Book review: Alice Bell’s “Our Biggest Experiment”

Cover Alice Bell' Our Biggest Experiment

The experiment in question is, of course, climate change. It is an experiment because humanity is largely conducting the experiment on itself and seeing what happens. Humanity knows how to stop it, but it seems either too curious about the result of the experiment, or too addicted to the drugs to stop it.

My reading and viewing in recent years has covered most of the themes discussed in this book. Andreas Malm’s book, Fossil Capital, deals with coal (Bell cites the book in recognition of his clinical account). Iain Stewart’s 3-Part TV documentaries, Earth: The Planet Wars and Planet Oil, do climate change and oil pretty well and David Wallace-Wells comprehensively spells out the future scenarios for humanity in his book, The Uninhabitable Earth. Bell adds considerably to my knowledge about gas and, in particular, the quest for light in the night. I am now also armed with a knowledge about meteorology, its origins and purpose (obsessive and competitive individuals and trade).

Climate change as Biography

There is an extensive cast of characters. It is through these that the story is so compellingly told. For example, Joseph Priestly grappled with the question of what is heat. Phlogiston was the “substance” that made fuels (and all else) burn; for example, whale oil, marsh gas, coal were pure pholgiston. Phologiston was eventually dismissed as a serious scientific idea after experiments created water from so-called flammable air (hydrogen) and dephlogisticated air (oxygen). An explosion was expected as the hydrogen should have burned well in the oxygen!

Daniel Fahrenheit who, in 1724, etablished the eponymous scale for measuring temperature based on the temperature of an armpit and a bucket of ice/water (pp56/57). He also popularised mercury as the liquid of choice for thermometers. Thomas Huxley and John Tyndall, a couple of outsiders of science’s aristocracy, who studied the formation and melting of glaciers in the Alps in the 1850s. Tyndall’s work on trapped heat arising from the properties of different gases, however, overlooked the work of Eunice Foote – the first person, in 1856, to observe the heating potential of carbon dioxide (p68), though, as was common in those times, women’s science discoveries were overlooked. Consequently, Foote’s male peers (e.g. Tyndall) were credited and cited.

The cast of characters is wonderfully extensive, and I recommend Bell’s book for its attention to such detail. She tells us who knew whom. Who made the seredipitous discoveries. Who took what money. And so on.

The things we remember in our lifetimes (says a late middle-ager)

James Hansen

Former UK prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, was the Left’s nemesis. For a brief time she was an advocate for green house gas emission reductions. It is what Bell calls Thatcher’s “climate moment”. But it was more than that. As a description, that is more in line with Stewart’s explanation in which Thatcher was eventually nobbled by her party and guided away from a progressive approach to climate transition. As a chemist herself she was affected, like many others, by James Hanson’s 1988 US Senate testimony, Thatcher addressed the Royal Society in which she posited the idea that the Earth was being stressed by population (growth), agricultural practices and the burning of fossil fuels. She described it as potentially “a massive experiment with the system of this planet itself” (p312). A year later she was at the UN calling for an international convention on climate change! However, Bell, probably correctly, rejects the idea that it was the scientist in her that was the motivation for her speeches. Rather it was the Hayak economist in her. Her solution was, of course, more market, more capitalism and less state. She may also have sought to de-leftify climate change!

The oil industry

The oil industry is, in many respects the history of empire. BP has its origins in Iran/Persia and had its interests expropriated or nationalised (depending on whether you are British or Iranian). Iain Stewart tells the story of the coup d’etat executed by the British and the Americans to see off the architect of the nationalisation, Iran’s PM, Mohammad Mosaddegh (left), in a campaign of disinformation and public disorder. The nationalisation was executed because the British were not prepared to renegotiate oil concessions in the country and to share the wealth that it generated, as the Americans had done in Saudi Arabia.

Shell/Royal Dutch, too, is founded on Dutch imperialism. In 1890, the Dutch king pledged support for Royal Dutch to drill in the Dutch East Indies (Sumatra). Royal Dutch Shell as a company was the effective takeover of Shell, the British shipping concern of Marcus Samuel (there is a Rothchild Bank story here, too). Though originally it had literally been a shell merchant company. Shell as in crustaceans! The company is the pioneer of the oil tanker and critically, achieved safety approval for its ships to bring oil safely from Asia to Europe through the Suez Canal, mainly, at that time, for lighting. This act outflanked Standard Oil; the rapacious vehicle of J.D. Rockefeller’s wealth generation. Moreover, the automobile had not yet entered to arena and given additional/new value to oil, as electricity was overtaking oil as the main source of artificial light in cities and homes.

Talking of Standard Oil, as is common knowledge, in 1911 the company was ordered by the US Supreme Court to be broken up. Three companies emerged – Standard Oil New Jersey; Standard Oil New York, and Standard Oil California. The latter became Chevron, the New York company, Mobil, and the New Jersey beast became Exxon. Arguably, the breakup was hydra-like with three monsters being created as a result. Exxon and Mobil are now back together, interestingly. Chevron has an unenviable record on climate change (though in 2021 found itself the attention of activist shareholders similar to Exxon).

Exxon has invested considerable sums in climate change scepticism and/or critical science (effectively challenging the the premise of the developing evidence base for planetary warming. The company employed many of the tactics of the tobacco industry before it disputing the causal relationship between smoking and cancer – fighting science with science to spread doubt. This involved employing reputable scientists and the heavyweight PR firm, Hill and Knowlton. The ultimate of regressions.

Wallace Broekner

In 1977, Exxon got serious and employed Edward David Jr, a veteran of Bell Labs, to head up their research labs (pp302/3). David was receptive to building a specialist scientific team around carbon dioxide research. The company fitted out a supertanker to do ocean research and brought in Wallace Broekner (left, the man behind the term, global warming, and a reputable climate scientist/oceanographer) and University of Columbia scientist (Doherty Earth Observatory), Taro Takahashi. Bell rightly notes that these scientists did not sell their souls to the Devil as it might seem at first look; rather they may have felt that they could lead Exxon’s transition from oil to renewables. It was not to be.

In the case of climate scepticism there was, notes Bell, a generation of scientists with cold war DNA. Their seeming hatred of the Left arising from marginalisation of military science on campuses around the USA and a residual loathing of Rachel Carson whose book, Silent Spring, saw off DDT whilst simultaneously challenging military strategy (as it was used as a “defoliant” in the Vietnam War). Bell identifies three “angry old men” (p319): Bill Nierenberg (former director of Scipps Institute of Oceanography and veteran of the Manhatten Project), Frederick Seitz (former President of the National Academy of Sciences) and Robert Jastrow (founder of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies). Together they founded the George C Marshall Institute that initially concerned itself with Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative but graduated to climate scepticism as witnessed in the pages of their book, Global Warming: What does the Science Tell Us?

In addition, the company Exxon’s scientists also oversaw the first IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report in 1990.

The Road to Now

There is also room for Al Gore (right) in Bell’s account of this period. Gore had had two stints as Vice President of the USA and had more than a look in to make president in the election year of 2000 (controversially defeated by George W Bush and who went on to take the USA out of the Kyoto Agreement, much as Trump did with the Paris Agreement 18 years later). Gore had drawn on the work of the so-called Granddaddy of climate science and oceanography, Roger Revelle. His PhD studies undertaken in the early 1930s examined the extent to which the oceans absorbed carbon dioxide and concluded that it was much less than previously thought and calculated (about 50 per cent and not the 98 per cent accepted wisdom). Revelle was hugely networked, including with the US Navy. He was, in the 1950s, employing a new technique of carbon dating, initially in connection with measuring radioactivity, but equally useful in studying tree rings that revealed isotopes that were closely associated with the burning of fossil fuels. This knowledge was re-applied to oceans by Revelle who had observed a phenomenon called buffering whereby the oceans expel carbon dioxide to avoid acidification. So initial calculations needed to be revisited to capture the significant expulsion and further concentration of carbon dioxide in the air rather than being absorbed by the oceans (p226).

Then there’s Captain Planet (p311), the brainchild of Ted Turner, CNN’s founder. For the 1989 series, he signed up stars such as Whoopi Goldberg, Meg Ryan, Jeff Goldblum and Sting to voice the multi-national characters who appeared in the “Planeteers”. I’ve seen better animation, but it reminds me of shows like “The Tomorrow People” of my youth, featuring a band of kids/young people with special powers, such as telepathy, to help others deal with the agonies of life as well as those regular issues involving extra-terrestrial life (presumably to make the series more interesting). Crucially, the Tomorrow People were unable to take human life. Most of us wanted to be a Tomorrow Person (well I did), but a Planeteer, two decades later, makes a lot of sense. The best I can do is write a blog and teach students climate awareness.

Still from the Restless Sphere (Sir James Wordie (r), Sir David Brunt (l) and Sir Cyril Hinshelwood, centre)

Revelle was a major recipient of IGY (International Geophysical Year – starting June 1957) funding. Imagine this: a funding stream solely dedicated to studying the planet for its own sake and fostering international scientific collaboration (one wonders whether EU funding such as Horizon 2020 is not modelled on the ICY). On 30 June 1957, the BBC actually broadcast a documentary about the ICY called, interestingly, The Restless Sphere.

Alice Bell can be heard talking about her book on the Bunker Daily Podcast (4 July 2021). But this book goes on the reading list for my students because of one particular comment in the conclusion. History matters. It helps us to understand not only where we came from, but what factors got us to where we are today. Bell does this with aplomb. It is important for my students to realise that

[m]ost of us are pretty clueless about how we built this world in the first place, and so struggle to work out where to start rebuilding it. This cluelessness is far from just a problem for energy. It is a price we pay for modernity; there’s so much stuff to know we have to live our lives in a lot of ignorance.



Mohammad Mosaddegh – circa 1952/53 By –, Public Domain,

Standard Oil logo pic: Pat Hawks

Wallace Broekner:

Planeteers: (The Planeteers: Kwame (Africa, power – earth). Wheeler (Brooklyn, New York City, United States: power – fire). Linka (Soviet Union: power – wind). Gi (Asia. power – water). Ma-Ti (Brazil. power – heart)