January 7, 2020 - 12:33pm

One of the paperbacks to look out for this year is Robert Macfarlane’s latest, Underland — a precise, dizzying portrait of ‘the worlds beneath our feet’. Describing caves, mines and catacombs, the author reveals a vast network of underground structures that support the world we live on — structures full of things that are valuable, and things we want to hide.

We rarely consider these structures; they’re metaphors for everything we’d rather not think about (hell, death, evil etc.). Out of sight, out of mind. But Macfarlane makes a strong ethical case for confronting the undersides of surfaces we can see.

It’s a timely case to make. As the first Guardian long read of the year by Kyle Chayka points out, the 21st century craze for minimalism can be seen as an attempt to cover up the overwhelmingly complex, ethically suspect infrastructure of capitalism in its current form.

Minimalism is peddled by the most powerful businesspeople on the planet; they proffer ever thinner, ever lighter products, while wearing plain T-shirts in their monochrome houses. ‘But the image of simplicity is deceptive,’ says Chayka. Take the slice of metal that’s the icon of minimalism (and has sold over 2 billion times):

‘The iPhone’s function depends on an enormous, complex, ugly superstructure of satellites and undersea cables that certainly are not designed in pristine whiteness. Minimalist design encourages us to forget everything a product relies on and imagine, in this case, that the internet consists of carefully shaped glass and steel alone.’
- Kyle Chayka

Macfarlane, too, is conscious of this superstructure. In Underland, he describes using his ‘phone to summon the satellite network, and pull up a hybrid map’ — an utterly ordinary act, in this day and age. But Macfarlane reminds us of the incredible labour that enables it: ‘Sixty-three distinct chemical elements including rare earth metals and minerals mined mostly in China interact with the casing of my device.’

In other words, under their perfectly smooth and shiny surface, our minimalist products depend on a maximalist production chain. And that chain is exploitative, wasteful and excessive, Chakya reminds us:

‘We might be able to hold the iPhone in our hands, but we should also be aware that the network of its consequences is vast: server farms absorbing massive amounts of electricity, Chinese factories where workers die by suicide, devastated mud pit mines that produce tin.’
- Kyle Chayka

Looking below the surface, as Macfarlane points out, uncovers a world of things that are valuable, and things we want to hide. But we should keep in mind what is out of sight.