Tuesday, December 20, 2016


"Compared to the nature of what is happening in the environment, terrorism, elections, and so on are epiphenomena. They are minor compared to the absolutely tectonic scale of the changes that we are now facing."
 'Between the Walls of Archives and Horizons of  Imagination: An Interview  with Amitav Ghosh by Mahmood Kooria [Itinerario / Volume 36/ Issue 03 /  December 2012]

'Climate change..., is the unintended consequence of the very existence of human beings as a species. Although different groups of people have contributed to it in vastly different measure, global warming is ultimately the product of the totality of human actions over time. Every human being who has ever lived has played a part in making us the dominant species on this planet, and in this sense every human being, past and present, has contributed to the present cycle of climate change.'

Portrait of Amitav Ghosh by Ulf Andersen.

Amitav Ghosh is a prize-winning best-selling novelist whose work centres on the cultures surrounding the Indian Ocean. He has said: "I realise in hindsight that this is really what always interested me most: the Bay of Bengal, the Arabian Sea, the Indian Ocean, and the connections and the cross-connections between these regions". His best-known work is perhaps his Ibis trilogy - 'Sea of Poppies', 'River of Smoke' and 'Flood of Fire' - based on the history of the Opium Wars:

Born in Calcutta, he was schooled in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and northern India. He studied both history and anthropology at two different learning institutions in Delhi. He got a scholarship in social anthropology at Oxford and did his field work in Alexandria, exploring the historic links between Egypt and India which inspired his book 'In An Antique Land'. Gosh knows five languages: Bengali, Hindi, French, Arabic, and English.

He has now written 'The Great Derangement', a non-fiction book based on four lectures he gave at the University of Chicago, an academic centre for the study of the Anthropocene. It may be one of the best books yet written on climate change. It is certainly scary. It divides into three sections simply titled: Stories, History, Politics. The sections are anything but simple, ranging as they do across very large canvases, drawing on information, ideas and metaphors from many fields of knowledge.


Source: islamforward.com

One of the major themes of 'Stories' is the fact that the subject of climate change has been absent from mainstream literary fiction apart from a few notable exceptions. The main body of existing fictional work on this theme is in the genre of science fiction under the group name "cli-fi".

Ghosh's ancestors were ecological refugees from what is now Bangladesh, forced off their land by flooding. Ghosh based one of his novels on the Sundarbans, the great mangrove forest of the Bengal Delta, also subject to inundations. Thus he already had a better sense than many of what climate change actually means in reality

This was reinforced by a rare and unexpected event back in March 1978 when he was a student in Delhi. On this day a storm broke out and Ghosh decided to walk home by a route he rarely took. Turning a corner, he was confronted by a tornado heading down the street in his direction. Quickly seeking shelter, he survived the destructive winds which killed 30 people. He writes:
 'This was, in effect, the first tornado to hit Delhi— and indeed the entire region— in recorded meteorological history. And somehow I, who almost never took that road, who rarely visited that part of the university, had found myself in its path. Only much later did I realize that the tornado’s eye had passed directly over me. It seemed to me that there was something eerily apt about that metaphor: what had happened at that moment was strangely like a species of visual contact, of beholding and being beheld. And in that instant of contact something was planted deep in my mind, something irreducibly mysterious, something quite apart from the danger that I had been in and the destruction that I had witnessed; something that was not a property of the thing itself but of the manner in which it had intersected with my life.'
 This improbable event might have offered Ghosh great material for fiction but he realised that events that are improbable will not be believed by the readers. This was not always the case. Earlier fictions like the Arabian Nights and The Decameron were full of unlikely events which at the time were the essence of storytelling.The modern novel, says Ghosh, was 'midwifed into existence around the world, through the banishing of the improbable and the insertion of the everyday.'  The novelistic universe was rationalised to form narratives that, says the literary theorist Franco Moretti, provided a pleasure 'compatible with the regularities of bourgeois life'.

The same process happened in many of the sciences including geology and paleontology. In the contest to explain the evolution of the planet and the life upon it there were two main narratives - catastrophism and gradualism. The latter won out for many years but it is now clear that the former had and has an equally important role to play. Ghosh writes:

'And it appears that we are now in an era that will be defined precisely by events that appear, by our current standards of normalcy, highly improbable: flash floods, hundred- year storms, persistent droughts, spells of unprecedented heat, sudden landslides, raging torrents pouring down from breached glacial lakes, and, yes, freakish tornadoes.

He later continues: '... the age of global warming defies both literary fiction and contemporary common sense: the weather events of this time have a very high degree of improbability. Indeed, it has even been proposed that this era should be named the “catastrophozoic” ... It is certain ...that these are not ordinary times: the events that mark them are not easily accommodated in the deliberately prosaic world of serious prose fiction.'

'....the freakish weather events of today, despite their radically nonhuman nature, are nonetheless animated by cumulative human actions. In that sense, the events set in motion by global warming have a more intimate connection with humans than did the climatic phenomena of the past— this is because we have all contributed in some measure, great or small, to their making. They are the mysterious work of our own hands returning to haunt us in unthinkable shapes and forms.

If whole societies and polities are to adapt then the necessary decisions will need to be made collectively, within political institutions, as happens in wartime or national emergencies. After all, isn’t that what politics, in its most fundamental form, is about? Collective survival and the preservation of the body politic? Yet, to look around the world today is to recognize that with some notable exceptions, like Holland and China, there exist very few polities or public institutions that are capable of implementing, or even contemplating, a managed retreat from vulnerable locations. 

These thoughts and quotes do not do justice to the full complexity of Ghosh's thinking in this 81-page section but it does give you some sense of where he is coming from and where he is taking us.


Source: ADB

Ghosh's second section is devoted principally to the central role of Asia in this climate change saga. The following quotes from this chapter cut to the essence of the problems.
Asia’s centrality to global warming rests, in the first instance, upon numbers..., if we consider the location of those who are most at threat from the changes that are now under way across the planet... The great majority of potential victims are in Asia. 
The Bengal Delta..formed by the confluence of two of the world’s mightiest rivers, the Ganges and the Brahmaputra..is one of the most densely populated parts of the world, with more than 250 million people living in an area about a quarter the size of Nigeria.
Moreover, in Bengal, as in other Asian deltas, for example, those of the Irrawaddy, the Indus, and the Mekong, another factor has magnified the effects of sea- level rise: this is that delta regions across Asia (and elsewhere in the world) are subsiding much faster than the oceans are rising.
 The ongoing changes in climate pose a dire threat also to the interior of the continent where millions of lives and livelihoods are already in jeopardy because of droughts, periodic flooding, and extreme weather events. No less than 24 percent of India’s arable land is slowly turning into desert,
Fearsome as these risks are, they are dwarfed by Asia’s accelerating water crisis...In terms of numbers, the consequences are beyond imagining: the lives and livelihoods of half a billion people in South and Southeast Asia are at risk. Needless to add, the burden of these impacts will be borne largely by the region’s poorest people, and among them disproportionately by women. 
The brute fact is that no strategy can work globally unless it works in Asia and is adopted by large numbers of Asians.... it was the rapid and expanding industrialization of Asia’s most populous nations, beginning in the 1980s, that brought the climate crisis to a head. 
The West’s largest contribution to the accumulation of greenhouse gases came about through the continuous expansion of the carbon footprint of what was about 30 percent of the world’s population at the beginning of the twentieth century. 
Asia’s contribution, on the other hand, came about through a sudden but very small expansion in the footprint of a much larger number of people, perhaps as much as half of a greatly expanded global population, late in the twentieth century.
Ghosh concludes: '... the patterns of life that modernity engenders can only be practiced by a small minority of the world’s population. Asia’s historical experience demonstrates that our planet will not allow these patterns of living to be adopted by every human being. Every family in the world cannot have two cars, a washing machine, and a refrigerator— not because of technical or economic limitations but because humanity would asphyxiate in the process.
 Ghosh quotes two eminent figures who recognised this many years ago. Ghandi said in 1928: “God forbid that India should ever take to industrialism after the manner of the West. If an entire nation of 300 millions [sic] took to similar economic exploitation, it would strip the world bare like locusts."
The other was the Burmese statesman U Thant, who served as the secretary- general of the United Nations from 1962 to 1971 and was instrumental in establishing the United Nations Environment Programme. In 1971, he issued a warning that seems strangely prescient today:
“As we watch the sun go down, evening after evening, through the smog across the poisoned waters of our native earth, we must ask ourselves seriously whether we really wish some future universal historian on another planet to say about us: ‘With all their genius and with all their skill, they ran out of foresight and air and food and water and ideas,’ or, ‘They went on playing politics until their world collapsed around them.’”
Ghosh then proceeds to lead us through a complete rewrite of the whole western perspective on the history of energy, technology and ideas. He talks of the early modern period being from the 16th to early 19th century,  during which there was a rapid and parallel change across the Eurasian landscape and much of the rest of the world. The new carbon economy began in England with the steam engine and the spinning jenny and radiated out. This was happening during a period of climatic disruption. 
He describes the early use of natural gas for heating and lighting in China, using a network of bamboo tubes. He also makes  a good historical case that Burma's oil industry was, at one time, the largest in the world, and represented the first step towards the modern oil industry. 


Ghosh begins by stating that climate change is a challenge to the most important political concept of the modern era: freedom.

He says we've embraced the idea that writers and artists are 'able to look ahead, not just in aesthetic matters but also in regard to public affairs' and, as a result, they have been at the 'forefront of every political movement around the world'. The big BUT is, he says, that very few literary minds have been 'alive to the archaic voice of the earth and the atmosphere'. He names some of those few, Ballard, Atwood, McEwan, Vonnegut, Lessing, McCarthy and TC Boyle.
'...the great, irreplaceable potentiality of fiction is that it makes possible the imagining of possibilities. And to imagine other forms of human existence is exactly the challenge that is posed by the climate crisis: for if there is any one thing that global warming has made perfectly clear it is that to think about the world only as it is amounts to a formula for collective suicide. We need, rather, to envision what it might be.'
On another front he says that today everybody with a computer and a web connection is an activist but that this politicisation 'has not translated into a wider engagement with the crisis of climate change' particularly in many Asian countries where climate change is not a significant issue.

Ghosh believes that the realm of actual government is controlled by 'largely invisible establishments that are guided by imperatives of their own'. Later he refers to the 'interlocking complex of companies and institutions of government' which has come to be known as the 'deep state'. He names companies like Exxon and 'energy billionaires' as being the main funders of climate change denial. The industrial economy cannot be fought, he believes, by the 'politics of sincerity'.

He writes that, in the Amglosphere - US, UK, Australia, Canada and New Zealand -   are some of the most vigorous environmental movements in the world. Those same countries are all members of the Five Eyes alliance, sharing intelligence and surveillance structures. In the US climate change activists are now among the prime targets for what he sees as 'a rapidly growing surveillance industrial complex'. Climate change, he believes, 'will provide an alibi for ever greater military intrusion into every kind of geographic and military space.'

Paradoxically, the one arm of government that has 'clearly and completely seized the idea that climate change is real is the US Department of Defense'. He claims that the UK and US governments have directed their militaries to rapidly prepare for climate change and its impacts in order to try maintain the status quo. 

'The climate crisis', writes Ghosh 'holds the potential of drastically reordering the global distribution of power as well as wealth.' It is also a "threat multiplier".

He hails 2015 as a momentous year due to the Paris Agreement and the publication of Pope Francis encyclical letter 'Laudato Si'; the latter insists that we '...must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.'  Both documents are a vindication of the findings of climate scientists.

Ghosh sees the most promising development as being the increasing involvement of religious groups anmd leaders in the politics of climate chance but warns that the time horizon for taking action is very narrow.
If religious groupings around the world can join hands with popular movements, they may well be able to provide the momentum that is needed for the world to move forward on drastically reducing emissions without sacrificing considerations of equity. That many climate activists are already proceeding in this direction is, to me, yet another sign of hope.
Ghosh concludes: 'The struggle for action will no doubt be difficult and hard-fought, and no matter what it achieves, it is already too late to avoid some serious disruptions of the global climate...
'I would like to believe that out of this struggle will be born a generation that will be able to look upon the world with clearer eyes than those that preceded it; that they will be able to transcend the isolation in which humanity was entrapped in the time of its derangement; that they will rediscover their kinship with other beings, and that this vision, at once new and ancient, will find expression in a transformed and renewed art and literature.'
 This is a brave, outspoken and heartfelt book of great value. We need to absorb many of these thoughts and ideas and get together as a force for global change and face the challenge of the Great Derangement. 

Be the change that you want to see.

Friday, December 09, 2016


THE GENERALIST is pleased to present the latest crop of novels that I have digested in recent months. They all come recommended. The majority are second-hand books, found at random, enjoyable surprises - none more so than this great 1973 Quarto paperback edition of Jack Kerouac's first novel 'The Town And The City' with a great cover artwork by Ron Kirby.

As regular readers will know I am huge fan of The Beats in general and JK in particular but for some reason had never tackled this novel before, first published by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich in the US in 1950. Heavily influenced by the American writer Thomas Wolfe, Kerouac's debut novel is a sprawling 500pp family saga and is loosely based on his real life in two locations - Lowell, Massachusetts and New York, where the Beats first found each other. The majority of the book's characters are based on his family and friends.

A hugely ambitious book, he started it in 1945 and produced a 1,100 page manuscript by 1948 at the age of 26. Like his character Pete Martin, Kerouac joined the merchant marine and sailed to Greenland.
Official Navy mugshot of Kerouac
around the time of his 21st birthday.
Source: www.open culture.com

The early chapters are idyllic and brought to life with tremendous skill. The blurb writer of this edition puts it well: 'The unique voice of Kerouac's panoramic consciousness reverberates through these pages, questioning, wondering and clarifying.' The happy family life in an iconic small town is torn apart by the World War and the old sureties are shredded, reflecting Kerouac's own pathway. It's an emotional journey and one that prefigures the string of Beat novels Kerouac is famous for. The novel concludes with his alter ego alone on a highway in a rainy night: ' He was on the road again, travelling the continent westward, going off to further and further years, alone by the waters of life, alone, looking towards the lights of the river's cape, towards tapers, burning warmly in the towns, looking down along the shore to remembrance of the dearness if his father and of all life.,'  Perfect.

Three great reads by writers new to me. Arturo Pérez-Reverte  was a war correspondent for 20 years before becoming a best-selling novelist. 'The Queen of the South' is a rattling yarn about the rise to power of Teresa Mendoza, who escapes the Mexican cartels to become a godmother of the drug trade in the Mediterranean. APR obviously loved hanging out with the helicopter pilots of the Customs and the book is made real by his assiduous journalistic skills.

'Shantaram' by Gregory David Roberts is a 1,000pp gripping saga based on the author's true-life adventures. In the 1980s, Roberts was a heroin addict who became an armed robber. He escaped from a high security Australian prison and found his way to Mumbai where he lived in the giant shanty towns featured in 'Slumdog Millionaire'. Here he established a free-health clinic and  became a street soldier for the mafia. He also got involved with Bollywood and fought with the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan. 

According to Wikipedia: 'In 1990, Roberts was captured in Frankfurt after being caught smuggling heroin into the country. He was extradited to Australia and served a further six years in prison, two of which were spent in solitary confinement. According to Roberts, he escaped prison again during that time, but relented and smuggled himself back into jail. His intention was to serve the rest of his sentence to give himself the chance to be reunited with his family. During his second stay in Australian prison, he began writing Shantaram. The manuscript was destroyed by prison wardens, twice, while Roberts was writing it.'

The book is a conflation of his real-life adventures and invented narratives. He's a wonderful and absorbing story-teller and this book is a great if you just want to shut off from the world for a week. 
I'm saving his equally large follow-up novel 'The Mountain Shadow' for just such an occasion.

Joseph Kanon's 'Istanbul Passage' is a masterclass spy novel set in the immediate postwar period of the late '40s, in a world of uncertainty and intrigue.Le Carré and a few others may have staked out a claim to this territory but Kanon can match their narrative skills, character building and intricate plotting. The story twists and turns as the book's main character American businessman Leon Bauer tries to keep his cool and hold on to his integrity whilst evading secret police and indulging in an illicit sexual affair. All of this plays out against a finely-realised backdrop of one the world's most enchanting cities. One can almost hear the chants of the muezzins and the waters of the Bosphorus lapping against yet another washed-up corpse.

Having been a William Gibson reader since the cyberspace days, having interviewed the man on several occasions, a new WG book is always worth investigating. Which is not to say they're always easy reading.                                                                                                                               'The Peripheral' I found strangely baffling on many levels but when I tried not to understand it all, I enjoyed the experience. The back blurb claims that the book is set in a pre-Apocalyptic America and a curiously empty Post-Apocalyptic London. There's a lot of levels, lots of newtech. A worthy addition to the Gibson oeuvre.
The author of a string of unusual novels, Michael Faber's imagination had not strayed into interstellar space before 'The Book of Strange New Things'. Peter, a kind of chaplain, is sent up to some far off space base owned by some corporation [like in 'Moon']. Pete's job is to liaise with the planet's indigenous inhabitants - Oasans - who love Jesus and live in a special settlement not too far from the base but far enough to require a long drive in some kind of shuttle. He is also trying to maintain a relationship with his girlfriend/wife who he will not see for many years. Things are not going well back on Earth. MF magic's up this whole deep-space world in 3-D.  Your imagination can fill in lots of the details. Haunting and other-worldly. I felt I was there.

THE GENERALIST loves American paperbacks and these two Cormac McCarthy novels are just about as good as it gets, design-wise. Eleven out of 10 for look and feel. Good readable type.
I began my journey into McCarthy's work via the three-volume Border trilogy 'All The Pretty Horses', 'The Crossing', 'Cities of the Plain' followed by 'No Country For Old Men' and 'The Road'. Now I'm working backwards.
This cover of 'Blood Meridian' carries the mother of all cover quotes. from one of my favourite writers Michael Herr [See PP]:
"A classic American novel of regeneration through violence. McCarthy can only be compared with our greatest writers, with Melville and Faulkner and this is his masterpiece."
What can I say: It's another of Cormac's long, long journeys by a dark nightmare crew riding across vast landscapes, each marked by bad encounters that generally involve  slaying everyone in sight. There's little but violence or horrifying fights for survival. It's riveting. I'm saving 'Suttree' for later.
I've written about the Nobel prize-winning author José Saramago before somewhere (see PP) You have to get used to him. For a start, there are no chapters or paragraphs, just one whole scroll of continuous text. In other words, you need a bookmark. Saramago has a strange, unique and somewhat dark imagination. 'Seeing' is, to my mind, very contemporary for the following reason. The plot is reasonably simple. In this imaginative real-life country, the population are allowed to vote on National Election Day. On this particular occasion, only a small handful of voters arrive to vote. An extension is announced. When they look at the final ballot papers, 70% of them are blank. The government calls for another election. The blank votes rise to 83%. The plot develops from there.

I have a particular love of certain kinds of mystery stories and 'The Prophecies', a novel by Chief Druid Philip Carr-Gomm hits middle stump. 

I like stories that begin with someone looking for inspiration who decides to go to Paris, browses the booksellers by the Seine and finds an unusual book by a woman who turns out to have been a clairvoyant and to have predicted many aspects of the Second World War. 

Not knowing whether she was still alive, C-G (for it is he) discovers that her home in Brittany is now a B&B, swiftly makes a booking, takes the train to Rennes, hires a car, finds the house and learns that he is to sleep in a room called the 'Chambre des Druides' The next day, he also discovers that this magnetic female spiritualist took a German lover during the war. She was also a friend of the Abbé Gillard who, also during the war, began building a church of the Holy Grail in the nearby village.

From these actual factual beginnings, C-G crafts a story that interweaves fact and fancy and which grabbed my imagination. I sat down and read it straight through in the course of a day. I loved the original b&w 1970s tv version of 'The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail' which inspired 'The Da Vinci Code'. 'The Prophecies' has a similar presence,

Thursday, December 08, 2016


How many trees are there on Planet Earth?

A widely accepted previous estimate, based on analysis of satellite data, put the world's tree population at about 400 billion. 

The latest study by an international team of scientists, published in September 2016, makes that figure 3 trillion trees. This figure is more reliable because it combines satellite data with 'ground truth.'
The scientists first collected together existing ground tree-counting surveys for every continent except Antarctica, covering a total area of about 430,000 hectares. This enabled them to improve the tree-density estimates from satellite imagery of those same areas. It also allowed them to apply tree-density estimates to remote areas that have not been inventoried on the ground.

The study shows that the highest tree densities were found in the boreal forests of North America, Scandinavia and Russia. These are tightly packed with skinny conifers and hold roughly 750 billion trees, 24% of the global total. Tropical and subtropical forests, with the greatest area of forested land, are home to 1.3 trillion trees, or 43% of the total.

Humans have had an astonishing impact on the tree cover of the Earth. Researchers estimate that, since the onset of agriculture 12,000 years ago, we have reduced the number of trees worldwide by 46%.

Currently we are cutting down about 15 billion trees a year.

Source: 'Global count reaches 3 trillion trees'Rachel Ehrenberg [Nature/02 September 2015



In a more recent Nature story, they profile the work of Matthew Hansen described as one of 'the world's foremost forest sentries', spotting deforestation as it's happening.

 'In 2013, he and his colleagues used satellite data to produce the first global, high-resolution maps of where trees are growing and disappearing. Those images revealed some large-scale patterns for the first time, such as that Indonesia had nearly equalled Brazil as the country with the world's highest rate of tropical deforestation. Since then, his team has refined its methods and can now reveal the loss of trees within days.
'Just as important is what Hansen does with the underlying data. Unlike some scientists, he makes them freely available online, giving activists, companies and others the ability to monitor activities such as illegal logging and mining, which have destroyed millions of hectares of forest per year over the past few decades. The data have enabled non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and officials in Peru, Congo and other nations to see deforestation as it happens. And they let countries monitor each other's trees — potentially a crucial step in enforcing the international climate agreement signed in Paris last December.'

The Global Land Analysis and Discovery (GLAD) laboratory in the Department of Geographical Sciences at the University of Maryland is led by Drs. Matthew Hansen and Peter Potapov.

One of their current high-profile projects is a collaboration with the World Resources Institute, creating operational global data on forest extent and change, part of the Global Forest Watch initiative http://www.globalforestwatch.org/ .


GEDI, a NASA Earth-observing system set to go on the International Space Station in 2018, will enable the government to understand the architecture of forests, as this 3-D rendering depicts. By fully analyzing the structure of forests, researchers will be able to more accurately measure the amount of carbon they store. Photo courtesy of NASA.
'In 2018, America's space agency, in collaboration with the University of Maryland, is going to send a laser into the galaxies to assess the world's trees. 
It won't be the first time NASA dabbles in lidar technology -- shooting lasers onto things and recording what comes back -- but it will be the first time the agency sends a laser specifically designed to measure the intricate structure of forests.
The goal of the mission, fittingly named GEDI, an acronym for Global Ecosystem Dynamics Investigation lidar, is to map forests trunk to canopy -- or, to put it another way, to measure the volume of the world's forests and visualize them in 3-D.
By combining data on how much carbon is stored in wood with GEDI measurements, researchers are hoping to compile a solid estimate of the carbon stored in forests for the first time.
"It will absolutely be a game changer," said Laura Duncanson, a postdoctoral fellow at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center who works on the GEDI team. "Lidar is the only technology that can penetrate the forest floor and estimate carbon."
Globally, forests are estimated to suck up between 10 and 14 percent of current gross emissions. The activities of the land-use sector, which includes forests but also agriculture and land-use changes, account for about 24 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Many researchers who tally emissions have conceded that the world has little chance of keeping warming below the agreed 2-degree-Celsius threshold without the carbon sequestration of forests.
But not all forests are created equal in their carbon-storing abilities. Furthermore, as forest-rich nations consider how to meet their climate goals set forth at the Paris climate talks late last year, understanding where and how carbon is being stored in their trees will become increasingly important.
GEDI, many hope, will unlock the next frontier of forest and carbon mapping.'
Source: 'Seeing the trees in 3-D, a 'game changer' for forest policy' - Brittany Patterson, E&E News reporter/ ClimateWire: Tuesday, March 8, 2016.


The Global Forest Watch interface showing Amazonian forest losses in 2014
Source: 'Earth Engine Creates A Living Map of Forest Loss'

'Illegal deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon has spiked since 2015, bringing the rate to its highest level in 8 years. The finding has raised fears that the country could lose a decade’s worth of progress in forest protection. 
In an analysis of satellite data released on 29 November, Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE) in São José dos Campos estimates that 7,989 square kilometres of land — nearly the size of Puerto Rico — was cleared between August 2015 and July 2016. The total was 29% above the previous year and 75% above the 2012 level, when deforestation hit a historic low of 4,571 square kilometres (see ‘Going up’).
Brazil basked in the international limelight for nearly a decade after deforestation began to drop in 2005, thanks in part to stronger government enforcement as well as high-profile commitments to halt deforestation by the beef and soya-bean industries. But the government’s success sparked a political backlash. The Brazilian Congress relaxed the country’s forest protections in 2012, and many Brazilian lawmakers are pushing to further relax environmental laws to promote development across the Amazon.'

Wednesday, December 07, 2016


If we are to properly protect the world ocean that makes up 71% of our planet, one of the most vital and important regions to conserve is the Coral Triangle.

 Also dubbed the "Amazon of the seas", it is now recognised to be the world's most biodiverse marine environment - a biological epicentre for the world ocean, producing larvae and species that migrate and restock other areas of the planet.

The Coral Triangle -  1.6% of the planet’s ocean - is a roughly triangular area of 5.7 million square kilometres (2,200,000 sq mi) of the tropical marine waters of  Indonesia, Philippines, Malaysia, Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea and Timor-Leste (formerly East Timor).

In each eco-region of the Triangle, the waters contain at least 500 species of reef-building corals. The area as a whole contains 76% of all known coral species in the world and 100,000 kms of coral reefs - 29% of the world total..  

These provides a habitat for more than 3,000 species of coral reef fish, the highest diversity in the world

The waters are also home to the biggest fish in the world, the whale shark and the remarkable living fossil, the coelacanth.

The most important reproductive areas for yellowfin, skipjack and bigeye  tuna are in the Triangle

They also host six of the world’s seven marine turtle species.

In addition, the region also provides critical migration and feeding routes for whales and other cetaceans including the giant Blue Whale.
The Coral Triangle also has the greatest extent of mangrove forests in the world.


The Coral Triangle sits at a crossroads of rapidly expanding populations, economic growth and international trade. The biodiversity and natural productivity of the Coral Triangle are under threat from poor marine management (primarily from the coastal development, and overfishing and destructive fishing), lack of political will, poverty, a high market demand and local disregard for rare and threatened species, and climate change (warming, acidifying and rising seas).

An estimated 120 million people live within the Coral Triangle, of which approximately 2.25 million are fishers who depend on healthy seas to make a living. These threats are putting at risk livelihoods, economies and future market supplies for species such as tuna. 

According to the Coral Triangle Knowledge Network, about $3 billion in fisheries exports and another $3 billion in coastal tourism revenues are derived as annual foreign exchange income in the region.

The value of just a one-kilometre stretch of coral reef in the region can be as high as US$1.2 million, considering the goods and ecosystem services it provides.

Studies have highlighted the alarming decline and mass bleaching of coral cover in this region. Healthy reefs in the Triangle are estimated to be able to produce up to 40 metric tons of fish per year.

Worldwide coral reefs occupy less than one quarter of 1% of the marine environment and are home to more than 25% of all known marine fish species

Oceans provide around 50% of the oxygen we breathe, primarily through phytoplankton living in the water. Therefore life in our oceans is critical. Our very survival is dependent on the Coral Triangle’s survival.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016


Knockabout Comics logo
Another recent visitor to THE GENERALIST HQ was Tony Bennett, the head honcho behind Knockabout Comics, one of the very few British independent publishers and distributors of adult and underground comics.

We worked out the last time we probably saw each other was at the very first WOMAD festival at the Bath & West Showground near Shepton Mallet, Somerset in 1980. On the bill was Peter Gabriel, Don Cherry, The Beat, the Drummers of Burundi, Echo & The Bunnymen, Imrat Khan, Prince Nico Mbarga, Simple Minds, Suns of Arqa, The Chieftains and Ekome amongst others.
Robert Crumb speaks! See below
Awesome. Needless to say we had a lot to catch up on. 

First some history of Tony's pioneering role taken from a 2006 interview by Joe Gordon on the Forbidden Planet blog. Full text here

'Not only has Knockabout been instrumental in pioneering the market for challenging underground material it has also been at the forefront of legal battles over censorship; it is probably no exaggeration to say that the increased leeway enjoyed in the medium today is thanks in no small part to the cases Knockabout has fought out with The Man so we could have the right to decide what we wanted to read for ourselves. 

Tony: In the late 60s and early 70s I was working with a publisher and distributor called Unicorn Bookshop [run by Bill Butler]. Originally in Brighton, we moved to a farm in West Wales where we were growing our own food and had a printing press in the barn. Unicorn, as well as publishing books on self-sufficiency, cannabis and poetry was importing Underground comics from the USA. This really sparked my interest in comics, partly for the wide and weird content and partly because they were creator-owned. It even encouraged me and a friend to draw and print our own self-indulgent heavily derivative comic, Trip Strip, which we distributed at festivals. With the demise of Unicorn in 1975, due to bad debts I took over some of the distribution and started publishing the Gilbert Shelton's The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers in 1975 [through his own company Hassle Free Press].

From the Generalist Archive: Front and back cover of the first Furry Freak comic published in UK by Knockabout; Knockabout Anthology No 10 with cover by Gilbert Shelton. Thirteen issues were published in the 1980s.

Read my interview with Gilbert Shelton for the NME published in October 1979

The company [which changed its name to Knockabout Comics in 1978/79] also became the UK publisher for Robert Crumb and original work by British comic artists Hunt Emerson and Bryan Talbot. It has also published many works by Alan Moore including 'In Hell' and, most recently, his new remarkable novel Jerusalem [see Generalist review]. See the Knockabout website for many more titles.

Copy of ZAP COMIX No 5 given to me
when I visited the Rip Off Press in San
Francisco in 1979

Tony arrived laden with some great recent Knockabout productions (see below) but he also lent me this fantastic book by Patrick Rosenkranz which documents the US Underground Comic Revolution through interviews with 50 of the leading comic artists of the period. Alongside Crumb and Shelton there is Dan O' Neill, S. Clay Wilson, Rick Griffin, Victor Moscoso, Bill Griffith, Robert Williams, Ron Cobb and many more.Published by Fantagraphics Books in 2002. Essential.


'Wierdo' was a magazine-sized comics anthology created by Robert Crumb in 1981, which ran for 28 issues until 1993. 

According to the preface by his wife Aline-Koninsky-Crumb. 'Wierdo' was inspired by 'Mad' and 'Humbug' and the Underground comic culture, which had boomed in the 70s. It came out around the same time as 'Raw', the 'high-brow' remarkable outsize graphic/comic journal led by 'Maus' creator Art Spiegelman [who I interviewed in London]. The Crumbs went for 'low-brow' and drew together a whole bunch of artists who worked on the edges of acceptability. 

R. Crumb himself edited the magazine for the first 3 1/2 years and gave it what Aline calls its 'wacky brand-X feel'. It was passed on to Peter Bagge who, she says, changed the mood to a more punk 'zine and many younger artists got their start in its pages. 

This substantial hardbound book brings together all the Crumb material from the magazine, which includes mad '50s style photonovel sexy girl adventures as well-as the conventional comics which Crumb is world-famous for, The last issue was produced in France where the family Crumb  (with daughter) emigrated to and are still domiciled.

Two frames from 'I Remember The Sixties', sub-titled R. Crumb Looks Back!
Didn't the late great Australian art critic Robert Hughes put Crumb up there as a modern day Brueghel! His work is xtraordinary, often hard to take, remarkable for its visceral intensity, insanity and humour. If you watch the long documentary Crumb, you'll understand that he came from a strange household. The bits in the film that still make me gasp is watching Crumb draw in the street, sitting on a  bench with street life ebbing and flowing around him. Extraordinary facility. By the way, this stuff is for adults !!


Pinnochio and me go way back. Can't remember reading the original Carlo Collodi story as a kid but def saw the Disney movie and no doubt read simplified version of tale. But did read Collodi's full version to Number 2 son as I recall. It's quite a dark bedtime read. This edition is the only one to survive in my library and my favourite up to this point, illustrated as it is by pencil drawings and gorgeous full-colour full-page frames by the remarkable Greg Hildebrant. Can't remember where this edition came from. It's published by the Unicorn Publishing House in New Jersey in 1986.

Now confronted with a radical adult re-visioning of Pinnochio by Winshluss, a.k.a. Vincent Paronnand a French comic artist and filmmaker, published in France in 2008. It won the prize for best album at the 2009 Festival International de la Bande Dessinée at Angoulême the following year.

Paronnaud is best known for co-writing and co-directing with Marjane Satrapi the highly acclaimed animated film Persepolis (2007), for which they received numerous awards including the Jury Prize at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival as well as an Academy Award nomination for Best Animated Feature. It was developed from Satrapi's graphic autobiography depicting her childhood up to her early adult years in Iran during and after the Islamic revolution.

Pinnochio is a remarkable piece if work, a beautifully bound volume of 188 pages, printed on thick paper with ornate endpapers. In this version, P has become a little metal boy who appears to be indestructible, His full colour adventures through the book are interspersed with other parallel narratives including black and white  Adventures if Jiminy Cockroach, Other stories in a kind of brown charcoal effect are self-contained. Elements of Collodi's story are cleverly given new twists. There are some very unpleasant things here including a clown dictator to chill the blood but the artistry, ingenuity, unexpectedness and sheer beauty on display, the constant shifts in frames, strands and technique, make the journey a bare-knuckle ride and a visual feast.


This REMARKABLE book (just to make the point) takes us on a journey thought time and space from the very beginning of our universe to the birth of earth and the emergence of life and the human race. It's an extraordinary achievement.

Here is the book's creator Jens Harder explaining how he came to produce 'Alpha':

'The discussion of time has always been at the heart of things for me, this intangible construct of the fourth dimension, which can be approached more easily in comics than in a time-based medium. Though the presentation of more than 14 billion years in just 350 pages is something of a joke (at a rough estimate of 2,000 drawings, means on average just one image for every seven million years). 

'My own particular obsession being the great mystery of the origin of life which always seems like a "miracle" to us humans. Thus I ended up devoting a not insignificant part of the book trying to approach this through the drawings. 

'Meanwhile, running in parallel to the development of the book, I was following the development of our children from the first blurry ultrasound images until four and a half years later, where in five minutes they can turn our entire living room into a battlefield but also with great joy, produce their first drawings. 

'Above all it is always the realisation that, in "Alpha" of course, that nothing is finished, nothing perfected in this ever-changing story. It changes constantly, but since the beginning of my work in 2004, the state of knowledge has grown enormously throughout the world. Much has been confirmed, much however has also been abandoned - but which only in rare cases did I take into account. If there should one day appear an expanded edition of the first part of this trilogy I will add or modify dozens of pages. And who knows, maybe by then another comic book creator will have taken on "the longest story ever" adding their own interpretation - and I think it would all be worth it.' 

Friday, November 18, 2016


THE GENERALIST was happy to welcome to Lewes my comrade and globetrotting musicologist, journalist, composer Peter Culshaw on the night after the US election, It was necessary to drink, eat an Indian meal and drink some more. Over-nighting at the Beat Hotel, refreshed and invigorated, we laid plans for the uncertain future. More on Pete's achievements and latest links at end. Over recent time, Pete has made many trips to Kyiv in the Ukraine and has written several brilliant pieces, some of which have appeared in the UK. This recent piece, reprinted with his permission, was recently published in 'The Odessa Review'.

A profile of the an artist, director, promoter, set designer who is arguably the most interesting man now working in Ukrainian theater as he prepares for the premiere of his opera “Babylon,” which is set to open this August.

I have come across very few arts visionaries who seem to alter the energy of those around them, and who, even with their outlandish ideas, change reality by the force of their imagination. What is now real was once imagined, in the words of William Blake. Some people I would put in this precious category are Malcolm McLaren, Joseph Beuys and Fela Kuti. I would not hesitate for a second however to add to that list Ukraine’s Vlad Troitsky as an important cultural catalyst for all of world culture full stop.

Troitsky has been the director of Kyiv’s storied Gogolfest every year since its inception, showcasing hundreds of Ukrainian artists of all stripes. This year’s fest motto is “Don’t wait – do something”. He was also instrumental in turning the Arsenale in Kiev into the modern, dynamic art centre it is today.  He is always on the go, but believes that one of the secrets of happiness (“and I am a very happy man” he says)  is to live in the present rather than the past or future. He has kept off Facebook and limits the negative feelings he gets from overexposure to media, but knows exactly what is going on politically.

Troitsky holds a seductive and positive line on Ukraine’s cultural situation. For him, Western Europe is “tired and cynical”, a place where everyone feels things are always getting worse — but that is not so in Ukraine, where things are on the up. Russia is an authoritarian, backward looking place that wants to send women back to the kitchen — Ukraine is a dynamic cultural place that holds more possibilities than ever. It is, after all, the most fertile area of Europe, the place with the richest, darkest soil. A feminine country — with a strength that implies that there is  “a lot of shit”, corruption, war and all the rest, but “step by step”, it steadily improves. “It’s not so cool for a bureaucrat to be driving a flashy car that he has afforded through taking bribes now”, he asserts.

Troitsky isn’t a head-in-the-clouds sort of guy, but he does have a bracing grip on the big picture. His new opera “Babylon,” which will open this August, is his reaction to the rise of populist nativists embodied by Brexit, Trump and Le Pen. Countries and cultures don’t understand each other, and don’t want to anymore. It is typical for Troitsky to draw direct parallels between personal and state relationships. “The EU was a romantic idea,” he says “but like all romances there is the romantic phase and then…” relationship experts argue a power struggle phase and a “Dead Zone,” when you don’t know who is sitting opposite you at breakfast. Troitsky believes “Ukraine is at a romantic phase, which is why it is so powerful.”

His ideas would be interesting from a theoretical point of view, but what gives Troitsky his power is that he turns many of them into reality. Whoever it was that said magic is the correct combination of will power and imagination could have been thinking of Troitsky. There was a feeling that Ukraine needed more contemporary music — Troitsky essentially dreamed up and put together the wildly popular neo-folk Dakha Brakha (in a not dissimilar fashion to the way that McLaren put together the Sex Pistols). Since then, he  has been art director to Dakha Brakha and the all female “freak cabaret” group Dakh Daughters.

Full disclosure if it can be called that: the first UK gig of Dakha Brakha, ten years ago, actually took place in my front room in Hackney, East London. It was attended by ten people. Now the ladies play to adoring crowds of thousands at the WOMAD and Glastonbury Festival, playing original and soulful music that is rooted not only in Ukrainian, but also in global culture. Likewise for the Dakh Daughters, whose video of them playing at the Euromaidan is a great introduction to their work. Now they too are touring internationally to critical acclaim.

Troitsky mentions that when Dakh Daughters played the Vienna Festival recently, a feminist gave them two reactions – she got a wonderful sense of freedom from the band, but was suspicious of Troitsky as a sort of patriarch daddy figure. The band replied that if she got this sense of freedom – why try and impose her ideas of feminism on them?  It’s true that in this band there is a singer who is a married mother, and another who tells everyone she had an affair with an artist and his wife at the same time.  That is a sort of freedom, perhaps. Troitsky might also say that in Western Europe there is a feeling that the sexual electricity between men and women is not what it once was — a diminution of the life force. For him, the “intellectual, sexual” Dakh Daughters on stage are the greatest ambassadors of the new Ukraine. Certainly, the two bands have inspired plenty of other groups to form, and if a Ukrainian musical renaissance is no longer a ridiculous or wishful idea, he is as much responsible for it as anyone.

I first met Troitsky a decade ago, when he was about to bring a version of Macbeth to London’s Barbican Theatre.  I was immediately struck by that inimitable sense of a positive vision allied with a steely will power.  Soon I was staying at his place in Kyiv, and every morning, even if the river Dnieper was frozen over, he would go swimming. He talked of going to a shamanic retreat in Siberia where you would be buried in an ice hole for days.

In fact, Troitsky was born in Siberia, but has lived in Kyiv for the last 35 years. At the collapse of the Soviet Empire, Troitsky built up a business which included shops on the main Khreshchatyk boulevard in Kyiv. Being an avant-garde theatre enthusiast, he bought a building in downtown Kiev twenty years ago and called it the Dakh Centre of Contemporary Theatre Arts. He set up a school for modern theatre, enrolled himself in it and invited directors that he admired, such as Igor Lysov, to come and lecture. In some ways his work aims to revive the theater milieu of the Soviet times, when Eastern European directors such as Tadeusz Kantor and Jerzy Grotowski produced idiosyncratic, physical theater that was among the most innovative in the world.

To return to my first night in Kyiv – we ended up at a fashionable restaurant which usually has a stylish, minimal décor. Except this time, the Dakh Centre for Contemporary Arts theater company covered the place with straw. There were live chickens everywhere, several actors were dressed as Ukrainian peasants, and a gang of musicians with drums and violins played in a music style that they described to me as “ethno-chaos”. Next, a dozen stunning girls arrived, dressed in bridal white. We went outside to an old amphitheater, where bonfires were lit and the brides began to rhythmically strike large sheets of metal with hammers. The movers and shakers of Kyiv’s fashion, media and business worlds were there in force and the event was judged to be a great success. The restaurant got lots of publicity and the theater company was paid enough to keep them going for a few more weeks. Which is not beside the point, as it survives by performing these kinds of stunts. There was the opening of a nightclub called Guerrilla, where the dress code was Soviet military chic (though the notion of Soviet chic has declined understandably in the last few years).

The company’s version of Macbeth loosely followed Shakespeare’s story, though with fairly little dialogue. Sometimes there were four witches and sometimes two — these were beautiful young sirens rather than old crones. Troitsky focused on the essential, archetypal elements of the play, and created a highly ritualistic piece using dance, masks and music to tell the story in an almost trance-like atmosphere. The mesmerizing music reflected his interest in the vocal traditional folk music of the Carpathian Mountains. It was also the first time that I heard the captivating music of Dakha Brakha. The play premièred in its original form a week before the Orange Revolution in November 2004, and the Macbeth tale of politics taken to extremes had obvious and striking contemporary resonance. Troitsky and his theater company were activists then, too, behind numerous “happenings.” One of these was the act of delivering thousands of old shoes to the Russian embassy and keeping up the morale of protesters by performing for them. There have been many other theater productions, such as a take on the Biblical story of Job, that emerged in the last year. Troitsky talks intensely of his belief in a theater of “intellectual clowning, mystery, ritual and neo – baroque aesthetics”, theater as a vehicle for spiritual self-realization.

His health has suffered in the last few years and he said he had been on a two week Ayurvedic retreat in Kerala India. But “fine words butter no parsnips”, and Troistky is a man of action and not merely of ideas, which is why he is to be treasured. In a TED talk he spoke of his belief that the old days of status and money politics were coming to an end. There would be a new politics of altruism where people got the most pleasure and status from giving things – attention, talent, money. All you would need to do is find people to accept your gifts.  Crazily optimistic — especially in the new old Ukraine – but if anyone is likely to bring such a vision down to earth, it could only be Troitsky.

This is the magazine's byline: Peter Culshaw is a composer and writer who has been everywhere and knows everyone. He once got very drunk with Fidel Castro. He is the author of ‘Clandestino: In Search of Manu Chao’.

The Generalist reviewed 'Clandestino' when it first came out.

Pete was one of the founding writers of www.theartsdesk.com and
does a regular radio show here: theartsdesk radio 

His  new music project is called The Temple Of Light:
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