Saturday, May 09, 2009

The Morbid Age

Tomorrow in The Sunday Times I interview the historian Richard Overy and discuss his book The Morbid Age: Britain Between the Wars. This was, incidentally, the 'hardback, very fat and possessed of an unusually depressing title' that I was reading in that groovy bar in Miami.
Here's the link.


  1. Quite a few big differences between now and then, front and centre is nuclear proliferation.

    This is no longer something in James Bond movies its here and now, and all we have to protect ourselves is international law and the UN, and Barry of course who like Clinton and Bush before his has failed the test in North Korea.

    And could it be that Barry's election encouraged the Taliban to make their move on Islamabad and the rest of Pakistan? They certainly have become very emboldened over the last few months. And why did the Pakistani army of 1.4 million run away in the first place? could it be they are one in the same thing?

    No doubt if Winston was alive today he would be derided as a warmonger, but the 30s this is not.

  2. "And why did the Pakistani army of 1.4 million run away in the first place? could it be they are one in the same thing?"

    In other words, Nuclear war baby!

  3. Fascinating article.

    The contrast between now and then, however, is more complex. In the immediate post-war years, we did go through a scientistic age, but the rather obvious failures of science to solve certain problems led to an age of economism, in which it was thought that the generation of money would solve social and political problems.

    Science today is driven by economics rather than the converse. Nuclear power, for example, was pursued energetically in the post-war years, but once it became clear that the cost of safety made it economically uncompetitive, government funding peeled away.

    The question posed by the current economic crisis is whether the age of economism is about to end. Overy suggests that we don't have an adequate public discourse on the definition of capitalism and what to do about it, but it may just be that we will continue to believe in the efficacy of a free market operating within government constraints, albeit one in which the constraints on financial institutions are far stricter.

    On the subject of public intellectuals, names such as Scruton and Gray are unknown to the majority in the UK. If one were to compile a short list of public intellectuals today, it would comprise Dawkins, Hawking, Lovelock, and that great nemesis of the gloomy Oxbridge literary classes, Alain de Botton.

  4. Thanks for the review and thus alerting us to what sounds an important book. My questions have to do with this:

    Overy is not a sceptic about global warming, but he is certainly no catastrophist.

    Yet I consider myself a sceptic about global warming precisely because I am not a catastrophist. Worth asking then how these terms are used more generally in the English-speaking world?

    Consider for example the excellent public debate Intelligence Squared organized in New York in March 2007. The motion chosen was "Global Warming Is Not a Crisis." No objection seemed to have been lodged against this wording by someone as prominent as Gavin Schmidt of Oxford and NASA, who was speaking for the orthodox, UN IPCC view. It turned out a majority of the audience was against the motion on coming in and changed their mind by the end. This was seen as a victory for the sceptics - or indeed for the 'deniers', a stronger, uglier word in those days because of its association with Holocaust deniers. (I no longer object to the term - language moves on and so should we. But precision of the thoughts being conveyed by such terms remains exceptionally important.)

    So, pray tell, how come Overy gets to be in the magic place of being neither a (pejorative) catastrophist or a (pejorative) sceptic? It's not an option I've ever thought possible.

    For as Richard Lindzen said that evening in New York we all believe in global warming, in the sense that the average mean temperature of the earth has been getting (a little) hotter since 1860. We all believe that there's a good deal more CO2 in the atmosphere than in 1900 or 1800. Everyone accepts the physics of the so-called (and very badly named) greenhouse effect. We are all believers, in that sense.

    Cutting through many layers of complication, the debate is about whether the above facts, and all the related ones, constitute a rational basis for alarm. That I guess is a weaker word than crisis, which is weaker than catastrophe. Does that help?

    Given the great importance of this public debate I found this one sentence frustratingly sloppy, even slippery. Overy is a sceptic in my book - and in Al Gore's. Let's not forget that it cost something to take the right side of various debates in the 1930s, such as eugenics. Those like Bonhoeffer and son who paid the price didn't stop the Holocaust but they and the Allied troops that followed surely did help to reduce the slaughter, through their own blood. It's hard to tell how much damage so-called mitigation of global warming may finally do but clarity of the stand one is taking is absolutely of the essence. No government support of biofuels, no bent carbon trading, no effort to stop the developing world using coal to power their escape from poverty, until the science is on a firm footing.

    And the science is palpably not on a firm footing. There are many things we don't understand but the most important is this: we don't understand why the increase in global mean temperature since 1860 has been so small, given the known increases in CO2 in the atmosphere. This shows there is something missing in our understanding of the system. It sure looks as if mother earth or Gaia is smarter or more forgiving than our greenhouse formulas ever predicted. We cannot then gamble with the lives of millions in the third world for no reason at all. Let's find out why that increase is so small. Then, maybe, act. Or, hopefully, not have to bother. Not about carbon anyway. Global poverty itself, yes, as Michael Crichton and Philip Stott said so passionately at the same debate. Stott starts by drawing the parallel with eugenics. We do well to listen, and with care.

  5. Your piece speaks of Tim Mason in the present. He committed suicide two decades ago. Maybe a sceance is responsible for his writings? One of the perils of Google in a Miami bar?

  6. Wait, wait- surely Stephen Fry is one of the great public intellectuals of our age. That razor sharp wit & awesome erudition... wow. As for Alain de Botton, he is definitely bald. Bald in the same way that Sir Clive Sinclair is bald. Not cool, Samuel L. Jackson bald, or Eno illusion-of -cerebral-depth bald but bald much too young bald. He doesn't really have the skull for it. I think perhaps he should grow the hair on one side of his head long and then sweep it over the skin, then gel it down so it doesn't fly away when the wind blows. That would be cool.