Even the curmudgeonliest of climate realists need a break from complaining once in a while. So, no moaning about how BBC2 somehow managed to force a lesson in sustainability into a documentary about the behaviour of pygmy marmosets. No grumbling about how BBC R4’s PM show chose to mark the death of animator Oliver Postgate (who, having enchanted children for decades with such classics as The Clangers and Bagpuss, ended up trying to petrify them with green scaremongery) with an uncritical piece about his tin-pot ecopocalyptic prophesies. And no wingeing about BBC R4’s Open Book in which Adam Roberts, professor of English literature at London University and sci-fi author, addresses a question from listener Elizabeth Thorne:
In the past two years, I have had an eco-house built and have joined organisations here in Winchester which encourage people to reduce their carbon footprint, water use, etc. Please can you suggest any books which give a picture of how the planet might be in fifty to a hundred years time if overpopulation and over-use of the world’s resources continue as they are now? It could be a fictional account, as long as it’s based on scientific facts.
Professor Roberts does not let her down. His response must be music to the ears of anyone who has made sacrifices trying to save the planet and is in need of reminding why they should feel very pleased with themselves. His non-fiction recommendations are Alastair McIntosh’s Hell and High Water and Mark Lynas’s Six Degrees, both of which are, he assures Ms Thorne, ‘very scientifically rigorous’. We’ve mentioned Six Degrees before. Re Hell and High Water, we’ll just say that it’s hard to imagine how a book that the publishers describe as
A fascinating journey through early texts that speak to climate change – including the ancient Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh, Plato’s myth of Atlantis, and Shakespeare’s Macbeth – McIntosh reveals the psychohistory of modern consumerism. He shows how we have fallen prey to a numbing culture of violence and the motivational manipulation of marketing. To start to resolve what has become of the human condition we must get more real in facing up to despair and death. Only then will we discover the spiritual meaning of these our troubled times. Only then can magic, new meaning, and all that gives life, start to mend a broken world.
and which is written by fellow and erstwhile director of Edinburgh’s Centre for Human Ecology, a ‘network for ecological and social transformation’ that insists that you remove your shoes at the door (no, really, we’ve been there) and offers
challenging courses for people who want to “be the change,” help organisations pursue greener, more ethical practices, and work towards tackling the root causes of global issues. Drawing on a holistic understanding of environmental and social systems, we develop practical solutions and influence new thinking. Committed to enduring, systemic change, our approach engages head, heart, and hand – integrating reason, passion, and action for a better world.
can have much to do with science at all.
Host Mariella Frostrup steers the discussion to fiction:
It’s funny, because they sound like the kind of books science fiction writers like perhaps yourself read before they start writing their books. Because of course increasingly science fiction books are based on the latest research, are they not?
Roberts does not let her down either:
Steve [Baxter, author of Flood] is one of the most famous of the contemporary science fiction writers on the science fiction scene. And one of the things he does is he roots his fiction very rigorously in the science. There are hard science fiction writers and there are soft science fiction writers. And Steve is one of the former. What happens in Flood, which is published this year, is that the sea levels start rising, and then continue rising. There’s a horrible inevitability about it as the waters get higher and higher. And in the early sections of the novel, the characters think, well, this will eventually even out and we’ll just have to live on the high lands, but of course – and again, not to give anything away – it becomes apparent as the book goes on that the waters are just going to rise until they’ve gone higher even than Everest, and people have to make the best they can out of their situation.
Everest! Gosh, even Hansen doesn’t go that far, and nobody can accuse him of being rooted ‘very rigorously in the science’.
So instead of complaining about all that, here’s a jolly post about a conspicuous and refreshing absence of sanctimonious environmentalism on the BBC where there could so easily have been so much.
BBC3’s Last Man Standing is now well into its second series. The idea is that six fit young chaps from Britain and the USA, each endowed with more than their fair share of abs and serotonin, travel the world to compete with remote tribes on their own turf and at their own sports.
Ed is an Eton and Oxford graduate and modern pentathlete with floppy hair; JJ is a US traffic cop and cage-wrestler (like wrestling, but in a cage); Jarvis is, we are told, ‘used to winning’ despite his being a US rugby international; Joey plays soccer, loves his mom, and says he used to be a street-fighter; Wolé is a London fireman, amateur boxer and brick shithouse; Murray is a kite-surfing hippy with more serotonin than all the rest of them put together.
So, the Village People take on some people from a village. In Nepal, they run a high-altitude endurance race with a 25kg rock strapped to their backs, in India they wrestle in a sandpit, in Ethiopia they try to knock out their opponents with big sticks, and in the Philippines the aim is to kick each others’ lights out. Our heroes’ nutritional advantage – they tend to tower over their hosts – is balanced by the fact that they have only a week or so to learn the moves, or to quite literally acclimatise, to what the locals have been doing all their lives. Blood is spilled, ribs, fingers and knees are broken.
In Series 1, New Age fitness guru Rajko puts an axe through his foot while helping his hosts slash and burn a patch of rainforest. And still not a mention of sustainability. Slash and burn is just something else that needs doing around the village, not a sign that humans are trashing pristine rainforest. Viewers are free to make their own minds up on that. As are the competitors, whose ambivalence on the issue suggests that they are not expected to toe some directorial party line. These tribes are not portrayed as noble savages living in harmony with nature, whose livelihoods or very existence is under threat from encroaching western civilisation or climate change, but as fellow humans whom it might be interesting to get to know.
In true boys’-own style, Rajko ends up slogging his cricket team to victory while wearing a comedy foot bandage. Yep, cricket, Papua New Guinea-style, introduced by colonialists not so long ago, and now involving a very hard carved wooden ball, and about a thousand singing, dancing fielders, and who knows, perhaps the inspiration for Twenty20. One World, eh.
While Last Man is about what people have in common, its sister show Tribal Wives is all about our differences. Here, the premise is that unfulfilled western women – they variously have troubles with boyfriends, alcohol, low self-esteem (although not so low that they’re ashamed of flaunting it on national TV) or general doubts about the point of Western civilisation – are packed off to the sticks to find meaning through immersion into a simple tribal life, where a lack of corrupting commercialism leaves them free to walk miles daily to fetch water and firewood, run away from spiders and scorpions, and get their tits out. And find meaning they do, of course. It’s the least that’s expected of them. As is their distaste for female circumcision, which all the tribes seem to practise, but which the producers dare not suggest might also have something to do with a lack of development. Once restored, they all seem quite relieved to be going home, but promise to come back and visit one day. (TV critic Charlie Brooker lays into these ‘mission documentaries’ hysterically in the latest edition of his Screenwipe series).
Last Man Standing doesn’t have a moral mission. It’s only mission is to entertain. Which is why it is so entertaining. All it expects from its participants is to try and win. It is about nothing more than a bunch of people from very different backgrounds meeting up and doing something they all love, and for which they are all prepared to suffer. The result is that it’s about much more than that, while Tribal Wives is about very little at all.
Next week, a 40km ocean canoe race off Papua New Guinea. It’s the last of the series, but they’re all still available on iPlayer (if you’re in the UK). And then maybe there’ll be a third series, in which athletes from remote tribes around the world compete with us on our own turf at our own minority sports – make-do-and-mend, Razor Wars, reduce-reuse-recycle, tread-lightly-on-the-Earth, that sort of thing.