Climate watch: vigilance

That annual meeting of plutocrats at Davos this year, despite the dedicated theme being Stakeholders for a Cohesive and Sustainable World– let me shorten that to climate change – managed only to get “members” to plant 1 trillion trees. Greta Thunberg said, as one might expect, “not enough”. Offsetting is not the solution. The solution, again spelled out in capital letters for a global audience, is to keep carbon in the ground – no more mining investments, no more oil exploration. Oddly, there was no commitment on that.

What the 1 trillion trees commitment (I have no idea how this would be done) does – and this is forever clear in diplomatic endeavours – is make it possible for the denialist political leaders to sign up to it. I sense that if they are prepared to endorse something it probably suits them because they can be seen to be endorsing something meaningful, but they will not be held accountable for not doing it (apologies, two negatives there). What, for example, is the USA’s quota? It does not take into account current destruction – willful or otherwise. Are we in any way able to trust a president who is prepared to contaminate the drinking water of his people, as Trump is doing?

In Britain we have our own untrustworthy leader. I am going to use my blog to keep a record of any violations to commitments that I come across. So, let us start with energy efficiency in homes. The UK housing stock is generally poor, even when insulated. OK, there may not be much that we can do to improve that, but when it comes to new housing stock, surely builders should be building to the highest standards? Since 2013, new building projects have been judged against a notional (high) standard encompassing all aspects of building; for example, thermal efficiency of materials. Additionally, local authorities are planning authorities and set their own standards. Many have declared a climate emergency. This will no longer be an option for them. Any new law will override local preferences/standards.

With the built environment contributing 40 per cent of national carbon emissions, this is an obvious policy area where real cuts would make a difference. But obviously, the building industry seems to have been lobbying for a loosening of the regulations. That does not seem to be the case with architects who have grouped together to call for increased standards. As one noted in the above embedded article “From disregarding the performance of a building’s fabric to ignoring the embodied energy of materials, the proposals represent a total loosening of regulations. And it’s all hidden in a dense consultation document that seems designed to confuse.” Jo Giddings, from Architects Climate Action Network quoted in the Guardian (24 January 2020).

Expect much more of this.

 

Makers and Takers, review

There I am in the bookshop and the owner offers me Rana Foroohar’s lastest book, Don’t be Evil..., about the inherently evil Big Tech. He detects my interest, but not quite in this book at this moment. Then he reaches for Foroohar’s earlier work from 2016, Makers and Takers. In true Douglas Adams style I bought it because it was slightly cheaper, but unlike the Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, it did not have a reassuring title (Don’t Panic). Indeed, this book’s subtitle, How Wall Street Destroyed Main Street, could actually be re-titled, Panic. It is that troubling.

How does this book fit into my current reading? Regular readers know that climate change is occupying my thoughts at the moment, indeed my current reading (right) is shockingly pertinent (also used by my bookseller to cause an exchange of money from me to him). The finance industry is both a cause and solution to the climate crisis. To understand how it might solve the crisis, it is worth knowing – or at least reminding oneself – about the dark side of finance. How, despite the financial crisis of 2008, in Jarvis Cocker’s words, The cunts are still running the world. And indeed, ruining it.

This is a gripping book. I know most of the story, but here it is nicely sewn together. Essentially as a Financial Times journalist – unusually so – Foroohar has been a chronicler of the story in bite-sized chunks, in real time. She reminds us about the banking industry’s original functional purpose for capitalism, to provide the funds for investment in the productive economy. She takes us through the deregulation of the industry in both the USA and the UK that crucially broke the separation of boring, low-return retail and business banking and lending and the riskier investment, speculative and hedging activities. Moreover, the central banks in those countries are both lenders of last resort (always reassuring when engaged in risky trading), regulators and, in tandem with the state, secure a compliant civil society and the system of law that favours capital over labour.

Wall Street is also complicit in the financialisation of business. Faroohar reminds us how large firms avoid tax by offshoring their earnings abroad; how they increase the value of their firms by share buy-backs financed by lending (for example, Apple) at the expense of innovation in product and services; and how the executives of these firms remunerate themselves not on the basis of salary like their employees, but rather by shares attracting capital gains tax rather than income tax. This provides the incentive to inflate the value of the firm independent of its products. Here Faroohar cites the case of Pfizer, so desperately short of innovative products, but rich nonetheless.

We see how the finance industry thrives on private and public debt, itself fuelled by low interest rates. The lower the interest rates, the more lending (and hence money generation) becomes feasible. The lower the interest rates, the more money there is to buy property which squeezes out of property ownership a good percentage of private citizens – or at least gets them to overstretch themselves in pursuit of loans. And when whole neighbourhoods become bankrupt, the finance sector provides the money for equity funds to buy up swathes of cheap properties, rent them out, often supported by the state and tax payers, and take rather than make.

The finance sector steals our pensions, ensures the high price of commodities, including essential foodstuffs. And, particularly in the USA, personnel enjoy the revolving door between Government and Banking and vice versa, over and over again. We see how the banks, private equity, and their customers monetise public goods like research and development executed in publicly-funded universities and research centres but privatise the benefits. By offshoring their profits, they return only a fraction of the value generated to source.

Where does the environment come into this? The climate crisis that is ramping up can be still solved by investing in zero carbon technologies, infrastructures, public procurement, education and lifestyle changes. It does not. The finance sector has become an end in itself rather than the means by which an economy can be radically changed in a relatively short space of time. Not only do they not lead in investment in green technology, but they actively lobby against it. And because of the revolving door, a bubble is generated whereby business-as-usual – that is, making money – remains the priority. Challenging this is the struggle of the century. And if we do not win it, the climate will change. Badly.

UK General Election, 2019

Back in 1983 I recall the disappointment of seeing the Labour Party under the (then) EC-sceptic, Michael Foot, heavily defeated in the polls. I admired Foot’s intellectualism, but his programme – once billed as the “longest suicide note in history” – was too backward looking. The past it referred to was never going to cut it. My early 20s, then, were haunted by Thatcher “reforms”. It seemed like every evening I came home from work and listened to the radio some new regressive policy was being announced by some ugly minister. In particular, Nicholas Ridley and Norman Tebbit. But there were more ugly ministers than them.

Finally, in 1997, the egregious Tory Governments imploded and the fresh Tony Blair led Labour to victory. Many of us had hoped to see John Smith as a Labour Prime Minister; but his sudden death on 24 May 1994 – I shed a rare tear on hearing the news – paved the way for Blairism. Blair was elected on a platform to accept the early Thatcher neo-liberal “consensus”; for example, not rolling back anti-trade union law. Indeed, the Labour Government furthered the project. In not putting a check on many of the Thatcher excesses, it made it very easy for Cameron to take over in 2010 where Thatcher and Major left off. Even worse, in deregulating financial services, a Labour Government enabled the financial crisis of 2008 and the wicked austerity that followed, the Brexit referendum, and now, with the election of a majority Conservative Government packed with characters that would make Thatcher’s Cabinets blush, an assault on all public services, institutions and the fragile constitution that so outmaneuvered May and Johnson as they attempted to get dodgy legislation through the Parliament in the face of far smarter people than themselves – here I think of Dominic Grieve and Hilary Benn, but again, there were others.

I’m not going to reflect further at this point. At a personal level, where we are now is quite the most frightful and positively scary place we could be. A demagogue now sits on a very large majority who can – and will – do what he wants. In the face of a climate emergency where every month counts, I am particularly concerned. But as I have written before, democracy is a process, not an event. I am part of the process.  Come with me.

Al Gore – What if

By Erik Charlton from Menlo Park, USA

When I am home alone, I usually eat with some video accompaniment. At the moment that is dominated by Trump’s impeachment hearings and the commentaries by Seth Meyers, Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Kimmel, Samantha Bee and Trevor Noah. Meyers has his near-daily, ten minute “Closer Look” monologue (search through Youtube). Funny, interesting, intelligent. And when it ends, the algorithm directs me to more of the show which is quite show-biz focused. Not my bag. Last night, however, it took me to clips of him interviewing Al Gore, the former US Vice President who almost became President in 2000. We got Bush instead. In light of my previous reading of Rob Hopkins’ book, What if? What if? But we are where we are.

OK, it seems that I’m now bingeing on Al Gore. Back in 2008 he did a TED talk. I watched it this morning over my lonely breakfast. Two observations to share with my readers. First, When Gore was VP, he had to deal with conflicts which he classified as local, regional and global/strategic. Each level requires different skills, organisational forms and resource allocation. This is the essence of decision, to reference the title of Graham T. Allison’s famous book. Environmental issues, argues Gore, fit into three categories, too. Climate change, however, is global/strategic. That means global organisational forms, global resource allocation and a pooling of skills and knowledge.

Second, investments in tar sands and shale oil are “sub-prime carbon assets”. Remember, this was just at the time of the financial crisis. On reflection, he is wrong. Sub-prime mortgages nearly brought down the the global economy; in the end it enriched those who had caused the crisis. No bankers went to prison, austerity was inflicted on the victims of the crimes not the perpetrators. The bankers were rewarded with positions in Government (Trump administration, for example). By contrast, climate change will bring down civilisation. Those investing in the extraction of carbon from the earth and burning it will not be rewarded this time around. Economics is within our control, it is a human construct. Climate change is physics. We’ve got 10 years. We’ve got the technology.

In the UK there is a general election next month. Let us start there. Let us make GE 2019 the climate election, not the Brexit election.

Post script: Gore says, I paraphrase, let us make it that in the future great orchestras, poets, playwrites are able to create their art with the knowledge that the current generation of leaders did indeed do the right thing.

Hopkins on imagination and What If?

I’ve been working my way through Hopkins’ book (left) over the last few days. It has left me thoughtful. As readers already know, this book prompted me to end my addiction to Twitter – without which I would currently be reading tweets rather than writing and reflecting.

But what is “what if”? It is predicated largely on the realisation that things have to change. There is one thing the climate emergency absolutely forces us to do, that is to conceive of a climate catastrophe. We cannot avoid it. It makes “what iffing” so much easier. We can get roads closed – albeit temporarily – and turn them into green spaces, play areas, spaces to meet, discuss, choose, decide. This is what happened in Tooting High Street in London, the bus terminus turning circle, was closed on Sunday in July 2017; the A259 trunk road through Hastings, where I live, was closed for a day in September 2019 and transformed into a music stage, a bicycle repair workshop, an arena for a wheelie competition and a  political discussion and debating area, amongst other things.

“What if every university declared a climate emergency and all of its courses were taught through that lens? What if we created a fossil-fuel-free energy system within 20 years? What if every new house built generated more energy than it consumed? What if urban agriculture became utterly common place? What if our cities became huge biodiversity reserves? What if single-use plastics were something we only saw in museums?” Schools are perhaps more aware of climate change than are universities, but they maintain a pedagogy that, according to Hopkins, suppresses imagination in their forced pursuit of grades, regulatory approval and attendant rankings.

Hopkins takes us to various places where examples help with our often depressed imaginations: Totnes in Devon (not so revealing); Liège in Belgium (ever so revealing). Liège, a city I pass through frequently on my way to Munich by train, set itself a challenge back in 2013 to create the means to grow the majority of the City’s food on the land in the immediate surrounding area. Liège now has mass co-operative food projects, vineyards, organic mushroom growing off coffee waste, a brewery, sustainable distribution and restaurants. There is a Co-operative of Co-operatives that has political and economic bargaining power. What if?

The book is not just about climate change. Readers are asked to consider wider issues mediated through liberated imagination,  but that itself requires major structural changes to education and the reversal of trends against art in schools. Unrestricted play – play of the imagination, unmediated by technology – argues Hopkins, needs to start in school and migrate to the workplace and community.

Another major inhibitor of “what if-ism” is our own health. Modern life is stressful and society itself is plagued by anxiety and deeper mental health issues. These block imagination in a way, perhaps, that is functional for the economic and political forces of inertia that at best shape our lives, at worst, destroy our humanity and with it the environment that sustains us. But stress is also a chemical process that impacts on the Hippocampus – our “hub of memory” in the brain. We damage it at our peril, affecting both long- and short-term memory. It is the interaction between the two, notes Hopkins, that facilitates imagination – and with it, future scenarios.

Then there is nature; actually, we are at our least stressed when with trees and listening to birdsong, it seems. From my own experience, I know my own blood pressure is reduced by contact with nature. Here in Hastings, a walk along the beach is only matched by half a bottle of wine in efficacy. One of these is healthier and indeed cheaper than the other. This realisation makes the transformation of our towns and cities into green zones logical and politically feasible: parks, playing fields, city farms, swimming pools and gardens are all exploitable in this respect.

We have a general election imminently in the UK. There are rumblings of alternative models – the leader of the opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, was laughed at when he suggested that we should work only for four days per week rather than five, despite there being plenty of evidence that such working arrangements do not come at the expense of productivity. Working longer does not benefit society. To be laughed at over this is bizarre. The PM, Boris Johnson, was laughed at when he claimed trust was important in government and society. That I can more understand as a response.

We have to get smart.

 

William Blake exhibition, Tate Britain

I did not know much about William Blake before this exhibition, still popular despite starting on 11 September, though no booking is needed now. It is walk right in. So, Blake was an illustrator/poet/artist. He innovated technique (“tacky ink applied under pressure”) and created some curious juxtapositions including the Pope and the Devil together in Hell (1794-6, right) – Blake was devout, but obviously not catholic.

His book illustrations are absolutely exquisite; for example, for the epic poem, America, A Prophecy (left). The colours are beguiling. His figures are extraordinarily classic; Greek, even. The bodies are all muscular, perfectly formed and, often, naked. Though his older figures wear beards to die for. His favourite materials seem to be watercolour and paper.

Despite earning quite a bit of money in his time for illustrations, etchings, etc. (the gallery is keen to do a currency conversion for visitors to judge for themselves), he often had to rely on patrons to get through. He found himself being commissioned to produce major sets of illustrations of key works of literature or biblical stories, that perhaps, his heart was not in. This bondage, as I sense he saw it, eventually led him to fall out with most of them doing much damage to his relative wealth and equally mental health.

Regular readers know that I am always interested in artistic ghouls, many of which are found in the German and Low Country traditions, for example, this. Blake seems to be good at ghouls as well. For example, the Beast from the Sea (1805, right). He also does a lot of ascent into Heaven or descent into Hell (A Vision of the last Judgement, 1808, left). This theme is, of course, a religious staple as well as good material for Dystopians like Bosch and Martin de Vos. Still perfect bodies though.

Some are bizarre hybrids. And small. I particularly liked images from his Small Book of Designs which includes a curious image of the bearded man with a “number of monkeys, baboons & all of that species” (1790, right). Quite what is going on, I do not know, but the natural world is clearly important to Blake. It might be that this is an acceptance of ancestry; but for a pious man well before Darwin, that seems a shade unlikely.

In contrast to most artists with exhibitions of this nature – a whole life – Blake was consistent. He strayed very little from what he did – and clearly did well. There is no “green” period or any major disruption in style. Despite his depression he never did a Goya or Bacon (or they never did a Blake, I suppose). By the end of the exhibition I was a bit weary arising from the sameness of the images and the kind of character that persists with something that, in Blake’s case, stopped selling.

 

Tim Minchin, Hammersmith Apollo, 14 November 2019

Eight years’ ago, I bought two tickets to see Tim Minchin play the comedy prom at the Royal Albert Hall. Actually, I did not. The credit card was not accepted and I did not notice until the tickets didn’t arrive. By which time it was too late. 14 Months ago, I bought two tickets to see Tim Minchin play the Hammersmith Apollo on 14 November 2019. The tickets arrived about 2 weeks after purchase. I put them in a very safe place. I inspected them regularly to ensure they were real. Last night we cashed them in (left).

I can vouch for Brian Logan’s review in the Guardian. The summary on Wikipedia gives a sort-of set list.

When one is at the proms, just before the performance starts, a polite message goes around to turn off mobile phones. For this show, we are invited just to turn off our fucking phones and watch the show as a unique event. I sensed, probably, 100 per cent compliance (I remember having my mobile semi-confiscated at a Jack White concert in Munich once, not very friendly – Minchin’s approach seems much better).

Anyway, yes, he did start with himself and a piano. Then he revealed his 8-piece band (they were excellent, by the way). I now know that a male mid-life crisis is defined in terms of when one starts looking at time in decades instead of years. We learned about his formative years playing piano two nights-per-week at the Butterfly Club in Melbourne and that he is rather wealthy courtesy of the hit-musical, Matilda. He owns a house on the east coast of Australia and asks himself how he can be depressed with all he has. After living in LA for four years directing an animated feature and have it cancelled by Universal after they bought Dreamworks in some sort of tax write-off, does that explain and justify his feelings? We got all of that in the first half in monologue and music.

Tim Minchin performing in 2007, courtesy of nekonoir

The second half was much more upbeat. Optimistic, playful even. He clearly delighted in presenting his 8-minute rock opera, Cheese (and the audience enjoyed it, too). Cheese celebrates the art form – or maybe takes the piss out of it, not sure which – and sanctions camp double-ententes and debates about food allergies.

Minchin is best, though, when he is angry. The high point – and it was a serious summit – was his paen to Bob Dylan. Minchin told us that he is not a Dylan obsessive, but by goodness, could he write a song. Or two. Minchin picks up his acoustic guitar and feigns an attempt at emulating Dylan. The result…the best thing I have seen and heard in a good long time. No one escapes. Rightly.

My last tweet

I was on the train heading to work reading a book; namely, Rob Hopkins’ What if: Unleashing the power of imagination to create the future we want. A hardback book purchased from my local independent bookshop, Printed Matter, in Hastings. It is a time-consuming business, reading books. I’d devoted a few hours to this book on Saturday, albeit in a lovely cafe with coffee and lunch. I carried on through my commute because it was reasonably easy to manipulate on a full train.

Hopkins discusses the issue of lost time…something that I have discussed in this blog previously (written at a time when there were fewer mobile phones and no Brexit). Hopkins reveals that a major contributor to lost time is social media. Twitter in particular. It is true, I have spent a lot of time there reading the opinions of those I trust, appreciate and genuinely learn from. I also spent a lot of time reading the opinions of those I profoundly disagree with – fascists mostly. Or fascist sympathisers. I followed these ugly people in order to avoid being in a bubble of self-flattery, which is the danger with social media. I took that from a book as well.

On Monday I deactivated my Twitter account. On Tuesday I took the Twitter icons off my mobile and tablet. I unpinned twitter from my computer desktop. How am I coping? Fine. The irony is, though, the book that finally pushed me to deactivate was endorsed on Twitter.

Another concert this time going to type

We have seen Richard Hawley a few times now. Unlike with Neil Hannon, the format is pretty much text book. Hawley leads, a reliable and familiar band support; and so was it when we saw the band at the Brighton Dome on 18 October 2019. The set is familiar. But not. Hawley promotes his latest album, Further, but the tracks are seamless in their alignment with his back catalogue, with the exception, perhaps, of Standing at the Sky’s Edge (from which he let Down in the Woods absolutely and brilliantly rip). No criticism. The set is a crowd-pleaser. The performance is polished. The guitars and keyboards are beguiling. Hawley engages with the audience periodically and swears (we are ruled by “cunts”, he tells us). A few audience members get an earful. Just short of two hours on this last night of the tour is most satisfying. We’ll be there for the next tour and primed with a new album.

Oh no! Not another review of a Divine Comedy gig?

 

I know, a bit boring. I was not going to do it. But live The Divine Comedy – the vehicle for Neil Hannon’s quirky, often conceptual, pop music – evolves compellingly. What do I mean?

Hannon released his latest album, Office Politics in the summer. He is currently on tour with it, hence the show that we saw at the Brighton Dome on 16 October 2019. It is a non-prog concept album. There is a theme of the daily drudge and meaninglessness of work infused within. The title track has much that we recognise in the modern office: zealous employers, impropriety with photocopiers, powerpoint presentations, etc. It is funny and very Neil Hannon, at least lyrically, if not in vocal style.

The album also has some – what Hannon himself referred to as – radio hits on it such as Norman and Norma which reminds me very much of Billy Joel’s destructive couple, Brenda and Eddie (Scenes From An Italian Restaurant). Though Norman and Norma rescue their relationship by 1066 re-enactments. Brenda and Eddie are not quite so lucky. There’s the Life and Soul of the Party – a homage to awful office Christmas parties. Again, much for us to relate to. Unfortunately.

What I thought was the stand-out track on the album, You’ll Never Work in this Town Again, translates well on stage and keeps the working – or in this case, non-work – theme going. I’m a Stranger Here, additionally is a wonderful mix of time travel, work and alienation?

OK, so to the show. The set has a very large clock hanging behind the players. There are two doors, one in, one out. There is a desk with an aged monitor sitting on it (the office is seems dated around the early nineties, though references to zero-hour contracts and copies of the Human League’s Dare album as part of the cover art suggest a certain temporal confusion). A telephone receiver is used as a percussion instrument (right).

Hannon enters the stage from the in door to cheers. He is dressed in a bright red/orange suit (we know that on other dates he has a blue and white suit). In contrast to previous concerts we have seen, Hannon concentrates on the singing – only on a few occasions does he pick up his acoustic guitar.

I was wondering whether Hannon would attempt to present The Synthesiser Service Centre Super Summer Sale. This seems to be a paen to old synthesiser technology. It is really a list of former machines with obvious nostalgic attachment. On stage, this track works so well. This is almost Stockhausen in its composition. Coupled with some simple but effective lighting, I could have listened to this all evening.

Incidentally, did I miss Opportunity Knox where Billy Bird leaves without a word? We got Come Home Billy Bird

Then there is Philip and Steve’s Furniture Removal Company, a celebration of the former New York business of Philip Glass and Steve Reich. Hannon uses this as an opportunity to complete the theatrics. A number of the crew don brown coats and hats and start dismantling the drum kit, removing the doors and covering the keyboards with dust covers. This provides the excuse for the encore to be quasi-acoustic (left). The Encore leaves Office Politics behind (though having already presented National Express, Indy Disco, Absent Friends, A Lady of a Certain Age and Something for the Weekend) and presents two favourites and Hannon anthems: Songs of Love and Tonight we Fly. This is Hannon really at his best, surrounded by trusted musicians and a platform for his wonderful lyrical and vocal range.

Band: Andrew Skeet, Ian Watson, Simon Little, Tim Weller and Tosh Flood.