Reviews Round-Up

The critics' verdicts on Joseph Stiglitz, Sheila Hale and John Banville.

The Price of Inequality by Joseph Stiglitz

 
“Economic power is shifting to the east, putting huge pressure on tax revenues. Meanwhile social needs are rising – because of economic inequality (including 25 million unemployed in Europe), on the one hand, and social pressures from demographic changes, on the other”, writes guest-editor David Miliband in his leader for the New Statesman this week. In this context, the publication of Joseph Stiglitz’s The Price of Inequality is timely. Stiglitz has been “a notable crusader against austerity economics and in favour of tighter controls on financial capital”, writes Robert Kuttner in the NS. Kuttner praises Stiglitz’s “rare combination of virtuoso technical economist, witty polemicist and public intellectual”, as well as the economist’s “refusal to pull his punches” – a characteristic that has left him marginalised in Barack Obama’s Washington. “That is a huge loss for sensible policy,” warns Kuttner. The Price of Inequality moves beyond the social effects of rising inequality, to examine its negative economic consequences in producing a macroeconomic drag. Furthermore the economist demonstrates a hardening of class lines, with the top 1 per cent transforming into a hereditary elite. Stiglitz considers how a more egalitarian society is better suited to maintain macroeconomic balance. Significantly, Stiglitz argues that severe economic inequality is accompanied by a significantly uneven influence on the setting of economic rules. “This puts at risk not just decent capitalism but democracy, too,” Kuttner concludes.
 
Yvonne Roberts, writing in the Observer, praises Stiglitz for his passionate description of how “unrestrained power and rampant greed are writing an epitaph for the American dream”. Stiglitz does so not according to a revolutionary creed, “but in order that capitalism be snatched back from free market fundamentalism and put to the service of the many, not the few”. In this sense, Stiglitz joins a band of economists including Paul Krugman and Michael J Sandel “who are trying to inject morality back into capitalism”. But Stiglitz’s remedies to curb the wealth of the top 1 per cent are too extreme for Samuel Brittan, writing in the Financial Times. “For most of my writing career”, Brittan writes, “I have been unmoved by the 'equality' brigade”. Brittan finds a reflection of the state of US politics in “the shrillness and bitterness” of The Price of Inequality. Stiglitz’s unsurprising advocation of managed capitalism - top tax rates above 70 per cent, restoration of union powers and curbs on globalisation, leaves Brittan with waning sympathy. 
 

Titian: His Life by Sheila Hale

 
In a new biography of Titian, Sheila Hale attempts to plug the gaps in our knowledge of the Venetian painter, following the last full biography in English published in 1877. Mark Hudson, writing in the Telegraph, deems that the celebrated “richness and complexity” of his paintings is not reflected in details of his life. Hale may be “full of arcane and intriguing facts about the city”, but Hudson feels that “the book doesn’t get us much closer to Titian as a human being”. Hudson forgives this - “devastating revelations about such distant events can’t be summoned out of thin air”. Despite crediting to Hale an “evident, sometimes wide-eyed, awe of the artist”, Hudson observes that “Venice itself is Hale’s first love” and “rather than try to minutely integrate the art and the life, she provides great wodges of socio-cultural context then tries to weave Titian into it.” Hudson questions the complex “artistic personality” that must lie beneath, but concedes that “where there’s a good story to be told, Hale retells it efficiently” and seems happy to finally see shadows of contemporary characters “step into the light for the first time.”
 
The Independent's Fisun Güner laments a shy portrayal of Titian's character, saying “the artist appears as the shadowy companion to the thing that really seems to fascinate this biographer, Venice itself.” Güner finds that the biography makes for an enchanting journey through Venice, and while Titian himself is more difficult to explore, “it's easy to lose oneself in this absorbing portrait of La Serenissima”. Güner stops to note Titian as the “hard-headed businessman” in Hale's account, and though heaped under her “devotional praise”, “Titian didn't embody the Renaissance ideal of the artistic genius”; what Hale shows instead is a compelling but strategic account of what few facts we know about Titian and his city. Michael Prodger makes a similar judgement in the Guardian, adding that Hale's biography is “an example of measured scholarship, judicious opinion, and telling framing detail”, emphasising Titian as Hale portrays him: the great and humble genius we know him as today. 
 

Ancient Light by John Banville

 
“Prose stylists share a tendency to ripen and then rot”, observes Claire Kilroy in her review of John Banville’s Ancient Light for the Financial Times. While Banville’s The Sea won him the 2005 Man Booker Prize, The Infinities (2009) “proved a perplexing read”. Left at a crossroads, Ancient Light – the third instalment in Banville’s Cleave trilogy, finds the author electing “to have a moment”. Banville revisits Alexander Cleave, an actor whose only child Cass lost her life in mysterious circumstances in Italy. 10 years later finds the retired Alexander still lost in the difficulty of his daughter’s death, narrating a tale that is “illuminating and often funny but ultimately devastating”.  The strands of Alexander’s life blend “into a single meditation of breath-taking beauty and profundity on love and loss and death, the final page of which brought tears”.
 
A “sense of distortion, of objects and people being turned into things of “fragments and disjointure” persists throughout” as Alexander looks back at a love affair with his best friend’s mother from his teenage years, writes John Preston in the Telegraph . “We’re in a world where the past is more vivid than the present, and the dead somehow more alive than the living”, observes Preston, noting that while Banville’s use of language “dips into self-consciousness at times, it can also be startlingly brilliant”. But Preston considers the two halves of the book – the idyllic account of Alexander’s affair and the more “forced” contemporary narrative, and finds a combination that ultimately makes for “an uneasy pairing”. Leyla Sanai in the Independent  agrees that Banville “perfectly captures the spirit of adolescence, the body yearning for sexual experience, the mind blurring eroticism and emotion” and is “astute on the emotions of sexually abused boys who crave the sex but may resent their lost childhood”. Like Kilroy, Sanai finds that Banville’s rich, startling imagery makes for a reading experience “akin to gliding regally through a lake of praline”, his Nabokovian prose “a slow, stately process, delicious and to be savoured”.
 
Prophet warning: Joseph Stiglitz (Photo:Getty)
Photo: Getty
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Out with the old: how new species are evolving faster than ever

A future geologist will look back to the present day as a time of diversification, as well as extinction.

Human population growth, increased consumption, hunting, habitat destruction, pollution, invasive species and now climate change are turning the biological world on its head. The consequence is that species are becoming extinct, perhaps faster than at any time since the dinosaurs died out 66 million years ago. This is an inconvenient truth.

But there are also convenient truths. Britain has gained about 2,000 new species over the past two millennia, because our predecessors converted forests into managed woodlands, orchards, meadows, wheat fields, roadsides, hedgerows, ponds and ditches, as well as gardens and urban sprawl, each providing new opportunities.

Then we started to transport species deliberately. We have the Romans to thank for brown hares and the Normans for rabbits. In the 20th century, ring-necked parakeets escaped from captivity and now adorn London’s parks and gardens.

Climate warming is bringing yet more new species to our shores, including little egrets and tree bumblebees, both of which have colonised Britain in recent years and then spread so far north that I can see them at home in Yorkshire. Convenient truth No 1 is that more species have arrived than have died out: most American states, most islands in the Pacific and most countries in Europe, including Britain, support more species today than they did centuries ago.

Evolution has also gone into overdrive. Just as some species are thriving on a human-dominated planet, the same is true of genes. Some genes are surviving better than others. Brown argus butterflies in my meadow have evolved a change in diet (their caterpillars now eat dove’s-foot cranesbill plants, which are common in human-disturbed landscapes), enabling them to take advantage of a warming climate and spread northwards.

Evolution is a second convenient truth. Many species are surviving better than we might have expected because they are becoming adapted to the human-altered world – although this is not such good news when diseases evolve immunity to medicines or crop pests become resistant to insecticides.

A third convenient truth is that new species are coming into existence. The hybrid Italian sparrow was born one spring day when a male Spanish sparrow (the “original” Mediterranean species) hitched up with a female house sparrow (which had spread from Asia into newly created farmland). The descendants of this happy union live on, purloining dropped grains and scraps from the farms and towns of the Italian peninsula. Some of those grains are wheat, which is also a hybrid species that originated as crosses between wild grasses in the Middle East.

This is not the only process by which new species are arising. On a much longer time scale, all of the species that we have released on thousands of islands across the world’s oceans and transported to new continents will start to become more distinct in their new homes, eventually separating into entirely new creatures. The current rate at which new species are forming may well be the highest ever. A future geologist will look back to the present day as a time of great diversification on Earth, as well as a time of extinction.

The processes of ecological and evolutionary change that brought all of Earth’s existing biological diversity into being – including ourselves – is continuing to generate new diversity in today’s human-altered world. Unless we sterilise our planet in some unimagined way, this will continue. In my book Inheritors of the Earth, I criss-cross the world to survey the growth in biological diversity (as well as to chart some of the losses) that has taken place in the human epoch and argue that this growth fundamentally alters our relationship with nature.

We need to walk a tightrope between saving “old nature” (some of which might be useful) and facilitating what will enable the biological world to adjust to its changed state. Humans are integral to Earth’s “new nature”, and we should not presume that the old was better than the new.

“Inheritors of the Earth: How Nature Is Thriving in an Age of Extinction” by Chris D Thomas is published by Allen Lane

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder