These are great days for deciphering the human story. The ability to sequence the DNA of humans and proto humans such as Neanderthals is changing our ideas about human evolution and human migration. Other investigative techniques such as analysing fatty residues in ancient pots are shedding new light on the greatest cultural change in the 200,000 year old history of Homo sapiens: the agricultural and pastoral revolutions of around 10,000 years ago.
Fine but, at a time of great turmoil and uncertainty in the actually existing human society, aren’t these minority pursuits? Studying our pre-industrial past isn’t going to help us solve our current problems.
But that would be wrong because understanding how and why humans have faced such crises before is exactly what we need in order to solve our crises – if any kind of solution is possible.
What the past teaches first of all is that we have been lulled into thinking that the benign climatic conditions that have attended our rapid rise from the first farming to the age of social media and resource depletion is somehow our birthright. For the first 190,000 years of our existence, conditions were generally unfavourable. The industrial revolution began in a newly benign (on a geological timescale) Europe which for around 98,000 of the last 110,000 years had been covered in ice much of the time.
Human beings evolved out of necessity in coping with drastic climate reversals. When the climate became more benign the skills honed under adversity were brought to bear on more productive questions and the dramatic rise of civilisation resulted. But in pointing to past climate change we have to confront the simplistic ideas of the global warming deniers.
There is no doubt that we would have to face drastic climate change one day even if we had not conducted the experiment of releasing vast quantities of greenhouse gases. The world has warmed and cooled dramatically in the past without our input and there is no reason to think the future will be any different. Unless – and this is a faint possibility – unless human activity, in Gaia fashion, is actually creating and maintaining the benign conditions that suit us. There is some evidence that this has been the case until the surge in CO2 emissions in the last 150 years. Without burning fossil fuels humanity was probably heading for another ice age. The cycle of alternating ice ages and interglacials was well established before we interfered with it. The last interglacial lasted around 17,000 years and the one we’re living through began around 12,000 years ago. As recently as the 1960s the kind of scientists who today warn about global warming were urging the explosion of a few nuclear weapons at the poles to melt some ice and warm the world up.
But the fear of a new Ice Age in the ’60s was founded on little real data; the position now is very different. A vast amount of data from ice cores and global temperature measurements support the hypothesis of man-made global warming.
Climate change has always driven human development. Agriculture probably developed through necessity; the Industrial revolution in Britain certainly did. So we will have to change: our way of life really is unsustainable.
Climatic disasters in the past such as the Toba volcanic eruption of around 74,000 years ago almost certainly reduced the human population to very low levels. There is no reason to suppose that we won’t have to face extreme conditions like this again. It is sometimes thought that our technology will see us though any such event. But tornados flatten towns in the American mid west every year and forest fires burn out suburbs and there is nothing we can do about them, save evacuate the population in good time, thanks to our satellite surveillance. Japan’s hi tech did not prevent the total erasure of coastal settlements following the tsunami – and here even the warning system didn’t work.
The most obvious effects of global warming are well known: sea level rise inundating coastal settlements, with accompanying acidification of the ocean and loss of shelled creatures and corals; changed patterns of rainfall leading to collapse of agriculture in some regions and mass migration; more violent storms, leading to loss of life and destruction of property on a large scale. But there is a lesser known danger that is beginning to loom larger. It is known from the geological record that ice sheets depress the landmass by hundreds of feet. When the ice melts over land the earth bounces back by a similar degree. Scandinavia is still rising from the loss of the ice sheets 12,000 years ago. Earth movements of this magnitude trigger earthquakes, volcanoes and tsunamis. A rash of volcanic activity could have a devastating impact on agriculture if a nuclear winter scenario developed in which clouds of ash obscured the sun for several years. The toll of earthquakes and tsunamis on human life is already at a high level – greater than this and this sum of human misery would be intense.
The big lesson of the human and climatic past is that if it is possible to avoid provoking such a new geological era of massive climatic instability and increased volcanic activity, we should do so because, if such an era should ensue, we would have no defences against it. As it happens, we do have such a course of action open to us: it is mitigation of carbon dioxide emissions. It is exceeding strange that with this simple equation on the table most of humanity currently is in denial.
It is frequently alleged that there is a deep psychological problem for people with their average lifespan of 80 years in taking geological time scales seriously. Most members of the human species throughout its entire history can only have cared for or understood their own generation and the ones immediately before and after them. As Larkin wrote: “we are not suited to the long perspectives”. But the long perspective I’m talking about has only been known to us for a very short time and in the more rational parts of our mind we must surely be able to understand what it means for us? And it could be that in considering global warming we won’t have to overcome our natural limitations to understand that we must do something now for the sake of the world 50, 100, or several hundred years ahead. Because the increasingly detailed record of climate change shows that the act of global warming that made our world possible – a rise of around 6 degrees C from prevailing Ice Age temperatures – took place in a mere decade. That is how tipping points happen. They tip.
Granary Square, King’s Cross, London, fronting the University of the Arts, opens this week. The Guardian yesterday (Sold-off cities
, 12 June) heralded this by warning that large chunks of Britain’s cities like this are falling into private hands. One danger of this, according to an Occupy activist is: "a vision of society in which you work and you shop. At times when you are not working or shopping, you may go to restaurants. You may possibly go to some officially sanctioned kind of entertainment activity which is sponsored by X but there's no scope for people to do something of their own – to do something spontaneous."
At the King’s Cross development there are so far no shopping malls, although these will follow. The first big site to open was the London College of the Arts, bringing together four art schools, including the legendary Central St Martin’s. Just across York Way is the King’s Centre, a premier arts venue and home of the Guardian
itself. Next to the British Library, just down the road, the new Francis Crick Institute is being built. This will be Britain's major biomedical research facility. The site includes Camley Street Natural Park.
The King’s Cross development is building towards being an intellectual and creativity hub. As for the offices, when they arrive, Google are slated to be one of the first occupants. The idea that no one will be able to do their own, creative, thing in this complex is ludicrous. I have no brief for the developers but, having watched this site slowing being transformed from decay and degradation, over the last 15 years, I have to say that I like what I see so far.
The new concourse at King’s Cross station opens tomorrow and Rowan Moore has a piece
welcoming it in the Observer
. He pays tribute to the wondrous steel arch designed by John McAslan and Partners and built by the UK’s secret success story Arup but he criticizes the overall landscaping of the area and the way the new dome relates to the old classic industrial trainshed. I think he’s wrong on both counts. King’s Cross is classic London brick 19th century industrial building and the steel arch dome gives the whole another 100 years or so of life.
As for the whole site: the King’s Cross development: it is an exciting piece of landscaping, the only flaw being the inexplicable retention of ugly, gaunt tenements between St Pancras and Kings Cross, derelict and scaffolded for 10 years now. They should have been demolished. But with the landscaping of the canal, the new square between the canal and the London College of the Arts, and much more, this is the most exciting urban development in Britain today.
Sarah Bakewell’s piece in the Guardian reminded me of the most interesting but sadly underrated book I’ve read in the last 10 years: Brian Hayes’ Infrastructure (W W Norton). Hayes reveals a world that is ours but is almost unknown: that is, the infrastructure that sustains us: agriculture, manufacture, energy, transport, communications. In brilliantly incisive and stylish fashion he demonstrates and explains the ingenuity that keeps us fed, clothed, warm and able to move around safely and talk to each other across the globe.
The fascination lies in the intellectual pleasure and witty fun involved in some of the technologies. He decodes the landscape, telling us why mobile (cell phone) phone masts have three sides; why railway lines are bedded on crushed stone rather than solid concrete; how to spot internet peering points, hidden within windowless block buildings. He also shows how technology can sometimes fail: the ruins of Teton dam in Idaho resemble a Pharaonic pyramid and of course there is Galloping Gerty, the Tacoma Narrows bridge that shook itself to piece in 1940.
Hayes’ examples are mostly from the USA but that’s no penalty – the USA’s industrial infrastructure is magnificent. Or rather it used to be. A sadness creeps is when, in the captions to his brilliant photographs (which he took), we read that these power stations, steelworks, petrochemicals plants have changed hands several times recently, passed on in grubby deals, to be sweated and run into the ground. Obama came to power on a ticket to renew America’s infrastructure: its crumbling bridges and highways. In Hayes book it still looks magnificent, but for how long?
The huge redevelopment site north of King’s Cross station is probably more important for the future than that much hyped Olympics park a few miles east.
What is beautiful here is that, unlike the wider world, this microcosm of Britain is being cleaned up – every awkward corner that formerly festered with rot and moss and crumbling blackened brick – sumps that attracted cans, bottle and filthy rags – is being replaced, repaired, repointed, planted and turned into a spick and span model environment. Along the new pathway beside the canal, trees are planted, leafless in February, like an architect's sketch of the Utopian future.
All of this turmoil has seethed around Camley Street Natural Park for the last ten years or so and to enter it is to leave behind the new industrial design of the Eurostar terminal, the gleaming modern street furniture and the simple monotone concrete bridge over the canal, In the park scrub and brushwood seem perpetually on the point of overwhelming everything, All here is textured, not a concrete beam in sight, not a plane surface or a straight line. Ancient narrow boats sag in the canal and the blackbirds seem to grant a stamp of authenticity to the island of nature.
In the new developments, details from the industrial past are preserved as character endowing features – railway lines in front of the London College of the Arts are cemented into the forecourt; the ring of pillars from the old gas holders are being re-erected as a backdrop for a shopping arcade and flats. None of these industrial details will ever be functional again here. Apart from the scenery, what this complex will produce, all being well, will be breakthroughs in genetic medicine at the Francis Crick Institute; designs that break out into the world of commerce; the books of course that are distilled from the British Library (the first institution to arrive here, back in 1998).
If there is to be a future for this country, it must be taking shape here at King’s Cross.
Mark Thompson, Director-General of the BBC, has attributed the fuss around Frozen Planet's use of zoo footage of polar bear cubs in what was supposed to be a wild setting to the Leveson enquiry into press standards. It seems far more likely to me to have been instigated by the global-warming denial lobby. David Attenborough is the most universally respected man in Britain and he has just made a powerful programme highlighting the consequences of global warming. He did not actually discuss the mechanism of global warming through human-generated carbon dioxide emissions but the programme was still seen as a threat by this lobby. Their methods are always the same: not to address the scientific evidence but to distract by dirty tricks, attacking by scurrilous means the people promulgating the arguments in favour of reducing fossil-fuel burning. There is no real problem with the polar bear footage. To put a camera into a bear’s den in its natural habitat would have endangered the cubs, when the whole point of the programme was to show how climate change threatens the survival of such creatures.
The really shocking story this week is Canada’s withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol. At the moment the world seems hell-bent on conducting this experiment in global warming. And we are supposed to get irate because of a few seconds on footage in a zoo, rather than under the snowy wastes.
The Kyoto emissions protocol expires next year and attempts to formulate the next phase are in such disarray that the date of 2020 is being bandied around as the earliest likely date for a new treaty to come into force. Meanwhile, carbon emissions rose by 5% last year, in a recession, and all the predictions are that the burning of coal, the dirtiest fossil field, are going to rocket in the next few decades. And all this while we know that only action now on emissions will count. If we wait, the stockpile of CO2 will have grown to the extent that the severe climate change we fear will become inevitable. How can we account of this apparently species-suicidal behaviour?
We are creatures of climate change: it made us and it might break us. What do I mean by that? The study of both human evolution and past climate change have both accelerated dramatically recently, and the connections between the two are becoming clearer.
It was almost certainly climate change in Africa from around 5 million years ago that led to the emergence of a line of adaptable, big brained apes. In long-term steady climatic conditions, living things can persist essentially unchanged for many millions of years. But large scale climatic change with mass extinctions produced the great innovations in evolution, such as the emergence of mammals following the Cretaceous collapse that ended the dinosaurs’ reign.
What happened in East Africa from 5 million years ago was less extreme. The climate became drier and the forest thinned, opening up the savannah we are familiar with today as the home of big game. An ape adapted to the loss of a supportive forest habit by learning to live in the open, on the ground. To survive amidst the large predators of the savannah required enormous cunning: the use of fire and tools. Over those 5 million years the African climate was unstable, with wet and dry periods alternating. It is this flux that probably led to the most adaptable species on earth: us.
By around 200,000 years ago an ape with a brain 3-4 time the size of a chimpanzee was established in Africa. I say established but life was precarious, the environment still hostile. Homo sapiens eventually spread beyond Africa. How tough it was know from the timing. They only arrived in Europe around 36,000 years ago.
During the entire period of the evolution of H. sapiens Europe was in the grip of repeated ice ages. At the last glacial maximum, around 20-25,000 years ago, Europe was covered in ice almost to the Mediterranean. Human populations clung on in Southern France and Spain. The Neanderthals, the last proto human before us became extinct at this time. Their last stronghold is thought to have been some caves in Gibraltar.
But 11,600 years ago, the world warmed dramatically, by 6 degrees and the ice retreated. There have been serious climatic setbacks since then but in the last 10,000 years a Northern hemisphere ice-free over much of its landmass allowed agricultural societies to grow and develop.
But instead of recognizing that our great world civilisation owes as much to climatic luck as to our brilliant minds and hard work, we arrogantly refuse to accept the evidence that the climate is fragile and will be tipped by our own activities unless we modulate them.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s forecasts have projected gradual change into the future, but the increasingly detailed record of past climate change shows dramatic changes happening at certain tipping points, over very few years. The one we should be worried about is that sudden 6 degree rise that launched our ascent – it took place in around a single decade!
There is every reason to fear that the next serious climatic change will happen as rapidly as those of the past but our widespread assumption that we have our benign place in the sun as of right is preventing any serious attempt at climatic mitigation. All past approaches to get governments and public opinion on board have failed so a new approach is called for. Most people in the developed world have grown up thinking that our technology can insulate us from the worst that nature can do. Understanding that we have always been at the mercy of the climate and that our benign time is over is the required background knowledge for our next step. We don’t want to be the headline species in the Next Great Extinction.
The impression given by the media is that the UK is slipping away from being a First World country: few houses are being built, the infrastructure creaks; the dwindling manufacturing base dwindles further.
In fact, some grands projets, started long before the recession, are coming to fruition and they offer new hope. The Olympic site is not the only major development in North London. The railway lands north of St Pancras and King’s Cross stations, which for decades housed rotting canal-side warehouses, railway sheds and gas-holders, are taking shape as a 21st century campus of great vision and potential.
It began with the British Library – a surprise success for ‘70s planning and government funding: since 1998 one of London’s greatest resources for serious study and also a gorgeous place to hang out.
Then came St Pancras International, the Eurostar terminal and also base for the Javelin high speed trains that can reach the Olympics site in 6 minutes. Just open is the London University of the Arts, a vast complex incorporating Central St Martin’s School of Art, the London College of Fashion and other art colleges. Work has now started on the Francis Crick Institute, a major biomedical research facility. Not part of the site but just across York Way are King’s Place, home of the Guardian newspaper and Macmillan publishers, home of the leading science journal Nature. The revamp of Kings’ Cross station is nearing completion, with its soaring new concourse roof and promised piazza where the old drab concourse used to be.
Running through the site is the Regents Canal, currently being landscaped, and the campus has its natural oasis in Camley Street Natural Park. What was once a blot on the capital city is becoming a learning park of the highest quality. What is especially interesting about this is that no such broad area development has happened in Britain, barring shopping malls, for a very long time. Signature buildings have been dropped into streetscapes to which they contribute nothing. But at King’s Cross the institutes together will add up to more than the sum of their parts. Individually, some of the architecture, at least, is memorable.
Not bad for a place once notorious for dereliction, vagrants and prostitution.
I’ve just finished Ian Morris’s Why the West Rules…For Now and can confidently suggest that if you only ever read one history book, this is it. Morris tells a new kind of scientific history, beginning with human evolution, the growth of technology, and shows how our civilisation really works. He shifts the perspective to show how parochial some of our concerns are. In short: it’s the big picture he gives us.
The analysis of the past is utterly compelling but it’s his prognosis that is most telling. We are reaching one of the great barriers to development, such as human beings have faced several times before: in the Younger Dryas Cold Spell around 10,800 BCE, the Bronze Dark Age of 1200 BCE, the Fall of Rome, etc. He says there are two ways it could go and there is unlikely to be a fudged halfway house. In many respects his work ties in with several other recent thinkers. Jared Diamond is his most obvious influence. James Lovelock is in there too and this probably isn’t an influence but there are similarities to David Deutch’s recent The Beginning of Infinity. These are two magnificent books that everyone should read.
“ . . . smell far worse than weeds”. This is from one of Shakespeare's most enigmatic sonnets No 94). I thought of it today when I was clearing red lily beetles off the plants. They are very persistent and voracious pests that will strip a lily plan in weeks if you’re not looking. The first one I saw, this spring, I mistook for a ladybird until my wife put me right. It is far too long to be a ladybird even before you notice it hasn’t got any spots. The pests certainly make lilies “smell far worse than weeds” because the larvae cover themselves with their own excrement to deter predators. The only real form of control is to pick them off so you have to grasp the nettle, or rather the sticky black mess.
Shakespeare would not have known them because they only arrived in Britain from Europe in the 19th century. In recent years, with global warming, they have increased their range and now breed in vast numbers in southern England. The cold winter did nothing to deter them (the adults overwinter in the soil) and I think I’m going to be picking those sluggy messes off the plants for a while yet.