Four new and important books – all deserving to be read and digested widely – show a mirror up to the world and point ways to make it a better planet for all of us.
The dangerous tipping point we are fast reaching with the globe’s food systems. The desperate need for a revolution in the way we deal with Big Tech companies. The deep and continuing racial divide in the USA and how one famous film still plays it out. And the influence nostalgia has on the politics of yesterday and today, and how it masks reality.
The eco-campaigner George Monbiot’s Regenesis, barrister Jamie Susskin’s The Digital Republic, the London-based American academic Sarah Churchwell’s The Wrath To Come, and the young UK historian and recent captain of a winning University Challenge team Hannah Rose Woods’ Rule Nostalgia – a backwards history of Britain all pose serious questions about the world right now.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the choking impact it has had on the world’s food supply is the latest alarm bell ringing for George Monbiot over how the globe can sustain food production into the uncertain future. For Monbiot, so many issues to do with food – how can the sheer demand of a massively growing world population be met? – come back to one thing… the soil.
Soil is the fundamental basis of food production. Except that from the oceans, all our food - grains, fruit, vegetables, everything – are rooted in the soil, the thin layer of earth covering the Earth. If soil stops being able to generate food, then the world will starve. And, Monbiot says, the soils of the world are being degenerated as never before. Poor farming methods, over-use of chemicals, soils being farmed to extremes, short-sighted, often corrupt planning decisions and much more are conspiring to deplete soils of their value and productivity.
Add to these woes, the huge commercial drive to produce meat so creating animal populations across the world which the land and the threat of climate change cannot sustain, then, Monbiot claims, the international community has to wake up fast and adopt new and radical food production and consumer strategies.
For example, instead of wasteful and soil damaging processes to produce the proteins we all need – through meat and other crops – the world should invest heavily in factory produced proteins through new science technologies that are already available. Instead of massive animal farms, all creating harmful greenhouse gases, and the production of so much food stuffs just to keep the animals alive, proteins can be produced in artificial ways at a fraction of the cost to the climate and land currently being paid.
Monbiot declares that the world’s food production systems need a total regenesis. The breaking points in the world’s current food chains and supplies are already showing – Russia’s grip on Ukraine’s vast grain and other foodstuffs supplies such as sunflower oil and the empty shelves during the pandemic being the latest. The fragility of food supplies are simply not sustainable.
The international food industry has many powerful players – global companies, strong food lobbies pressing governments, influential farmers of all sizes, the centuries of history that say farming is always good. The world’s food producers and all those who earn big money from it are not going to end or even refine their ways without a big fight.
Monbiot may not be right on everything - some argue he is the hysterical wing of the food reformers. But, Regenesis is too full of informed reasoning, too aware of current global crises to be ignored. There is much sense here and whether it likes it or not the world needs to take heed of its warnings.
Big Tech has a massive effect on almost all our lives. Across the world, on a constant basis, Big Tech companies are taking and enabling decisions on us through huge data resources – all itemising incredible amounts of personal details about our lives, our choices, our beliefs, our political leanings and everything else.
But there is a massive difference between what Big Tech does and other organisations and industries which also have great impact on us – the law, health services, trade etc. Unlike these aspects of our lives, Big Tech is hardly regulated, our interests come way below what Big Tech believe its interests are, and in so many ways it is Big Tech itself that is deciding what it will do and how it will behave not governments or other official bodies.
You run a bank, you are regulated by strict ways of doing things. You run a hospital or a restaurant, you are governed by clearly defined health standards. You run a corner shop, and you have local authority guidelines, national business rules, tax and VAT regulations to conform to.
But if you run a Big Tech company, there might be some regulations you have to comply with, but across the world governments are allowing them to decide for themselves what rules they play by.
Why? How come Big Tech is so different. Why has the world of the internet, social media, big data services and the rest of the digital space been able to so largely regulate itself.? Why is the balance of power so reversed?
These are the questions posed in Jamie Susskin’s The Digital Republic. A barrister, Susskin asks why there is so little regulation on Big Tech’s vast impacts of our lives and proposes that a completely new way of thinking has to be developed to bring Big Tech to book.
Susskin fully recognises the good Big Tech has done and can continue to do in the world. The internet has revolutionised the way people work and operate their lives. Much of life is so much better because of what Big Tech has developed.
But there are major darker sides. As has been revealed with recent exposes on some of the most well-known companies, Big Tech often operates against the public interest, or, put another way, it frequently operates in what it says is the public’s interests. Meddling in elections, targeting extreme groups to generate extreme views, encouraging social media abuse, right through to data mining producing algorithms that can deny credit facilities to anyone the data takes a dim view of, enable a person’s CV for a job to be rejected on dubious grounds or, as demonstrated during the pandemic, allow catastrophic decisions to made on pupil exam passes in schools.
Governments, you can shout as much as you want, but Susskind says Big Tech is largely the ruler of Big Tech’s house. With Big Tech companies bigger, richer and more powerful that many countries, governments are either too weak to challenge this status quo or hesitant to act because they fear how Big Tech can hit back.
What Susskind is calling for is the title of his book – a new Digital Republic. Looking back to classic Roman principles, he says to be a republican is ‘to oppose social structures that enable one group to exercise unaccountable power, also known as ‘domination’ over others.’ In other words, Big Tech as it now stands is exercising unaccountable power and urgent, new approaches are needed so it is ‘not allowed (by design or accident) to undermine the values of a free and democratic society.’
The Digital Republic puts forward a number of ways such a republic could be brought about. However, the lasting question from the book is who and what is going to make that happen?
Until a few days ago, I had never seen Gone With the Wind, the classic Hollywood Civil War movie starring Clarke Gable and Vivien Leigh. Over the years, it had been on the TV a hundred times, I had seen lots of individual clips and could lip-synch Gable’s ‘Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn’ line as good as anyone. But, I had never watched the film all the way through or paid any attention to the underlying messages in the story.
Then I watched it and, frankly my dear, I couldn’t believe my eyes and ears. In and around the Rhett Butler, Scarlett O’Hara love/hate story, America’s South was celebrated as a kind of magical idyll where its slaves were perfectly happy, the North was painted as pure evil, the South’s cause of retaining its slave-holding way of life was cast in a noble purity of light and any Yankee was always a bad Yankee.
It seemed amazing that the film had been released in 1939, from Margaret Mitchell’s book published only three years earlier, and somehow the sanctity of the South and the rubbishing of the North had been allowed to become part of the American mind-set. Both the book and the movie were, and continue to be, huge both in the States and around the world. What alchemy had so infected American history and life that the messages and realities of the Civil War and its long after-math that a major motion picture nearly 100 years later could paint such a one-sided, upside down story?
Sarah Churchwell’s new book, The Wrath To Come, exposes the brutal and crazy truths behind the messages of Gone With The Wind and lays bare their subtle, yet on-going effects on the politics and deep societal divides in the USA today.
When the mob attacked America’s Capitol on 6 January 2021, as President Trump continued to deny he had lost the General Election to Joe Biden, the Confederate flag was held aloft by insurgents. The flag was waved triumphantly as police officers trying to stop the rout were injured and killed, shouts to hang politicians who had dares to call out Trump rang in the air and chaos reigned.
Churchwell says the Confederate flag is a symbol today not only of far-right and white supremacist elements, many who swear continuing allegiance to Trump, but of the way the South’s so called ‘Lost Cause’ has taken such a hold on what millions of Americans now think and hold to be true.
The South’s ‘Lost Cause’ – the enduring claim and mythology that the cause of the South during the Civil War was heroic, not about race and slavery but to assert States rights. Churchwell uses Gone With the Wind as key, central point in American history where such myths, developed over decades, had become widely accepted in the country. A land by 1939 when the movie was released still riven by racial hatred and bias, still home to vicious segregation laws, where lynchings of black people were still commonplace and racial voter suppression was still rife.
And as the fall-out from the attack on the Capitol still rumbles on, even to the latest hearings exposing Trump’s role, as racial tension across America after the death of George Floyd remain very high, the issues behind the Gone With The Wind story still resonate today.
Churchwell gets the title of her book from James Baldwin’s No Name in the Street – ‘the wrath to come’ being what lies in store for America over race and which is also taken from ‘God’s wrath to come’ from the Bible. Full of anger and warnings, the book holds a mirror up to a very divided nation.
Hannah Rose Woods’ new book analyses the role of nostalgia from the modern times back through recent centuries and there is no doubt nostalgia and all those golden ages of the past are certainly all they used to be.
The young UK historian’s Rule Nostalgia – a backwards history of Britain starts with the part nostalgia played in the Brexit debate – let’s make Great Britain great again, all our past glories can be regained if only we can cut loose from Europe, the good ol’ days are just blue passports and immigration controls away – and runs through its impact through the two World Wars, the days of Empire and beyond.
The beating heart of nostalgia was crucial for Brexit, politicians and the media played the nostalgia card non-stop to stoke support for leaving the EU. Europe had blunted the UK’s old Empire spirit, remember when GB made all its own decisions, once our proud nation had bestrode the world, now it had become a vassal of Brussels. And for many the lure of nostalgia worked. Votes to leave poured in from those watery-eyed at the hope of the UK’s former international eminence being regained. Those sunlit uplands of the past would be our’s again.
But Brexit was just the latest phase in Britain’s history when nostalgia was used, abused and manipulated in public debate by the powers that be – from governments to the media – to secure popular support for national policies and actions.
During the World Wars government propaganda influenced public opinion by persuading the country what they should be fighting for – the sacred British landscape, the old village green, the white cliffs of Dover, the British way of life. The trouble is, as the book reveals, almost every ‘golden age’ of the past was not so golden for so many people. Putting up with the Blitz, rationing and all the other awful conditions of wartime were, and still are, often portrayed as romantic, demonstrating the great British stiff upper lip and sense of humour, but in reality, a great deal of the population hated it all.
Victorian times and the years of Empire, are cited as Britain leading the world in industry and commerce. Golden times of growth and prosperity. They were. But they were also days of mass worker exploitation, hunger, illness and death for those who did not share in the spoils.
The moral of Hannah Rose Woods’ history is that nostalgia is alive and well in the modern era, it is very much a thing of the present, and it is always there for different factions and elements of society to exploit for their own ends. In the wrong hands and with an easily-led audience, what can be good about nostalgia – pride in past achievements, a positive sense of national togetherness such as displayed in the COVID pandemic – can be warped and twisted for less noble ends.
George Monbiot’s Regenesis - published by Allen Lane
Jamie Susskin’s The Digital Republic – published by Bloomsbury Publishing
Sarah Churchwell’s The Wrath to Come - published by Apollo
Hannah Rose Woods’ Rule Nostalgia – a backwards history of Britain – published by