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Chris Armstrong

What if there were far fewer people?

by Chris Armstrong on January 8, 2024

One of the most common arguments in debates about environmental crisis is: “it’s the rising population, stupid.” There are just too many human beings, using up too much stuff, leaving too little space for everyone else. The next step is often to gesture towards some kind of population control, or just to leave the issue hanging.

Whatever you think of that position, I’ve been struck lately by the increasing prominence of its diametric opposite. This holds that the problem we face – or will soon face, anyway – is that there are actually too few of us. Consider this opinion piece from the New York Times back in September (only the latest in a series of pieces the NYT has published on the topic, often with much the same message. Here’s one from 2021, and another from 2022). The real problem, it suggests, is that the human population will not only peak in 2085, but that it will then decline, perhaps precipitously. Within a couple of hundred years, there might be only be 2 billion of us left. The claim is not, note, that population will fall in one country or other – we’re familiar with that idea. The claim is that the global population is set to decline, perhaps precipitously.

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My best novels of the year

by Chris Armstrong on December 28, 2023

I tend to read a novel a week (53 this year). Academic friends sometimes appear amazed by that, but if I don’t read 20 or 30 pages at night, I’m not going to sleep. Add 10 pages here or there during the week, and it’s four a month. Here were my 10 favourites during 2023:

James Cahill, Tiepolo Blue
Hernan Diaz, Trust
Michelle De Kretser, Scary Monsters
Colson Whitehead, Harlem Shuffle
Andrew Miller, Now We Shall Be Entirely Free
Rupert Thomson, Barcelona Dreaming
Samanta Schweblin, Fever Dream
Daniel Woodrell, The Death of Sweet Mister
Emily St John Mandel, Sea of Tranquility
Laurent Mauvignier, The Birthday Party

(I’m including contemporary novels only – I read excellent novels by Sam Selvon, Muriel Spark, Evelyn Waugh, etc, but it feels more appropriate for some reason to separate them out). Are there common themes to these novels? Not really, but it is striking that a number of them deal with themes of breakdown: personality breakdown (Tiepolo Blue, arguably Trust, Now We Shall Be Entirely Free), ecological breakdown (Scary Monsters, Sea of Tranquility). A few of them were split into apparently separate parts – some of them resolved those divisions, some didn’t (Barcelona Dreaming, Trust, Sea of Tranquility). Anyway, no doubt I missed many gems. Tell me about them!

On not knowing what to say about Gaza

by Chris Armstrong on October 12, 2023

I was meant to write a post this week, but then Hamas’s horrific assault on Israel happened, and now the civilian inhabitants of Gaza are once again living in fear (some of them have put themselves in the firing line; many have not). Since I have Arab friends and family, and have fond memories of Gaza, it all feels horribly close to home, and yet also impossibly distant. But of course, it has never been easy to know what to say about Gaza.

In the meantime, for a good example of what *not* to say about Gaza, you could try this piece. (In a nutshell, Yuval Noah Harari’s solution seems to be that Israel hands the problem over to a coalition of the willing who will administer Gaza colonial-style. I can envisage a few problems).

Campus novels

by Chris Armstrong on August 3, 2023

I’m a complete sucker for them. I don’t know why: you’d think twenty-odd years as an academic would have cured me of the idea there is anything romantic or glamorous about universities. But I keep going back to the trough. Some good recent ones: Julia May Jonas, Vladimir; R.O. Kwon, The Incendiaries; Rachel Henstra, The Red Word; Sally Rooney too. Further back, I loved On Beauty, Special Topics in Calamity Physics, The Marriage Plot. Even further, then of course The Secret History, Possession, all the David Lodges, Stoner, the whole caboodle.

How is my love for these books compatible with the fact that real-world academic life is increasingly crappy? It’s not obvious that they’re offering a rose-tinted version of reality to divert myself with – or not all of them, anyway. Should we expect to see fewer of them, now that academia is ever more precarious, bureaucratic, stressful? What the hell is going on with the Dark Academia craze? (I’ve dipped my toes in there too). Why are campus novels so enduringly popular, with academics and non-academics alike? Is it just that the setting WORKS so well, as a microcosm? What are their vices? And, well, which good ones have I missed?

Happy World Ocean Day

by Chris Armstrong on June 8, 2023

I’m off to do a talk to mark World Ocean Day, so this is posted in haste. The ocean needs advocates. It’s our biggest ecosystem, probably our biggest carbon sink, a major source of oxygen. It regulates temperatures, and drives weather patterns. Hundreds of millions of people are nutritionally dependent on fish. But the ocean is also increasingly central to the global economy, and facing threats like never before.

Climate change – which drives ocean warming and acidification – is the big one. But plastic and nitrogen pollution and destructive fishing practices are also major threats. Fish farming has an enormous environmental footprint, and now a Spanish company has plans to open the world’s first octopus farm. Plans for mining the seabed are close to fruition – or, depending on your view, they may be many years away, exaggerated to boost the share price of a few mining corporations. But one way or another, the ocean is more and more central to the global economy.

Today is a day to reflect on the kind of ocean we want: an industrialised ocean devoid of much of its present life? Or an ocean in recovery, teeming with life once more? After the second world war (when U-boats patrolled the oceans and fishing boats were forced to stay at home in much of the world) scientists were amazed at the recovery the ocean’s ecosystems had made in just a few years. Will they get the chance of recovery again?

Committing to Net Zero Means…Committing to What, Exactly?

by Chris Armstrong on January 17, 2023

The goal of Net Zero emissions by 2050 has had a remarkable rise to the forefront of climate politics. Governments and corporations are falling over one another to commit to it. That in itself might sow some suspicion about how firm or flexible a target Net Zero is. In a recent piece with Duncan McLaren, we try to show that the flexibility of the goal is a real danger. We might be tempted to think that, once we all agree on Net Zero by 2050, we can breathe a collective sigh of relief (so long as we…ah…actually implement our various commitments).

But things are not so simple. Net Zero is an important part of the solution. It would involve any carbon emissions being balanced by carbon removals, and that should allow the climate to stabilise (i.e to stop warming further). But the precise temperature it stabilises at will depend on how much carbon we emit before 2050, and that is a question about which the Net Zero goal is, of course, silent.
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My year in fiction

by Chris Armstrong on December 28, 2022

Reading novels is my life-blood; I can’t go more than a few hours between books. That said, this year was a slightly odd one in my reading career. First, the year leading up to August represented the home strait of a self-enforced 12 months of not buying books. So lots of reliance on the not-especially-good local library, and some re-reading. Second, this was a ridiculously busy year for me, and so my yearly total of 46 novels is slightly below par. With that said, here were my top 10:

Katie Kitamura, Intimacies
Natasha Brown, Assembly
Julia May Jonas, Vladimir
Hanya Yanagihara, To Paradise
Mary Lawson, A Town Called Solace
Jordy Rosenberg, Confessions of the Fox
Tessa Hadley, Late in the Day
Julie Otsuka, When The Emperor Was Divine
Ottessa Moshfegh, My Year of Rest and Relaxation
Elizabeth Strout, Oh, William!
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For Working-Class Academics

by Chris Armstrong on November 14, 2022

Last week I was talking to a new academic acquaintance, when ‘that thing’ happened: we worked out that we’d both grown up on council estates, within working-class, non-university-attending families.[i] We smiled our smile of mutual recognition, and began swapping stories about how we’d navigated the treacherous territory to where we are now. It’s something that has happened to me a number of times before – though not an especially large number of times, actually, considering that I’m two decades into my career.

That’s not altogether surprising. A survey by the (UK) Universities and Colleges Union this month showed that most working class academics feel their class has affected their career progression, and nearly half believe it affects initial recruitment into the profession. The Social Mobility Foundation has just reported that working class academics earn £5,800 less per year in the UK than their middle-class peers. A third have personally felt discrimination based on their accent.
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Missing In Action: The (Democratic) Politics of the Ocean

by Chris Armstrong on October 31, 2022

Yesterday I gave a talk at a ‘thought festival’ in the Netherlands, on the future of the ocean. The size of the audience far exceeded my (quite modest) expectations. And the discussion we had was extremely engaged and informed. Clearly, people care about the ocean, and the various challenges it now faces, largely thanks to us (from warming and acidification to plastic pollution, from destructive fishing practices to the growth of ‘dead zones’ around our coasts). I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. Since I published a book on the topic in February, I’ve been blown away by the public interest. I’ve been doing a talk, podcast or interview at least once a week since then. Everyone I’ve spoken to – whether that means ordinary citizens, academics, civil society organisations, or activists – feels that attention to these issues is long overdue.

Which brings me to the central puzzle. Ocean governance has become highly salient, politically – probably more than ever before. But when people ask me, “what can I do to help push ocean politics in the right direction?” the answer is far from obvious. Of course, people can make a direct impact on the ocean’s health in many ways. That could mean plogging (look it up!), avoiding farmed salmon, cutting down on plastic, or a whole variety of things. Still, if the rules under which the ocean is governed are basically dysfunctional, the effect of these measures is going to be limited. Picking plastic from the beach – which I’m not knocking for a second – won’t turn around the juggernaut of an industrialising ocean. It won’t stop seabed mining, or octopus farming, or whatever next year’s catastrophic plan will be. That would take a larger political movement, and a positive defence of the kind of ocean we want to see. But how do we affect the politics of the ocean? Where, in fact, is the politics of the ocean? What would be the political entry point for concerned citizens?

When I say the ocean has been ‘depoliticized,’ I don’t mean, of course, that there is no politics of the ocean. Decisions do get made. In 1982, the Law of the Sea Convention ushered in the largest single extension of state territory in history. (I don’t remember it being extensively discussed in the media – but then I was eight years old, so forgive me if I missed it). Right now, the United Nations is discussing the rules that should govern biodiversity in the High Seas (it has been trying and failing to secure a binding treaty for a couple of decades now). Each coastal country regularly makes political decisions about the exploitation of the ocean (will it support offshore wind? What about gas? How are fishing rights going to be allocated?). But when is the last time you recall politicians campaigning on ocean issues?

British readers might have a ready answer: 2016. In the Brexit campaign, Leave-supporting politicians suddenly decided that the allocation of fishing rights raised basic issues of fairness. Having secured the votes of many fishing communities (and a disastrous Brexit), it seems that those issues of fairness can now be safely forgotten. Either way, politicians are not being called upon to lay out a vision of the kind of ocean they want. Very few governments even have ministries of the ocean (ministries of fishing are not the same thing!). Very few political manifestos make any sustained effort to address ocean-facing issues. The cosy relationship between politicians, the fossil fuel industry, and the industrial fishing lobby goes on undisturbed. One alarming story, which I relate in my book, comes from a 2019 meeting of the International Seabed Authority in Kingston, Jamaica. This is the body that is supposed to come up with rules to regulate deep sea mining, which is inching ever closer. At that meeting, the job of representing the Belgian state was given, not to a politician, or even to a civil servant, but to an executive from a Belgian seabed mining corporation. It was as if the United States had not bothered to send a delegate to a WTO meeting and just allowed Jeff Bezos to speak on its behalf. I like to think that is quite unlikely (I may be wrong). But in the murky world of ocean politics, the divide between political and corporate power is much less clear-cut.

What, then, is the alternative? That’s what some audience members wanted to know yesterday. How do you force an issue onto the political agenda when not a single party is choosing to prioritise it? Likewise, ocean scientists often talk about the importance of educating people about the ocean, and the challenges it faces. I think this is very important. But the question is what comes next. What is a citizen informed about the threats faced by the ocean meant to do?