Paths to restoration

This blog explores ways to reimagine our relationships with each other and our planet, to furnish peace, and to bring renewal and regeneration to our world

Imagine all the people . . .

For me, one of the more pleasant things about being in lockdown has been is that it has provided me with plenty of time to think about what might be. What if we really did learn the harsh lesson of this pandemic, that we cannot escape from the consequences of our actions (and inaction)? What if we put aside the crass materialism of the past four decades and started listening to what nature is telling us? Too big a change when most people want everything to go “back to normal”? But if we humanity did find hidden wells of humility, then everything becomes possible.

Here is the world I dream of awaking to in 2030:

  • Black lives really do matter. The protests of 2020 have been responded to in a manner previously unimaginable. The change has been so fundamental that antisemitism and islamophobia have disappeared alongside racism.
  • Carbon emissions have since been reduced by 25% from 2020 levels, with environmental sustainability becoming the prime objective of the world economy. GDP as a measure of progress has been relegated to history. Business is now focused on enabling the transition to a fully sustainable economy. Built-in obsolesce is a thing of the past and simplicity is the prevailing fashion. “Blue-sky thinking” now means something very different to what it meant in 2019.
  • Across the world, the priorities of taxation have changed. Taxes now have a dual purpose: to create greater equality and to ensure greater resilience in the face of the climate crisis. Carbon taxes have reduced carbon extraction by 95%. Tax avoidance by the superrich is no longer acceptable. A sea-change has taken place in attitudes once the first billionaire had been imprisoned and his assets confiscated. The list of billionaires has shrunk and continues to shrink.
  • Signs of a levelling out between nations of the world, as well as within nations, with debt cancelation and significant resource transfers to the most vulnerable regions. This has resulted in a remarkable reduction in poverty at the local level, particularly in the poorer parts of Africa, Asia and Latin America.
  • The infotech monopolies have been broken up, while local businesses thrive in this new economic climate. A shift to “localism” has spurred increased efforts to self-sufficiency and greater value being placed on community wellbeing.
  • Power is generated almost entirely from renewable energy sources. Transport is likewise powered solely by renewable energy, while air travel plays a much smaller role than it did in 2020. Modern aircraft are increasingly powered by a combination of biofuels and new-generation batteries.
  • Much of the R&D skills and resources previously oriented to the arms industry have been refocused on developing carbon capture and sequestration technologies. The programme has been given the same priority that was once given to the NASA Apollo programme. Rapid progress is being made, with the first large-scale systems already in operation. International conflict is becoming rarer, with multilateral nuclear disarmament is underway.
  • Following international realisation of just how urgent tackling the climate crisis has become, the United Nations has been revamped and has been given the ability both to prevent wars and to focus national activity on tackling the challenges humanity faces. There has never been a more peaceful period in history.
  • Israel-Palestine has become a model democracy. Its federal model ensures long-term stability and gives full equality to all Israelis and Palestinians. The state now has an exemplary human rights record.
  • Re-wilding has become a priority in many nations, including in Brazil and Indonesia, where the regeneration of the rainforests is already having a positive impact on the global climate system. Worldwide, the rate of decline for many species of flora and fauna is starting to slow, though not as quickly as many would have hoped.
  • Globally, there has been a 25% reduction in meat consumption, with a drop in excess of 75% in the West. Following increased consumer pressure, kindness has become paramount in animal husbandry. Sustainable farming, including permaculture, urban hydroponics and organic farming, is now the norm. The use of petrochemicals in fertilisers and pesticides has been eliminated from agriculture. All fresh food is organically farmed.
  • Beauty has made a return in art and art has made a return to the eternal. Small is beautiful, and simplicity king.
  • The human species, having discovered just how fragile their life on planet Earth has become, is learning collectively to walk softly and to act gently.

While some might feel that meeting all these objectives by 2030 is overly optimistic, nothing stands in our way but us. Plenty of examples from history, from the Apollo programme, to the evacuation at Dunkirk, to the creation of the United Nations in 1948, show us that given sufficient will and purpose remarkable effort is possible and that such effort can achieve results. The complete reorientation of our economies and the sudden discovery of unlimited resources in the face of the pandemic shows us that when we believe collectively that something is truly important, goals can be achieved very quickly indeed.

What would you add to this list?


The fall of Homo economicus?

Has the pandemic changed our priorities?

The surge to the beaches over the weekend underlines that there is an increasing urge “to get back to normal”, to forget the rigours of lockdown, to put behind us misery and disruption it has caused many. For a large number, me included, getting back to normal appears to mean a return to socialising with friends, watching sports fixtures, restaurant dining, meeting up in the pub or the coffee shop, going on holiday and travelling. I often hear longing in the voice when such things are talked of.

It strikes me that none of this has very much to do with what most preoccupied Homo economicus prior to the pandemic – the usually litany of getting onto the housing ladder, climbing up the career ladder, and making and spending more and more money by running ever faster in the rat race.

It comes as no surprise that we want to do now the lockdown has eased contrasts with the list of things that occupied the majority of our waking hours prior to its start. Returning to the place of work doesn’t regularly feature in most people’s top three; not surprisingly, the desire to engage in the purgatory of the daily commute or endless tackle traffic jams is completely absent. Even the urge to go shopping is now remarkably low our list of priorities among the people I know. (The online shop might have finally won out in its battle with the high street.)

What most of us have really missed during lockdown is the chance to be social. We miss the things we used to do together prior to the pandemic – the chance to socialise with each other for no reason at all, to gather together in groups of friends, to celebrate and enjoy life with one another. We have also missed our freedoms – in particular, the ability to wander without constraint wherever we choose. Both these things are now likely to have a new priority in our lives.

It is interesting that for some people, some of these same things are also represented in what they see as the more positive aspects of lockdown. Friends tell me they have appreciated being able to spend more time with their families. Many say they have taken the opportunity to catch up on the phone with those with whom they have not been in regular contact. Others have used the time to do something they have long been intending to do but have not had the time to do so, until now.

As an aside, it is notable how many fathers I saw spending time with their young children during the first few weeks of lockdown. It was equally notable how this seemed to diminish somewhat as the second month wore on. I wonder what the children thought of it all? How would they rate the absence of their friends against increased time spent with their parents, I wonder?

So, have we learnt anything from this experience? What would our society look like after lockdown if these new priorities somehow became more permanent? It might mean we would spend much less time at work, and more time together. This would weaken the hold of business over our time and this, in turn, could help shape a very different set of priorities for our society and our economy.

For the past forty years, the needs of business have shaped not only economic priorities but also almost every aspect of social policy. Are we starting to see the economy as just one aspect of life and not the master of society? Could the reign of Homo economicus have come quietly to an end during lockdown? Could this maybe be one real legacy of the coronavirus pandemic?


The tale of the wayward advisor

In the times of the dread disease known as Covid the SARS too, when fear did stalk the land, the Kingdom Lost at Sea was ruled by the main man Boris the Hearty. It was a terrible time, one of much tragedy when many did die both in their homes and in the places laid out for them, two metres apart. The doctors and carers of that land did struggle to confine the disease and to salve the physic of the people. Its effects were sorely felt and truly terrible, many thousands dying because there was no help that could cure them.

With nothing to be done, Boris showed much wisdom. Knowing that no one would listen to what he said, in those days he did seek to build some credibility with the people by standing amidst wise men and women, surrounding himself with what was true and who was trusted.

He made sure that the people around him did pass on their wisdom to the people who asked of him. To his left stood the Knight Sir Patrick Vallance, who spoke truth about science. To his right stood the Upright Christopher Whitty, the chief medical man, much trusted because of his lifetime in public health. Afore the scribes stood Jenny Harris too, who did also speak truth on medicine matters. Thus Boris the Hearty, as he held court afore the waiting crowds of scribes, did surround himself with truthful and trusted advisers to answer the people in those terrible times.

So, it was in those days the order went out across the Kingdom Completely Adrift that the people should be confined to their homes whilst the great pestilence did sweep over their homes. “Do not venture out, or Covid the SARs too will strike you down.” And so the people were thus confined for forty days and forty nights. Not even a child did venture forth to school, nor a son to visit his mother on her own day, or the people to their place of work. The country all about became silent and not a soul did stir apart from the birds that did sing joyfully in the quietude.

Every last person did as was asked by Boris the Hearty because each one believed what was said to them by his advisors and all knew that they were subject to the same rule and all prey to the same plague.

All bar one. This man was the wayward son who had fallen to earth sometime before. He had been left adrift of any party and did not subscribe to the rules of the court or the beliefs of the Kingdom Sinking Slowly. This man did tempt the forces arraigned against him, taunting them by saying that he was above all, even the main man Boris. Nothing that was true of the remainder of the court of Boris was true of him. Even the disease that stalked that land would not dare to challenge his power which was mathematical and algorithmical in nature.

It was thus in the days whilst all were confined to their homes and the plague stalked the land that he did venture forth, both he and his wife. And his child. For lo, his wife was recently of child and he was a new father and a man responsible who did see what was before them all. (Or was that Boris, I forget.) So he did flee from the confines of the court of Boris most rapidly, where the pestilence did lay waste, bringing even Boris low, to the northern lands, from whence he did first come.

There he drove his kin afore him, testing his sight, proving that he was not subject to those who did seek to confine him, not even Boris. Those that saw him there were told to avert their eyes lest he did speak against them and confine them further. When challenged by the enforcers of the law, he did ignore them, telling them that he was not subject to their jurisdiction but only to his own. He showed in thus so doing that he was above all, even those that believed they spoke the truth in the law.

There was thus much consternation among the people and among the scribes of the Kingdom Waving not Drowning. “Who is this man? What does he say of us?” they didst say. “But surely there is but one law, before which we are all equal?” And some were heard to mutter beneath their breath, “Didst thou not say that we are all in this together?” Thus came the Great Disillusionment.

It was thus in the Rose Garden, the setting for previous Great Betrayal, that he did disabuse them all of the notion of equality and equity. “No,” he thundered, “I did what I did because I am a rule to myself and obey none but my own will.” There was a gasp or two among those who looked on. One did fall down as if dead. Scribes did brandish pencils to challenge such heresy but to no avail.

It was thus that it began to unravel. In the latter days of the Kingdom Completely Waterlogged, people did slowly begin to drift even further apart one from another. The wayward advisor had sown seeds of doubt and mistrust in the Rose Garden. “If not him, why me?” they asked of each other. “Am I not also of that same people which does not need to be so confined and to obey what is inconvenient and asked of me?” “I shall do as he has led.”

And so it was, whereas once the people of the Kingdom Lost at Sea held together following the advice of the advisors of the court of Boris, now following the Great Disillusionment, they did begin to question the truth and wisdom of what had been told to them. Slowly but surely, little by little, pernicious weeds did up spring in fertile soil of disease and unease, turning brother against brother, sister against sister, one against another. It was thus, in one small act of selfishness building upon another, that the Kingdom drifted further from what was known to be wise and true into the outer regions of the Ocean. Many feared the disease would regain its hold over the people and many more would die than had been foretold.

And all because this one man, a mere advisor, followed his own advice and not that which had been given unto all.


Unprecedented times seven

It has become a cliché to say we are living in unprecedented times. This is now such a well-worn saw that it goes almost unchallenged. I was drawn up short, therefore, when the presenter of a recent BBC Radio 4 morning programme said he wasn’t going to call these times ‘unprecedented’ because there have been major epidemics of a similar scale in the past – e.g, the Black Death.

While it is unquestionably true that there have been past pandemics, some probably more deadly than the present one, I think this somewhat misses the point. It isn’t so much the nature of the disease that is unprecedented but our response to it and how we have allowed it to impact us, our society, our world. I believe the nature of this impact is unique and without precedent. Here’s why:

1. Unprecedented speed of the pandemic’s transmission

Covid-19 had already spread across populations in much of Asia, Western Europe and North America before WHO first announced, on January 30th, that it could be transmitted from person to person. This itself was many weeks prior to it being labelled a global pandemic. In country after country, the first cases of Covid-19 incidence have been traced to a date before the end of January. Yet the West waited for a final proclamation from the WHO on what to do. We still don’t know how many people one person can infect but the disease is spreading rapidly, very rapidly, across the world.

This speedy spread has been made possible by the interleaved, interconnected nature of our globalised world. Planes transported the virus from airport to airport around the world at hundreds of miles an hour, outpacing our epidemic warning systems, our understanding of the virus, and our ability to contain it. The last great global pandemic, that of the Spanish flu of 1918-20, had to wait for soldiers to travel home from war for its spread, and they did so relatively slowly, by steamship. The speed of Covid-19’s transmission is unprecedented.

But it is nothing compared to the speed at which fear travels today. News and fake news are transmitted at lightning speed on the internet, reaching even the remotest parts of the globe within minutes of origination. Nor has there ever been a time when one topic can so control our attention. Covid-19 totally dominates the news. And so do rumours: “It’s more deadly than they are telling us.” Not so long ago, fear spread somewhat more sedately, at the speed of the telegraph and the telegram. No longer.

2. Unprecedented constraints on liberty

One manner in which this pandemic is very different to previous ones is how most countries have responded, by changing how we live – how we spend our hours, our days, our lives.

In much of the West, we have accepted the conditions of house arrest imposed on us. Previously this was imposed only on those accused of political crimes, and then often only under exceptional circumstances.

Many on the “vulnerable list” are told they cannot leave home at all. If they are living on their own, they are in effect being held in solitary confinement. This is for the good of their health, but is it for the good of their wellbeing?

Solitary confinement as a punishment is often considered beyond the pale. “Considering the severe mental pain or suffering solitary confinement may cause, it can amount to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment when used as a punishment, during pre-trial detention, indefinitely or for a prolonged period, for persons with mental disabilities or juveniles.”(1) Yet we expect many of young people living on their own and struggling with poor mental health to endure solitary conditions. The same is true for many of our elderly. And those living on their own are expected to bear this isolation without question for months at a time. . .

3. Unprecedented ‘social distancing’

A stranger to our pandemic-infected land, unaware of the virulence of the novel coronavirus, would probably suspect that we are all suffering from some weird behavioural disturbance. When we do eventually venture out, something we have done only rarely during the pandemic until now, we act as with unhealthy social pathology, keeping two meters distant, shifting uneasily whenever anyone comes too near, suspicious of what each other might be carrying, avoiding contact even with our own family, jumping when another person coughs. I have found even eye contact has become a rarer thing since the start of the outbreak. Prior to the pandemic, we would have suspected anyone showing such behaviour either to be struggling with deep anxieties, harbouring worrying pathology, or simply up to no good.

We even dress up to play our part in this drama, like the bad guys in a two-bit B-movie Western, wearing bandanas or face masks, hiding our true identity from each other as we keep our distance, gun at the ready . . . (I hope not the latter).

4. Unprecedented prominence of Public Health

Individualism, market liberalism and the politics of “lifestyle choice” have all led to Public Health taking something of a back stage in recent years. Its past victories against smallpox, scarlet fever, whooping cough, tuberculosis, cholera, and typhoid et al. are now long forgotten. We’ve even forgotten the illnesses themselves. Today, it’s suddenly back in a starring role. In fact, it is the star of the coronavirus epidemic.

Public Health has probably not received such prominence any time during the past 70 years. It is back because it is our best defence. “Together, we can beat this disease.” As yet, we have no treatments, no cures, no vaccines. If we are to believe the reports, even ventilators seem to do as much harm as good. But we do have Public Health advice. To remind you: “Wash your hands for 20 seconds or more, use disinfectant hand gels with at least 60% alcohol, cough into your shoulder or arm, self-isolate at home if you have symptoms or those you come in contact with have them, keep two meters from other people when outside, don’t associate with more than five others at any one time, clean and disinfect all surfaces regularly.” (2)

The new mantra is that we can collectively stop the spread of the illness. And supposedly, we need to do this as a species. We need to act together, as never before, not just in England, or Europe, or in the West as a whole, but also in Asia and Africa, and the rest of the world. Without collective success, there is no security and the disease is likely to be able to continue to wreak havoc, possibly for years to come.

5. Unprecedented suspension of the economy

If someone had said last year that the economy would be closed down across much of the world for several months during 2020, we wouldn’t have believed them. It would have sounded preposterous. Never before has nearly every business in Europe had to close shop to stop the spread of a disease. This move will have untold economic impact, even if it were to end today, which it can’t and won’t even with the present easing of lockdown conditions in many countries.

For a generation or more, business was all. We measured success in terms of numbers of start-ups, economic growth, productivity, investment, entrepreneurial activity. “Let the markets decide,” was the mantra that guided almost every politician across Europe. Nothing was considered more blasphemous than to stand in the way of business.

Suddenly, with a flash of the Covid wand, this has all disappeared. Businesses across Europe were shut down, workers sent home, put on furlough, laid off. Apart from “essential work” no business is deemed sacred anymore. Many hundreds are currently teetering on the edge of collapse. Others have already gone under. All in an attempt to save lives. Across Europe, human life has come first for once, maybe even for the first time.

As yet, there’s no clear sense of how much economic damage has been done by this shutdown and how much more will be done in the future as a consequence of the pandemic. No one knows when such things as air travel, tourism, restaurant dining, or sports events will return to pre-Covid levels, if they ever do. The first estimates suggest that about one third of all economic activity stopped dead in much of Europe for two months. This is unprecedented. This is an even bigger drop than that seen during the World Wars or the Great Depression. And, in contrast with those events, this time governments deliberately restricted economic activity to save lives.

It is stunning that this microscopic virus has created such great change and did so overnight. In this sense, it achieved more than any politician could ever have done. Suddenly, the skies were blue once more, the air clean, the roads almost completely free of traffic. Animals roamed where they had not been seen for decades, bird song no longer faced competition from human activity. For several weeks people stopped running around busily. Sixty years of “social and economic progress” seemed a mere mirage.

It is as if the clock had been wound back and we were being given another chance.

6. Unprecedented government control

In response to the pandemic governments took back control, not just of the markets and of business, not just of money supply and public spending, but of what you and I can and cannot do. This level of control is unprecedented outside wartime. Not even under the heady days of market socialism of Attlee and Wilson has so much been controlled by so few and with so little Parliamentary scrutiny.

An immense forest of money trees has sprouted at every turn, propping up businesses, subsidising personal income, enabling life to continue with at least a minimal degree of normality. Furlough payments, easy term loans, mortgage suspensions, quantitive easing, all shore up the broken economy. The British government has taken the Bank of England under its wing in order to print as much money as it needs. This is an unprecedented Toryism.

The same has been true, to greater or lesser extent, throughout much of Europe. The Schengen visa system has been suspended; borders suddenly appeared where they’d been long absent. Heretically, against all neoliberal dogma and market regulation, EU governments have been allowed to prop up ailing businesses. Some people have been showered with money not to go to work. This is not universally true, of course. In the US, almost 40 million people have been added to unemployment queues. And many countries outside Europe and North America cannot afford bailouts on the scale of Europe.

Governments’ responses to coronavirus have also created spectacle. The first to undergo lockdown in Europe, the Italians sang from their balconies. Young Berliners held coronavirus raves until shut down by police raids. The French police arrested those in the street who didn’t possess a letter to prove their business outside home was legitimate. The British government lionised the NHS, finding the money to build Nightingale hospitals. All of Spain was locked inside for a month, while the army patrolled the streets to ensure people didn’t venture out.

There has also been immense grief and sorrow. We are no longer used to death on this scale.

7. Unprecedented uncertainty

This novel coronavirus has also caused a sudden and unprecedented uncertainty. As yet, there are no sages in the wings saying, “this is the solution”. No one is claiming to have all the answers, none that I’ve heard. Books are not yet being written about “how I got it right when others were wrong.”

This is because no one truly knows where this pandemic is going. The virus still retains much of its mystery. Question marks have made a big comeback. Will businesses recover? What will a post-pandemic world look like? In what ways will it be different? Will we really tolerate a return to polluted air? Could this spell the end of the rat race? Could this be the beginning of something truly new?

All the things we have long been dependent on suddenly look less reliable, more questionable, even fragile.

Some things are becoming clear, of course. It is already evident there will be less air travel than prior to the crisis and what there will be is likely to be more expensive than before. (And Ryanair is again rumoured to wish to limit access to toilets during the flight.) Travel restrictions will return. Likewise, self-sufficiency is going to look far more attractive than in recent years. Local production rather than global outsourcing will play an increasing role in supply chains.

Yet these are small details in what are truly unprecedented times. Probably not even governments has a good idea about what our future really holds. (It is notable that no epidemiologist or virologist is claiming to have a crystal ball.)

The 2020s face a very different challenge to that of recent decades. No one could have foreseen the full extent of the social and economic consequences of this pandemic. No one saw it coming, not really, not truly. Not even the most prescient, like the epidemiologist Larry Brilliant, though he painted an pretty accurate description of how a pandemic would bring us to our knees (5). The nature of this virus, particularly in regard to its asymptomatic phase, makes it many ways unique and most difficult to predict. We don’t know if it will get more virulent or less so over time, whether there will be one wave of the pandemic or many, whether it might even burn itself out, or not.

This unparalleled level of uncertainty means that stress and fear are eating away at our mental health (3). In the US, where uncertainty might be greatest, as many as four out of five are saying that the pandemic has made them more anxious or depressed (4). Now more than ever, governments will have to address mental health issues if we are to find a way to live with the consequences of this pandemic.

Then there is tracking. Big Brother has got his eye on you, potentially. Should we submit to the possible intrusion of tracking apps for the social good, or is this the beginning of the end for liberty? With the pandemic the issue of Trust has become paramount. For years, Trust in our public institutions has been steadily undermined. “The Government has been covering up the truth.” We didn’t worry sufficiently about this lack of Trust in times when we had the luxury to sort things out. Now that Trust is desperately needed, it is in short supply.

Uncharted waters

So where does this leave us? With the first signs of the easing of the lockdown, we are just beginning to have an inkling of the future, though none of us yet really know where are we going. These are uncharted waters. There is no map in the back cupboard to help us find the way, nothing to provide clues in dealing with changes on this scale. We can’t be certain that we even have a sextant on board, or a compass, let alone a captain. Just the ship’s mascot.

We’ve not heeded Nature’s reminders that we are not in control. Have continuously ignored warnings from scientists over more than 20 years, we are now cast adrift without any solutions. Surely our current experience of the pandemic, tells us that governments ignore the climate crisis at our collective peril. The problems thrown up by climate change will be a thousand times worse than we imagine unless governments take action NOW and address it head on.

  • (1)
  • (2)
  • (3)
  • (4)
  • (5)

Particles, dust and me

“Ashes to ashes, dust to dust . . .” For me, the words of the Anglican funeral rite, taken from Ecclesiastes 3:20, underline not only our fragile hold on this planet but our essential oneness with the universe. It seems we are made of stardust.

The elements that go to make up the human body did indeed start off in stars, or the Big Bang to be more correct (1).

What I just found out is that three elements had a different origin and started off inside either a black hole, a supernova, or a neutron star. One, in particular – Boron – is essential to life on earth and is vital to formation of the cell wall of plants (2). (The other two are beryllium and lithium.) In other words, without black holes, there would be no life on earth as we know it. Quite a thought.

The incredibly fine balance of our life on Earth often draws me up short. If the Earth were just a little closer to the sun, all the water would evaporate, a little further away and we would become a desert planet. Likewise, if the Earth were a bit smaller than it is, the gravitation pull would be weaker and our atmosphere would leak off into space. Much bigger and we would have a great deal of trouble standing upright. . .

Then there’s the nature of the earth’s core, formed of molten iron. The rotation of the Earth causes this molten iron to rotate, which produces electric currents that create the magnetic field from which we derive magnetic north (3). This magnetic field has an essential function for life, in that it creates a forcefield, shielding us from the impact of the solar wind, comprising mainly protons, electrons and alpha particles. Without it, the bombardment of the Earth by these cosmic particles from the sun would irradiate all life, destabilising DNA which would mutate at a frightening rate. Life as we know it would never have evolved. As an aside, if you’re interested, the solar wind also includes a host of ions, atomic nuclei and isotopes (4). Space dust.

Due to the polarisation of the magnetic forcefield, the solar wind is attracted to the poles. When this stream of electromagnetic particles hits the thin atmosphere at these points, the particles are deflected, often producing a spectacular display of fireworks we know as the aurora borealis. So the extraordinary combination of our atmosphere and the unlikely magnetic field produced by of our planet’s core protects all life day and night.

Yet that thin layer of atmosphere that protects us, and at the same provides the essence of all life in the form of oxygen and rain, is so very thin that if Mount Everest were at the North Pole it would protrude two kilometres above its canopy (the atmosphere is just seven kilometres thick at the poles, it is more than twice that at the equator).

Aurora borealis over the Northwest Territories, Canada (6)

Not all the cosmic particles bombarding us from the sun are stopped by the forcefield shielding us and our atmosphere. Some carry right on to reach the Earth’s surface, for instance, in the form of ultraviolet light. This is what causes us to tan. It can also cause sunburn. And cancer. A few, neutrinos and muons among them, carry on right through us. Some of the neutrinos are even thought to pass right through the Earth and come out the other side. Quite amazing – we are being bombarded night and day by a cosmic ray machine. (C-Ray rather than X-Ray?)

But some do stop, thankfully. Among those are the photons detected by our complex, built-in electromagnetic detectors – our eyes. The sensors triggered by the bombardment of photons enable us to interpret our world visually. Thank goodness they do, otherwise we wouldn’t be able to see the glories of the night sky or the aurora borealis.

It is quite a thought that some of those electromagnetic particles and cosmic dust can sometimes be part of you and me, albeit momentarily.

  • (1)
  • (2)
  • (3)’s_magnetic_field
  • (4)
  • (5)
  • (6)

There’s a better way out of this . . . Update

Much has happened since I wrote the first post with this title (1). Because the earlier post appears to have interested quite a number of you, I am now posting an update.

For those that have yet to read it, the first post argued that Universal Basic Income (UBI) could help resolve some of the issues governments face in trying to keep their economies afloat at the same time as keeping their citizens safe from this novel coronavirus. By ensuring all people are secure financially, rather than just some, as at present, UBI would help bolster demand, enabling those not at work to purchase what they need to live, while staying safely at home. UBI might not answer every problem, but it would give governments and societies the time to work out better ways to manage the current challenges.

Since I wrote it, the idea of UBI seems to have taken on a life of its own. An opinion poll conducted by an Oxford University research team and published on the 6th May found that 71% of Europeans are now in favour of introducing a Universal Basic Income. This is astonishing. Even in Britain, a bastion of free enterprise and neoliberalism, the figure saying they are in favour is 68% (2).

That the idea of UBI is even gaining traction within the UK parliament is made clear in a great article by John Harris in The Guardian. John reports, “Ten days ago, the left-inclined pressure group Compass organised a letter, signed by more than 100 MPs and peers from seven parties, calling for a ‘recovery basic income’ that would be ‘sufficient to provide economic security’. An accompanying paper sets out the case for these short-term measures being followed by a permanent basic income – set at a starting rate of £60 a week per working-age adult and £40 per child (or £10,400 per year for a family of four), with additional unemployment, housing and disability benefits maintained. Over time, this ‘income floor’ could rise to £100 per adult.” While this is not a princely sum, it would be a great start.

What is interesting to me is that this letter shows that a large number of MPs now support the idea of UBI. I cannot imagine this being the case before the coronavirus. This change in perspective has come about quietly, almost under the radar. There has been little or no media publicity given to it, no major campaigns, no demonstrations in the street. Normally it takes a massive groundswell to cause such a shift in popular opinion. The enthusiasm of our MPs and the results of the Oxford poll suggests that such a groundswell is already well underway.

John Harris goes on to say in his article, “UBI’s advocates insist the tax system could be remodelled to ease the cost. Besides, this might not be quite the hard sell some would suggest: after the bailing-out of the banks and the government’s munificent response to the current crisis, radical spending plans are surely not the political taboo they once were.” Too true.

From my point of view, even more encouraging for the proponents of UBI is the outcome of a major pilot study conducted in Finland. The study, conducted between 2017 and 2018, has attracted widespread interest around the world. Some 2,000 unemployed people were randomly selected from across Finland. They were each provided with a regular monthly income of €560 (£490), somewhat more generous than the UK proposal. The Guardian article of May 7th reports the results of this experiment of providing citizens with a basic income (3).

Researchers at Helsinki University conclude, “The basic income recipients were more satisfied with their lives and experienced less mental strain than the control group.” Unsurprisingly, “They also had a more positive perception of their economic welfare.”

Professor Helena Blomberg-Kroll, the lead researcher of this study says, “The scheme also gave some participants the possibility to try and live their dreams.” This transformative effect was seen most clearly among those whose ambitions are inherently financially insecure: “Freelancers and artists and entrepreneurs had more positive views on the effects of the basic income, which some felt had created opportunities for them to start businesses.” In other words, UBI could tap into creative energies that currently lie dormant in our society. Just the sort of creativity we will need to deal with the challenges that lie ahead of us in the climate crisis.

The trial’s impact might be even more profound than appears at first sight. The researchers report that UBI also encouraged some participants to become more involved in the society in which they live, undertaking voluntary work, for example. “Some found the guaranteed income increased the possibility for them to do things like providing informal care for their family or their neighbours.” According to researcher, Christian Kroll, “The security of the basic income allowed them to do more meaningful things, as they felt it legitimised this kind of care work. Many of the people who performed such unpaid activities during the two-year period referred to it as work.” It is often work, of course. And usually it goes unpaid, as many carers are all too well aware. Could UBI also be a way of giving recognition to caring, the glue that holds our society together? Could it be one way to promote a better society?

This is certainly the view of Scott Santens. Scott, a long-term advocate of UBI, has been given a platform by the World Economic Forum. (That in itself is a good sign, as the WEF always want to get a good sense of what they think they are likely to be up against next.) Scott, in making his case to the assembly of billionaires who assemble in Davos, argues, “Humans need security to thrive, and basic income is a secure economic base – the new foundation on which to transform the precarious present, and build a more solid future. That’s not to say it’s a silver bullet. It’s that our problems are not impossible to solve. Poverty is not a supernatural foe, nor is extreme inequality or the threat of mass income loss due to automation. They are all just choices.” (4)

They are indeed. But no government is presented with infinite choices. The impact of the pandemic means that every government will need to make tough choices in these extremely precarious times. They already know there is no easy way to recover the economy and there is no cheap way to protect people. This is a key reason why UBI is suddenly centre stage: no longer a wild idea on the fringes of economics, it is quickly becoming mainstream.

It might not be Britain that takes the lead in UBI – it could be Spain . . . or some other country elsewhere in the world. But, what is eminently clear is that this is the moment when this idea makes eminent sense.

UBI is an idea whose time has come.

  • (1)
  • (2)
  • (3)
  • (4)

Celebrating Sadiq Khan’s car-free fest

Diana Francis, a peace activist I hold in great respect, writes, “Many of us are hoping that good things can come from our experience of this pandemic, creating a kinder, gentler, more equitable society. Will this latest threat have brought us to the moment when decisive societal and political rethinking and action lead to the radical restructuring of our personal and collective lives?”

She goes on to say, “I have been encouraged by the many thoughtful articles published since the pandemic’s outbreak, suggesting kinder, more inclusive ways of living: new approaches to economics, new uses of technology, the rejection of consumerism and simpler, gentler lifestyles. The quiet streets and bird song have awoken old memories and a sense that all is not yet lost and that some sort of renewal could be possible.” (1)

Londoners were today given an indication that such renewal really is possible when the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, announced a major initiative to make much of central London car-free.

The Mayor’s Office stated, “Some streets will be converted to walking and cycling only, with others restricted to all traffic apart from buses, as part of the Mayor’s latest bold Streetspace measures. Streets between London Bridge and Shoreditch, Euston and Waterloo and Old Street and Holborn may be limited to buses, pedestrians and cyclists to help boost safe and sustainable travel as our city starts to gradually emerge from national Covid-19 restrictions. Access for emergency services and disabled people will be maintained, but deliveries on some streets may need to be made outside of congestion charging hours. Waterloo Bridge and London Bridge may be restricted to people walking, cycling and buses only, with pavements widened to enable people to safely travel between busy railway stations and their workplaces. TfL is looking into providing Zero Emission Capable taxis with access to both these bridges, and other areas where traffic is restricted.” (2)

What was Sadiq Khan’s motivation? It appears that he and his office saw what the rest of us saw: the stark contrast between the pollution in London prior to lockdown and the clean air after lockdown. “Following the Government announcement of coronavirus related travel restrictions, traffic levels on TfL roads fell by as much as 60 per cent and harmful nitrogen dioxide was down by around 50 per cent on some of London’s busiest roads.”

Now that traffic and pollution are starting to rise again does he believe that this is the moment when a different world is within our grasp? Has he reached out to grab it while he can?

His decision could finally reverse the long-term dominance of the car. Since the 1950s, the previously unstoppable rise in automobile ownership has made many of our cities almost unliveable, destroying streetscapes, scarring our built environment, creating uncrossable divides between communities, and drowning us all in pollution and noise. Suddenly, this is now seen to be the mistake that it surely was.

Even better news is that Sadiq Khan is not the only leader to be responding in this way to opportunity thrown up by coronavirus. Worldwide, from Milan to Montreal, from Bogota to Mexico, administrations are seizing the moment to improve the air quality and environment of their cities by encouraging pedestrians and cyclists and discouraging cars. (3)

Could it be that birdsong, clear skies and clean air will continue to be a feature of urban life even after Covid? Only if we stop using our cars and and get on the bus.

  • (1)
  • (2)
  • (3)

Hungry for truth

We live in an age where truth is elusive. Silent, even. Past generations dealt in absolutes and certainties. These were often spurious certainties, mind: the inevitability of social and technological progress, the superiority of one group over another, the rightness of imperial aims, the belief that science could solve all ills, among many.

The genie is out of the bottle

Few people view such claims uncritically today. We’ve all become just that bit more sceptical, accommodating doubt as the lodger in our front room. This change is in part due to the influence and insights of the late twentieth century postmodern philosophers, Jaques Derrida and Michel Foucault (and others) who undermined the very notion of objectivity.

“‘Truth’ is to be understood as a system of ordered procedures for the production, regulation, distribution, circulation and operation of statements. ‘Truth’ is linked in a circular relation with systems of power which produce and sustain it, and to effects of power which it induces and which extend it. A ‘regime’ of truth.” – Michel Foucault

Though few can claim to have read these great thinkers from cover to cover, their ideas are widely disseminated and taught in courses across the world. Their influence permeates and encompasses the entire spectrum of the social sciences and the arts.

Like pollen, postmodernism is carried on the wind. In our present time, almost every political and social commentator can’t help but see the world, at least in part, through the lens these philosophers left us. And, in consequence, that is the way we all see it – in our art, graphics, architecture, advertising, film, the internet and TV, and, of course, in our speech. Those who profess to be sure, to claim certainty, to possess objectivity are as anachronistic as steam lorries.

Postmodernism did us all a great favour. It unpacked the cultural assumptions that underpinned the heady claims to certainty and objectivity of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, exposing their cultural arrogance, and revealing them as tools for the assertion of power and dominance. This unpacking helped liberate the oppressed and gave expression to the unheard. From race studies to feminism, we are indebted.

There is no such thing as neutrality, however ardently it is proclaimed. “The real political task in a society such as ours is to criticize the workings of institutions that appear to be both neutral and independent, to criticize and attack them in such a manner that the political violence that has always exercised itself obscurely through them will be unmasked, so that one can fight against them.” – Michel Foucault

However, there is a downside, in that doubt has now spread from the front room and has taken over the whole house. Notions of progress and objectivity are seen to be just that and no more. Science is questioned in the same manner that religion once was. We are left sceptical and directionless, searching for answers where there are none.

Why the need for truth still bothers us

In an age of relativism, truth and knowledge are defined by the social, cultural and historical context. The possibility of having to deal with finding the truth in 7.5 billion different contexts is stressful. There is no Highway Code to guide us – and navigating the streets of life without one leaves us floundering, struggling to communicate with each other, to agree, to commit, creating internal dissonance. This problem is both personal and social. Is our truth their truth, and how much of “our truth” do we really share? We are not able to adequately deal with this multidimensional complexity. In consequence, we are constantly searching for simple answers.

In postmodernism, nothing is mere accident, all is artifice. “Everything is arranged so that it be this way, this is what is called culture.” – Jaques Derrida

So, despite the inevitable relativism of our age, we still have a need for truth, even if we don’t know where to find it. Indeed, now that it has gone missing, truth seems more important now than ever before. The fragmentation of social solidarity combined with the influence of the internet and social media has resulted in a maelstrom of lies, fakery and distortions.

All too often, our leaders are seen to no longer care whether they are telling the truth or not. One lie piles upon another, one tweet at a time, adding to the general confusion.

This is made worse by the fact that populism is in some senses an equal and opposite reaction to postmodernism. Many of today’s leaders view the relativism of postmodernism as specifically embodying the very worst of what they hate about liberalism in general. This leads them to actively promote absolutes, however absurd and contradictory. George Orwell would have loved the doublespeak of “going back to the past will make us great again” or “keeping people out will make us all stronger.” At the same time, populist leaders have no better sense than the rest of us what is true and what is not. This is clear from what they say and what they let happen.

We are being bombarded by conspiracy theories from all sides in this age of Covid: it was a plot by the American government, or the Chinese military; the illness is caused by 5G, or the virus was genetically engineered in a laboratory; it’s a strategy for world dominance, or a ploy to win an election. It is Russian disinformation, or British. It is none of these things. Or all of these things. On and on and on . . . And truth is still missing.

We all hunger for a new way of recognising the truth.

Has objectivity passed its sell-by date?

Just at the very moment when science and experts are no more trusted than snake oil salesmen, governments suddenly start appealing to scientific objectivity. “We are being guided by the science,” they tell us.

And the chorus replies, “What science? Who’s guiding you? What do they want of us? And why?” No longer do claims of objectivity ring true, nor do “facts” go unquestioned. Suddenly, the appeal that “I am solely responding to the science” seems weak and disingenuous.

Does this matter? Clearly it does. It matters viscerally. Our bodies and minds automatically simplify things, eliminating what is not immediately pertinent, categorising reality in manageable chunks. Too much information would cause us to overload, so we cut it out, automatically, without thought. (see my post on how we miss things out: It’s as if we are programmed to default to binary principles: right and wrong, good and bad, hot and cold, wet and dry, dangerous and safe.

The confusion that results from having to work hard to discern the truth in even simple matters is exhausting and can cause us enormous stress – a factor that makes life seem really difficult for many at present. Each one of us is slowly becoming an armchair epidemiologist, political philosopher, scientist, and analyst. We have to decide for on a moment by moment basis what is true and how to act on this truth. Do I wear a mask or not? Do I keep a distance of one metre or three? Is the risk greater from children or for children? How long does the virus live in the air, or on metal, or on my clothes? Is it killed by ultraviolet light, or humidity, or heat, or none of these things? Do I visit the needy, or keep distance? Do I say hello, or avoid eye contact?

None of us want this. We want and need an answer we can trust.

Read one way, this might be a definition of relativism: “Search for what is good and strong and beautiful in your society and elaborate from there. Push outward. Always create from what you already have. Then you will know what to do.” – Michel Foucault

A call for integrity

With truth lost in the undergrowth of culture, integrity means much in today’s world. The person who exhibits congruence in both what they say and what they do is a lighthouse in troubled seas – they make our complex world navigable. The thousand questions we need to ask to unravel what is what and why, and who and how, are reduced significantly; we trust people with integrity to have already have done the questioning for us. This is why we look to our leaders to show just such integrity – we want to know that we can trust them. If we can, this way lies simplicity. Leadership as stress relief.

When they don’t show integrity, however, when our leaders lie and deceive, this is more than merely disillusioning. We recoil physically. Our animal self knows instinctively that this threatens our very safety.

Many of us find ourselves left struggling with some very big questions:

  • What is being done to prevent the climate crisis from overwhelming us?
  • How dangerous is this pandemic and what will its impact be on society?
  • Can I trust the government to tell us the truth?
  • What should I do?

So, without integrity, we are caught in a trap somewhat of our own making. On the one hand we know, intellectually, that we must constantly question. On the other, we tend to favour the default binary option. We are too easily lazy as well as under-confident in our ability to ask the right questions. So we don’t. The result is confusion and bewilderment.

The only way out is down the path of integrity.


21 reasons why it’s better that the rich don’t help the poor

The Cover-19 pandemic has made it clear how our newly discovered “essential workers” (aka working poor) are not so essential that they are not put at constant and often avoidable risk. It’s almost as if we don’t want to give them proper PPE if the camera is not turned on.

The fact that “we are all in this together” hasn’t meant that government help has been spread to all equally. Nearly every pandemic financial relief package has been disproportionately oriented to helping out large businesses and, by implication, shareholders and the rich.

In the light of this, I thought it might help out worried fellow would-be philanthropists by reminding them of a few familiar reasons why we should hold onto our money and not share it more widely:

  • We are so much better at handling money than others (that is why we have so much of it and you don’t)
  • We know how to make money work for us (whereas you have to work for money)
  • We got our money through sheer genius (it was nothing to do with Dad, connections, tax breaks, or the fact that some of those capital gains were slightly dodgy)
  • It is our just reward for the hard work and the value of our creativity (ok, and Dad’s work, and some employees, and the creativity of a few others who weren’t smart enough to cash in . . .)
  • Taxing us would deprive people of jobs (even when those poor so-and-so’s have to work for pay well below the living wage, they still need jobs)
  • Higher taxes would handicap business, depriving it of vital investment (even though most of my money is hidden away in the Cayman Islands, some of it gets invested in business for sure – heck, I will check with my accountant . . .)
  • Be patient, money will trickle down to the deserving poor, eventually, maybe (though not if Mother has anything to do with it; she’s always blocking those little leaks as if her life depends on it)
  • Taxing us more would reduce consumption where it’s most needed (it would wreck the luxury yacht business for sure, top-end real estate would suffer real bad, and how would those private jet guys survive?)
  • Shit, its our money that keeps the economy going! (it’s only fair that we get the odd state subsidy here and there and the occasional handout when the economy goes belly-up)
  • Making money is in our genes (that’s what my great granddaddy told my Dad just after he had made his second million at twenty-two)
  • It’s our right to be rich (the constitution says so – and if it doesn’t, it sure as heck should)
  • The fact that I only look good in Givenchy and Armani says all you need to know about me – I’m born to wealth and it shows (sure my sophistication is more than one-buck deep, ask any woman)
  • The poor don’t know how to make good use of money (that’s why they deserve to be poor, ask anyone)
  • And they are feckless and spend every penny they have on gambling and drinking (which, QED, is why they never have a dime)
  • Wealth is like class, you need to be born into it to get it (which is why it always follows suit, like in cards)
  • One of the world’s great truths is that the poor wouldn’t know what to do with money if they had any (it stands to reason, they don’t have the right experience, nor the right connections)
  • My ma told me don’t ever give money to the poor, it just encourages laziness (they will never get anywhere if they don’t work hard)
  • Nope, giving money to the poor just encourages them all round (and we don’t want them encouraged, there’s already enough of them)
  • This whole idea of redistribution of wealth through taxation is just pure Communism (What! It can’t have been invented in the USA! – are you sure? No way!)
  • No I haven’t heard of the parable of the Good Samaritan (damn Communism again!)
  • If this dude said the rich are as likely to get into heaven as a camel going through an eye of a needle, I sure hope he did a good line in needles . . .

Is coronavirus a harbinger of peace?

Many commentators and political leaders have been using the language of war to describe “the battle against the coronavirus”, even drawing on analogies with World War 2 (1)(2). Others have pointed out how inappropriate this is, since there is no battlefront and no arms to protect us (3).

This debate hides another maybe more surprising reality. The pandemic is making warfare and war-mongering much more difficult to organise. While anti-war campaigners have long struggled to have much influence on limiting the activities of the military, the novel coronavirus now sweeping our world has been remarkably successful in bringing a halt to some of our giant war machines. As Robert Burns said, the best laid schemes of mice and men . . .

Covid-19 has alarmed the world’s armies and navies. Over the past two months it has shown that it loves nothing more than the cramped conditions of naval vessels and army barracks to wreak havoc. It thrives in these confined quarters, spreading from person to person at an incredible rate. It has demonstrated that it can immobilise entire units in days.

The virus’s first notable impact was when it ended the activity of the US aircraft carrier, Theodore Roosevelt, forcing it back into harbour on 27th March. An outbreak of Covid-19 had earlier swept through the ship, infecting over 1,100 of its crew and making continued manoeuvres impossible (4). Fortunately, despite the scale of this outbreak, just one sailor died. Just two weeks later, the French aircraft carrier, Charles-de-Gaulle, was also forced back to port with more than a third of the sailors on board with confirmed Covid-19 (5). Since then, a dozen more ships from five navies have reported coronavirus cases on board (6). Clearly, it doesn’t matter which flag is on the mast, coronavirus is proving a menace to armed forces the world over.

It is not just the navy where the virus is putting a stop to military activities. Both the US and the British armies have had to suspend basic training for “the duration”. That’s good news for the youngsters from deprived backgrounds who make up the bulk of young recruits.

Covid’s restraint on the urge to war goes even further. During the third week of March, the Russian military ended its war games near to its western borders as it ramped up preventative measures to slow the spread of coronavirus. “It’s obvious that all of this is connected with preventive measures,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on a conference call Monday. “It’s linked to the situation around the general fight against coronavirus” (7).

According to the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, the Russian drills had themselves been ordered in response to NATO plans for a military exercise billed as “the biggest deployment of U.S. based troops in Europe since the Cold War”. The NATO plans were also shelved due to coronavirus fears. So no NATO-Russian macho showoff. Coronavirus 2: Military 0.

Covid-19 is also having an impact in the Middle East. When it comes to infections in bulk, the Saudi royal family appears to have suffered immensely; reports suggest that at least 150 of its members have been infected (8).

This might well have been one cause of the current ceasefire in the Saudi’s five-year campaign in Yemen. On April 8th, Saudi officials and their allies announced a unilateral ceasefire, saying that they were seeking to jump-start peace talks to be brokered by the United Nations (9). The Saudis are said to have been motivated by fears of the coronavirus spreading in Yemen, the poorest country in the Arab world, where the healthcare system has been ravaged by years of blockade and conflict (10).

Following the ceasefire, at the end of April, Yemen recorded its first Covid-19 death. Since then, fighting on the Yemeni island of Socotra has come to a halt following an agreement reached on May 2nd between the Saudi-backed government forces and UAE-backed southern separatists. 

There have been plenty of false starts to peace in Yemen; is it too much to hope that peace could finally be breaking out in Yemen? The UN Special Envoy, Martin Griffiths, said that, “Yemen cannot face two fronts at the same time: a war and a pandemic. And the new battle that Yemen faces in confronting the virus will be all-consuming. We can do no less than stop this war and turn all our attention to this new threat.”(11) Finally, someone is using the language of war in relation to Covid-19 in a manner that almost makes sense.

Covid-19 is so terrifying that it seems to have started to put matters into perspective, not just in the evolving conflict between NATO and Russia but in Yemen too. With soldiers around the world being used to assist medics and provide logistics support in the face of this pandemic, could we finally be on the verge of discovering ways to put our energies to better use – tackling the issues that really matter, rather than playing power games?

  • (1)
  • (2)
  • (3)
  • (4 )
  • (5)
  • (6)
  • (7)
  • (8)
  • (9)
  • (10)
  • (11)