man & earth of other tropical regions and overlooks the importance of palm oil in the 19th century. At different times we learn that colonialism ‘denuded’ the Americas and that it extended forests. Frankopan can also write abominably slack sentences: ‘In antiquity, nomads came on to the radar’; ‘the additional hurdle … could also act as an Achilles heel.’
This book’s virtues, however, balance and perhaps outweigh its defects. Frankopan is unafraid to risk accusations of presentism, continually drawing attention to the lessons of history, at times cleverly – for instance, making Amartya Sen seem relevant to the environmental threats of c 2,200 BC. He has a vivid eye for evidence: almost every quotation is expertly chosen. He juggles deftly vast amounts of data from numerous cultures – though sometimes the facts seem to squirm and shift uncontrollably and paragraphs bulge bafflingly, like bags of contentious ferrets. He can keep much in mind simultaneously and often impresses with suggestive crossreferences and comparisons.
Readers will find it useful to have so much packed between one pair of covers. I learned a lot from the tenacious last chapters: that in 2020 ‘nearly 4 billion packages were shipped as a result of Singles’ Day’ (I am sorry to know that there is such a thing); that ‘plantbased emulsifiers’ could replace eggs in mayonnaise; and that ‘researchers at Michigan State University have made composite resin for turbine blades that can be … recycled into gummy bears’. Frankopan’s main conclusion is valid, though it hardly needs 650 pages of justification: ‘climate and the natural environment … should be central to the way we think about the past [and] … for how we understand the present and the future.’
The real untold (or under-told) story is of uncontrollably accelerating consumption – irreversible, partly because we do not understand why it happens, partly because electorates dislike austerity and partly because, in an unfair world, those of us who have wallowed in consumerism in the past cannot deny it now to the poor and underprivileged, who cannot wait to make it worse.
Where the Streets are Paved with Goldenrod
Urban Jungle: Wilding the City
By Ben Wilson ( Jonathan Cape 304pp £22)
Rooms with a view: tiered gardens on a Singapore hotel
No one, you would think, aspires to be a night-soil man. Yet in the late 1950s, Shi Chuangxiang’s labours in the latrines of Beijing briefly won him national praise. He was proclaimed a socialist hero and met the head of state. Back then, human excreta mattered, so much so that gangs fought for the plummest spots. Why? Because cities, until relatively recently in human history, were a part of healthy ecosystems that operated according to the principles of nutrient exchange: take, use, return, all in neat equilibrium. The spoils of Mr Shi (who was nicknamed ‘Stinky
Shit Egg’), collected at a time when synthetic plant food was not widely available in China, became the organic fertiliser that was intended to power the country’s Great Leap Forward in agriculture.
As Urban Jungle makes abundantly clear, this cycle of reciprocity has now been ruptured everywhere. City and countryside have become estranged; moreover, nature has been expelled from urban centres. Rivers have been diverted underground. Wetlands have been filled in. Woods have been unceremoniously cut down. The results are sadly obvious. For the 4.46 billion people who reside in today’s cities, the feel of concrete underfoot and the smell of car fumes in the air are everyday realities. It ’s little wonder that depression levels among urbanites are one fifth higher than among their rural peers.
In his new book, Ben Wilson, a Londonborn historian who – tellingly – now resides in leafy Suffolk, does not set out to depress us further. Instead, with the same upbeat spirit that pervaded his last book, Metropolis (about cities as repositories of innovation), he points in the other direction. Our cities can, to borrow a line from the Thriving Cities Initiative’s vision for creating a circular economy, become places for ‘people, plants, and animals’. The question is ‘how?’
This is not a manual for green-minded urban planners; nor is it an eco-inspired rhapsody. The urban jungle Wilson has in mind is firmly planted in the real world. Rewilding our cities is, he states frankly,
march 2023 | Literary Review 11