One of the problems of the modern media sector is its need to constantly find new ways to attract viewers/listeners/readers. As a result, the mainstream media partakes in a relentless drive towards new stories and disasters. The negative impact of this is that stories, even major global events, become lost, are rapidly wiped from the collective memory. In some cases politicians even act to rewrite events to suit their own narratives and lust for power, often aided and abetted by their journalistic outriders. Consequently, it becomes vital that some individuals take time to create testaments to capture authentic experiences and impacts to be captured for posterity, if only to remind us that there are alternative, and often much more honest recollections of those events. This book by Stu Hennigan is such a testament, based on his experiences as a volunteer, delivering food parcels and medicines to those in need across Leeds during the first UK pandemic lockdown.
The book is mainly an ethnography of his experiences delivering food to those in need across Leeds and is written in a loose diary format. The thick descriptions give a vivid idea of the areas he visits, the dilapidated nature of much of the housing in parts of the city, and the incredibly difficult lives of those he interacts with. The fact that he recorded his experiences on a daily basis whilst volunteering and helping maintain some semblance of normality within his family life is astounding. He shows a huge commitment to capture the stories of poverty in what is meant to be a modern, wealthy nation. The book follows his experiences chronologically, which he intersperses with a reminder of the wider national picture at the beginning of each chapter. This helps to create a rich recollection of a major event, locating the narrative in both place and national context.
What comes across to me is the vast disparity of wealth across a single city, often between two adjacent areas. It feels as if whole groups of people have been left to fend for themselves, apparently unworthy of help as a result of the commentary the Conservative government spun after the financial crash of 2008 – it was right to dole out billions to the individuals who had crashed the system, but those in need were to be punished for someone else’s catastrophic mistakes because they are unfairly characterised as feckless, lazy, unwilling to work.
A book comes along every once in a while, which reflects the awfulness of a society back on itself, making it uneasy, but necessary reading. I remember reading Rezak Hukanovic’s The Tenth Circle of Hell: A memoir of life in the death camps of Bosnia, and being stunned by the inhumanity, the shear willingness to perpetrate violence against innocent people just because of their religion. Here, Stu Hennigan gives a critical and sickening insight into how a country whose wealth should ensure that all its population have a basic dignity in life has failed completely to do so. This is a hugely important testament not only to capturing the impact of the COVID pandemic, but also to laying bare the abject failure of politicians to fulfil their basic role – the safety and dignity of their population. This seems to me to be a clear throated call for change.
Tim Ingold sets out to explore and argue for a different view of both anthropology and education from what has become the ‘norm’. He develops an argument which contrasts what is characterised as the mainstream, of teach to, of the transfer of knowledge, and of examination-driven endpoints, and an alternative, which he builds an argument for, which sees both education and anthropology as opportunities for attention and the opening up of the learning process to allow for discovery. This naturally leads to consideration of how we study, what the role of the teacher is, how central freedom becomes to the enterprise, and ultimately the role universities need to take in an increasingly complex and fractured world.
Many of the philosophers and theorists on which Tim Ingold rests his argument are already well known and have been used to build the foundations for a different educational imaginary. Across the four chapters, Ingold uses a number of different concepts, such as transmission, communication, reason, major and minor approaches (based on Deleuze and Guattari), and freedom, etc to construct an argument centred on identifying contrasting approaches to education. The first is the ‘major’ approach, the dominant process of education at present, one focused on transmission and the doing of education to students. They are passive and receive the knowledge their ‘betters’ believe is most important for them. But through this, they may not truly attend to their learning, merely memorising and regurgitating. However, the ‘minor’ approach is characterised by the teacher and students becoming intertwined, the teacher not leading but helping, encouraging and supporting. This rests on the notion that all in the process learn, not merely the students. And this also opens the door to the idea that learning is not finite and does not have an end point such as an exam, it can continue endlessly for as long as those involved are gaining from the experience.
The role of teacher and learner is considered in depth, and use is made of the work of both Ranciere and Biesta to outline the very different relationships and foci of a minor approach which emerges from this. I find one of the most interesting aspects here the role of attention. Ingold splits attention into two types, volition and habit. Volition is the interruption to check, to check the developing knowledge of the individual, but seen here as disruptive and negative. Habit is the flowing attention given to something we are focused on, it is positive and enabling of our interest. And it is in habit that Ingold argues we can find a true element of freedom, that encouraging attention which focuses on the flow of experience and learning (which is similar to Whitehead’s theory of education) is more conducive for a good education.
The final chapter of the book uses the ideas which Ingold explores to call for a different type of anthropology and a different approach to university education. These again follow the argues he builds in the first three chapters, emphasising democratic, emancipatory and person-centred approaches. He critiques the current systems in both these fields and makes clear and reasoned suggestions as to how they need to change based on the theoretical work he has structured leading up to this point in the book.
This is a relatively short book (94 pages) but is theoretically dense and develops a number of strands of argument. This is done very well, and puts forward a well-conceived argument for a different approach to education. The outline of this alternative view, in practical terms, is perhaps not that new, but how he gets there, and its explicit links to anthropology make this an interesting and original read.
Hallam, R. (2019) Common Sense for the 21st Century: only nonviolent rebellion can now stop climate breakdown and social collapse. Common Sense for the 21st Century: Carmarthenshire.
This booklet is about the need for radical activist led change in the 21st century as the result of rapid climate change. It is a short booklet, at 80 pages, and in this space makes a case for a particular form of revolution to secure the societal change needed to meet the acute and rapidly deteriorating situation created by accelerating climate change.
The case for rebellion is made by contrasting it with reformism. Hallam (a co-founder of Extinction Rebellion) argues that mainstream politics has failed due to its overreliance on the use of gradual policy shift, where politicians try to make frequent small adjustments to bring about change over time, reliant on ensuring they remain popular, so never suggest anything too radical. He contrasts this gradual, and ultimately minimal approach with the rate at which the climate is shifting, and concludes, quite rightly in my opinion, that the trajectory in policy change will never meet the ever more acute problems caused by climate change. Hence, if reformism does not work, and can be seen not to have worked over the past thirty years, what to do to put in place the required intensity of reaction to minimise and even reverse the impact of human induced climate change.
Having set out a very reasonable case for the predicament we currently find ourselves in, where politics lags behind the needed activity, Hallam goes on to outline how he sees us producing the rapid and revolutionary change we need to overcome the climate emergency we have created. This is where I begin to struggle with this booklet, as his plan seems to hang on a form of utopian activism which appears to leave out of its argument the complexities and differences inherent in human nature and human populations.
Hallam begins by advocating rebellion, with thousands to hundreds of thousands of people taking to the street in non-violent acts of protest and disruption very similar to what we have seen in previous Extinction Rebellion (ER) protests. This will grow naturally over several days and lead to the capitulation of the government. There are several big assumptions being made here; firstly, that this many people would wish to protest in this way. ER has mobilised people successfully but never in the required numbers. And vague mention is made of this being a global rebellion. Some of the largest polluters in the world would not meet such protest the same way as the UK police force would, and possible reprisals on families etc would make such protests hard to envisage. Hence, the immediate problem is mobilising enough people. Secondly, governments are likely to use the mainstream media to argue that such activity is wholly unacceptable, and begin to turn sections of the population against the rebels making their case even more difficult to sustain.
If we accept however, that despite these huge problems, the government somehow lays down its power, what then? Here, the big hope for what comes next is the creation of a National Citizens’ Assembly which takes over from the function of parliament. This is to be created through sortition (random selection of people from across the population) of 1000 people. There then comes an assumption that this assembly will naturally and drastically shift the policy narratives, bringing in socio-economic and environmental policy to solve the climate crisis and at the same time introduce a fairer, more equitable society. To me this ignores that if the 1000 people are chosen randomly, they will have a spectrum of beliefs and issues which mean a lot to them, and this may stall many of the desired policy shifts. In addition, in a group of 1000 people, many may assume an identity aligned with their previous political allegiances, seeing themselves as Lib Dem, Labour, Green, Tory or SNP for example. Therefore, rather than the simple shift to a natural preference for radical change, the National Citizens’ Assembly may decide on a different course of action, or may stall altogether until informal coalitions emerge – hence replicating the system it is meant to replace.
This is a very interesting booklet which sets out the acute nature of the problems we face extremely well but I can’t help but feel that there has been no engagement with the ever-expanding literature on the psychology of climate change which would present a much more complex image of the choices, perceptions and motivations of people in the wider population. As a result, the suggested rebellion and subsequent solution to the climate emergency we are in feel to come from a naïve-utopian perspective. I think something which engages with the huge complexity of the changes needed and how these might be met, something multifaceted and more tentative might seem less revolutionary, but might well serve as a better blueprint for bringing meaningful change.
This is a relatively short book which explores the idea and practice of masculinity, based on Grayson Perry’s engagement with the topic via a TV series he developed on the topic (All Man), together with his reflections of his personal experiences. Based on a problematisation of masculinity in modern society, the book is split into four parts, each exploring a different facet of masculinity and its contemporary meanings, processes and impacts.
The first focus is that of power, and how men, in particular a particular group of richer, often more middle/upper class men, have much of the power in modern societies and use this to perpetuate a narrow set of advantages. The exploration of how other groups, including women, ethnic minorities, the disabled etc are disadvantaged is developed here, including how shifts in power have been met with resistance by some in the powerful male group. There is also reflection on how men who are not in these powerful groups, namely the working class, find other ways to try to act as powerful agents at a more local or even personal scale. Consideration is then given as to how change in these power networks, to make societies more equal and inclusive would lead to much more positive societies which might be more at ease with themselves and others.
Next comes a reflection on the ways in which men act out their masculinity, particularly through the ways in which they dress and act. There is an interesting discussion on identity, and a fairly standard but well-crafted and insightful discussion about gendered clothing for children and the types of toys etc that they are assumed to prefer. There is a really interesting personal reflection by Grayson Perry reflecting on his own childhood and his experiences of clothes and deciding how to dress. Whilst much of the wider content of this chapter is not really new, the engaging writing and use of interesting examples helps draw the reader into reflecting about their own experiences and perspectives around how we present ourselves to the outside world, and why we do this in particular ways.
The penultimate chapter focuses on more traditional portrayals of masculinity and how some sections of society are still trapped in these ways of acting, here argued to be the result of a lack of positive male role models. Consideration is given to why very masculine persona can be problematic, using a detailed reflection of an example of a group of teenagers from Skelmersdale who had been part of Grayson Perry’s original TV series. What I liked about this discussion is that he makes the point that such potentially violent masculinity, whilst perhaps most overt in contexts such as this, is not a single class problem, it is merely that middle- and upper-class violence is often better hidden, and in the case of domestic violence, may be more mental than physical. Avoiding easy tropes such as violence being solely a working class issue (beloved of sections of the right wing press) helped in reflecting on the genuine ubiquity of the problems involved.
The final chapter considers emotions and the many ways in which masculinity can mask or prevent men from opening up and being honest about their feelings; suicide rates amongst men are much higher than women. Consideration is given to the messages boys experience in childhood that all too often lead them to believe that they need to look strong and to show little emotion. It is argued that this results in many men being unable and unwilling to be honest about their feelings in case they are thought of as weak. Grayson Perry then develops some of the strands of this argument to reflect on sexuality and possible links to childhood experiences. Finally, he begins to consider how masculinity needs to be changed, morphed to realign how men see themselves and how they see their place and role in society. There is no silver bullet here I’m glad to say, no surprise solution to what is a complex and difficult set of issues and problems, but nevertheless Grayson Perry does offer so me nuanced ideas about how we can begin to reform masculinity into something more positive and something which embraces a greater sense of equality.
This is very much a polemic and therefore some of the arguments at times feel a little simplistic. It is also a slight annoyance that where data or examples are given, it is not always clear where sources come from that could be explored further. But these are minor points. The mixture of thought and exploration of big issues, linked to both more detailed examples and personal reflections is really engaging and gives a great deal of food for thought and reflection. I can imagine this being a great ignition point for further discussion for couples or groups (regardless of gender makeup) based on the range of insights and the interesting foci by which the book is structured and as such might be a great resource for thinking about processes of change.
Autor, D. et al (2021) The Work of the Future. Building Better Jobs in an Age of Intelligent Machines. MIT Press: Cambridge Massachusetts.
In 2018, the president of MIT commissioned the MIT Task Force on the Work of the Future. This task force was to explore the relationships between emerging technologies and work. This book is a summary output of some of the initial work of this task force. It is set within an American context, and hence the data used, and examples given are all from the USA. However, whilst this is the case, the arguments which are developed through the book will have wider currency, especially in the UK where this reviewer is based.
The book begins by looking at the changing labour market within the USA, and sets this in relation to the processes of task automation and the creation of new work as a result of the development of new technologies. The authors demonstrate that there has been shifts in the types of jobs, and that many new jobs have been created as a result of technological change. Within this discussion, it is made clear that there have been downsides to the development of technology in the labour market. There is clear evidence that whilst graduates have faired well from shifts, continuing to see increases in real wages, many other workers have seen a stagnation, or even a fall in their real wages. This has led to what the authors call ‘the great divergence’. As a result there has been a rise in inequality, as they state,
‘Within this great divergence lurk multiple dimensions of growing inequality – by education, race, ethnicity, gender and even geography.’ (19)
Linked to this growing inequality is a divergence in job quality and the loss of good conditions for many low paid and low skilled workers. This part of the book finishes by demonstrating that the rise of inequality and its linked issues of poor job quality have a detrimental impact on the US economy; unsurprisingly the conclusion appears to be that if you want a better functioning economy, you need to close the inequality gap by developing a better environment for work.
The authors next turn to the technological side of the equation. Here, they recount issues around the development of artificial intelligence, and its potential for changing the world of work. There are examples of how work might change, but overall the message appears to be that these shifts will lead to a change in jobs rather than the loss of jobs and resultant mass unemployment. One example shows the rising employment numbers and wages of nurses and health information technicians, whilst seeing a fall in the number and pay of medical transcriptionists over time. Another example explored is that of driverless vehicles. This shows that as the technology matures it may well be that many jobs are lost, but as the old jobs decline, new sectors will grow up around servicing and maintaining the new automated vehicles.
Whilst there is a lot of focus on the adoption of new technologies and how they will radically change the way people work, the authors do emphasise the uneven adoption and use of such technologies. They include a discussion of small and medium enterprises where the adoption of automation has been far less obvious than in large companies. This is often due to the cost of swapping over to these new processes; where production runs are small or where profits don’t allow for large capital expenditure, companies choose to retain existing ways of working. This then shows another potential for inequality through lessened competitiveness.
Having outlined the complexity of the current shifts in the workplace as a result of emerging technologies, the authors then open the second part of the book which focuses on what responses are needed to ensure that inequality is lessened and not amplified. They begin by exploring the role of education and training. It is refreshing to see a focus on workplace training rather than seeing the formal education system as the primary way of correcting education need. A number of options are considered, including in-sector training programmes, private sector investment in training as well as better vocational training in schools. These are all focused on developing, and continuing to develop, the expert skills-based and knowledge of workers. It shows the idea of ongoing development as opposed to a single programme at the start of a career.
Next job quality is considered, as the authors highlight,
‘the US has not translated rising productivity into commensurate improvements in job opportunities and earnings for the majority of workers during the last four decades.’ (101)
Several policies are suggested here including better unemployment insurance (a form of social security) which has fallen to low levels with less protection since the 1980s. This is suggested in conjunction with meaningful minimum wages and the development of workers as stakeholders, including renewed labour movement activity to work in partnership with employers. It seems here that there are no really innovative suggestions, merely the reinstalling of rights and securities enjoyed previously before the free-market ideology of the 1980s kicked in. However, the authors believe these interventions could play a crucial role in increasing job quality across the labour market.
To finish their exploration, the authors look at the need for institutions for innovation. They make it clear that many of the large-scale innovations the USA have been global leaders in came from government backed investment, for example in space engineering and the internet. This shows that the free market alone cannot create innovations by itself, and needs the State to act as partners if innovations are to develop the economy further.
The result of the discussions engaged with throughout the book lead to a set of policy directions, which the authors believe will create a better workplace which can integrate technologies positively. Unsurprisingly these policy directions focus on investing and innovating in skills and training, better job quality, and a greater role in bringing about innovation.
This is a really interesting book which provides both data and examples as evidence for the arguments being made. It will be accessible to the general reader. I particularly like the fact the authors don’t present emerging technologies as either the saviour or the demon of the future labour market, but as a set of tools which need to be considered in relation to the outcomes we want for ourselves as the workers and populations which will interact with them. It also demonstrates that whilst the New Labour government of the 2000s who pushed a skills agenda in schools with videos such as ‘Shift Happens’ which oversimplified the potential changes in future job markets, those who laughed and said that such shifts were a mirage and that education should go back to being ‘stuff to memorise’ were equally naïve.
Winters, A.M. (2017) Natural Processes. Understanding Metaphysics Without Substance. Palgrave Macmillan: Cham, Switzerland.
As this book highlights, the dominant European ontological tradition is one based on substances. Here, a discussion is developed which considers this substance-based ontology and its possible problems, and then presents a case for the alternative, a process-based metaphysics.
The book begins by focusing on the debate over the primacy of substance over process, beginning with the pre-Socratic philosophers. The argument presented is that a substance ontology has become dominant with little consideration of the potential of the process alternative.
The main body of the book goes on to outline both Aristotelian and Neo-Aristotelian accounts of substance. Neo-Aristotelian metaphysics is discussed using Lowe’s work which focuses on a four category ontology (objects, kinds, properties and modes) which are discussed and the shortcomings of the account identified. This leads to a more general discussion about the problems with a substance metaphysics, focusing particularly on how change is possible. This section of the book uses common sense orientated arguments, which are then followed by a consideration of naturalistic (i.e. scientific) problems. Here, Winters uses quantum field theory and biology to explore further the idea of substance metaphysics and again finds that problems present themselves in relation to developing a substance metaphysics.
Having argued that even though Neo-Aristotelian theories have problems, they should not be characterised as false, but should also explore alternative metaphysical theories, Winters then goes on to outline the fundamental terms of a process metaphysics. He uses quantum field theory as a vehicle to suggest that a process approach works as well as alternative substance theories and that it also fits well for biological explanations. However, Winters is careful not to suggest that a process metaphysics is not without its own problems and thus takes a balanced view of the potential for a process alternative to substance metaphysics.
This is a very interesting and well written book, but is probably not for the general reader, assuming a level of philosophical engagement and understanding of metaphysics. However, as a source to support arguments around the legitimacy of process metaphysics it is a very useful contribution.
Climate change has increasingly become accepted as the most important process impacting on the future of the human species. Whilst the majority of people now accept that climate change is a reality, the level of understanding related to how climate change happens and the impacts it has, are less well understood by the wider population. To understand the underlying physics of climate change processes is crucial if individuals are not only to have confidence in the science, but more importantly, to challenge spurious arguments made by those who continue to deny the climatic shifts we are experiencing.
Krauss’ book is a very clear and well written introduction to the physics which underpins the science of climate change and does this with both a clear and critical overview of the science but does this with a very engaging style. Throughout the book, links are made between the scientific principles and concrete examples which help to illustrate and bring to life the ideas which are discussed.
After a short discussion of the tidal environment of the Mekong River and delta, which is returned to later, the early part of the book focuses on the history of carbon dioxide measurement and the famous evidence of concentration increases as measured at the Mauna Loa Observatory in the Hawaiian Islands. This is augmented by consideration of evidence coming from ice core measurements to show that there is plentiful data showing that the levels of carbon dioxide currently in the atmosphere are unprecedented.
This leads to a reflection on the ways in which carbon dioxide cycles through the global system, and the impact humans are having on how this works. The evidence shows that we are having a huge impact! What is useful about the discussion of cycles is not only the volumes of carbon dioxide involved, but also how the various stores and transfers fit together, and how humans have changed these, particularly in the last 250 years or so.
Then comes discussions of atmospheric energy transfers and chemistry. Both of these are well illustrated and explained for those who are not confident in exploring aspects of the physical sciences. There is enough general explanation here that even if an individual does not understand the maths, they can understand the argument being made.
Having established the basic physics and chemistry involved in climate change, consideration is then given of the record of shifts in temperature and shifts in the concentrations of various greenhouse gases. The contribution of these different gases is then reflected upon and how changing concentrations in the past have compared to proxy temperature change evidence. As a result, a secure link is made between changes in the concentrations of greenhouses gases in the atmosphere with changes in global temperature.
The book then moves into the final main section, focusing on the impact that climate change is having on the systems of the planet, including the wasting of ice masses, ocean currents, etc and the effects these changes will have, particularly on sea-level rise and its associated impacts.
This is a fantastic book and should give the general reader a great insight as to how scientists can be so sure of the processes leading to climate change. What is also a real positive is the way in which Krauss does not attempt to scare and lecture. In places he makes it clear that the evidence concerning future impacts is not always clear and we cannot be certain of what will happen, in detail. However, at the same time we can be sure that in general if we do not change our relationship with the planet, the future will not see positive changes. This honesty about the level of evidence and security of predictions makes the overall argument much stronger and demonstrates that Krauss is using expert understanding and the available evidence to give an honest picture of what we now about the processes of climate change at this time.
This is an inexpensive book, and can be engaged with by the general reader, as well as being a great revision text for those in academia who might be working on the wider aspects of climate change. This book deserves to be widely read.
Some reflections on things I'm reading