Vol. 41 No. 19 · 10 October 2019

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Our Alien Planet

Don Lock reproaches Francis Gooding for failing to see trees as a ‘carbon capture technology’ (Letters, 12 September). He’s right in principle. Through photosynthesis, plants of every kind, from grass to redwoods, convert carbon dioxide in the atmosphere into bulk matter: the majority of the mass of any plant is carbon captured from the air. A plant is however only a temporary store of carbon, since that carbon will be released directly or indirectly into the atmosphere when the plant is consumed by animals, or dies and decays, or is otherwise disposed of. A forest is a large, temporary carbon store, in a dynamic equilibrium between growing trees and decaying or harvested trees; burning, and other forms of destruction, release that carbon ahead of schedule.

The point of carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) is to prevent a store from ever releasing its carbon. For trees, that would mean burying them deep beyond the reach of oxygen for a few thousand years, and planting replacements. Broadly, sequestered carbon is buried carbon, and the cause of our climate problems is our diligent unsequestering of carbon through its transformation into coal, oil and gas, which last saw daylight in the Carboniferous period.

What would this mean in practice? Even if we buried 10 per cent of the trees on the planet (10 per cent of about 422 gigatonnes of wood worldwide), we would roughly match only a year’s worth of CO2 emissions at 2017 rates. This would be at the cost of an epic expenditure of energy – and we would need to repeat the process every year. CCS (not involving trees) is not fundamentally implausible. But it is expensive, speculative, and designed to reduce industrial emissions, rather than remove carbon in bulk from the air.

Norman Gray
University of Glasgow

He never goes away

‘Enoch never goes away,’ said Nigel Farage, approvingly, about Enoch Powell (LRB, 26 September). Thalidomide victims and their families may agree. According to Harold Evans, the former editor of the Sunday Times, when, as health minister, Powell received a delegation of parents whose children had been affected by the drug, he rejected every request. No to a public inquiry. No to setting up a drug-testing centre: ‘Anyone who takes an aspirin puts himself at risk.’ No to issuing a warning against using any thalidomide pills that remained in medicine cabinets. No to meeting a thalidomide child himself, and no to issuing a statement after the meeting: ‘No need to bring the press into this.’

Rosie Brocklehurst
St Leonards on Sea, East Sussex

Ferdinand Mount mentions the Toxteth riots and the death of a man ‘who was struck accidentally by a police vehicle’. The man was David Moore, a disabled young man who was run down by a police Land Rover, which was being used as part of a dispersal technique – in which vans and Land Rovers were driven at high speed towards crowds – on the orders of Liverpool chief constable Kenneth Oxford. The technique was borrowed from the Royal Ulster Constabulary, as was the use of CS gas grenades (this was the first time they had been used in the UK outside Northern Ireland). Witnesses said it was impossible for the police driver not to have seen Moore.

Oxford had been a vigorous advocate of stop and search, and it was the constant harassment of local youths, and the violence deployed by Merseyside police that led to the riots. Margaret Simey, then the chair of the Merseyside Police Committee, said that the people of Toxteth would have been ‘apathetic fools’ had they not fought back.

Nick Moss
London NW10

Ferdinand Mount, in referring to Enoch Powell’s sinister version of the ‘loveable Brummie accent’, misses a key point in the Powell enigma. Powell was not a Brummie; he was Black Country, a ‘yam yam’. The contiguous townlands of Birmingham and the Black Country are quite distinct, and have enjoyed a healthy animosity since at least the English Civil War. To the Brummie, yam yams are stupid country bumpkins; to the yam yam, Brummies are untrustworthy, liars and thieves. Both points of view are essentially correct. It was maybe a factor in Powell’s move to Northern Ireland that he wouldn’t have to face his constituents in the ruins left by Thatcherism. And in the loyalist community, he would have found a homely simplicity that reminded him of his roots.

David Crook

Justice eBay Style

Frederick Wilmot-Smith draws much needed attention to what is going on in the court modernisation programme (LRB, 26 September). He notes that there has been a shift in the language used to describe the courts – where once they were a ‘place’, now they are a ‘service’ – on the part of those who advocate court closures: it is the process of adjudication that matters, they argue, not the place in which it occurs. It’s worth thinking carefully about what will be lost when the courts are no longer a place: local staff and local knowledge for a start. It is of critical importance, particularly to those without representation, that informed local staff be available to assist them, for example, in gaining access to local services and advice centres.

As Wilmot-Smith says, the proposed changes will exclude those with all but the largest claims from personal access to hearings. But the association between ‘legal importance’ and financial value is long-standing (Jeremy Bentham was complaining about it in the 1790s). Those who have less are more likely to be considered frivolous or litigious for bringing claims at all, the presumption being that even if the claim is important to them, it is not important enough to justify taking up the court’s time. As things stand, anyone who doesn’t show evidence of trying to ‘conciliate’ can be financially punished, should they wind up in court and lose, by having costs awarded against them. This is to further dissuade people from bringing claims at all (as if the cost of making a claim weren’t reason enough even for those with a legitimate grievance).

Wilmot-Smith sees that technology is affecting criminal proceedings, but its implementation is further along than he suggests. The Single Justice Procedure currently in operation allows individuals to plead guilty online to traffic offences. This may be convenient for many, but it isn’t clear whether people who do so fully understand the consequences of their decision, especially since the ease of making a plea online means that people may be less likely to seek legal advice before doing so. Once a guilty plea is entered, the proceedings to determine the penalty are closed. Why bother with a hearing, the argument goes, if everything has been set down on paper? As Wilmot-Smith puts it, ‘The more rhetorical that question sounds, the less sanguine I feel.’

Kate Leader
University of York

One Summer in America

Eliot Weinberger’s record of America’s descent into madness brought to mind the week I spent in Providence, Rhode Island in December 1987 as a would-be employee of Key Programs, a private social work organisation now involved in the incarceration of migrant children (LRB, 26 September). I had responded to an ad in the Guardian looking for social workers to work with vulnerable and homeless teenagers in a residential setting. On arrival, I was met by a member of staff, a qualified child psychologist, who began to tell me about the kinds of problem the young people had experienced and the therapeutic treatment available. Nearly all the young people referred to Key Programs had been living rough on the streets following family breakdown. Drug and alcohol problems as well as violence had characterised their lives so far. Now it turned out that handcuffs, leg irons and hosing down with cold water were the primary therapeutic tools in use. It was explained to me that this quickly brought about regime compliance, from where trusting relationships could be developed.

Martin Daly
Longniddry, East Lothian

At the Ponds

I found Alice Spawls’s article on the Hampstead bathing ponds bad news for two reasons (LRB, 12 September). When I first discovered the Ladies’ Pond, it was a peaceful place. The bathers were mostly either women’s liberationists or members of a group of older women who had fled from the Nazis in Central Europe in the 1930s and found in the women’s pond some compensation for the loss of the lakes they had known earlier in their lives. They also had other haunts, now vanished, among them Louis Patisserie and the Cosmo Bar on the Finchley Road.

It was also disturbing to discover that ‘water snakes’ inhabit the women’s pond. (Or are they actually eels? If so, perhaps irrationally, I wouldn’t mind them.) And it was the final straw to hear about the python. In these circumstances it seems better to retreat to the antiseptic calm and lane-discipline of the magnificent Kentish Town baths, though it would be wonderful if the Corporation of London were to consider opening up more of its ponds for swimming.

Elizabeth Wilson
London N6

Bernal’s Legacy

Steven Rose recalls that after attending the first meeting of the British Society for Social Responsibility in Science in 1969, J.D. Bernal ‘came back to a party at our house … To the younger generation of radical scientists gathered in the room the visit felt significant, as if a legacy was being handed down’ (LRB, 18 July). But what was that legacy? Rose discusses the Lysenko affair, surely the most egregious example of state interference in science during the Cold War, costing thousands of geneticists in the Soviet Union their jobs, and some of them their lives. J.B.S. Haldane left the Communist Party after that. Not so Bernal, who, virtually alone among Western scientists, aggressively defended Lysenkoism. On Stalin’s death in 1953, Bernal published a lengthy hagiographical tribute: ‘Stalin as Scientist’. What’s more, he promoted the idea that there was a socialist way of doing science, employing dialectical materialism, that was distinct from, and superior to, science as practised in capitalist societies.

In the end, Bernal’s commitment to Marxism-Leninism as exemplified in the Soviet Union trumped his commitment to science, blinding him to the persecution of his fellow scientists. For that reason I’m not sure he was such a good role model for the younger generation of radical scientists who emerged in the late 1960s, whose task was to see through the obfuscations and manipulations of state power on both sides of the Cold War divide.

Craig McFarlane
Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire

Memories of Leavis

Robert Fothergill refers to F.R. Leavis’s ‘very imitable sardonic drawl’ (LRB, 12 September). As a first-year student I asked him: ‘Which novels should we read that have been written since the death of D.H. Lawrence?’ ‘If you’re capable of asking that question,’ he responded, ‘you wouldn’t understand the answer even if I were to give it.’ This statement gave considerable pleasure to my fellow students, and reiterations of it, in versions of the sardonic drawl, greeted me on the streets of Cambridge for the rest of the term.

Peter Faulkner
Exeter, Devon

St Giles Cripplegate

Seamus Perry mentions Geoffrey Hill’s interest in ‘St Giles Cripplegate, destroyed in the war and rebuilt with City money, and which “now stands as icon to the Barbican Estate"’ (LRB, 12 September). It surely also had another significance for Hill, as the last resting place of John Milton.

Timothy Knapman
Weybridge, Surrey

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