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Primers on an overheated planet

I’ve flown only once this year, and I’ve promised (with others on Flight Free UK) not to fly at all in 2020. An odd thing to do when you’ve made much of your living for years as a travel writer and editor. But I’m not alone, even in my trade, in trying to fly less. Several of my colleagues have done likewise. We’ve all decided that we don’t want to encourage readers — even indirectly — to burn more oil at a time when everyone should be burning less.

  A strange time it is, when the president of the United States is denying that climate change is as dangerous as his own officials tell him, and yet an airline is asking potential passengers to consider reducing their carbon footprint — by avoiding flying. KLM is doing that right now on its own website. Why? Because, it says, “aviation is far from sustainable today, even if we have been — and are — working hard to improve every aspect of our business”. 

  In a report last October, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which brings together leading scientists, gave warning that we have only a dozen years to keep global warming to a maximum of 1.5C, beyond which even half a degree will significantly worsen the risks of drought, floods, extreme heat and poverty for hundreds of millions of people. “It’s a line in the sand, and what it says to our species is that this is the moment and we must act now,” said Debra Roberts, a co-chair of the working group on impacts.

  The indicators haven’t improved since then, but governments still don’t seem to have got the message. The UN gathering in Madrid, which finished yesterday with a compromise deal, hardly suggests a collective resolve to save the planet.

  Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists, who has been attending climate talks since the early 1990s, told The Washington Post: “You have the science crystal on where we need to go. You have the youth and others stepping up around the world in the streets pressing for action. It’s like we’re in a sealed vacuum chamber in here, and no one is perceiving what is happening out there — what the science says and what people are demanding.” 

   Having been slow to tune in myself, I’m now trying to catch up. I’ve read almost as much on climate this year as on travel, so I’m in a position to recommend a few primers. Boris Johnson, in his victory speech last week, promised “colossal new investments in infrastructure and science, using our technological advantages to make this country the cleanest, greenest on Earth”, so I’m sure he’s already ordered a copy of each of the books below for every member of his cabinet.

  First, The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells (Penguin), which spells out how climate change is going to touch every aspect of our lives, from the food we eat to the places we live in (or can no longer live in) and the stories we tell ourselves. It shows how, through “ignorance, then indolence, then indifference”, we’ve made for ourselves “a gaseous suicide, a running car in a sealed garage”.

  Nathaniel Rich, in Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change (Picador), explains how, in the 1980s, our leaders squandered opportunities to lessen the damage. His book began life as an article for The New York Times Magazine, which you can still read online. 

  Then there’s There Is No Planet B by Mike Berners-Lee (Cambridge University Press). In this handbook for what he calls “the make-or-break years”, he sets out what we can and must do now. He makes it clear that systemic change is essential, and that governments and industry must lead it. But he also encourages individuals to do their bit: “We need to think beyond the immediate and direct effect of our actions and ask more about the ripples that they send out, and how the actions of one person, company or country might get multiplied rather than muffled…”

  In the video below, which went online a couple of weeks ago, Professor Berners-Lee explains some of the themes he tackles in the book. He also touches on developments that worry him, and on others that give him hope.

The traveller you don’t want to be

I’ve been thinking about a book I read as long ago as May; one I’m now wishing I’d included in my roundup of travel books of the year, even if it’s something of a radical departure from that genre.

  Travel is something to plan for, to anticipate, to savour once it’s under way. Unless, of course, it’s been forced on you, and you’re homeless, stateless and in fear of your life. In The Ungrateful Refugee (Canongate, £16.99) Dina Nayeri, who fled Iran at eight with her mother and brother, eventually finding asylum in the United States, combines her own experience of the refugee journey with reporting from today’s camps. There, she says, it takes no talent to coax out stories, for everyone wants to talk. It does, though, take talent to write them, and Nayeri, who is the author of two novels, has it in abundance.

  While doing research at a camp in Greece, she asks herself why, when she has a home of her own now in London, and a family, she’s returned to such a “wretched limbo”. She answers:

  I’ve come because the world is turning its back on refugees, because America is no longer America and Europe is going the same way: these once-Christian nations have abandoned duty in favour of entitlement and tribal instinct. I’m here because I have a skill, born out of my own idle refugee days. I’ve watched people when they’re ordered to do nothing and I know just how life reasserts itself, like that first bubble in still water before the whole pot comes to a boil. I’m here to make a few stories leap out from the tepid simmer of information and to carry those stories to the West, a mother who once adopted us, the exiles and outcasts, and now needs us to intervene as callouses harden fast around her heart.

  And there is another reason too. Now that I have a daughter, it’s time I made sense of my own story and identity so that she can be certain of hers.

  I have reservations about Nayeri’s mixing of reportage and the techniques of fiction (she declares at the outset that she brought the escape stories of others to life “using sensory details that I found and imagined”), but The Ungrateful Refugee is still an urgent and important book.

Women at war

The New York Review of Books has an excellent piece by Lindsey Hilsum of Channel 4 News on women who are caught up in war and who go to report on it:

Any female reporter who covers the Middle East is asked if it’s a disadvantage to be a woman, but Westerners rarely ask about the advantages, which often apply even more to Arab than foreign women. In countries like Syria and Iraq, you can disappear into the background and are rarely seen as a threat in the way men may be. Wearing the hijab is useful because you look like other women, so you can get through roadblocks where you might be stopped if the gunmen suspected you of being a reporter. But there are techniques you need to learn. “Running in an abaya was a special skill that we honed each time we had to take cover,” writes Hannah Allam, an Arab-American journalist who reported for McClatchy Newspapers during the Iraq war. “You use your left hand to hold the silky fabric under your chin to keep it in place and your right hand to hike up the bottom to free your feet. Then you run in a zigzag pattern to avoid giving a clear shot to the snipers.”

The new Laurie Lee that isn’t by the old Laurie Lee

I’ve been reading a new book with Laurie Lee’s name on the cover. Down in the Valley: A Writer’s Landscape is, according to the press release that came with it from Penguin, “A never-before-published collection of essays featuring lyrical, moving memories of Lee’s beloved Cotswold home”. That’s not entirely true. The jacket notes say that it’s “a writer’s tribute to the landscape that shaped him”. That is true, sort of. The chapters of this 101-page book aren’t essays, and Lee didn’t write them. 

  As an afterword makes clear, the book is a transcription of recordings made in 1994 by David Parker, who was making a film about Lee, then in his 80th year, in and around his home village of Slad in the Cotswolds. Hence the regularity of passages opening with directions — “This lane next to us…”, “Up there…”, and “This is the grave of my old chum…” — as Lee sets the scene. 

  The text is poorly edited and oddly punctuated. If you’re expecting the rhythmical prose you enjoyed in Cider with Rosie and the books on Spain, you’ll be disappointed. There are passages here, surely, that Lee — who died in 1997 — would have groaned over:
  “And this is one of the reasons, apart from its splendour, its beauty, in season and out, it’s one of the reasons that I feel I’ve inherited, just by being here, inherited this ancient, pre-Roman and pre-Iron Age, almost pre-Stone Age civilization. And I do my best to carry it on, with all its ravages and contentments; which are many.”

  You do learn a bit more about the Slad Valley and how it shaped him and why it pulled him back, and there’s the odd good joke:
  “I was sitting outside the pub recently and two girls came up to me. They were part of a school group, it was about five to eleven. They were doing ‘O’ levels and they said to me, ‘Excuse me sir, can you tell me where Laurie Lee’s buried?’ A certain shiver of mortality ran through me and I said, ‘He’s in the public bar, otherwise he’d be up in the woods.’”

  Still, this is far from vintage Lee, and it’s bizarre that it’s appearing with “Penguin Classics” on the front. There’s an audio version, I see, which according to a page on the Audible website is narrated by David Sibley but has “original audio interviews with the author, Laurie Lee”. Maybe that’s the best way to approach Down in the Valley.

A history that roams with the whales

In The New York Review of Books, Sophie Pinkham reviews Bathsheba Demuth’s Floating Coast: 

Though Floating Coast is billed as an environmental history, it could also be described as a meditation on a biosphere. Demuth includes lavish descriptions of the landscape she has been admiring since she first visited as a teenager, but relatively little in the way of straightforward political or economic history. She is interested in animals—particularly whales—and Floating Coast is, to a great extent, history from the vantage point of the sea; political treaties and trade agreements, monarchs and presidents flash by on the periphery, as if seen from far away. Though centered on the Bering Strait, the book roams with the creatures whose history she documents, following whaling fleets as far as Japan and Hawaii.

  In Beringia, Pinkham writes,

Demuth has found an almost perfect case study through which to compare capitalist and Soviet approaches to the exploitation of natural resources. She finds that from the Arctic vantage point, the results were remarkably similar: ecological devastation and the immiseration of indigenous communities. Intent on maximizing “production,” neither system conceived of a moment at which economic growth was no longer possible or desirable. This left them equally ill equipped to situate human economies and societies within the limits of ecosystems that operate primarily on a cyclical rather than a linear model. The limits that Americans and Soviets discovered in Beringia—the slow reproductive cycles of whales and walruses, the delicate balance of wolves and caribou—are vivid examples of the natural boundaries that confine all human endeavors. The twentieth century imagined progress as liberation from material constraints, but to ignore these constraints is to court disaster. The harms caused by the heedless consumption of whales were a preview of the much larger dangers of the consumption of fossil fuels.

Wingless wanderers

I hate public speaking, even if the speaking is down a phone line from my house to a studio, so when I’m asked to talk about my work I usually say no, on the grounds that I have a face for radio and a voice for print. There are subjects, though, on which you can’t just file the article and then retreat to the study; subjects on which you must do the talking as well as the writing. Climate change is one of them. 

  That’s why, though I bottled out of one interview, I have agreed to four over the past fortnight, to talk about why I’ve stopped flying to work. (You can find the latest on the podcast of the Nine til Noon Show hosted by Greg Hughes on the Irish station Highland Radio: it was on Wednesday’s show, and our conversation begins at -0:40:32.)

  At the end of August I wrote a piece to try to get a few things clear in my own head: what did I think about climate change, about the contribution flying was making to it, and about the contribution I was making as a travel writer by encouraging other people to burn more oil at a time when we should all be burning less? Writing the piece was also a way of explaining to my wife why I had turned down a trip to New York on which (if we’d paid her air fare), she might have joined me. I decided, and my wife agreed, that I should stop doing jobs that entail flying. It’s easier for me to make that decision than it is for younger writers: I’m 61, I still need to pay bills, but I no longer have a mortgage and my children are grown-ups.

  At the start of September, I offered that piece to The Daily Telegraph, where, it turned out, the digital editor on the travel desk, Oliver Smith, had been asking himself the same questions. Olly has decided to limit himself to one return flight a year, and, in a forceful piece that went online on September 11, he explained why. That piece was initially behind a paywall, but it isn’t now, so please read it. 

  My own piece went online on October 3 on the Telegraph Travel site, and appeared in print a couple of days later. Among those who responded to it via Twitter was the writer Paul Miles, who said: “I stopped flying 10 yrs ago. Tricky as my niche was tropical islands. No longer. My early non-flying trips often involved ferry from UK to Scandinavia (Bergen, Esbjerg) but they’ve ceased now. It’s time to reinstate those crossings!” 

  This week, Gavin Haines, another travel writer (who, like me, used to be on the Telegraph staff and then went freelance, though he’s only 35), published a piece on the website of the campaign Flight Free UK, explaining why he had promised to avoid all flying in 2020. Please read that, and consider joining the campaign. I joined it myself yesterday, and my wife is going to sign up too. We have family commitments that will probably necessitate a return flight in 2021, but otherwise we’re aiming to be wingless wanderers.*

  At a meeting in London this week, members of the Association of Independent Tour Operators briefed journalists on what’s new in their programmes for the coming year. Later, before presentations of awards for travel writing, the association’s chairman, Derek Moore, addressed the gathering. He said his members needed to encourage their customers to fly less and stay longer, and should be looking forward to a boom in rail travel.

  Is the travel trade waking up? I hope so. Not before time. But then I’ve been shamefully dozy myself. Besides the articles mentioned above, I’d urge you to read one by Nicholas Crane, geographer, television presenter and a past president of the Royal Geographical Society. He decided as long ago as the mid-1990s, having studied the science, that he should do everything he could to avoid using aircraft. In a piece in 2006, 13 years ago, he was arguing: “There isn’t any option but to give up all non-essential flying.” I would have read that piece closely; I must have done: I was an editor on the desk that published it. Now, I’m finally heeding it.

*Update I see from a piece in The Guardian today (October 19) by Andy Pietrasik, the travel editor, that the writer Dixe Wills is another non-flyer. Pietrasik says that his team recognises “the need to help tackle the climate emergency by reducing the number of flights we all take”.

*Update, June 25, 2020 The link to the show I mentioned in the second paragraph no longer leads to the session in which I talked to Greg Hughes. Another of the interviews was with Ivan Yates on the Hard Shoulder show on the Dublin-based Newstalk Radio. When I talked to him, I failed to register that he said aviation accounts for 14% of global carbon emissions; the best guess is around 2%.

Short list for Banff prize

The category winners in the Banff Mountain Book Competition (see earlier post), which will all be in contention for the grand prize, were announced last week.  Prizes will be presented on October 31, at an event featuring contributions from the mountaineers Sharon Wood and Reinhold Messner.

The real Texas

What comes to mind when you hear the word “Texas?” Cattle ranchers, cowboys and Comanches, big hats and “the oil bidness”, maybe. What about slavery? Annette Gordon-Reed, reviewing five recent books about the state, including Lawrence Wright’s God Save Texas, prompts a rethink.

Ciaran Carson’s Belfast

If you’re visiting Northern Ireland, your background reading should include the work of Ciaran Carson, who died today of cancer at the age of 70. He was a wonderful chronicler of what he called “the ongoing, fractious epic that is Belfast”.

  He grew up in the Catholic Falls Road area and, as Patricia Craig puts it in her obituary for The Guardian, “went on to transfigure his native city, and transfix his readers, with a rich accumulation of poems, metafictions and other unclassifiable prose works”.

  I’d long loved the work, and was lucky enough to meet the man when I wrote a piece about a new literary tour of Belfast in 2006 (can it really be that long ago?). I’d brought with me two paperbacks that I wanted him to sign: a poetry collection, The Ballad of HMS Belfast, and The Star Factory, which is partly autobiography and partly biography of Belfast. I muttered something about how they were only paperbacks, and he lifted, signed and then handed to me a hardback of The Star Factory. “Take that with you as well,” he said.

Why I’m trying to give up taking the plane to work

I’ve written an article — which Telegraph Travel has decided is worth publishing — on why I’m trying to stop taking the plane to work. But I’m shamefully late in following the example of one Nicholas Crane, who’s been doing everything possible since the mid-1990s to avoid using aircraft. In a piece he wrote 13 years ago, he urged the rest of us to do likewise. “There isn’t any option,” he declared, “but to give up all non-essential flying.”