November 8th, 2009


November Books 7) The Pollinators of Eden, by John Boyd

This is the book which begins by describing its heroine as "blond [rather than blonde] and ovately willowy". Thanks to everone who has speculated on the meaning of the last two words there; I guess I am convinced that she is thin with wide, childbearing hips, but it is possible to imagine a more comprehensible description.

Anyway, Freda Caron is a botanist working on some strange flowers from a newly discovered planet. That's basically the plot. Boyd appears to be trying to say deep things about sexuality and sexual politics, and the nature of humanity, but it really doesn't work. I was surprised to discover that the book dates from as late as 1969; it feels of an earlier 60s vintage. The ending, whereCollapse ), is particularly silly.

November Books 8) Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive, by Jared Diamond

A totally fascinating book looking at how the human impact on the environment can cause societies to collapse or disappear. The particularly memorable chapters are on Easter Island and the Viking settlements on Greenland, both cases where the natural resources were exploited to the point of mass death. There are lots of other case studies as well, mostly dealing with larger societies or states, but none quite as dramatic or as detailed.

The final chapters are an excellent synthesis of the message of the book. Diamond has a not very profound but interesting take on the nature of political decision-making, and why it goes wrong; on business and the environment (I would like to know more about the Marine Stewardship Council, and why it has had so little impact in Europe), and finally on future prospects for saving the world, where he is cautiously optimistic but not complacent. He is clear that our current patterns of environmental exploitation are not sustainable, but hopes that a sufficiently conscious public will be able to pressurise its leaders into taking action. The book will certainly help.

November Books 9) From Genocide to Continental War, by Gérard Prunier

I read this book sitting beside its author on a trans-Atlantic plane flight, which is an unusual level of interaction. It is a tremendously detailed account of how, in the aftermath of the 1994 genocide, the new Rwandan government invaded its neighbour Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) kicking off a conflict that sucked in military interventions from Burundi, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Angola, Chad, Sudan and Namibia, and which also entangled Libya, the Central African Republic, Congo-Brazzaville, Zambia and South Africa before it ended in 2002. Roughly four million people were killed. The conflict was complex and remote, and got almost no coverage in international media. The Rwandans essentially got a free pass from the rest of the world because of the genocide, and because nobody like the Zairean/DRC rulers. Prunier details the horror that resulted, and does not spare his criticism of the local and international actors who made it possible. He even criticises his own earlier book on Rwanda, where he admits having believed the government when he should not have. (Interesting to note that his Rwanda book is quoted several times by Jared Diamond in Collapse.)

An excellent final chapter reflects that probably there will not be another African conflict that is as far-reaching geographically, although the basic conditions for future smaller wars remain. Prunier also analyses the failure of international policy-makers to get to grips with the realities of African political life. I found this point particularly compelling (it should be read as if all in the present tense):
These states were universally weak because they lacked both legitimacy and money. Legitimacy was the biggest problem because even those states that did or could have money, such as the mining states, were also weak. Loyalty to the state is not an internalised feeling in today's Africa... Internally states are seen as cows to be milked. But because there is little milk and the cow can go dry at any time, it would perhaps be better to say that the state is a cow to be bled quickly before it slips into somebody else's hands. The state is an asset for the group in power, but that asset is fragile, there are no commonly accepted rules for future devolution of power, and things have to be grabbed while they last... The state is always somebody's state, never the State in the legal abstract form beloved of Western constitutional law. It is the Museveni dictatorship for the Acholi [Uganda], the Arab state for th southern Sudanese, the mestiço state for UNITA [Angola], or the Tutsi state for the Hutu [Rwanda]. When tribes are not the main problem, pseudo-tribes or other groupings will do.
There is nothing deterministic about conflict: these wars begin because of rational choices made by individuals in leadership positions, reacting to the set of circumstances they find themselves in. Ending them, however, is much more difficult.