Stuck Monkey by James Hamilton-Paterson review – our deadly addictions

A jeremiad on the modern habits that harm the planet, from golf to gardening

Coming to a forest clearing, a monkey sees a tasty banana in a jar. He reaches in and grabs it, but then finds himself unable to extricate both his hand and the fruit. Rather than abandon his prize, the monkey stays there, immobilised, until the humans who set the monkey trap return. This perhaps apocryphal hunting method furnishes the guiding metaphor for the poet and novelist Hamilton-Paterson’s book. We are all that stuck monkey, refusing to let go of the treats of modern civilisation that will surely doom us.

This is a highly detailed and eye-opening enumeration of the environmental costs of more or less everything that makes modern life pleasant and fun, or just modern. Hamilton-Paterson has a fine sense for the darkly absurd fact: “The average Australian buys twenty-seven kilos of new clothing annually and dumps twenty-three of them to landfill.” Aviation and fast fashion, we know, are environmentally destructive, but so too is almost everything else. Owning a cat or dog, for example: a fascinating chapter about Big Pet Food notes that if the pet-food industry were a country, it would rank as the fifth-largest consumer of meat in the world. (Pet-food scientists, we are told, work assiduously on its “craveability”.) Motorsport is bad in an obvious way; football slightly less obviously, with teams taking 20-minute domestic flights to away games; most ironically, golf courses, while providing a simulacrum of tended nature, are themselves harming it with their outsized water requirements.

Even gardening, famously recommended by Voltaire as an antidote to existential despair, is here found to be environmentally sinful, relying on bee-killing pesticides, imported species and peat dug up from bogs where, if left unmolested, it acts as a carbon sink. In one of the small inconsistencies that dot the argument, Hamilton-Paterson laments the disappearance of the traditional gardener’s bonfire, even as elsewhere he blames much of the environmental damage we are doing to our obsession with burning stuff. At least, during the remembered bonfires of his youth, he reports winningly, “a pleasing melancholy of eheu fugaces perfumed one’s tritely philosophical musings on the seasons and death”.

Allied to his relentless inventory of the unintended ecological consequences of simply going about one’s life as an average 21st-century person is a strain of often amusing, splenetic denunciation of contemporary silliness: the retail garden centre with its “realm of unashamed tat”; the “awful virtuousness of Green tourism and its cliches”; or the fashion law that allegedly says “the more humdrum urban life becomes, the more one should dress as for a commando raid on Tracy Island”. The “wellness industry”, meanwhile, Hamilton-Paterson astutely diagnoses as a symptom of the healthcare precarity built into the US insurance system, and one that in its mixture of “private panic, scientific ignorance and wacky ideology” easily tips over into anti-vaccination conspiracy theories.

It remains to be guessed what purpose the book is intended to serve. With its rather nasty swipes at Greta Thunberg et al (“shrill schoolgirl saints”) it dismisses the notion that politicians or corporations will ever take effective action against the great burning; nor does the author suppose that civilians will enact a communal renunciation of industrial consumerism. Hamilton-Paterson is enthusiastic and knowledgable about the gradual move to greener sources of electricity (while rightly sceptical of the hydrogen boosters), even suggesting that commercial shipping should switch to nuclear propulsion. At the same time, he scoffs at any general hope of mitigating disaster through technology as mere “brainless positivity”. Human beings themselves are described as “the planet’s disease”, but we are now in “the endgame in the story of Homo sapiens”. Stuck Monkey, then, is ultimately more of a long withdrawing roar at the absurdities of the modern world, at length judged too perverse to be worth saving.

Stuck Monkey by James Hamilton-Paterson is published by Head of Zeus (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at Delivery charges may apply.


Steven Poole

The GuardianTramp

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