Elephants are being wiped out – but not enough people seem to care

Guardian, November 18 2014

I asked a senior environmental journalist the other week what he thought was the single most under-reported environmental issue. He replied, unhesitatingly, wildlife poaching. “It’s as if the wildlife is just being hoovered out of Africa,” he said. “In the 1960s people campaigned around whales and wildlife. The Daily Mail actually put rhino poaching on their front page. But now there just doesn’t seem to be the same level of interest.” Dr Paula Kahumbu, a wildlife campaigner based in Kenya, echoes his sentiment, but adds that the UK public is still more active than most areas of the world. “Not a single African leader has spoken out on this,” says Kahumbu. “The silence is deafening.”

The scale of the “hoovering” is hard to comprehend. Take elephants, for example. In Africa, where some but not all of the poaching is concentrated, elephants are being slaughtered at a rate of 20,000-25,000 a year, from a population of just 420,000-650,000. The forest elephant population has dropped by 62% since 2002. There is a word for the killing of elephants (elephanticide) and a word for destruction of the natural world (ecocide) but oddly enough – given our magnificent form in this area – there doesn’t seem to be a word for killing off a whole species. We probably need one.

And then there are the other species we “hoover” up, from illegal logging and the dumping of hazardous waste. Taken altogether, a UN report earlier this year estimated that the cost of these crimes is $70-213bn annually. So these are not small operations, not a few farmers sneakily chopping down a few trees to augment their subsistence income, or the odd fisherman going over his quota. These are international cartels systematically and illegally stripping our natural resources and selling them on for profit. Some of them are running parallel drug and human trafficking operations. There is even evidence that some of this income is supporting terrorism. “The illegal trade in natural resources is depriving developing economies of billions of dollars in lost revenues and lost development opportunities, while benefiting a relatively small criminal fraternity,” says the UN. This is big business.

The forest elephant population has dropped by 62% since 2002
The forest elephant population has dropped by 62% since 2002 Photograph: Philimon Bulawayo/Reuters

Will the publication on Monday by Interpol of a Most Wanted list for environmental fugitives begin the process of bringing to justice the people who mastermind some of these crimes? They are (even though mugshots are never the greatest) a pretty unprepossessing looking bunch, and include the Russian Sergey Darminov, wanted for allegedly running an illegal crab fishing operation that pulled in $450m, or Dutchman Nicolaas Duindam, who is said to have been involved in a trafficking ring bringing in wildlife from Brazil.

In some cases, the crimes detailed on the list belie a far more complicated story, such as that of Feisal Mohamed Ali. He is wanted simply for “being found in possession of 314 pieces of ivory weighing more than two tonnes”, according to Interpol, but, according to Kahumbu, his activities also allegedly include other extremely serious crimes. Kahumbu, along with other campaigners, is elated at the publication of the list. “It sends out an extremely powerful signal,” she says, “that the international authorities are taking this seriously.”

It’s a start – a really encouraging and powerful start. But the truth is that it is the lack of public and political interest that is the real danger. On a recent visit to Tanzania, Chinese government officials were alleged to have bought so much illegal ivory that local prices doubled, although Chinese officials denied any involvement in the illegal ivory trade. The UK government pledged £10m in December last year to help clamp down on illegal international poaching, but has not yet, according to Kahumbu, paid up. (I rang Defra and it said that £1m has been allocated so far, that a further £4m will be allocated “very shortly” and that the rest will be going out in the next 12 months.)

Why is it all so slow? Because there is such little public pressure to do anything else. Wildlife is just old hat, and nowadays it’s food security and climate change that grab the headlines. Without public pressure, politicians will let this slide. So where will the public pressure come from?

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Meet the loners

Guardian, November 10 2014

 

Mark Gretason

Vicar, 56, Worcester

If you’re single and you have a job like mine that involves lots of engagement with people, they necessarily crowd in and you need to make time to find out where you are. It sounds a bit navel-gazing, but it’s important that you never lose sight of yourself. That’s why there is the great tradition of the vicar’s day off, in theory a day on which the vicar cannot be disturbed.

I’m not really the meditative sort, not the kind of person who can sit still for too long. I need something to settle to. In the Christian tradition, the concepts of nothingness, of emptying yourself, are really very marginal. But Jesus did say that when you want to pray, shut the door. In this society, that means turning off your mobile, or unplugging the phone.

Sometimes all you need is someone to spend time with who doesn’t drain you. One of my parishioners is extremely happily married, with a lovely family, but every so often he comes over and we share a few glasses of wine. He doesn’t say very much – he just needs to get away. Yes, we are social animals – that’s what people are told all the time. But we’re also solitary: we need space to ourselves, and if we don’t have it it causes tension.

As a child I was pulled between wanting to belong to the group and wanting to be myself, not taken over by other people. At the same time I didn’t want to be a social outcast. I was bullied a little because I was just too bloody-minded to change my ways.

When I’m alone I read, I do some gardening, I pray, I play the piano, I think … I allow things to surface. Walking seems to make the thoughts flow, speeds the blood around the ageing head. It’s nice to encounter someone to say hello to, and then to go on one’s way again and return to one’s thoughts. I love the moments when you make a new connection, when you see something you didn’t see before; it’s like a spark, it freshens you.

I have to make sure that the balance in my life between my work and my time to myself remains good. Things are always getting out of kilter. It’s why I mourn the loss of a proper sabbath; if you talk to orthodox jews about their sabbath day, where everything is switched off, it really is a day of joy for them.

Solgerd Isalv

Singer, 32, Nuremberg

I read an article recently about introverts and thought, yes, I would describe myself as an introvert. I like other people’s company, but I need my own time. I get stressed if I don’t have it. I need the balance.

When you’re growing up you look at how other people behave, and the people around me travelled with friends, they didn’t want to do things alone, they would study together in groups. But if I wanted to learn something, I had to do it alone. I realised that there was a difference between me and my classmates. I found it very relaxing, for example, to watch a movie with my friends. But I would then need to be awake for a couple more hours on my own. That was a different level of relaxation.

As a singer you do a lot of work alone. It’s very social when you’re on stage – you’re interacting with the audience and your colleagues. But the majority of my working time is alone in my practice room translating text, or doing research in front of the computer. I enjoy rehearsal, I enjoy the social side of my work, but I also enjoy the work alone. The nature of the business means that you spend a lot of time travelling, living in hotel rooms. I can have a good time alone in any city in the world.

As I get older, I accept this side of myself more and more. At the same time, when I don’t have the possibility of some time to myself – like a family occasion where I can’t get away – I tend to deal with it better. Ten years ago I would have reacted in a kind of panicking way – I would get claustrophobic, as if I couldn’t breathe or think properly – but now it’s much easier.

I do get very tired, though, when I’m with people for a long time, and a bit moody. And I still get very stressed when I can’t forsee the schedule, can’t pinpoint exactly when I’ll get some time to myself. I have a partner who really understands. He is an artist himself. If I say to him that I need some time to myself, he accepts that.

Elana Winfrey

Therapist, 44, Georgia, US

I’m an introvert. People assume I’m an extrovert because I’m not shy and I can get on with others, but I have to be by myself to re-energise afterwards. Carl Jung explained that an introvert was someone who had to be alone to re-energise, while an extrovert was energised by being around people.

I’m a mental health therapist but I’ve also started a business picking up litter because I love working outside and I don’t have to talk to people while I do it. I enjoy therapy – I’ve been doing it for 15 years – but I know better than to schedule back-to-back sessions. I make sure I have a 30-minute break between clients.

My family know and understand that I need time alone. My oldest son is very introverted too. I was like that as a child and my mother used to worry about it. My room was my oasis; I used to read and paint there. I didn’t want to chat to other people; I don’t like chatting on the phone. And my best friend is just like me – we’ll talk to each other every couple of months and then we’ll catch up and have a wicked day together.

People who need solitude really absorb a lot from other people, which is why it’s so draining. I love being alone; when I’m working on a project, that’s when I come up with my best ideas. It’s when I can process things, work through ideas; it’s when I get my best work done. Most introverts have one person that never drains you, and for me that’s my husband. I could be with him 24 hours a day and never get tired of his company.

Jon Magidsohn

Writer, 46, Bangalore

A love of solitude has always been with me. Even when I was nine or 10 years old I remember liking to be by myself in my room, with the door closed and music playing, entertaining myself with a jigsaw puzzle or some sports magazines. I wasn’t doing homework or reading anything useful – it was just idle time. I remember my mother saying, “Why don’t you go outside?” But I’ve just always enjoyed my own company.

In my teens and my twenties I was very sociable and went to lots of big parties. I was working in bars and restaurants trying to fund a musical career. In 1995 I got married to Susan, and in 2003 she was five months pregnant when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She died 10 months later, six months after our son Myles was born. He was still an infant and I quit my job to look after him. I didn’t work for three years after that, and I spent a lot of time alone, or just with Myles. It really helped with the grieving process. I’ve seen people who, five, 10 years later are still in that dark place. But I was able to come out of there, and a couple of years later I got together with my second wife, Deborah.

The three of us are living in India at the moment, and I’m working as a writer. I spend several hours a day by myself and it’s great. I accept it as part of me. I don’t feel restless and bored when I’m by myself. It only happens when I’m with other people – during a meal perhaps. I do sometimes wonder if one day I’ll start to reject people entirely, but I don’t think it will get to that point.

Dorothea Bluemer

Architect, 50, Berlin

I really like my own company – I feel as if it gives me freedom. I am an architect for the state; I design prisons and courtyards and schools. During the week my door is always open and I have no time for myself at all. In the evenings I try to find an hour to read, but mostly I’m with my daughter, who’s 14. I work full time and I like to spend time with friends and with colleagues. But I also enjoy going out alone, to the cinema or to a restaurant.

Last year I went to London by myself for a whole week. When I talk about it, people are sometimes a little bit astounded. Yet one of the things that I find great about travelling alone is that I meet a lot of people. It’s a completely other way of travelling.

When you are alone you have to face all your problems alone – there’s no one to discuss them with. But in all the time that I have spent alone, I have never felt lonely. I had so many things that I wanted to see. I loved it so much, doing things in my own rhythm, drifting along streets and looking at things just as I wanted to. It is a great luxury.

I enjoyed solitude as a child. There were several chores that we had to do, and I always liked to fold the laundry. I would take my music and close the door and I really enjoy it. I wouldn’t like to live on my own. I like to have contact with people around me. But I like to spend time alone – it is a piece of my character. It belongs to me.

 

 

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Six ways you can help to stop climate change

Guardian, November 3 2014

Hiding behind the sofa definitely isn’t the best course of action, but it might be the first thing that comes to mind when contemplating the latest round of immense and frightening findings from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). It’s important to read carefully though. Its new report also tells us that solutions are available, even affordable – so what is one small human being to do? Here, to get you started, are a few suggestions.

1. Talk about climate change

Yes, that’s right, just talk. Over the past few years we’ve talked less and less about this subject, according to the Climate Outreach and Information Network (Coin), and as a result we’re all underestimating the amount of support there is out there for climate change policies. “Most people think that about half the population is opposed to renewables, for example,” says Adam Corner of Coin. “In fact about 70-80% are in favour. If we start having conversations about this we can really build up a bedrock of support for this subject.” (The organisation 10:10 has been running its massively cheering It’s Happening thread with this in mind – have a look.)

2. Take a look at your diet

Just throwing away less food and eating less meat means you can make a significant dent in your carbon footprint. The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations did some sums last year and worked out that if food wastage was a country, it would be the third highest carbon emitter globally after the US and China. You don’t need to give up meat completely, just reduce the amount you eat, or even just try cutting out the steaks. One calorie of steak requires 160 times more land than a calorie of potato, a study showed earlier this year, and meanwhile we are subsidising the whole meat industry to the tune of billions of pounds, as Vicki Hird of Friends of the Earth points out in her Atlas of Meat.

3. Reclaim the streets

A joyful development in global public policy in recent years has been a move away from road-building, towards handing back streets and spaces to pedestrians and cyclists. For example, Auckland – which has the highest ownership of cars per capita in the world and used to be known as the City of Cars – has been implementing a “shared street policy” to encourage pedestrians, which has had an extremely positive public response. In fact this is happening all over the place, and it comes in many forms. In the UK you can join your local Playing Out group to shut down your street for an afternoon so that the children can take over, or you can talk to the charity Sustrans, which helps people travel by foot, bike or public transport, about some amazing local traffic calming initiatives. You can also support cycle campaigns; despite a huge amount of activism on this front recently, cycling in the UK declined last year, but proper infrastructure could quickly change that. Working towards long-term infrastructure change is a positive long-term contribution, and also makes us feel better about the issue in the short-term.

4. Change to LED lightbulbs

These are the new wave of energy-saving bulbs, and they’ve come on a long way from the blue-tinged alien life forms they once were. You can now buy them in a spectrum of colours and they save on average about £40 a year compared with all-halogen bulbs. And this is just the start. A whole-house energy audit may ensue … There are hundreds of useful tips at the Energy Savings Trust.

5. Get involved with a community energy project

There is something tremendously satisfying about the idea of reclaiming control of our energy from the “big six” energy companies, even if only partially. “It pays so many dividends simultaneously – carbon, environmental, economic and social,” says Ed Gillespie of Futerra. Nick Dearden of the World Development Movement says we should be learning from the success of Germany’s Energiewende programme, which gives “more power to communities and ‘ordinary people’ to control systems of renewable energy production and distribution”. This community model really is working in Germany and here in the UK the Solar Schools project is a great starting point. Studies show that after raising money for solar panels for their local school the majority of people feel closer to their community, and are far more likely to get solar panels themselves.

6. Lobby your MP

Pop along to WritetoThem.com and drop your MP a line asking what they are doing and saying about climate change. You don’t have to be an expert – just let them know you’re out there. But if you want to go a step further, the Green party leader, Natalie Bennett, suggests asking them whether they support the energy bill revolution, for example, a campaign to step up the greening of our national housing stock. Corner says: “If MPs don’t hear about these subjects from constituents, they don’t know that you care about it.” Telling your MP that this is an issue that you are passionate about, and are following closely, gives them motivation to be more active in Westminster.

That’s six ideas, but there are so many other exciting possibilities. What are you currently doing to address climate change – and what do you think is the most important change you can make as an individual?

 

 

 

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The cafe that feeds Leeds with waste

The Guardian, 27th March 2014.

This story was fantastic – the most brilliant bunch of people in Leeds, making food out of waste – with so much love and heart.

The cafe feeding Leeds with waste

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Garden ecotherapy: ‘Here it’s just easier for people to open up’

The Guardian, September 18 2014.

There’s not a lot of spinach to be found – either the slugs or the birds have been feasting. But the raspberry bushes are treasure troves, studded with perfect ripe rubies right at the moment of sweetness. I eat a handful right away, and then sneakily circle back several times for more.

Others are eating as they go too. Fadi, who has been attending the woman-only sessions in the wellbeing garden for a couple of years now, is biting into one of the russet apples as she strides up to the top of the plot with a watering can. Emma Wynters, one of the volunteers, pulls tiny yellow cherry tomatoes from the plant inside the greenhouse and pops them into her mouth.

“You can eat your seven-a-day so easily here,” she says. A few feet away a stew is being cooked in the plot-shed. Lunch, a communal meal made from the prizes of the morning – onions, sunshine-yellow courgettes, runner beans and more tomatoes – and then eaten around the green plastic table at the top of the plot, is right at the heart of the Sage Greenfingers day.

From the table where we eat, you can see right down into the Don Valley, the old industrial heart of Sheffield, once a thrumming centre of the mining and steel industries. “There’s not much down there now,” says one member of staff. Up until the 1970s Sheffield’s employment levels were consistently above the national average – it was a proud and wealthy town. But as the steel and mining industries crumpled and disappeared, unemployment soared meteorically from 4% in 1978 to 15.5% in 1984.

As always in recession and decline, the effects on the mental health of the population were profoundly negative. (The situation was made worse by the closure of two large mental health institutions in the area as part of Margaret Thatcher’s Care in the Community scheme.) Even now, despite an impressive resurgence in Sheffield’s economy in the early part of the 21st century, unemployment, particularly among young people, is significantly higher than the national average, as are the levels of mental health problems and dementia.

SAGE Greenfingers horticultural therapy project, Sheffield.
Vegetables are part of a growing feeling of achievement at Sage Greenfingers. Photograph: Sam Atkins

Why green is good

It was partly in response to these problems that in 1996 the Pittsmoor Surgery, in Burngreaves, one of the most deprived neighbourhoods in Sheffield, decided to support an innovative communal growing project. Green therapy, or ecotherapy as it is now often known, was (and still is) a small but growing area with an increasing body of research to back it up.

Psychologist Oliver James, asking himself earlier this year why “immersion in greenery (even if only a municipal park) or huge landscapes (mountains, the sea, deserted regions)” should “reduce depression, delinquency, addiction and other problems”, concluded that “we are twice as likely to be emotionally distressed if we are urban rather than rural (and four times more likely to suffer schizophrenia). Part of the reason for this is the estrangement of night from day, caused by a lack of exposure to natural sights, sounds and smells, and dislocation from the natural rhythms of the seasons. Ecotherapies work because they reconnect us with nature; its external reality but most fundamentally, our inner natures. Mind, the mental health charity, has stated that it wants “everyone to have access to ecotherapy”, and in 2013 launched a campaign to have ecotherapy recognised as a mental health treatment in its own right.

Sage Greenfingers is a ripely mature example of ecotherapy in action. Based initially in a single plot in the Grimesthorpe allotments, over the years since it has expanded over three. Four days a week volunteers from the local community and trained health workers spend the hours gardening and chatting with a huge mixture of people who usually come to them through referral. “We deal with people with a very wide range of conditions,” explains director Diana Tottle. “They range from fairly low levels of depression and anxiety right through to bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, psychosis and alcohol issues. In some cases we’ll have worked with the same person through several episodes over several years; one man, for example, has been into rehabilitation several times and then come back to us, for about six years now I think. It’s one of the things I think is most important about the garden – that we’re around for the long term. So many therapies now – CBT for example – is just short term; six weeks or 12 weeks.”

SAGE Greenfingers horticultural therapy project
Sage Greenfingers project member Carmen Reid. Photograph: Sam Atkins

There are also a number of asylum seekers who come, “who are often dealing with some very traumatic events, such as torture, or the loss of close family members”. The group work together, and try to find time to just talk gently as they weed or water or harvest runner beans, to make space for offloading and quietly listening. A social worker once told me that the best most productive chats are always in the car when there’s no eye contact and no pressure – and the same seems to be true in the gardening: “It’s just easier for people to open up,” says Tottle.

What does the garden mean to the people who come there? Diana hesitates for a moment, and then says, with faint embarrassment but determination, that she thinks for some of them, “it makes life worth living. Some people can get desperately low, feel as if they’re never going to get out of this, but coming to us, knowing that they are part of a group where their presence is appreciated, where they’ll always have a warm welcome, it gives a structure to their week.”

Julie, one of the garden regulars, has been sitting in the greenhouse, delicately assembling collages from dried flowers with volunteer Emma Wynters. She has been coming for five years now. “The first time I came was with my CPN (community psychiatric nurse) and everyone was sat around having lunch. They showed me round; everyone was really friendly. I suffer from depression. I’d been at home for a long time, I was just too tired to do anything. The garden brightens up my day up. It keeps my mind occupied.”

SAGE Greenfingers horticultural therapy project, Sheffield.
Helen Lyle, support worker at Sage Greenfingers. Photograph: Sam Atkins

Rita, another regular, has started gardening at home too: “I grow courgettes and tomatoes in my garden,” she says proudly. Before she started coming to the project, she didn’t like to go out of her house. “I cried all the time,” she says. “I was so so sad.” She still has bad days now, “but the garden helps”. Emma has only been volunteering with the project since last summer, “but even in that short time I’ve seen how people change and open up. The garden gives them more confidence within this small group. It’s like the safe little Sage family”.

Lunch is done. Full of good food, I listen to the fat buzz of bumblebees over the lilac flowers and some bolted marjoram behind me, and to the gentle talk around the table. There are a few spots of rain beginning to fall; we slowly pile up the bowls as Helen is reading through the list of jobs still to be done that afternoon. “Weeding the paths and beds, and cutting back the brambles on the bottom of the site (we’ve already done a bit of that). Water the polytunnel – anyone? Feed the tomatoes – have we already done that? I haven’t smelled anything. And there’s some more harvesting to be done too please!” Fadi is slowly wiping the table, Rita is picking up the water cups. “Also,” says Helen, “please remember to take some runner beans home with you.” There are, it seems, plenty for everyone.

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Yes, humans are destructive and stupid. But that is not the whole story.

George Monbiot has written a furious, bitter and very sad indictment of humanity in the Guardian today. He is right – and wrong.

I’ve had days, weeks, months, even a couple of years at one point, when I have also wondered if humans were just an evolutionary dead-end – a particularly vicious, nasty, brutal little species that infect, kills and punish everything else around it. I don’t think any sane, thoughtful person has not had this thought at some time or another. George focusses on species extinction. If he was going to take it solely from an environmental point of view, he might just as well have concentrated on climate change, air pollution, soil erosion, food waste – we are destructive in so many and such varied ways.

And it’s not just the contemptuous way we appear to treat our planet. When you feel gloomy about humans, the way we treat each other is just as hard to contemplate; the divisions between rich and poor, the disenfranchisement of whole sections of the population, violence within families or between cultural groups, exploitation, cruelty, endless endless stupidity. Even writing it down and thinking about it is depressing.

It is all true, every scrap of it. But it is not all of the truth. The older I get, to my surprise, the more affection I have for the human race. Yes we are clumsy, foolish, destructive. But perhaps the problem is that George expects too much of us all. If we stop thinking of ourselves as wise, higher beings, and begin to think of ourselves as animals who have miraculously been given these odd gifts of social communication, empathy and an extraordinary technological aptitude with which we are not quite equipped to keep pace, then it is all a bit less surprising.

The pre-Victorian mindset – which saw human beings as a higher level of being – was demolished by Charles Darwin’s conclusions which made us part of the primate family. But sometimes I think that members of the intelligentsia have still not really come to terms with this. There are extraordinary people among us who have created works of art, written music or plays or poems that are the apex of what humanity can do (they are a whole discussion by themselves). But the rest of us really are quite basic creatures – as any observer can see. We love our children – very devotedly in most cases. We try to love each other – and more marriages succeed than fail. We try, mostly, to look after each other, to do our jobs well, to put a roof over our family heads. We are not higher beings at all – we are just doing what all other sentient species do.

But – perhaps unfortunately – we have two super-powers which are strangely complementary. We can make incredible, extraordinary tools which do incredible extraordinary things. And we can adapt to these tools, and get into the habit of using them extremely quickly. These gifts, sadly, do not come with any ability to see into the future: this is the superpower humans would love most of all (we reward people who we think have it incredibly highly) but which we resoundingly lack. The results, in environmental terms, are a disaster. But I am no longer as sure as I was that this only springs from deliberate destructiveness. You only need to watch people gardening, tending their homes, looking after each other, to realise that a huge part of the human race has an instinct to cultivate and steward, not the other way round.

George is right to feel despair about humans. But he should also feel affection for this odd, stupid, clever species. T.H.White, author of the Once and Future King, wrote a passage about humanity in the Book of Merlyn which I have always loved. Arthur is sitting on a hillside, the night before his final battle against Mordred. He looks out over the countryside.

“England was at the old man’s feet, like a sleeping man-child. When it was awake it would stump about, grabbing things and breaking them, killing butterflies, pulling the cat’s tail, nourishing its ego with amoral and relentless mastery. But in sleep its masculine force was abdicated. The man-child sprawled undefended now, vulnerable, a baby trusting the world to let it sleep in peace.

All the beauty of his humans came upon him, instead of their horribleness… He saw suddenly all the people who had accepted sacrifice: learned men who had starved for truth, poets who had refused to compound in order to acheive success, parents who had swallowed their own love in order to help their children live, doctors and holy men who had died to help, millions of crusaders, generally stupid, who had been butchered for their stupidity – but who had meant well.

That was it, to mean well! He caught a glimpse of that extraordinary faculty in man, that strange, altruistic, rare and obstinate decency which will make writers or scientists maintain their truths at the risk of death. Eppur si muove, Galileo was to say. It moves all the same. They were to be in a position to burn him if he would go on with it, with his preposterous nonsense about the earth moving round the sun, but he was to continue with the sublime assertion because there was something that he valued more than himself. The Truth. To recognise and acknowledge What Is. That was the thing which man could do.”

Everything George has said is true. But this is true too.

 

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For Ninka van der Zee

Ninka and me in the bath

Ninka (left) and me in the bath – we were probably about 2 and 3?

This is Ninka and my father; he died in March this year, just 10 days before the 21st anniversary of her death.

This is Ninka and my father; he died in March this year, just 10 days before the 21st anniversary of her death.

I was thinking about my sister late one night – she died in April 1992 but I still think about her every day – and I absent- mindedly googled her name. It was very strange when nothing, well nothing connected with her, came up. Surely everything in the world is in Google?

I had always told myself that I never wanted to write about her death – and then all of a sudden I really really wanted to. I wanted to write about a wonderful, funny girl who died far far too young. I wanted to write about how much I missed her, how much I still miss her, and about the way that I had come to see myself and human beings as a result of her death. I pitched the piece to Psychologies magazine and the lovely editors there were insanely sweet and thoughtful throughout the whole process. But about five minutes after it was published, it suddenly dawned on me that they would not be putting it online – they don’t run their pieces online. My sister would still not exist in Google. So I thought I’d put it up here. 

 

 

For almost all of my childhood, my younger sister was the person I saw most. My parents were busy journalists, both working fulltime, so we were mostly raised by nannies. We were just 18 months apart. We shared a bedroom. We sometimes ate breakfast with our parents, and usually had dinner with the current nanny.

Forbidden to watch TV (apart from on Saturday mornings and Thursday evenings – Top of the Pops!) and with no garden to play in, we built blanket-covered hideouts under the big table in our bedroom and played long, complicated games about being orphans, princesses, time travellers. We spent hours setting up the rules and characters; “I had long black hair, I was really curious and didn’t want to be in the palace any more.” Sometimes for variety, our characters had long blond hair. I was known as the bossy one, but Ninka usually got her own way. With her skinny legs, her sticky-out tummy and her huge grin she could make everyone laugh.

We planned out our futures. Ninka was going to have loads of children and be happily married, and I would be Wicked Aunt Bibi, travelling the world and descending every so often with bags full of fantastic presents. Moved from school to school and city to city because of my father’s postings, Ninka and I held on to each other, sharing anxieties and experiences that no one else knew about. She was my absolute favourite person.

When Ninka was 16, she was diagnosed with leukaemia. It was my first week at university. I stood in a payphone by Edinburgh train station as my father told me the news. For a year and a half she had every sort of treatment, but by April 1992 they had all failed and she died. I held her hand for six hours as she slipped away.

It rained during the funeral. I went home to Edinburgh and dropped out of university, spent long hours in my room, in a winged armchair where I felt safe, smoking, not sleeping, and sometimes, when things got too much, going for long walks in the white nights.

Why, I wondered sometimes, did this feel so very very terrible? I had lost my sister, my best person, yes. But surely it should be possible to think, I’m sad, and for that to be enough? Instead, surrounded by other young people in the middle of university craziness – coming out, falling in love, breaking up – I felt as if I was in an invisible howling storm that no one else could see or hear but me. Some huge part of me had been ripped away, and no one even realised.

Years passed. I kept going, drank too much, did stupid things, but eventually finished university and got my first job. The feeling that part of my body, myself, was missing, ebbed. It felt as though I had somehow, awkwardly reconstructed myself, had stitched myself back together. The confusion and pain and anger slowly turned to pure uncomplicated sadness, as if I could finally just mourn my sister.

And now I started looking for explanations. Why had Ninka’s death felt like a bomb being detonated in my own head? This had not just been losing someone, missing someone, occasionally thinking fondly ‘ooh, they’d have loved this’. My whole world had collapsed. It had taken many many years before I had confidently been able to think again “This is Bibi. This is who I am.” Why?

I knew that the human mind was traditionally regarded as being seated in the brain; across the (long) history of philosophy and (shorter) history of neuroscience there is very little agreement about what the mind actually is, but that assumption is fairly fundamental. But increasingly I didn’t understand why. Given that there is so little agreement over what makes up our consciousness, why should we assume that it’s all within our skulls? The only way I could make sense of the way that I had felt after she died was if I had literally lost a part of my own consciousness. Why not? Why couldn’t another person become, somehow, part of your mind? Over the years I slowly evolved my own theory, that humans had ‘cloud’ minds with a consciousness built up in part from the people around us, and, in particular from those that we spent most time with.  It was hard to talk to other people about this though – it made me sound even more bonkers than I often felt. It just made me feel a little better.

And then I came across a review of a book in New Scientist which seemed to be suggesting something similar, that minds could be “smeared” over more space than we had previously thought. But I lost the magazine and could never find the reference again. It was many years later that the actual thesis fell into my hands; Andy Clark’s Extended Mind essay was about his theory of the Extended Mind, an idea which was causing a furious argument among philosophers.

Clark asked a similar question to the one I had been asking myself. Why must the mind be confined to the brain? He gave a now famous example of Otto (who has Alzheimers) and Inga, who both want to go to a museum; Inga remembers the address, but Otto consults the notebook where he has written it down.

This, argues Clark, is not just a notebook, but part of Otto’s cognitive system. Your choice of words in Scrabble, similarly, can be explained as “a cognitive process involving the rearrangement of tiles in [the] tray”. And, if you allow this, then other people too can become part of your cognitive process. “The waiter at my favorite restaurant might become a repository of my beliefs about my favorite meals…. One’s beliefs might be embodied in one’s secretary, one’s accountant, or one’s collaborator.” In the footnote, Clark quotes a newspaper article about a couple where the wife “served as [her husband’s] memory bank”.

The relief! This was what I had felt, the explanation I had groped my way towards through all those years. Clark was based in the philosophy faculty of Edinburgh University, so I dithered for a while, and then seized my courage and rang him. After a few minutes of polite chat about the thesis I asked him (as neutrally as possible – you hesitate to talk to philosophers about your private life for some reason) about the extent to which other people may become part of your cognitive processes. “Absolutely!” he said. “Take a couple that have been together for ages, for example,  and have come to rely on each other and offload certain jobs onto each other so one remembers what shopping they need and the other remembers where the keys are. This can absolutely meet all of our conditions.”

I took another step and asked him what he thought would happen if, in the case of the couple he refers to in his thesis, one died? “Well,” he said thoughtfully,”that is an interesting aspect of this. I think you could argue that in less extreme cases like losing a neuron or two, and in extreme cases it would be like getting a bit of brain damage.”

Is that how it felt? In the weeks after I talk to Clark, the conversation plays back in my mind over and over again. Clark is at pains to stress how limited the practical applications of this idea are; “How would you conduct an experiment to prove it?”  he points out. There are cognitive scientists who have begun to explore the implications of the idea for our collective memory, but this work is at the very earliest stages. Nothing has really changed. My sister is not here again.

And yet I feel a profound sense of consolation and, for a long while, can’t quite understand why. Is it because Clark’s comments somehow validate the pain I felt after my sister’s death? Well, perhaps a little. But creeping into my mind is something else, the realisation that perhaps the process went both ways.

“Brain damage” did not seem too excessive a term for the way I had felt after my sister’s death, as if I was in rehabilitation, and trying to remember how to live. I had emerged from those years a wholly different person from the headstrong restless teenager I had been before; stronger, and at times so focussed I unnerved myself, but also kinder, more forgiving.

I had not, after all, become Wicked Aunt Bibi; instead, I had married a lovely, gentle man, settled down and had children long before any of my friends, driven by something I had hardly understood. I had carried on working while the boys were tiny, typing away while they slept, catching up with reading during their bath-times, pushing myself all the time to the absolute limit of what I could manage.

Late one night, I had told a friend about the long vanished ‘wicked aunt Bibi’, and she’d raised an eyebrow at me. “No wonder you’re always so busy. You’re trying to live two lives, not just one like most of us.” It occurred to me now, thinking over Clark’s theory, that if Ninka had taken something of me with her, she had also left more of herself than I had realised in me.

It’s been twenty years now, and if part of Ninka’s consciousness is still in my mind, it is so deeply embedded that it is really me. I can feel her there though, sometimes. I catch myself talking to her still.

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Being Pregnant Is Dangerous!!!

The Guardian, June 5 2013

Another day, another list of things that pregnant women might do wrong. The latest report from the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) worries about the chemicals in food, drink, barbecues, cosmetics, moisturisers, new furniture, cleaning products, air fresheners – it goes on and on. They say mothers to be should be aware of “the potential risks” posed by these chemicals so that they are able to “make informed choices regarding lifestyle changes which can be made to minimise environmental chemical exposure to their unborn child”.

To be fair to the college, it’s hard not to worry about environmental chemicals once you start to think about them. Ever since alchemists started trying to turn base metals into gold, chemists have been fiddling around with ways to make new substances, but it was in the 19th century that the whole endeavour really got going. In the 1820s the “father of fertiliser”, Justus von Liebig, identified the natural chemicals required by plants in order to thrive. He immediately marketed his own synthetic version and has been credited with founding the whole modern chemical fertiliser industry. Synthetic dyes and fabrics revolutionised the garment industry from the 1850s onwards; synthetic ingredients have turned cosmetics into a major international commercial force; and synthetic food additives and processes have utterly transformed the food on our plates.

This transformation was, until recently, fairly loosely regulated, if at all. There has been plenty of research into the different chemicals but it’s speckly, with a ton of studies done on some and just one or two on others. The industries are secretive too, and particularly reluctant to share bad news. Worst of all we have no idea what happens when these chemicals combine and mingle – they may be absolutely fine by themselves but react toxically with another ingredient.

In the 1990s, after international concerns had reached a unignorable pitch, the European Union announced an ambitious plan to catalogue and evaluate all chemicals. The resulting Reach (Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals) has been described as the most complex piece of regulation in the EU’s history; it’s 849 pages long and took seven years to pass. After much counting it has been estimated that the number of substances that will come under its purview is 143,000, give or take a sodium lauroamphoacetate or two.

So on that basis, you may feel that RCOG is entirely justified in flying a flag of anxiety. Babies are vulnerable, there are lots of unknowns out there, and for many years we’ve blithely avoided thinking about the impact these chemicals are having on them. This is a genuine issue.

Except what can a pregnant woman actually do about this? The RCOG may claim that it wants to raise awareness, but their report is written as if to confuse and obscure even further. On food, for example, it mentions two chemicals that can accumulate and pass along the food chain, but then reveals that they are now banned. It mentions that oily fish may contain heavy metals but says that they are healthy. It warns that fresh fruit and vegetables may have pesticide residues but worries that on the other hand, packaging can be dangerous too. Stumbling away from this segment with the impression that she should probably be fasting until birth, does the poor pregnant mum encounter a long list of constructive and sensible suggestions for dealing with these threats? No. They are given a list of just eight pointers, which does not include lie down in front of the nearest agrichemical company until they stop.

Pregnancy should be one of the few moments in your life when you are excused from worrying about climate change, carbohydrates, environmental chemicals, unidentified flying objects or international social injustice, and yet women today are bombarded by these sorts of messages before even managing to conceive. In short, leave pregnant women alone. They are very, very busy.

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Borough market back in business

The Guardian, Feb 7, 2013

A steel-and-concrete viaduct weighing more than 1,200 tonnes, to be built through an area of historical sensitivity, passing 16cm (6in) from the nearest building in places? No wonder the Borough Market railway project caused trouble.

As far back as 1987, British Rail said it would need to ease the bottleneck running into London Bridge station. The plans would involve more than two dozen buildings being knocked down or rebuilt, and the replacement of frontages on Borough High Street with a glass-and-steel construction. Borough Market, one of the oldest marketplaces in the country and only recently brought back to successful commercial life, would suffer months of disruption. Finally, in 2010, having seen off opposition from residents, local MP Simon Hughes and the market traders, Network Rail began work.

Unfortunately for the traders, this also coincided with the economic downturn and an arctic period in trader-management relations. The decisions to raise stall rents, subject stallholders to “taste tests”, and kick out some of the longest-standing traders were taken badly, and lawyers were called in on both sides. The management were said to have a terse, arm’s-length style; one trader told me of receiving a legal warning by post from a member of staff he had been talking in person to a day earlier. Paranoia and conspiracy theories were rampant; the coffee chains were coming, and Borough would end up being a glorified shopping centre.

But two years later the work is completed, and on Thursday the old market hall will see its first day of trading, with the official launch next week. The much-feared Starbucks has not materialised, and the glass frontage is not as enormous as it looked in the plans. The space behind it will be used for educational programmes, seating and demonstrations, rather than the feared shopping centre. But will the market be the same?

“It’s been tough,” says Richard Vines of Wild Beef, specialist in native breeds of cattle. “We were losing about £500 a week during all the work. But you know what? I also think it’s exciting. We’re in a time of real opportunity.”

Vines’ mood of nervy excitement and fragile optimism is echoed all round the market. Stallholders admit that the past couple of years have been traumatic, “listening to diggers and pile-drivers all day, just a few metres away,” winces one.

“I don’t want to talk about the past,” says Maria Moruzzi. Her famous cafe was at the heart of the rows when the managers subjected her bacon sandwiches and bubble and squeak to a taste test, and told her to take cooking lessons. “It’s negative to look back. What matters is the future. The new management is much more relaxed. They talk to you, instead of the dictatorship we had before. And look!” She gestures around the market hall.

The new viaduct has been painted the same green and white as the old, restored glass-and iron-roof. Yes, huge concrete pillars march across the market hall, yes, the top floor has been shorn off the Wheatsheaf pub (the viaduct runs directly above it), but the shops on either side are occupied again, the traders are back in place, and the customers are threading their way back in among the stalls. Moruzzi, whose family have been here since 1961, is misty-eyed with relief. “It’s so nice to see it coming back to life. Don’t you think it looks fantastic? They’ve still managed to keep the personality, the soul of the market. They’ve managed to keep the magic.”

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Bring back the Fava bean!

The Guardian, February 2, 2013

I interviewed the lovely Nick Saltwater for this piece; the beans really are delicious!

I used to go off foraging when I was at school; the school food was not really up to much, so I’d supplement it with whatever I found in the grounds. As I grew more adventurous, I moved from blackberries, chestnuts and nettles to sheep’s sorrel, puffballs and chickweed. Then, when I was at university, I’d work on farms during the summer. That was where I found what I was really passionate about, and I’ve been working on local food and sustainability ever since.

A couple of years ago I was researching food around Norwich and became really interested by the fact that local farmers were growing huge amounts of fava beans, but were then exporting them to the Middle East, or selling them as animal feed.

It turns out that the fava bean – also known as the broad bean – is one of the oldest cultivated crops in the UK, and we were eating it as far back as the iron age. It was a crucial part of the British diet for centuries, but in more recent times it became stigmatised as a food of the poor, and fell out of fashion.

However, they are an important part of our crop rotation system, so farmers have carried on growing them. We grow around 500,000 tonnes a year in the UK. So we bought some ourselves, tried them and really loved them. Then we bought a couple of tonnes and put them in some local shops and got really brilliant feedback. People thought they were delicious, and also really loved the story behind them. So we decided we wanted to bring back the fava bean for good.

Egyptian ful medames

This may be a national dish of Egypt, but it’s also served throughout north Africa and the Middle East. Ful medames is a delicious spicy stew that’s traditionally eaten for breakfast (and to break your fast). It’s also an ideal candidate for home freezing.

Serves 8-12

1kg whole dried fava beans
1 garlic clove 
1 red onion
45g fresh coriander
20g fresh parsley
Juice of 2 or 3 large lemons
1 small hot chilli
¼ tsp cayenne
¼ tsp cinnamon
3 heaped tsp cumin
500-700ml jar passata
2 heaped tsp tomato puree
3 heaped tsp sugar (or more to taste)
100ml sunflower oil (plus oil for frying)
Salt and black pepper

Soak the beans overnight. Drain, place in a pan, cover with plenty of water and cook for around one hour until tender.

Chop the onion and garlic until very fine (or puree in a food processor), then fry gently in a little oil. Meanwhile, chop and mix the herbs, oil, lemon juice, chilli and spices.

Add this mixture to the onions and garlic, then cook for a few minutes. Add the passata and tomato puree plus 100ml of water, which you can first use to wash the remains of the passata out of the jar or packet it came in.

Cook for a few more minutes and then add the beans. Continue to simmer and taste – adjust seasoning with sugar, salt and pepper. The beans will be ready as soon as the seasoning is balanced, although you can leave them to reduce if you would prefer a thicker sauce.

Eat straight away or allow it to cool, divide into portions and freeze. It’s delicious eaten with pitta bread, tomato salad and a fried egg.

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