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.

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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.

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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?

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Hive innovation – self-sufficiency with a new twist?

In Britain, the once common idea of self-sufficiency vanished from public view several decades ago. The notion that ‘where things are made doesn’t matter’ has been wedded to ‘it doesn’t matter who owns the manufacturing’. All that matters is price, or so we were told. Primark, Tesco and Amazon rule. Where things come from is irrelevant. Supply fulfils demand. Always.

And then came the 2020’s Covid-19 pandemic. In these unprecedented circumstances, the inherent virtues of self-sufficiency have become all too clear once more. We have all learnt the hard way that supply chains are only as good as their weakest link. Currently, with many of those links broken, the government, the NHS and every family and individual are scrabbling around to match demand with supply. The demand for personal protective equipment (PPE), from ventilators through to face masks, as well as food and household products, such as yeast and baking flour, has outstripped supply.

What fascinates me is that the solutions we are coming up with are at one and the same time both global and local. The difference to what we’ve done over the past several decades is the emphasis on the local. Whereas Britain has always been keen to join in with international research programmes (in vaccines and antivirals), which I am glad it’s still doing, local initiatives have always (until now) received short shrift. The reason for this is financial. The City has hunted out the highest returns, wherever they might be in the world; venture capital has always encouraged the sale of startups to the highest bidder on flotation, wherever that owner is based. Suddenly this model appears under question. Locality matters once more.

As we’ve become aware that British invention does not equal British access, nor does German invention equal German access. Local research projects suddenly seem more important – and who owns what is now known to be critical. There are even reports of bidding for control of PPE supply taking place on the runways of China’s airports (1). Invention is not enough in itself. Who will have access to the Covid-19 vaccine if and when it’s produced is the big question. How much profit its sale makes once it is produced, is less important. At least, for now.

Getting hold of ventilators in that critical moment before Boris Johnson ended up hospitalised with the disease, required scouring the globe for every and any source of supply, writing begging emails to suppliers, making phone calls to heads of state, and pleading. It worked. We got sufficient supply… by the skin of our teeth.

This wasn’t going to be good enough in the longer term, and the government knew it. They put in place a call for UK manufacturers to supply ventilators – backtracking on the notion that all our needs could be met by outsourced manufacture. Suddenly we needed manufacturing capability on UK soil. This required innovation of the famous British “make do and mend” variety. Within days they received 13 separate proposals (2) and a new business model was born, one of collaboration between companies, where no one company owns the final product. All do. As a result, instead of individual corporate self-sufficiency and off-shoring, we now have hive innovation, a form collective self-sufficiency that we are all benefiting from.

Fast tracked ventilators

Two of the 13 ventures stand out in this regard: Project Pitlane, and The Ventilator Challenge UK (VCUK) consortium. Both are highly unusual in the degree of cooperation entailed; both have proved highly successful.

Project Pitlane is a consortium of seven Formula One teams, including Aston Martin, Mercedes-AMG, Renault and Red Bull. Normally rivals, they have come together to working jointly to help the NHS. Their project has produced the Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) device. The CPAP device provides a much gentler approach than a ventilator to help Covid-19 patients with lung infections to breathe more easily.

Project Pitlane has developed the device in cooperation with University College London (UCL) and clinicians at UCL Hospital. By reverse engineering an already existing device, they have been able to ensure rapid approval by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA). This has enabled the manufactured product to be placed in hospitals within two weeks of the prototype being developed (3). An order for up to 10,000 devices has now been placed by the NHS, with 1,000 a day being built at the Mercedes AMG High Performance Powertrains technology centre in Brixworth.

The Ventilator Challenge UK consortium has resulted in the unlikely collaboration of companies from a range of diverse industries. As with Project Pitlane, several of the companies in the VCUK consortium are usually major competitors, including Airbus, Rolls-Royce, GKN and BAE Systems, as well as Ford and McLaren. Others in the consortium include Meggitt, Renishaw, Thales, Siemens and Ultra Electronics. Including suppliers, nearly 60 companies are involved in this cooperative venture.

While re-purposing production capacity is something that has long been talked of, this is a practical demonstration of how quickly it can be achieved once people put their minds to doing so. As well as providing factory floor production space and logistical know-how, the companies have worked together to redeploy some of their most skilled engineers on the ventilator effort.

VCUK now has two machines under production. Their first product is the Smiths’ machine, which started production on March 29th. This machine, the result of Project Penguin, involved scaling up production of a model already made in small numbers by the medical equipment firm Smiths Medical at its factory in Luton. The consortium has since received approval from the MHRA for a second design, the Penlon Prima ESO2 ventilator. This is product of Project Oyster, and involved making tweaks to a second existing design produced by the small Oxfordshire firm Penlon.

The VCUK production lines are in Broughton, Dagenham and Woking. Production of the Penlon ventilator will be in Oxfordshire. The government has ordered a total of 15,000 of the two machines and the consortium targets to raise production to 1,500 units a week (4).

The consortium has been facilitated by Catapult, the innovation centre set up by the government quango, Innovate, UK (5). Catapult’s expertise is in taking academic research in manufacturing and applying this to developing and scaling up production of new technologies and processes.

A model for the future of our planet?

This hive innovation approach, sometimes called a product development partnership, has been used successfully in several other areas, including the development of new malaria medicines, bringing academic research, industry and donors to work together under the same umbrella (6). The huge advantage of hive innovation is that the synergy it produces marries fresh perspectives with production capabilities. This same hive approach has now proved effective in tackling some of the problems thrown up by this pandemic, enabling businesses, academia and government to work together in innovative and creative ways.

The results demonstrate that when we are really serious about something that is going to affect our lives, we can find ways to achieve results quickly – remarkably so. Given that the usual development times (time to market) for medical devices is three to seven years (7), it is nothing short of a miracle that ways have been found to design, license, source, and manufacture new models of medical equipment in a matter of just a few weeks.

Covid-19 has shown us that achieving significant innovation is as much about shaping new relationships and collective responses to the challenges we face as it is about sharpening our focus and garnering resources.

Just imagine what we could achieve if we took the same approach and applied it to the challenges of the climate crisis. Yes, the climate challenges are even greater than Covid-19 – but that, surely, is the point – we need to treat the fate of our planet with an even greater sense of urgency than we give to the threat of SARS-CoV-2.

Our experience of this disease continues to be a very painful one. Hopefully, one of its benefits can be to give us new clarity, not only about what is really important in life, but also about the important role hive innovation and collective self-sufficiency can play in tackling the challenges facing the future of our planet.

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  • (6) One of the earliest product development partnerships is MMV:
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Acting now might just save our trees

When we talk of species extinction we tend to think of this as something that happens a long way away from us, maybe in another continent, in the jungles of the Amazon or Asia. We also tend to think of species extinction as being the result of human encroachment – the combination of felling, burning, agriculture and urbanisation. While this picture is largely correct as far as it goes in many parts of the world, something just as frightening is happening much closer to home.

Our trees are dying. Not a few of them, somewhere else, but many of them, here, throughout our country. Many of our tree species are facing a wave of diseases that will have almost unimaginable consequences for our countryside. The list of tree diseases in Britain is now very, very long. The government website Gov.UK lists some two dozen, all of them serious (1). The most frightening thing of all is that many of these diseases are new – new to Europe not just to the UK.

The sad loss of the majestic English Elm

Some of us are old enough to remember the second wave of Dutch Elm disease. The first hit during the 1920s and burnt itself out. The second started in the 1970s and by the early 1980s, Elm trees had almost totally disappeared from the landscape. Some twenty million elms had been killed during a single decade. Now they are but a memory with only a few isolated examples remaining.

Anyone younger than forty is probably too young to remember how elms had once been a prominent feature of our landscape, their stately forms punctuated the hedgerows and fields, the galleons of the green. Appearing taller than other English deciduous trees, mainly due to the fact that they put their energy into vertical growth and spread their branches less widely than trees such as the oak or the ash, they reached a height of 30 metres.

The English elm often stood solitary or in small groves and was once the home of choice to rooks (2). Rookeries were found wherever elms stood in a cluster, as they once did on the edge of almost every English village. Then they were as English as cricket on the green. No more. The elms have gone and so too, to a large extent, have the rooks. While they have found other trees in which to build their nests, the colossal rookeries of yesteryear are very much a thing of the past. Elms survive today largely as a hedgerow shrub.

When I was young, a fairly large rookery was housed in a small cluster of elms that stood within earshot of my bedroom. Every morning I was greeted with the raucous squabbling of these delightfully cantankerous corvids. As sunset approached, this performance was repeated, slowly subsiding into a round of gentle cawing as they settled down for the night. Despite their quarrelsome manner, I always found there to be something cheerful and amusing in how the rooks conducted themselves. And while the elms are sadly no more, rooks have remained one of my favourite bird species. The sight of these large bare-billed black birds feeding in a fallow field during winter seems to me to be a scene that could stretch back into eternity.

The once glorious English Elm, now but a memory

The slow death of the Common Ash

Many of us have heard of Ash dieback caused by the fungus Hymenoscyphus fraxineus, more properly known as Chalara ash dieback. The disease attacks one of our most common and loved native trees, Fraxinus excelsior, a tree which can otherwise reach 35 metres in height and 400 years in age. There are thought to be some 90-150 million mature ash trees in Britain, and as many as 2.2 billion trees in total, when saplings are included (3).

The disease is of Asian origin and was first reported in Europe in Poland in 1992, where it quickly had devastating consequences. The first symptoms are the weakening, drooping and discolouration of leaves and shoots, followed by premature leaf fall. Stricken trees subsequently develop black lesions in their trunks and bark. Once present, Chalara ash dieback stunts growth and weakens the heart of the tree, making it vulnerable to attack by other tree diseases. This almost invariably results in death, sooner or later (4).

Unfortunately, the disease spreads easily, the spores of the fungus travelling on the soles of shoes or car tyres. The spores can be carried as much as 10 miles or more on the wind. As a result of its ease of transmission, Chalara ash dieback has spread rapidly throughout Europe. It was first identified in England in 2012. However, scientists now believe it had reached the UK as early as 2006, but had gone unreported.

It is expected that the disease will kill somewhere between 95% and 99% of all UK ash trees (5). There is no cure. Because the tree is so widespread, from southern England all the way up to Scotland, this disease will change the appearance of the British landscape even more than the loss of the elm. While few trees will survive in the long term, some have proved resistant to the fungus. This has given rise to some hope and the formation of the Living Ash Project (6)(7).

Why we have a tsunami of tree diseases

Ash dieback is just one unexpected and unfortunate outcome of the absence of proper plant quarantine facilities in the UK. As we have seen with human disease, there is little or no attempt to enforce controls at our borders. This is even more the case when it comes to controlling plant imports. Trade is all in our globalised world.

As a result, Chalara ash dieback is one of more than half a dozen new deadly tree diseases, all of which have arrived on these shores in recent years. I list the main notifiable diseases by the date when they were first identified in Britain:

  • 1993 Phytophthora of alder: Lethal to the alder tree; it came here from Germany and France; 20% of all trees are already infected.
  • 2000 Horse chestnut bleeding: This is a type of canker caused by two different pathogens – one from the US, the other from the Himalayas. Lethal.
  • 2002 Ramorum disease: Arrived from Asia and affects 150 species. Larch are particularly susceptible, resulting in browning of the needles and needle drop, followed by sudden larch death. Stands of larch across Britain and Europe are now permanently brown all year around. They are being felled and have little or no value as wood.
  • 2007 Phytophthora of juniper: Arrived from Argentina. Causes dieback and eventual tree death.
  • 2009 Massaria disease: Arrived from Europe. Affects the plane tree, including the London plane, leading to branch loss, weakening them and making them unsafe. Councils are forced to resort to felling to protect the public.
  • 2010 Phytophthora lateralis: From North America. Kills the evergreen Lawson cypress.
  • 2011 Neonectria canker of Abies: From Europe. This disease causes crown dieback and weakens the wood. Affects 13 species of fir as well, it appears, as some spruce and the western hemlock.
  • 2011 Sweet chestnut blight: Say goodbye to the sweet chestnut tree. This arrived from the US via Europe. It is estimated that it has already killed 3.5 billion trees in the US during the twentieth century.

By now, if you’re like me, you are no doubt feeling distressed that we could ever have permitted this slow moving disaster to gradually overwhelm our woodlands. Sadly, there might be worse to come.

An ancient olive grove in Italy destroyed by an outbreak of Xylella fastidiosa

The big new killers on the block

Containing plant diseases should be a whole lot easier than containing human ones. Plants don’t run, nor do they walk (8). If we wish to, we can prevent things going from bad to worse by adopting proper plant quarantine procedures as the Australians have done for decades (9). Our trees needn’t die in such vast numbers (though, sadly, it might already be too late to save the ash).

There is urgent need to act. The tree diseases on our doorstep are the most frightening yet. And probably the most serious of all is that of Xyella fastidiosa. The photograph above is of an Italian olive grove devastated by this disease.

According to Forest Research, “Xylella is a plant disease which can affect several species of broadleaf trees widely grown in the UK, such as oak, elm and plane, as well as a wide range of other commercially grown plants. Among them are grape, citrus, coffee, olive, almond and blueberry species, and many herbaceous plant species.”(10) I am not looking forward to doing without coffee, wine, or citrus fruit; and this list is just the tip of the iceberg. While it includes some of Xyella’s commercially more valuable victims, it misses off most of the garden plants that will disappear if it arrives on these shores. Currently, some 560 plant species are known to be vulnerable to Xyella!

The disease reached Europe from America, being first detected in Italy in 2013. It has since made its way slowly northwards, spreading to Spain and France which are struggling to contain it. Germany, on the other hand, was successful in eliminating an outbreak in 2018.

The bacterial disease blocks the movement of water and nutrients (through the xylem) in the host plant, thereby causing severe damage and frequently killing the plant. It affects different species with varying degrees of lethality. The disease has already led to the destruction of tens of thousands of olive trees. I find this particularly sad. Olive trees are known to live for well over 2,000 years and are some of the oldest living organisms on the planet (11).

However scary a prospect for our gardens and countryside, Xyella is not the end of the story. Further horrors that have yet to reach our shores await our trees. Some are already knocking at our door:

  • Conifer root rot: This has already destroyed 25% of Norway spruce trees throughout Scandinavia.
  • Pitch canker of pine: It arrived in Europe from North America. The disease affects spruce trees as well as pine. It reduces timber growth and causes widespread tree death. It is present in Portugal and Spain and is considered eradicated from France and Italy.
  • Plane tree wilt: This is widespread in Europe. It kills slowly, taking up to 7 years to finish off its host.
  • Oak tree wilt: The name is misleading. The fungal disease can kill oak trees in just a few years. If it ever came here, it could do immense damage to our two native species of oaks, which are already are already under severe stress from threats such as acute oak decline, chronic oak dieback, and oak processionally moth.

This post focuses on the new tree diseases brought to Britain and Europe from other countries. Take pitch canker of pine. This disease is prevalent in southeastern USA, as well as coastal Monterey and California. It is thought that it might have originated in Mexico, however, and is also found in Chile and Haiti. From the Americas, as well as Europe, it has also spread to South Africa and several countries in Asia, including Japan, Korea and possibly Iraq. In addition to the felling of the great jungles of South America and Asia, the unrestricted trade of recent decades has had some unexpected and terrible consequences for the world’s trees.

Is our number one carbon sink sunk?

People everywhere are calling for the planting of millions (or trillions) of more trees to act as carbon sinks. More trees mean less free-floating CO2 and this slows the warming of atmosphere. Trees do a great job of this. Roughly speaking, a 40 year-old tree has absorbed about one ton of CO2. A 2001 study lists the following species of trees as being especially good at storing and absorbing CO2: the common horse-chestnut, black walnut, American sweetgum, Ponderosa pine, red pine, white pine, London plane, Hispaniolan pine, Douglas fir, scarlet oak, red oak, Virginia live oak, and bald cypress (12). Do you notice something? That’s right, there’s a very worrying overlap with the list of species we’ve just been talking about. This is not good news.

Australia treats the spread of tree diseases as an issue of Biosecurity. Their government website states, “Imported live plant material can introduce foreign plant pests and diseases that could be harmful to Australia’s environment, agriculture and economy. To protect against this risk, the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment sets conditions for the import of all live plant material to Australia.” That they mean business is flagged right at the top of the website, where this message is highlighted: “Notice to import industry: changes to import requirements to protect against Xylella. The Australian Government is strengthening the import requirements for a number of plant species to safeguard Australia against the bacterial plant pathogen Xylella (Xylella fastidiosa)”(13).

Australia is clearly prepared to go to great lengths to prevent the spread of Xyella and other deadly tree diseases. The question is, why aren’t we?

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  • (8) The one exception, of course, is that of the Triffids, in John Wyndham’s post-apocalyptic science fiction novel, The Day of the Triffids (1951). Once plants started walking, humans were in deep trouble.
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  • (11) Let me be clear, there are many other contenders for this title, including the humble yew tree, an example of which, growing in a churchyard in Wales, is thought to be somewhere between 4,000 and 5,000 years old.
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Advantage Federal?

There has been a lot of speculation in the press about why Germany (and to some extent Switzerland) have seen proportionately fewer deaths than other countries during the first wave of the Covid-19 virus (1). While there are undoubtedly many reasons for why this is the case, and we will not understand the full picture until this pandemic is over, many have concluded that it is the sheer extent of the testing in these countries that has been effective in constraining the scale of the outbreak there (2).

One aspect that has gone largely unnoticed, however, is the positive impact of the federal system on shaping both countries’ capabilities.

It is inherent in the nature of federal systems that healthcare facilities are decentralised. Whereas the UK has created major regional centres of specialisation – such as the Liverpool Heart & Chest Hospital, serving everywhere from the Isle of Man and Anglesey in Wales to Liverpool and the northwest of England – in Germany and Switzerland every state (or canton) is expected to be largely self-sufficient. This means that, in contrast to Britain, which started out with just a single, centralised testing unit, Germany was able to immediately replicate testing in numerous centres throughout the country.

In the view of Christian Drosten, the director of the institute of virology at Berlin’s Charité hospital, whose team of researchers developed the first COVID-19 test used in the public domain, this goes to the heart of the matter. He told NPR, the German public radio broadcaster, that Germany’s low fatality rate was the result of his country’s ability to test early and often. 

“We have a culture here in Germany that is actually not supporting a centralized diagnostic system,” said Drosten, “so Germany does not have a public health laboratory that would restrict other labs from doing the tests. So we had an open market from the beginning.”(3)

Germany’s 16 federal states make their own decisions on coronavirus testing because each of them is responsible for their own healthcare system. The same is true in Switzerland, another country with a federal system, which has achieved one of the highest testing rates in the world (4).

But it is not just testing, of course. Another aspect that also came in for scrutiny in the UK at the beginning of this crisis is the number of intensive care beds per a million people. Germany had 292 compared to the UK’s 66 (5). Why the difference? The same answer holds true: in Germany, all 16 states needed to replicate ICU facilities, whereas in the Britain they were heavily centralised. Even if Germany wanted to, the states wouldn’t have allowed it to reduce the number of intensive care beds down to the level seen in Britain.

There is another harsh truth that has little to do with decentralisation: the NHS has been underfunded for a considerable time. Years of austerity have ensured that the UK has inadequate facilities in place to deal with the annual winter flu outbreaks, let alone a virulent pandemic such as Covid-19. In an interview with The Financial Times, Severin Schwan, CEO of Roche, a Swiss based pharmaceutical giant, said that the UK government lagged behind other countries in dealing with the coronavirus crisis because it had not invested enough in healthcare and testing. Speaking from lockdown in Switzerland, Mr Schwan said to the FT, “I am not saying [the decision not to invest] is right or wrong, . . . But don’t wonder [when] a crisis like this comes and you don’t have the infrastructure that you are in a more difficult situation.” In other words, don’t be surprised, Mr Johnson, when the austerity chickens all come home to roost.

So, is there something that other countries can learn from the experience of Germany and Switzerland? Probably. And, to give credit to the UK government, it seems that these lessons have already been learnt to some extent. Since the start of the outbreak the British government has acted quickly to correct the inherent problem of over-centralisation and underinvestment, rapidly equipping seven Nightingale Hospitals, one in each region of England. Others have been added in the other countries of the Union.

Similarly, they have addressed the problems due to over-centralisation of testing. Starting with just a single centre, the UK has now increased the number of testing centres to three, supplementing this by university facilities and numerous drive-through centres. Dozens of mobile units are soon to add to this flexibility. Is this the beginning of a new federalised approach? Could decentralisation and increased investment be the legacy of Covid-19? Let us hope so.

If federal systems are so great, what on earth has happened in the USA? There is an obvious answer; there is another factor at play: a Presidential system headed by President Trump. This has had a major influence on the outcomes there. A moment’s thought, however, shows the federal advantage even in America. New York and California have been able to act as they see fit to deal with the crisis. Though Trump has attempted to interfere on occasion, he has not been able to stop the governors of these states acting in the best interests of their citizens. In short, the death toll might have been a whole lot worse without federal independence of action. This is an independence that has been widely recognised and praised in the US (6).

A note of caution: I don’t want to give the impression that federalism is universally seen as better than a centralised system in every single aspect. The Germans and the Swiss both complain on a regular basis about how slow their decision-making is. Because little can be imposed top-down by the central government, often consensus is arrived at through a long, slow and painful process. “It takes too long to make decisions,” is a complaint heard regularly. On occasion, the citizens of both countries even overcome deep prejudices and look over the fence at more centralised systems, such as that of neighbouring France, with something akin to envy.

At present, however, much of the envy faces in the other direction. And this is despite France having what is widely recognised to be one of the best healthcare systems in the world. To the surprise of many of their citizens, the federal systems of Switzerland and Germany have shown just how fleet of foot they can be during an emergency. Advantage Federal.

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

Now is the time for governments to take up an idea that has been around for some time – let’s give everyone a Universal Basic Income. Not a small paltry income, but one large enough to cover all their bills and all their needs. Every individual would receive this sum. It would be universal, unconditional and automatic.

But why? Because everyone benefits. It eliminates poverty in a single stroke and this improves health and wellbeing. Studies have shown that increased equality benefits everyone in society (1). And because it is so simple to administer, being a single payment, the elimination of bureaucracy reduces administration costs substantially, which goes part way to paying for it.

Why now? It has to be admitted that no one really knows what the consequences would be of such a scheme. It is undoubtedly expensive, which is the main argument against it. But then so is paying unemployment benefits and the salaries of all those on furlough because of Covid-19.

We need to test it and see

The universal payment would be made for exactly the same reasons as the current payments but would include everyone. Currently, the governments benefits are missing out at least five million single-person limited companies, while the current level of unemployment benefit (“Jobseeker’s Allowance”) of a paltry £72 a week (for a single person over 25) is totally insufficient for anyone to live off.

Some argue that a Universal Basic Income could increase inequality by giving money to those who already have it. It need not. There is a simple answer. Take it back through taxation, or at whatever fraction you so choose, from those who already have a high income or high wealth. This is easy. HMRC does it all the time.

Others worry that it would disincentivize work. It might, but so does very low pay. We won’t know the tradeoff until we try it. Yet others say this wouldn’t suffice for some with special needs, for example, the severely disabled who need carers. Okay – make this an exception and put the resources into meeting such exceptional needs – by paying carers to do the caring. Clever people could surely work out solutions. The key, though, is to keep things simple.

There are plenty of theories about the advantages of Universal Basic Income – but not enough experience. A few places have trialled it, in countries such as Finland and Canada. This is why the present moment is a once in a lifetime opportunity for the biggest possible trial. Let’s see whether the theorists are right or not.

There’s no safe way to ease the lockdown

This is the right time for many reasons. One that makes it most essential is the question of how we are going to keep the economy functioning during the pandemic. Currently, governments appear to be betting on getting everyone back to work sooner rather than later. This bet rides on the back of developing a vaccine in 12 to 18 months. There are huge costs to this strategy.

To make this happen, governments are going to let the infection rate rise again, albeit temporarily, before once more locking down when the mortality rate rises. This approach appears to be based on “flattening the curve” repeatedly, on a longer term basis – that is, keeping the number of deaths at any one time within “manageable limits”. This will need to be done time and time again – possibly over many years.The hope is that over time this will lead eventually to some level of herd immunity (this is how diseases eventually “burn themselves out” anyway, and is not just the woolly thinking of the British government). Governments intend to reach the point by ensuring our hospitals can cope with the numbers of those infected and seriously ill. Note that this doesn’t a) eliminate the disease any time soon, nor b) stop people dying in large numbers. It merely spreads the number of deaths due to Covid-19 over a much longer period.

This is not a bet I’d like to make. Governments are making this bet because they see no other way to keep their economies running while managing the consequences of the disease. They rightly do not wish to contemplate complete economic meltdown. However . . .

Improving everyone’s wellbeing could be one way to buy time

I agree with President Macron that we all need to think again. Planning for further deaths is unacceptable.

The alternative is for countries to buy time by staying in lockdown until a solution is found – a solution we haven’t thought of yet. However, people will not stay locked down when their livelihood is at risk. To the government’s credit, it has already understood this – and has introduced the concept of furlough, which guarantee’s 80% of employee’s salaries when they are not at work.

No one has yet thought of this as the long-term solution. To my mind, it might have to be. Universal Basic Income would make this possible, improving wellbeing and giving us time to find a way out of this problem.

As an aside, while it’s more likely that we can develop effective antivirals to help treat patients, these are cures not prevention. Cures will help disease management, but not eliminate the impact of the virus. They will at least make the jobs of our healthcare workers more rewarding, less distressing and more sustainable than at present. It must be truly awful to feel so helpless watching people die when they are trained to save lives.

The truth is that a solution could be a long time coming. Vaccines usually take many years to develop. Even if it proves possible to reduce the development time from the usual 10 years or more, which there is every sign that it might, it will nonetheless be an enormous stretch to condense the testing protocol in the human population sufficiently to meet the current aspirations now being reported in the media, of having a vaccine ready within 12 to 18 months. And even if this aspiration does prove attainable, it is still 12-18 months in the future. Not now.

Until then, easing the lockdown and going back to work, shopping, going to an event, inevitably means further spread of Covid-19 among the 97-98% of us not yet infected.

Let’s not be part of a much more dangerous experiment

Letting people go back to the work and then picking up the pieces after a second wave, and third wave, and a fourth ad infinitum is not a solution. . . It’s not only a callous and immoral leading to many more deaths but is unnecessarily expensive and ineffectual. We cannot allow this to happen – it’s completely unacceptable.

Nor can we let all commerce die – that would be completely unsustainable. This is why Universal Basic Income could prove so important. Yes, it’s untried, but if it will at least give us a way to ensure that the economy keeps ticking over until we find a solution, one which doesn’t lead it to more deaths. People would have security and money to spend, and this would create demand for goods and services.

True, it doesn’t solve every problem. Many businesses dependent on high footfall will not survive. For these services, the future looks bleak, unless some manage to convert to home delivery or find some ways to provide for physical distancing. The hard truth is that the economy is likely to change beyond all recognition, whatever we do. This is the stark reality of where we find ourselves. Hence, the propensity of governments to make wild bets.

Universal Basic Income will enable us to stay locked down for the many, many months it’s going to take to come to terms with the consequences of this virus. It will keep businesses going which otherwise would collapse. From where I stand, it now not only looks a more kindly approach but appears a much more effective one to managing this continued and ongoing catastrophe.

(1) Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger, Bloomsbury, 2011.


There’s a gorilla in the hallway

Have you heard of the gorilla that everyone fails to see? If not, watch the video from the link at the end of this post (1) and you’ll see what I mean.

We humans are renowned for our plethora of cognitive biases (2). Our brain, in sorting out the world and simplifying it, is doing us all a favour. If we were to absorb all the information coming at us day and night, we would be unable to respond. We would be sitting ducks, lunch for any predator that happened to be passing, unable to reach decisions, always suffering from acute information overload. So we simplify, greatly. Not to say, on occasion, grossly. We don’t expect to see Gorillas, so we don’t. (Do watch that video again, if you are not yet convinced.)

This is why the tabloids love to give us simplistic answers: they do so because we love things simple. We don’t wish to know that the world is a thousand shades of grey, with no absolutes, no clearcut answers, far too many variables for most of us to make sense of.

We are not computers – at least not in the conventional sense. We don’t take all the data in and then analyse it – not even the most logical of us. Our gut responses act far faster than the mind can process. We react before we think. We flee before we analyse. The thinking catches up, later, maybe.

To put this another way. The world is a lot, lot more mysterious that we give it credit for. We are so good at filtering out, dismissing the inconvenient, shrugging off the things that don’t fit, that we often miss the gorilla in the hallway.

The majority of humans for the majority of human history have been aware of the mystery at the heart of life. Cave paintings, Stonehenge, world religions all testify to this. Yet, since the Enlightenment, we in the West have decided to package up this mystery as inconvenient and have chosen not to address it. We do this numerous ways, by giving primacy to the rational and the empirical, by saying that such things are unprovable, and by claiming the mysteries at life’s heart have little or nothing to do with what really matters in life. It’s as if we just decided the occasional gorilla in our midst is just too inconvenient to consider.

Yet our search for meaning continues.(3) We, of all the world’s creatures, are the only ones who need meaning and keep searching for it, whatever the circumstances. This is the gorilla in the hallway. We can’t move on without recognising it is there.

Maybe if we start listening to life’s mysteries, reincorporating them into our view of reality, we might be able to start undoing the damage we have done to this planet and all life on it. By this, I don’t mean that we should give up science, chuck out rationality and start again. I mean we should have a broader world view, incorporate the mysterious, and listen to what nature is saying to us in a different way. This requires not just measuring how much CO2, SO2 and NO2 we are releasing into the atmosphere (though that too) but how we sense nature is responding to us. Both complement each other, one does not negate the other.

Some will be uneasy with this, as if I am letting in gobbledygook by the front door (no, that is not the name of the gorilla!). Yet, many of us feel more at peace when in a natural environment than we do otherwise. Many say they find walking in the countryside to be deeply relaxing, even healing. The Japanese have turned this into a meditative technique and natural therapy called Shinrin-yoku that they believe brings physical and psychological benefits (4).

Science shows us that our brains respond very positively to greens and blues(5)(6). We can feel “at one with nature”; likewise, the expanse of the sea, or the sky at night, or a mountain-top view can give us a sense of the infinite. This is not an appeal for pantheism, far from it, but merely an illustration of how we sense more than we immediately understand. Cutting ourselves off from this experience is to deny the very core of us.

So, I guess this all boils down to a rather simple thought: when listening to nature, when seeing it more clearly, we might also begin to see ourselves more clearly. This is a matter of listening in a much deeper way than we are used to. It requires admitting that occasionally, just occasionally, the unexpected intrudes, blocking our way forward. We are now at such an impasse.

Putting the world to right can’t be solely a matter of recycling, cutting carbon emissions, and changing lightbulbs. It also needs to be a way of recreating harmony where we have wrought disorder and disaster. That harmony will be manifest in the peace we make with nature and in the peace we make with each other and ourselves.

None of this will be possible without letting the mysterious and the unknown back into our lives. Let’s give that gorilla a hug.

  • (1) Selective attention:
  • (2) For a long list of cognitive biases, see Wikipedia:
  • (3) Victor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, 1946. An account of his life in a Nazi concentration camp, the finding of a purpose for his life, and how he turned this into a psychotherapeutic method.
  • (4) Website on Shinrin-yoku:
  • (5) Technical paper on cognition:
  • (6) New Scientist on healing properties of green light: