The world could learn something from June’s selection—from ethics to economics and our exploding populationby Raymond Tallis / May 22, 2013 / Leave a comment
“Sentence for sentence, [James] Salter is the master,” Richard Ford says of the 87-year-old author of All That Is (Picador, £18.99). Perhaps he is. “The emptiness of things rose like the sound of a choir making the sky bluer and more vast” is certainly arresting. But above the level of the sentence, this engaging tale of a book editor, a survivor of the Pacific theatre of the Second World War, “in a world of dinners, deals, and literary careers,” is strangely unmemorable. I wanted to know what happened next in the hero’s 40 year search for true love but soon forgot what happened last. Beautifully written, artfully constructed, it passed through me like water through sand.
Novels that mirror the contingency of life are at risk of becoming part of that contingency. The risk is greater with travel books where the accidental and the unforeseen is the point, though destinations give the narrative direction. Paul Theroux’s The Last Train to Zona Verde: Overland from Cape Town to Angola (Hamish Hamilton, £11.99), however, is absorbing and leaves its mark. You have to forgive his irritating superiority to his own tribe—“confined in stagnating cities like caged monkeys”—generalisations about humankind such as that “the best of them are bare-assed” and cynicism about “the virtue industry” of NGOs, though he confesses to being impressed on occasions “by the inspired meddling of outsiders.” The reward is to be taken into the interstices of an infinitely varied continent and the often appalling, but occasionally surprisingly rich, lives lived beneath the net of conceptions we mobilise when thinking about “Africa.” The unmitigated horror of his destination, Angola—a country of “cheated, despised, unaccommodated people” where oil billions have simply deepened the distance between “the governing rich and their parasitic friends, and the poor who live without hope”—is a reminder of world below the tourist radar and a warning against optimism based on measures of economic growth.
One reason for fearing that human life in the future may be more like Angola than Stow-on-the-Wold is that we are too numerous and “the algae-bloom-like explosion of humanity” may deliver a world population of over 10bn and rising by 2100. In his brilliant and persuasive Population 10 Billion: The Coming Demographic Crisis and How to Survive It (Constable & Robinson, £8.99), Danny Dorling argues for a “practical possibilitism” that rejects both the “rational optimism” of those who think that greed and the survival of the fittest will drive humanity to ever greater heights and the pessimists who feel that we are doomed and that the best thing we can teach our children is how to use a gun. A slowdown in the growth of the population appears to be on the cards (though the projections for 2300 range between 2.3bn and 36bn) and increasingly people are choosing sustainable lives. Dorling, a professor of human geography at Sheffield University, is rightly tentative about his conclusions and they will be challenged. However, he has presented a serious alternative view of the future to both the brutal “greed is good” social Darwinism of self-styled rational optimists or the helpless pessimism that may be self-fulfilling.
Evil Men (Harvard, £19.95) explores the causes and effects of human wickedness. At its heart is a series of interviews that James Dawes—professor of English and programme director in human rights at Macalester College in the US—conducted with a group of Japanese war criminals who fought in the Sino-Japanese War of 1937-45. After defeat, they were incarcerated first in inhumanly brutal Siberian prisons and then in Chinese prisons where they were “re-educated” by being well treated. When they came home, they formed an organisation committed to ending the silence about imperial Japanese war crimes. Much of Dawes’s book reflects on the ethics of speaking about the unspeakable and on our motivation for doing so. While he attempts to understand people for whom bayonetting civilians was something between an initiation rite and a training exercise, he also fears that understanding will trivialise what happened. On forgiveness, he quotes Cynthia Ozick: “The face of forgiveness is mild, but how stony to the slaughtered… Whoever is merciful to the cruel will end by being indifferent to the innocent.” It is because Dawes finds no ethical resting place that his relentlessly honest book is a moral act of the highest order. Required reading.
After evil, the “unauthorised biography” of what is often accused of being the root of it comes as a relief. Felix Martin’s remarkable book, Money (Bodley Head, £20) is economic history—and indeed cultural anthropology—with a difference. He makes something that is usually taken for granted truly visible and identifies misunderstanding the nature of money as the source of many serious faults in much economic theory. Economists, he argues, think of money as something physical. This is in part because the only evidence we have of ancient economies are durable items such as coins. Money, however, is not a thing but “a social technology: a set of ideas and practices which organise what we produce and consume and how we live together.” Money is multi-faceted: a universally applied economic value (an invention, according to Martin, as important as that of the wheel), a system of account keeping, and a means by which value can be transferred from one person to another. From this theory, Martin goes on to argue for a mode of bank regulation (“narrow banking”) that will address the present iniquitous situation whereby losses are socialised—and taxpayers are on the hook for bailouts—and gains are private. For this alone, his sparkling book is worth taking seriously.