The screw, whose miniature steel variety is now among the most numerous fabricated objects on earth, is a combination of two other simple machines.
In 2017, following a 140-year legal dispute between the government of Aotearoa New Zealand and the Māori people, the Whanganui River was granted personhood. Two years later, the Supreme Court of Bangladesh bestowed legal personhood on every one of its rivers. Earlier this year, the Magpie River in Quebec became a legal person following a campaign by the Indigenous Innu people. Enforcement is awkward, and rights must be realised through human guardians, but the symbolism of these recognitions is radical and far-reaching. They destabilise conceptions of nature as a store of commodities. Personified rivers are granted the right to flow, the right not to be polluted, and the right to sue. While rivers elsewhere are gaining moral recognition, England’s are full of shit.
On hot days, a friend and I used to sneak away from school and dodge through a gap in the fence to the golf course next to the playing field. There, on the manicured grass, we would roll up our shirts and trouser legs and lie in the sun until we were weak with sunstroke. By the sixth form, I’d progressed to year-round bottled sunshine: golden cans of pungent foam that dyed my skin a glorious shade of bronze within minutes. At university, a baffled boy pointed out the streaks and I added my fake tan to the list of things that lost their currency outside Essex. Last summer, when my neighbours concreted over their lawn and unfurled lurid rolls of synthetic turf, I bit back my own aversion to fakeness. They passed us their unwanted compost bin over the fence, cheerily announcing they’d have no more garden waste.
As ever, government policy dovetails with the tabloid press. Last week, the Daily Mail complained that ‘it is clear that the Royal National Lifeboat Institution – the registered charity so many of us help fund through donations, garden fetes and collection boxes – is regularly sending its vessels into French waters to bring in migrants.’ In response, the RNLI issued a patient statement reminding Britons that a lifeboat institution really does have to save people from drowning.
Growing up in a household in which Kurdish and Farsi were mixed in with English, I sometimes struggled to tell which words belonged to which language. When I was four or five, I was about to remark to classmates that the colour of a particular wax crayon was ‘gorgeous’. I stopped mid-sentence, suddenly aware that I’d laid my own trap. ‘Gorgeous’? That seemed very obviously Kurdish. (Even now, the sibilant /dʒ/ in the middle sounds suspiciously flavourful.) It felt like something my father would say with a smile before taking a photo of us. I chose a plainer word. I was ashamed, and had already taken to hiding the ‘other’ part of me.
Angus Wilson once described Aldous Huxley as ‘the god of my adolescence’. When I read those words as a teenager, I was sure I’d one day want to borrow them. It’s a hundred years since the publication of Huxley’s first novel, Crome Yellow, and I’ve been rereading his books at twice the age I was when I first encountered them.
Regardless of its dubious etymology, ‘Everest’ – a hyperbolic adverb raised to the superlative degree – is a fitting appellation for an extreme, lawless world in which ordinary moral conduct is suspended. Above eight thousand metres, acclimatisation is impossible. (The highest human settlements are at five thousand metres.) Everest stands at 8849 metres, which means climbers are effectively dying in a queue and must get to the summit and back before they succumb. If the person ahead of you keels over or goes blind, it isn’t unusual to step over them and carry on. Should someone else’s oxygen canister jam or explode, you wouldn’t be the only one keeping quiet about your spare. Climbers pause for a rest beside the body of ‘Green Boots’, thought to be Tsewang Paljor, who died in a blizzard in 1996. All this is normal on the ‘roof of the world’.
Part of the trouble is the idea that trees are just wood, wood is carbon, and carbon is fungible. Most of the wood pellets burned in the UK are imported from Canada and the United States, where mature forests which underwrite vast, complex ecosystems are being felled to meet the growing European demand for ‘renewable’ energy. The official line is that pellets are made from offcuts from the timber industry, but scientists and environmentalists report that trees are being felled to go straight to biomass.
When I was eleven, my mother sat my older sister and me down and told us a man had attacked a girl in our neighbourhood. From now on we were to be careful walking to and from school. She didn’t use the word ‘rape’ but my sister told me afterwards that was what she meant. It wasn’t clear what we were supposed to do to be more careful, but that wasn’t my mother’s point. She was training us in a grim new way of life: be fearful, be alert, treat every man as a potential threat.
The argument that nurses are ‘healthcare heroes’ who deserve a pay rise for going ‘above and beyond’ during the pandemic should be resisted. Decent pay shouldn’t be a prize for supererogatory acts. Nurses have long been underpaid, and their work has always been demanding and essential. Discourses of heroism are a poisoned chalice. ‘Heroism’ describes voluntary acts of undue risk or sacrifice. But nurses’ labour through the pandemic was not voluntary. They worked to pay their bills and put food on the table.