C is for compassion

Compassion  n. [mass noun] sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others.

Most of us are moved to pity when we see others, especially children, suffering. Some of us respond, in various ways and to varying degrees. We might, in response to a disaster or charity appeal, donate some cash; a modest amount if that’s all we can afford or more generously if we are better off.

Or we might donate to a charity that particularly appeals to us on a regular basis because the need is not a one-off misfortune but an ongoing requirement of help. Some take the view that ‘charity begins at home’; that they can only afford sympathy or financial help for those nearest to them; their own kind. But others say it’s a small world. We’re all human, all brothers and sisters in the global human family. We all suffer, we all bleed. Or if encountering distress face to face, we might instinctively rush forward, anxious to help.

To a greater or lesser extent, in many people compassion, pity, concern for the suffering of others is an innate part of the human psyche. For those who acquire it, it begins very early in life as a basic social skill. Two-year-olds experience empathy with their little friends, picking up on subtle social emotional cues, such as if the other is upset. Put another way, in sociological terms, they begin to develop emotional intelligence.

The origin of the compassionate response is probably found back in the mists of evolutionary time. What we would nowadays regard as a moral process, a mark of being truly civilised, evolved, anthropologists say, probably as a survival mechanism. It was in an individual’s best interest to be ‘altruistic’ towards kin; in other words, by being nice, contribute to the solidarity and strength of their own kinship group – or tribe – so that the group collectively could better protect itself against hostile ‘other’ groups, thereby increasing the individual’s chances of survival. It was a matter of reciprocity, of mutual aid and protection. In other words: caring.

Well, that may well be so for the ‘charity begins at home’, insular mindset, but it doesn’t really explain concern and pity for strangers. Some would say that for a wider generosity you need an all-embracing morality inculcated by religion.

If you were brought up religiously (in this case Christian-religiously) you’ll remember the parable of the Good Samaritan, as told by Luke 10: verses 25 – 37, about the unfortunate man, a Jew, travelling on the road from Jerusalem to Jerico, who falls prey to robbers who savagely beat, strip, rob and callously leave him for dead. A priest happens along but ignores him. So does a Levite (Temple assistant). They both take one look and, literally (and nowadays we would say metaphorically), pass by on the other side.

But then a Samaritan comes by. Now Samaritans and Jews usually don’t get along due to religious differences, but the Samaritan sees only a fellow human being in distress. He feels pity. He stops and helps the poor man, pouring wine and oil on his wounds and binding them. Then, putting him on his animal, he takes him on to an inn where he can be cared for. He leaves him there, paying the innkeeper two dinarii for his care, saying he’ll pay more if required when he comes back that way.

After telling the parable Jesus poses the question: which of the three travellers was the [good] neighbour? The powerful moral message is clear: he who showed compassion. And although Luke doesn’t spell it out, there’s a subtle subtext. The one who took action to help was not overtly, orthodoxly religious but of a different tribe from the poor victim. He had a higher moral compass.

Or take another example, also concerning Jews and also about caring for the disliked Other: Oskar Schindler. He was a German industrialist and member of the Nazi party in WW2 who ran an enamel factory in Kracow in occupied Poland. It switched to making armaments and at the height of its production employed around 1,750 workers of whom, because their labour was cheaper, 1,000 were Jews, a fact Schindler was happy to exploit. As the genocide of Jews began to take hold and they were murdered in death camps or worked to death in labour camps, Schindler tried to protect his Jewish workers by bribing officials with increasingly lavish gifts.

In 1944, as the tide turned against Germany and the SS began closing the eastern Polish camps, killing many and transporting the remainder westwards, Schindler persuaded Amon Göth, the commandant of the nearby Kracow-Plaszow concentration camp, to allow him to relocate his factory further west to Brünnlitz in the Sudetenland, taking his workers with him. After more bribery Göth agreed, and his secretary typed a list (the subject of the best-selling book and film) of 1,200 Jews, who went to Brünnlitz in October 1944. Schindler undoubtedly saved their lives.

He had to continue bribing the SS to keep his workers safe, however, and by the end of the war his entire fortune had been spent doing so. He died in 1974 and was buried on Mount Zion in Jerusalem, the only Nazi Israel honoured in this way. So Schindler was a Good Samaritan too. Unlike those of his countrymen who regarded Jews as inferior beings or vermin to be exterminated, he saw them as suffering fellow human beings. In spite of his adherence to Nazism, he had human compassion.

Or a third example, this time entirely fictional, from my novel The Flautist. In it, a kind-hearted man, Patrick, is a newspaper journalist living and working in London. His daily walk to work takes him past a busker: a scruffy, unattractive young woman who plays the flute like an angel. One evening it’s raining and she’s there as usual, looking very wet and miserable, still gamely trying to earn a pittance from her music. Feeling sorry for her, he takes her to a cafe to escape the rain for a while, where she hungrily devours the food and drink he buys for her. She tells him she’s been trying to recoup after having had her takings stolen, and confesses that she’s homeless.

Feeling even more pity, he impetuously invites her back to his flat for more shelter and a proper meal, where she charms him with a sparkling performance of classical music (she’d been trained at the Juilliard music school in New York). She – platonically – stays the night and a beautiful love affair, good karma for Patrick, later ensues, all because of a kind act of compassionate. Both of their unhappy lives are turned around. All right; this example is fictional, but again it’s a case of kindness transcending instinctive aversion.

Often acts of compassion are directed at people the giver will never encounter, such as when we respond with donations to a disaster. But we might still see, if not on a face-to-face, personal level, the difference it makes to the lives of desperately poor people in Africa, or terrible natural disaster victims, or victims of violence like Syrian or Rohingya Muslim refugees. Or kindness is shown more practically, such as when good-hearted volunteers work for aid agencies. I have enormous respect for them.

Or when celebrities appear on television appeal shows or in the media, giving their time for free, although some cynics might say that it’s good PR for them too. But it’s the unsung heroes, the unknowns, who modestly give of their time, and sometimes of their bodies, like blood or organ donors, giving all year round, who really get my vote. They too (apart from some kidney donors, who may be a relative of the recipient, or sometimes the families of deceased organ donors), never get to meet the recipient of their kindness.

It’s depressing sometimes to read obviously empathy and compassion-lacking comments on social media – especially directed at foreigners – on social media, as if the people making them are utterly lacking in basic humanity, incapable of feeling pity. There have been many of those directed at refugees trying, and often dying in the attempt, to cross the Mediterranean to Europe in the past few years. Sometimes they’re flatly opposed to government overseas aid – the charity-begins-at-home thing operating again.

But thankfully, there are many others who are Good Samaritans. Who don’t pass by on the other side.

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C is for climatology


Climatology  n. [mass noun] the scientific study of climate

The Northwest Passage used to be impassable. Centuries ago, no intrepid explorer found a way through the icy wastes of the Canadian Arctic from the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans. But not anymore. Now, during the summer months, it’s becoming increasingly navigable for shipping, opening up the possibility of a new, quicker, trade route. Since 1979 there’s been a clearly observable and accelerating decline in ice cover of 3.2% per decade, with satellite images showing large tracts of water relatively ice-free.

Good news for world trade, you might think. Well, perhaps. But climatologists say this warming of the Polar regions, indicative of global warming, isn’t so good for the planet.

Before I go any further, let’s clear up any confusion between meteorology and climatology. Meteorology studies the physics of the atmosphere and gives us local weather forecasting, whereas climatology takes a global view and deals with climate: weather and physical conditions over large areas, even the entire planet, and over long periods of time. So climatology is interwoven with other sciences like geology and archaeology. Meteorology tells you what’s happening outside your window; climatology what has happened, is happening and will likely happen in the future, globally.

And with the word ‘climate’ comes, of course, the often-associated noun ‘change’. Climate change previously went by the narrower but accurate term ‘global warming’, which is the gradual increase in the overall temperature of the earth due to increased levels of carbon dioxide and other pollutants in the lower atmosphere.

So what is the ‘greenhouse effect’ then? It’s what happens with your garden greenhouse. It lets sunlight in, but the glass traps some of the warmth by preventing infrared radiation being re-emitted and lost to the outside air. The same thing happens, on a vast scale, with global warming. In a global steady state, sufficient infrared is re-emitted or radiation is reflected by snow in Polar regions to prevent the earth from overheating.

But burning fossil fuels produces extra carbon dioxide, which impedes the re-emission of infrared, upsetting the natural balance and causing gradual warming, particularly of the Polar caps, which begin to melt and in turn cause sea levels to rise (and disrupt weather patterns), threatening low-lying countries such as Bangladesh and even American coastal cities. This is simple physics; it’s not a matter of belief or denial. And it’s not a recent thing; it probably began, imperceptibly, with the discovery of fire (all burning is oxidisation, which produces carbon dioxide) but began to increase significantly with the Industrial Revolution.

It isn’t just a matter of rising sea levels either, or summer being a little warmer for some (although some people living in cooler climes might welcome that). There are many other consequences, both for humans and other life on earth. The sea plays a part in regulating the earth’s temperature by soaking up atmospheric carbon dioxide – up to 50% of it – so more of the gas in the air means more of it going into the sea, which increases its acidity, bleaches corals and is bad news for organisms like plankton and molluscs upon which animals higher up the food chain feed.

But then a ‘feedback’ happens, as the sea becomes unable to absorb any more carbon dioxide and it remains in the atmosphere, causing temperature rise. This feedback happens at the poles too, as the white, reflective ice cover diminishes to be replaced by absorbent water which, even if it can’t absorb carbon dioxide, can still absorb the solar radiation but can’t re-emit infrared, so it becomes a vicious cycle of ever-increasing warming.

Increasing global temperatures seem to be having an effect on weather patterns too. Hot climes are becoming hotter, leading to increased wildfires, and drought, as is happening in Cape Town, which is literally running out of water, and desertification and loss of food production. And wetter parts of the world are getting wetter, leading to catastrophic floods. There is a real danger of parts of the world eventually becoming uninhabitable, leading to mass migrations. And entire animal species are already going extinct as their habitats change due to warming.

But suggest we’re cooking the planet to climate change deniers and you’re met with facile nonsense such as: there’s always been climate change; these things go in natural cycles. Yes, that’s true. But the difference is this: now it’s happening much more quickly, rapidly enough to be measurable (and exponentially too; the hottest recorded global temperatures are in recent years), not gradually over vast stretches of time, as happened before.

Or, they contend, like a certain American president, it’s just a ‘con’ by China, or scaremongering by scientists to win funds to keep them in cushy jobs. Really? So 99% of climate scientists, clever people who have devoted years to their subject, are all conniving in some vast selfish conspiracy? That’s just absurd. However, the tiny minority of scientists who poo-poo the established science are often in thrall to oil or coal companies. Now that does smack of conspiracy!

Or, they insist, disingenuously, whenever there’s a cold snap, it isn’t getting much warmer where I’m living, and anyway, what difference does a welcome couple of degrees of warming make? But they’re confusing climate with weather, which always varies from place to place. Whereas measurements of global warming are a) averages across the planet and b) expressed and modelled as trends over time. And yes, every degree of temperature rise does make a big difference. Scientists generally agree that a 1.5 degree increase (which would be more at the poles) should be an absolute maximum. Beyond that there’s a real danger of going beyond a tipping point where warming becomes runaway and there’s nothing that can be done to stop it. Hence the Paris Accord agreement, airily ignored by the populist Trump, to try and aim for this.

Or, they bleat, why should I give up my over-consuming lifestyle and gas-guzzling car for something that might happen many decades in the future and not in my back yard? It’s not my problem. Well, two things there: a) it’s already happening and can’t be ignored, and b) to be indifferent about problems being piled onto future generations, or to people already suffering today in other parts of the world, is simply selfish.

So what’s to be done? Well certainly, the world has to wean itself off fossil fuels – all of them: coal, oil, gas (including the fracked variety, which brings other problems too) as soon as it possibly can. Most climate scientists say that all remaining reserves should be left in the ground. Admittedly, realistically that can’t happen overnight though. Dirty coal is on its way out, but most of us rely on oil or gas to power our cars and heat our homes. Alternative, non-carbon energy must come from somewhere, and there are only two options: nuclear or renewable. Nuclear is non-carbon but hellishly expensive to build the generating stations and potentially highly dangerous. Renewables are zero-carbon too, after manufacture and installation of the plant. And the price of them is dropping steadily; offshore wind is already cheaper than nuclear and onshore wind is cheaper still. Some detractors point to its intermittent nature, but often wind and solar complement each other; the wind can still blow at night and the sun still shine on windless days. And with battery storage technology developing all the time, any peaks or troughs of renewable generation could be evened out (perhaps with some continued use of nuclear to ensure sufficient base load capacity).

As far as transport is concerned, electric vehicles are set to replace internal combustion engine ones in the ideally not-too-distant future. And if the electricity for them is produced renewably, so much the better. My next car is going to be electric.

So the technological fixes are either already with us or hopefully will come in the future. But climate change needs a two-pronged attack. The other one is people power. There are some, particularly young people, who are passionate about the environment and at the opposite end of the spectrum, the deniers. In the middle ground there are the majority, sometimes inert and uninterested, who never give the health of our beautiful blue planet a moment’s thought, who think we can go on as we have been doing for ever.

Just how you fire them up to demand politicians deliver green policies, or encourage them to modify their lifestyles to live as sustainably as reasonably possible, I really don’t know.

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C is for Ceredigion

Ceredigion a county of western and mid Wales; administrative centre, Aberaeron

Say the word ‘Ceredigion’ to most people – apart from the Welsh – and they wouldn’t have the faintest idea what you were talking about. Is it an object? they’d ask. Or an animal or plant? Or a place, or some sort of quality? You, dear reader, will perhaps only know what it is from the above definition too. In fact, Ceredigion is one of only four Welsh counties that doesn’t mess about with bi-lingualism but proudly identifies itself in Welsh only (the other three are Powys, Gwynedd and Clwyd).

Where did that rather lyrical, almost magical-sounding name that so easily trips off the tongue come from, you might wonder. Well, you have to go a long way back for its source: the dark bloodthirsty period following the Romans’ withdrawal from Britain, the fifth century, when one Ceredig, son of an invader from the north, created a minor kingdom of settlements along the banks of the river Teifi, which forms the south-eastern boundary of the triangular-shaped county. Ceredigion means ‘Land of Ceredig’
The written record is fairly scant, but it’s believed the little kingdom remained an entity until around 870AD, when king Gwynon ap Meurig is said to have drowned. The territory was then ruled by three generations of succeeding kings until becoming combined with Dyfed (the present-day Pembrokeshire). In 1282 Edward 1 of England conquered what he saw as his troublesome neighbours and divided Wales into English-style counties. Ceredig became anglicised into ‘Cardigan’ and the new county called Cardiganshire.

And so it remained until 1974, when it, Pembrokeshire and the other southern neighbour, Carmarthenshire, were lumped together into one geographically enormous county going under the revived old name of Dyfed. That cumbersome administrative entity only lasted until 1996, however, when it was re-divided into its old constituent counties and Welsh-speaking Cardiganshire promptly reverted to the proper Welsh name Ceredigion. And quite rightly too. (To the annoyance of locals, you do however still see the name Dyfed used as the county name as far as business and some public authorities are concerned, as if the incorrect name has never been expunged from their computer databases.)

Ceredigion is a wild, sparsely-populated, empty land on the western edge of Britain bounded by the Irish Sea to the west, upland to the east and rivers to north and south. If you divide it vertically into two, the eastern hinterland is all bleak moorland and mountain, sometimes patched with brooding conifer forestry, shared with the eastern neighbour Powys. It’s so empty that it’s known as the ‘Green Desert of Wales’. So almost all the population of 75,000 (just 0.117% of Britain) is concentrated along the largely rural western seaboard and the Teifi valley. Apart from small ‘business parks’ on the outskirts of towns, there are none of the concentrated industrial areas you find in South Wales.

There are no motorways. No double carriageway roads, even, and few A-roads. Only two are major trunk roads: an at times spectacular coast-hugging route that connects Cardigan in the far south to Aberystwyth in the north, and an equally scenic road through the mountains joining that town to Llangurig in Powys. There’s only one other A-road driving a north/south route through the middle of the county, connecting Lampeter with Tregaron, and just four others as cross-country connections between towns. All else is B-roads and minor unclassifieds serving the villages of western and southern Ceredigion.

The county’s largest town (although not technically its county town, and only comparatively large because it used to be a Victorian holiday destination)) is the seaside resort of Aberystwyth (in Welsh: ‘Mouth of the [river] Ystwyth’). It boasts a funicular railway, the county’s only general hospital and one of Ceredigion’s two universities. It also has the National Library of Wales, so small in population terms certainly doesn’t mean culturally lacking. Aberystwyth is considered the intellectual capital of Mid Wales.
As for the other towns, there just six of them, not counting Newcastle Emlyn and Llanybydder, which both straddle the Teifi but are mostly in Carmarthenshire. With the exception of remote Tregaron, from which you can drive directly along a single-track road up into the mountains, they all guard the periphery of the county, and only two, Tregaron and Lampeter, are in the upland east. Starting with the northernmost, Aberystwyth, and going clockwise they are: Tregaron, Lampeter and Llandysul, which are both on the Teifi, and then coastal Cardigan (Welsh name Aberteifi – ‘Mouth of the Teifi’), also Teifi-side and once a thriving port. Continuing up the coast you find New Quay, where Dylan Thomas once lived, then Aberaeron (‘Mouth of the Aeron’), before ending back at Aberystwyth.

It’s said that in this largely wild upland county, where much of the land is suitable only for grazing, wind farms or forestry, there are more sheep than people. So, with little industry, and apart from agriculture and forestry, the main money earner is tourism, and for those whose thing is visiting geographical wonders, they are here in abundance. The burbling, sparkling Cenarth Falls on the Teif, famous for its salmon, are a sheer delight. The exhilarating mountain road up out of Tregaron leads to man-made but no less beautiful tree-girded Llyn Brianne reservoir, which is shared with adjoining Powys.
Following the road north from Tregaron brings you to the poignant isolated ruins of Strata Florida abbey, and further on again you find yourself at one of the most spectacular wonders of Wales (and certainly the scenic high point of Ceredigion): Pontarfynach (Devil’s Bridge). In fact there are three bridges stacked one above the other: the lowest medieval, the second eighteenth century and the uppermost early twentieth. They span a dramatic gorge into which the Rheidol river crashes 90 vertiginous metres (300 feet) on its way to Aberystwyth and the sea. To make an even more enjoyable visit of it, take a beautifully restored narrow-gauge steam train from there up the Rheidol valley to Devil’s Bridge.

Further on again, as Ceredigion narrows and becomes almost all upland, mountain walkers can sample the highest point in Mid Wales, 752m (2468 feet) Pumlumon Fawr, where the rivers Severn (Hafren in Welsh) and Wye have their source. Being on the inland side of the watershed, neither can take the quick westward route to the sea but have to settle for a very long one in the other direction (the Severn through western England) to the Bristol Channel. Ceredigion ends with a dramatic climax at the wide impassable mouth of the Dyfi (Dovey) with Gwynedd and the mountains of Snowdonia a magnificent backdrop on the other side.

Gwynnedd and Anglesey are the primary Welsh-speaking strongholds of Wales, but Ceredigion runs them a close third. According to the most recent population survey, 56.6% of people polled claimed to be able to speak Welsh against just 27.9% for Wales as a whole. It’s in steady decline though. Although in an area like this you do hear it spoken out and about, people tend to default to English, politely beginning conversations in that language unless they already know you siarad Cymraeg, speak Welsh, or discover that you do. In my village, which, like many parts of Wales, contains quite a high proportion of English incomers (particularly retirees like me), Welsh is the first language for the locals. Completely bilingual, they speak Welsh amongst themselves but switch effortlessly and good-naturedly to English for non Welsh-speakers. I really admire that facility.

The character of Welsh-speaking Wales is slowly altering as the original ancient language declines, which is a shame. Fervent nationalists lay the blame on English incomers, and they may have a diluting effect on Welsh-speaking, but that’s mainly caused by so many young local Welsh-speaking people having to leave the area in search of good jobs, or indeed any sort of job. The Welsh government does its best to keep the language and culture alive in bi-lingual road signs, official documents and teaching in schools, sometimes entirely through the medium of Welsh, but it’s a declining trend.
The sad fact is, economically comparatively poor Wales – and particularly non-industrial areas like Ceredigion – do need the economic boost that English incomers, whether tourists or retirees, bring. For Welsh-speaking Wales to thrive, it has to be able to communicate with the rest of the UK. And as far as incomers learning the language goes, the problem with take-up is that, unlike entirely foreign countries with a different first language, English is the predominant one in Wales, so acquiring the beautiful, poetic language of Wales is voluntary but not essential. All the same, I’m glad I live in a county mellifluously called Ceredigion. It sounds so much nicer than bland English Cardiganshire!

When I shuffle off my mortal coil I’ve asked my son to scatter my ashes on the wild slopes of Pumlumon mountain (the highest point in Ceredigion), on the peaceful roof of Wales, with just the soughing of the wind off the Irish Sea for company. That’s a pretty good way to spend eternity, I reckon.

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B is for Brexit

Brexit  n. (mass noun) [informal] the United Kingdom leaving the European Union

Mark Twain famously opined that politics is all about lies, damn lies and statistics. Many a true word is spoken in satire, and that certainly seemed to apply to the should-Britain-leave –the-EU referendum in 2016.

There were certainly plenty of numbers flying around. On the Remain side there were sometimes exaggerations, often quoting improbably precise statistics, of the dire economic consequences of leaving. And on the Leave side cynical inducements, such as seductively quoting (and promptly dropping again after the leave result was secured) the misleading gross weekly payment to the EU of £350 million, which would, hey presto, be recycled into the underfunded NHS.  And the negative lies too; the absurd scare stories about the 72 million Turkish economic migrants who would imminently flock to Britain if she remains, although in reality Turkey won’t be joining the EU any time in the foreseeable future.

And the xenophobia-encouraging issue of general non-EU migration, conflating it with freedom of movement within the EU. Many British people who currently live in Europe, and Europeans living in Britain, are now deeply worried about their residency status. Brexit politicians reassure them that existing European nationals living in the UK will be able to remain, and insist expat Brits can remain in mainland Europe too. Fine, but what about the future: what if a British person falls in love with a European and they want to set up home together; possibly marry? Would Britain’s splendid new isolationism prevent that?

Quite apart from the despicable hate crime from a minority that’s been unleashed because these mindless bigots now feel their hatred has been given legitimacy. And not to mention the deliberate muddying of the waters by bringing refugees (of whom very few are being given shelter by a largely unwelcoming Britain anyway) into it, as Nigel Farage knew perfectly well when he shamelessly posed in front of his infamous ‘Breaking Point’ poster.

After many increasingly tedious weeks of campaigning, the people of Britain ‘decided’. Hardly decisively though. Much of the right and all of the far-right of the political spectrum, and some on the hard left too, and the majority (yours truly being an exception) of older people, and many of the left-behind-by-austerity poor, who wanted – not unreasonably – to protest against a seemingly uncaring Establishment, gave the government a ‘mandate’ to leave the EU. Well, it depends on how you define ‘mandate’.
Yes, in crude majoritarian terms, 52% for leaving against 48% for staying was superficially democratic and decisive. But for a huge decision like that, with its long-term and profound ramifications, a more sophisticated voting system, which gave one side or the other a significant and substantial majority was called for. As it turned out, there was a mere 3.8% difference between the votes, which is virtually a split down the middle. The result is, it’s left the nearly half of those who voted and ‘lost’ feeling very unhappy and disenfranchised indeed.

It’s produced a huge rift; pitted Europhile against Europhobe; generation against generation; often, sadly (including in my case) division and acrimony within families. It’s possibly precipitated Scotland’s final secession from the UK and perhaps, worryingly, stirred trouble in Northern Ireland, with it’s terrible history of sectarian bloodshed, too. What if the peace process now unravels, with consequences too horrific to contemplate?
It’s water under the bridge now, but how might the referendum have been better run, giving a clearer, more decisive result? Well for a start, the votes should have been considered as proportions of the total potential vote, as if everyone had an opinion – or had been required to vote, as in Australia. The turnout for the referendum was 72%. So 52% of that equates to just 37% of the 44 million eligible voters who positively voted to leave. It’s a fair assumption that of the 28% who didn’t vote, few felt strongly and positively in favour of leaving otherwise they would have used their vote to help secure it. So saying it like that, 37% is hardly a meaningful mandate.

Philosopher A C Grayling takes the view that the referendum, far from being a decisive expression of the will of the people, with its simplistic rules and slim majority, is not an adequate ground for the UK to leave the EU. He points out that in most jurisdictions, major change like this require a supermajority (for example, at least 60% of the vote on a minimum 75% turnout) to trigger it, not a simple and, as in this case, slender one with a difference of only 3.8%. Many advanced countries demand supermajority voting on hugely important issues. He opines that referendums are pretty crude methods of determining the public will and legislating. In his view, if referendums are a poor way of deciding general, sometimes complicated policy, they certainly shouldn’t decide nuanced, highly technical, deeply complex and momentous issues like membership of the EU.

But his really compelling argument is that most young people voted in favour of remaining. It’s their futures which will be most affected, after all. Older people can’t grumble about their apathy about politics and yet be surprised when, having voted, they find their point of view ignored by their ‘elders and betters’ and feel deeply cynical and disillusioned. On the other hand, if more youngsters had used their vote, the anger might now be coming from Brexiters because there was a slender majority for remaining.

But the UK has had it now: a referendum foisted upon it for entirely political reasons (the Ukip terrier snapping at the Conservative Party’s heels).  Before, few people actually cared strongly enough about EU membership but they’re now stuck with a close result, obtained on terms that offered a simple (simplistic?), binary, black-or-white, totally-remain or totally-leave choice, and it’s been left a country and a society split down the middle and the two major political parties in chaos.

Leavers are delighted, because now they can revert, they think, with heart-bursting patriotism and fuzzy nostalgia, to a Britain Great again (just like the seductive Trump message to America really) and grand and proud isolation; the bulldog spirit and blue birds over the white cliffs of Dover. I don’t disparage World War 2 and the memory of those who suffered and died in it, but some aspects of the mid-twentieth century were nothing to be proud of, like the xenophobia about Johnny Foreigner, particularly if he had a dark skin.

But Remainers (certainly this one) are extremely unhappy about being dragged back to that un-enlightenment; to a meaner, less tolerant, less welcoming Britain.

So what’s to be done? Well, patently, things can’t just be left as they are, with resentments left to stew on one side whilst the winners complacently and triumphantly bask in their ‘victory’ (‘you lost, remoaners, get over it’). This shouldn’t have been like a boxing match with two irreconcilable opponents slugging it out in a winner-takes-all trial of brutal pugilism. It’s too important for that. The British public might be sick to gill level of hearing about the European Question (and most of it wasn’t very interested before, true) but it’s got to continue to debate with itself, lead by parliament, and the two big political parties have got to stop bickering among themselves and discuss the matter intelligently.
There has to be a proper, grown-up, in-depth parliamentary debate about Britain’s new relationship with Europe and the degree to which she will almost certainly (say it quietly) have to compromise. That’s the only way to reconcile the polar-opposite sides of the debate. It always is. Discuss the necessary trade-offs of say, the trade advantages of continued access to the single market and customs union and the other side of the bargain: continued free movement of people. And some continuing monetary contribution to the EU. Something like the semi-detached Norway model. It wouldn’t please the extremists but might keep moderates reasonably happy. That’s what democracy is, after all.

That’s assuming that the EU would be willing to grant wanting-to-have-its-cake-and-eat-it Britain any more special arrangements after it’s metaphorically raised two fingers to Europe.

But whatever final terms can be obtained for Britain, they should at least be discussed – meaningfully – and voted upon in parliament, and preferably put to the people again in a general election. Or even a second referendum, but on the clear understanding that this time there must be a supermajority vote for such a radical change. Having had chaos and divisiveness visited upon Britain by the agitating of Ukip, a reasonably widely acceptable outcome, even if it’s a compromise, must be the only outcome.

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B is for bird

Bird  n. A warm-blooded egg-laying vertebrate animal distinguished by the possession of feathers, wings and a beak and typically able to fly

Here’s a quiz question: what do the beautiful bird of paradise and the exquisite peacock have in common with the rather less aesthetically pleasing crocodile? A trick question, surely, I hear you cry. How can there possibly be a connection between those gorgeous birds with their brilliant plumage and spectacular, exhibitionist, courtship behaviours and that wickedly-grinning, ancient reptile who’s often cast as a villain?

Well, no, it isn’t a trick at all, although I’ll admit that I chose particularly beautiful examples of birds for the purpose of contrast. The answer is that these apparently completely disparate types of animal (that’s all birds, I mean, and all members of the crocodylidae family – crocodiles, alligators, caimans and gharials) share a common ancestor. To find it you have to travel back a very long way, about 300 million years, when some amphibians – which had evolved from fish – further evolved into reptiles.

There was then a split into two branches, with some reptiles on the first branch going on to evolve again into mammals. But on the other branch, around 150 million years ago, further diversification occurred as many types of dinosaurs arose, some of which became warm-blooded and in turn led to pro-birds, while some other reptiles developed into crocodile-like creatures, which survive to this day.

That’s putting it extremely simply. In fact the evolutionary story was enormously complex and happened (and continues to happen) very gradually, over an immense period of time. But let’s put a little more flesh on those ancient bones. After reptiles evolved from amphibians in the Triassic period, around 250 million years ago a group called archosaurs became the dominant vertebrate (backboned) animal on earth. As so often happens in evolution, many different forms appeared, some of which would succeed and develop; others would go extinct.

One of the success stories, the ornithodires, differed from other archosaurs in significant ways. They were usually comparatively lightly built and small. And they were usually bipedal too, so that their small front legs, not needed for standing on, had the potential to eventually evolve into primitive wings. In the late Triassic period the ornithodires split into two distinct and increasingly disparate lines. The first of these, the pseudosuchia included many crawling lizard forms destined for extinction, but also the crocodylia, which appeared 83.5 million years ago in the late Cretaceous period, and must have suited their particular niche very well and survived.

The other line diversified into various dinosaur forms. Some were ground dwelling and others, such as pterosaurs, which had wings of flaps of skin supported by a greatly elongated fourth finger, were avian. These may or may not be forerunners of birds. Some scientists say that, around 150 million years ago, two-legged, possibly warm-blooded, running dinosaurs called theropods morphed into modern birds, with reptilian scales modified into feathers. This hypothesis is supported by the oldest known bird-like fossil, archaeopterix, which has been dated to 150 million years ago. most scientists contend it’s a ‘missing link’ in the fossil record between early flying dinosaurs and fully modern birds, but others suggest it’s simply another twig on the complex branch of invertebrates on the evolutionary tree, which ultimately led nowhere.

In fact many of these ancient animals were doomed. During the Great Extinction of the Jurassic period, possibly caused by an enormous meteor colliding with earth, almost all of the pseudosucia, except the crocodylia, were wiped out. As were most of the theropoda, so most dinosaurs also succumbed, with the exception of the Avians, the birds.

So that’s the link between birds and snappy crocodiles: they’re evolutionary cousins in the family of animals and sole survivors in each of their groups of a distant common reptilian ancestor. And so of all the five basic types of animals (in order of evolution: fish, amphibians, reptiles, mammals and birds), birds and crocodiles are, genetically speaking, most similar to each other.

The evolutionary story continued as birds dominated the skies, with many forms appearing, for example huge vultures. One species, possibly the biggest flying bird ever, had a wingspan of over 20 feet. Sometimes evolution seemed to run in reverse. Having gone to all that trouble to evolve from reptiles through dinosaurs and become masters of the air and long-range travellers to all corners of the globe, some species decided to give up that freedom and return to earth. The wings of birds like domesticated fowl, ostriches and (particularly) penguins atrophied to ghosts of their former selves, as species modified and transmuted to suit habitats where the power of flight was no great advantage.

Another of the reasons for the bird tribe’s success was its beak, a feature that could adapt to a variety of food-gathering uses. One species, the New Zealand wrybill, has, uniquely, a curved bill (to the right) which is ideally suited to probe underneath heavy boulders for insect larvae.

Today there are estimated to be some 10,000 species of this astonishingly varied family of animals, ranging from the smallest, the 57mm-long (including beak and tail) bee hummingbird of Cuba to the largest, the ostrich. Birds have become extraordinarily specialised. Think parrots, for instance, with their inexplicable ability to mimic sound, including human speech. Of course they don’t have any cognitive realisation that they’re ‘speaking’; to them it’s simply a sound that’s advantageous to copy. Or the Australasian bower bird whose male fashions an elaborate bower decorated with feathers, shells and suchlike in order to entice the ladies in for mating.

Sadly though, not all species have thrived. Not because they haven’t evolved successfully but because of the depredations of, guess who, Man. Take the hapless dodo, which was a turkey-sized creature living isolated with a false sense of security on the island of Mauritius. In a bountiful environment free from natural predators, it gradually lost the need of flight, which was fine until colonists came along in the seventeenth century, when it was a sitting, er, dodo. The poor bird was hunted to extinction. The same thing happened with the North American passenger pigeon. It was once perhaps the commonest bird in the world, incredibly successful, with an estimated population of 2 billion, until settlers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries felled its forest habit and killed the birds. It was completely extinct by 1900.

And the outlook for birds is far from encouraging. In 2015, BirdLife International, the authority for listing endangered species, estimated that no less than 1,375 bird species, 13% of the total, were threatened with extinction due to habitat loss from land conversion (such as felling tropical rain forests), climate change, pollution or hunting. It’s a terrible indictment of the malign influence of Homo sapiens on the natural world.

But let’s finish on a somewhat sentimental note, about a bird that might be said to recognise its crocodilian cousins. The elegant little Egyptian plover, with its smart grey, black, white and orange plumage, is also known as the crocodile bird. Why? Because, according to the Greek historian Herodotus, the crocodiles lie by the water’s edge, jaws agape, and a bird called a trochilus, which is alleged to be our little plover, performs dental hygiene by feeding on particles of meat between the croc’s teeth.

However, this apparent symbiosis is doubtful, as written accounts are unproven – the trochilus, whatever it is, has never been identified as the Egyptian plover. And, apart from a very brief YouTube video (where plovers might be simply opportunistically pecking insects from a crocodile’s jaws) there’s no photographic evidence that the two species hang out together in mutual self-help.

But it’s a nice idea, all the same!

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B is for biodiversity


Biodiversity  n. The number of species in the world or in a particular habitat, a high level of which is usually considered desirable

Let’s begin by talking about many people’s favourite animal. Do you know how many species of the dog family, Canidae, there are in the world? I’m not talking breeds, a word which means all the many and various forms of the domesticated dog (and which is actually, you might be surprised to know, a single species, Canis familiaris, biologically speaking). All the multifarious shapes and sizes of Man’s Best Friend are thought to have evolved from a wolf ancestor. You know they are all the same species because they can breed, as any mongrel mutt will attest, although it would be very unwise, indeed dangerous, to do so in some cases, such as where the dog were very large and the bitch very small.

No, I’m talking about the wider dog family. We all know about wolves, foxes, coyotes, dingoes and jackals of course. But there are many species – broadly divided into wolf and fox types because they descended from early precursors of those – and come in all shapes and sizes ranging from the tiny fennec fox which stands a mere 24 cm (9.4 inches) high and inhabits the deserts of North Africa and Arabia, to the mighty grey (or timber) wolf of North America, which is an impressive 85 cm (33.5 inches) to its shoulder. According to the University of Michigan, there are no less than 14 distinct genera (species groups) and 34 species themselves, and that’s not counting those that have gone extinct.

But why has nature evolved so many variations on the same theme? It’s not like humans with their deliberate breeding, practising what is after all eugenics on the descendent of the wolf to suit their own purposes. Nature isn’t self-serving like that. It’s all to do with habitat and adaptation to it. Obviously, types of habitat vary throughout the world and animals, expanding their territory as their numbers increase will, through natural selection, either fail in a novel environment they’re not suited to or gradually physically adapt to it.

So the fennec fox is like it is because that’s the best way to be to cope with the rigours of desert life. Similarly, the grey wolf is big and shaggy to best deal with a harsh northern clime. Over considerable time and many generations, the genetic difference between these examples (and the other 32 evolved types of wolf or fox) has become so different and fixed that distinct species, unable to interbreed with their cousins, have become established.

This is the wonder of evolution; the variegated physical geography of the earth, and other factors such as predation by other creatures further up a habitat’s food chain, causes myriad forms of life as adapted and specialised species come into being.

If you think there’s a multiplicity of species of canine though, get a load of this. There are now reckoned to be 10 million species of insects, making them by far the largest group of creatures in the animal kingdom, although scientists have yet to discover many of them, let alone name, catalogue or count them. And consider: each and every one of these little beasts exists happily, even though possibly heavily predated, in a particular niche on earth. They are small but vital cogs, along with all other creatures, in the extraordinarily complex web of life on our – literally – wonderful planet.

And what about the second most populous (at least visibly) kingdom: the angiosperms, flowering plants that reproduce sexually via seeds, such as herbaceous plants, shrubs, grasses and the majority (the later-evolved) of trees? They comprise over 90% of the world’s plant species and there are estimated to be anything up to 400,000, although only around 230,000 have been described so far.

The variety gets even more astonishing though. So far I’ve mentioned just the two obvious, visible kingdoms of life: plants and animals. These used to be the only two known to science. But not anymore; with the advent of microscopy enabling the study of cells and their fundamental differences (and indeed the discovery of microscopic forms of life) four other Kingdoms are now recognised.

They are: Eubacteria (most bacteria belong to this Kingdom), simple single-celled organisms found everywhere (even, helpfully, in our gut); Archaebacteria, also single-celled and very specialised, which thrive without the need for oxygen in extremely hostile environments such as the hot springs of Yellowstone National Park, USA; Fungi, such as mushrooms, moulds and mildew, which can’t make their own food but get it parasitically from decaying plants in the soil; and a fourth kingdom for anything else that can’t be classified as orthodox animals, plants, bacteria or fungi: the mainly single-celled Protists, like protozoa or algae.

But the ultimate (and nastiest) parasites are viruses, which belong to none of the recognised kingdoms and often aren’t considered life forms at all, as they can only exist and multiply actually inside the cells of other organisms.

And now for the final totting-up. What’s the total number of species in the living world? Well, it depends whether you include those really tiny guys the bacteria. The traditional assumption (by Wilson, 1992) was that the animal kingdom was by far the largest in terms of number of species, accounting for 73% of the total. But much more recent work has reached a very different conclusion.

In the present state of knowledge, about 1.5 million species have been identified and described, although most scientists agree that there are many more out there, still undiscovered. Estimates of a probable grand total vary between 5 and 15 million, but one study in September 1917 by the University of Arizona put it at as much as 2 billion. They surmised that each species of the most species-rich sort of animals, the insects, was likely to host at least 10 bacterial species unique to itself, and extrapolating from that produced their 2 billion figure. So in this scenario, expressing the numbers as a pie chart, bacteria take far and away the largest slice, 70 to 90%, with animals, fungi and assorted protists taking equal shares of most of the rest, and plants in a distant fifth place.

So, there’s a vastly complex and species-rich world out there. But is it stable? What about species loss? Many scientists are deeply worried about it, and the evidence is certainly worrying. It’s thought that around 23% – that’s 1,130 species – of mammals and 12% (1,194 species) of birds are seriously threatened with extinction. And why is this? Biodiversity is being lost at a much greater rate than with ‘natural’ extinction, for many reasons – and most can be blamed on human beings.

Land conversion – particularly forests (and particularly tropical ones) being felled for fuel or to make room for food production and industrial development – is one of the biggest culprits. This results (obviously) in habitat loss and the hapless animal residents either have to migrate away (which is impossible to do quickly) or die. The IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) has identified habitat loss as the main threat to 85% of the species on its Threatened and Endangered List. About 50% of the world’s natural forests have disappeared and are still being felled faster than they can re-grow. And as tropical forests contain probably half of all species, plant and animal, this is a terrible loss.

Another threat to biodiversity is climate change. Warmer or wetter weather brings about changes to habitat for which species aren’t suited and, as with the physical loss of their home, they are unable to migrate away quickly enough to a more favourable environment. And warming oceans become more acidic, causing fatal ‘bleaching’ of coral reefs. Not to mention pollution, again caused by humans. Greatly increased pesticide use pollutes the sea, damaging sea creatures, as does plastic waste. Pollutants such as the industrial chemicals PFOS and deca-BDE pose real threats to wildlife too.

Scientists estimate that possibly as many as 200 species of plant and animal go extinct every 24 hours, nearly 1,000 times the natural rate; that’s greater, some say, than at any time since the Great Extinction which banished the dinosaurs from the earth. And it’s largely due to the malign influence of that destructive top species, Homo sapiens.

Ours is such a beautiful blue planet when viewed from space, and no less so when you get close up and personal. So why are we mindlessly wrecking it?





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B is for belonging

Belonging  v. Being a member of (a particular group or organisation)

As the oft-quoted John Donne poetically mused, ‘No man is an island’. That’s certainly the case with most people. Most human beings, being social creatures (along with some other members of the animal kingdom) don’t want to be alone; they feel the psychological need to belong to a group; to be part of an entity greater than themselves.

The most fundamental group is the family, the biological reason for membership of which is to protect infants and to provide a safe environment for children to grow in, learning to meet the challenges of the adult world awaiting. That’s the ideal, at least, and it should be a child’s basic right. Even where a child has had to be removed from a dangerous family situation and put up for adoption, it still has the right to stable, loving and nurturing family life.

In most families, even after the young have flown the nest and no matter how mentally independent they feel, they still need the psychologically comfort of ‘family’ (if only to return to at Christmas for Mum’s cooking). This is so to varying degrees, certainly, and depends on the individual. With greater social and general mobility these days, some young people do indeed fly away to other parts of their country or even further afield, in search of job opportunities or simply a more exciting and rewarding life. Today more than in the past, families often become geographically atomised.

Other sons and daughters, on the other hand, feel no such wanderlust or ambition to seek greener pastures in which to better themselves. They’re content to stay (and sometimes, for harsh economic reasons, have to) within the bosom of the family, continuing to live at home with Mum and Dad. Or if they can afford to live independently, they at least stay within the home village, town or city. In some countries and cultures of the world, remaining part of an extended family within a home community is still the norm.

Regardless of whether we live near or far from our original home, most of us, unless we’re really emotionally self-sufficient and hermit-like, feel the need for friendship. Those of a more gregarious bent join friendship/pastime circles like golf or bowls clubs, choirs or drama groups, ramblers or book groups and all manner of clubs and societies. Belonging to groups like these, apart from filling leisure time pleasurably, instils warm feelings of fellowship.

And for those unable or unwilling to get, there’s always good old social media, of course. These have brought about a revolution in the way we socially interact over the last twenty years or so. Today, billions of people all over the world log on daily (including Yours Truly) to check their feeds and leave comments and Likes and generally put the world to rights. Whether some Facebook (for example) friends really count as ‘proper’, valid friends; friends you’ve known for years, live locally to and with whom you might share visits to the pub, or coffee mornings, or telephone now and then, or rely on as a shoulder on which to cry, might sometimes be a little debateable. But nonetheless, for the otherwise socially isolated or lonely, they are sometimes a psychological lifeline, for people of all ages. Especially the young, although for them social media with its potential for bullying or self-esteem crushing, can also sometimes be a curse.

But that’s enough of social and leisure belonging. Let’s return to days of yore. Along with families, there developed membership of larger social groupings: tribes. Human family groups tended to clump together in wider groups originally for hunting cooperation and later, in settled villages, for farming mutual aid – and, just as importantly in those brutal times, mutual protection. It really was a matter of there being safety in numbers.

There was good reason to fear the neighbouring tribe, the Other, living on the other side of the hill, who might covet your larger grain stores when times were hard. They were quite, and constantly, likely to try their luck with a sudden murderous and rapacious raid. As, to be fair, so were you as far as they were concerned. Sadly, this tribalistic fear of the Other became deeply ingrained and persists in some peoples’ subconscious to this day.

As society evolved, small local tribes coalesced into larger ones, which in turn became princedoms and then kingdoms, which in their turn, after much blood-soaked power struggling, became nations, so a wider, deeper sense of belonging, to a much larger entity, country, became the necessary social glue for holding things together. In a word, we acquired a concept called patriotism. It set many a heart beating quickly with country-loving, flag-waving pride and sent many young men, full of dreams of glory, to premature death as soldiers.

But again this warm feeling of belonging became perverted; there was an ugly reverse side of the coin. It was an amplification of the early tribalism really, now rebranded as my-country-right-or-wrong, Johnny Foreigner-hating ultra-nationalism, as exemplified by the strutting louts of organisations like the English Defence League. Not to mention, of course, the twentieth century fascism which is now sinisterly rearing its ugly head in some quarters again.

That I-belong-here-but-you-don’t mentality is also expressed as racism. By its own twisted logic it justifies itself in the they-look-different, not-one-of-us, ancient fear of the Other. Which is more than a little ironic in the case of black/white racism, considering that every human being on earth, of whatever skin hue, can trace their ancestry back to a black African forebear!

There was a period following the Second World War when people were relieved that the nightmare and sorrow of war was over and wished for everlasting peace; and politicians on the eastern side of the Atlantic tried to deliver it by proposing an even larger entity overarching and including, but not supplanting, the erstwhile warring nations, to which people in a spirit of friendly partnership could belong: a peaceful, united Europe. It began in 1958 as a straightforward, purely trading association: the EEC (European Economic Community), but later transmuted into something wider, somewhat more political (to the distaste of hard nationalists, particularly the UK Independence Party) and cultural: the European Union.

It hasn’t become a single huge political entity though, an oppressive supranational state, as some of its detractors maintain. The clue is in its title; it’s a union, a cooperative alliance of essentially still sovereign, still essentially autonomous nations.

I can only speak for myself here and tell you about my mindset, which is passionately European. I feel devastated by the result of the 2016 referendum in Britain with its slender majority for leaving and the Brexit result. I dislike the primitive feelings of petty nationalism and xenophobia that have been ignited: the narrow minded, mean-spirited, abusive, (‘sod off back to your own country; you’re not wanted here’) anti-foreigner exclusivity which is the very opposite of inclusivity and being included, of feeling oneself belonging to Europe.

Some of my like-minded Facebook friends, who have taken advantage of EU free movement rules and retired to France (properly, that is; learning the language and becoming involved in local life rather than simply being an ‘ex-pat’ living in an English enclave in Spain), and feel a strong European identity, are outraged and anxious as to their future in Europe. I really sympathise with them.

I could go on, but that’s a subject for another post. I’ll just say this. If asked my nationality, I’d say English by birth (although I’m a resident of another British country: Wales), European and citizen of the world.

That’s where I feel I belong.



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B is for belief

Belief n. 1 an acceptance that something exists or is true, especially one without proof
– a firmly held opinion
– a religious conviction
2 trust, faith or confidence in (someone or something)

It’s a funny old thing, belief. It’s very personal, obviously. At least it should be, in a free society. It should derive from one’s own worldview, one’s own take on things, not be imposed from outside by any sort of authoritarian, brainwashing body.

It can – ideally – be based on reason and rationality or simply be blind unreasoning faith with no concession to common sense, logic or scientific knowledge. It can be a passionately held point of view as a general outlook on things, or on a specific issue, such as laboratory animal testing or abortion. It can be (sometimes uncompromising and absolutist) religious faith. Or it can manifest as trust, such as trusting a politician’s promises, or confidence that friends or loved ones will help if you need it.

Let’s take a look at each of these categories in a little more detail:

Taking an extreme (and laughable) example of definition 1, there are still a few deluded people who are firmly convinced that the earth is flat just because, on the face of it, seen from ground level, it appears so. Never mind the indisputable observation if you leave earth in a high-flying aircraft or space rocket that the higher you go, the more a curved, convex horizon becomes apparent, which would only happen, obviously, if earth were an orb but not at all if it were a disc. And not to mention of course the pictures sent back from the moon or deep space; or the awkward point from such a believer’s point of view that a disc would necessarily have an edge over which some hapless earthlings might fall to their doom.

Or the unassailable fact that you don’t do that; if you set off travelling westwards from, say, New York, you cross America, then the Pacific ocean, then reach and cross Asia, then Europe and finally the Atlantic ocean until you end up back in New York. That would only tend to happen if the earth were an orb and therefore proves it. It’s called empirical evidence. But hard-core flat-earthers will have none of it. No, they say, all the hard evidence blowing their ‘belief’ out of the water is explained by conspiracy theory. Their stubborn pre-Enlightenment worldview (literally) beggars –as it were – belief.

Or another only slightly less extreme example: climate change denial. Yes, I know, that’s believing a negative really. A scientist, an expert in his or her subject, one who has probably spent years studying, researching and thinking about it, will modestly present peer-reviewed findings for consideration. For them it isn’t a matter of unquestioning faith but of facts; of best current knowledge. Whereas a denier will ‘believe’ that it’s all a lot of nonsense and again, probably, all a sinister conspiracy by academics just to win funds and keep them in cushy jobs. How can the earth be warming, they say, when the winter of 2017/18 in the north-east United States was so bitterly cold? They cannot (or simply will not) accept the scientific consensus that there’s indisputably a warming trend if you take the planet as a whole and also observe weather patterns over time – particularly recent time, when the trend is exponential.

Now let’s consider, for want of a better expression, moral belief: one’s established attitudes. Or, more accurately perhaps, simply values: principles or standards of behaviour or outlook, or judgement of what you consider important in life, acquired over the years by experience or social conditioning. An obvious example of that might be whether you consider intrinsic things like ‘quality of life’ (happiness, fulfilment; that sort of thing) more important than materialism – having lots of stuff and far more than you actually need.

Or your personal political inclination, be it left-leaning, conservative (or somewhere on that spectrum) or environmentalist. And strong personal attitudes about specific issues like, say, blood sports or presumed organ donation consent, or alleviating world poverty, where it isn’t really a matter of conventional political inclination. On issues such as these you might take an unswerving position from which you’re unlikely to be dissuaded. You could call that, fair enough, deep-seated belief.

On the other hand, if you are a thoughtful and liberal-minded person, you might over time, in the light of new factors or considerations or changes in societal attitudes, modify or even change your view. It’s allowed. It happens. And it’s okay. But if you are of a more conservative mindset, you might be less inclined to change and advancing age will tend to harden your certainty of your position.

And then there’s belief in one of its commonest definitions: religious faith. In my humble view, belief in a god, any sort of god, perfectly illustrates the faith-versus-scientific evidence question. It seems oxymoronic to me that you can simultaneously have both. It’s surely a dichotomy: a choice between two mutually-exclusive concepts. I fail to see how you can both believe in what is, by any reasonable definition, a supernatural force (albeit one seemingly for good) which has no evidential basis whatsoever, and also accept science. Or to put it another way: if you need a deity for which there’s absolutely no evidence in your life, you have to fall back on unquestioning faith. You have to say, well, He just is.

Yes, it’s a beautiful and alluring idea that somewhere, on some mysterious astral plane which mere humans, even scientists, can’t begin to comprehend (which is why there’s no observable evidence) there exists an omniscient, omnipresent, caring being who somehow created earth (only earth, or the rest of the universe too?) and all the people here on.

And that somewhere there’s a wonderful Elysian place called Heaven, or Paradise if you’re Muslim, to which when we die our ‘souls’ will be transported to live in eternal bliss: all the countless billions of us who currently inhabit earth, have previously done and will do so in the future, until our sun (did God make that too, as it’s essential life-support for His earth?), as it gets hotter and hotter, strips earth of its water and renders it uninhabitable (unless Homo Sapiens does that first all by itself).
Clearly, human beings in all cultures have felt the need to ascribe nature and a moral sense to a god-like force for thousands of years, but to still accept, or need, the existence of such a being in this day and age, when so many of the wonders of nature can be satisfactorily explained by science, you do indeed need a hefty dose of religious faith. That’s fine if you want to or need to though. But there’s a perfectly acceptable alternative moral code by which to live that doesn’t require belief in a supernatural deity: humanism. It’s based on compassion, kindness and evidence.

Finally, in definition 2, there’s belief as in trusting or having confidence in someone, or something that will come to pass or deliver the promissory goods. As I alluded before, an obvious example here is election-campaigning politicians. They ask us to trust them; trust that they will in fact deliver on the mandate for government we give them. Of course, in the real world of pragmatic politics, this often doesn’t happen and we become very cynical, but that’s another story, for another post. It’s usually a better bet to trust good, true friends and loved ones to do the decent thing.

To sum up: some definitions of the word ‘belief’ do present the eternal conundrum. Should we operate on blind faith, believing what we want to believe, or try, thoughtfully, to base our attitudes on the weighing of empirical evidence or logic?

And take, for a moral code, care for the earth and humanity; the common good?

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B is for beauty

Beauty n. [mass noun] a combination of qualities, such as shape, colour or form, that pleases the aesthetic senses, especially the sight.

Yes, perhaps especially sight. For nearly all of us, probably, when we think of the concept of beauty, lovely visual imagery springs automatically to mind.

Unless we’re particularly insensitive and beauty does nothing for us, we each have our own favourite images of course. Perhaps it’s a rainbow arching across a pewter sky after rain, framing a verdant, refreshed landscape. Or water tumbling down a wild mountainside from its source, impelled by gravity to its ultimate destination, the sea. Or wild flowers dancing, variegated, in a green Alpine meadow (or tame ones in a sun-spangled summer garden).

Or, in the world of art, beautiful painted images; or arrestingly, sensitively or compassionately photographed ones. Or in the exquisite three-dimensional form of (say) naturalistic Rodin or abstract Barbara Hepworth sculpture; or, on a smaller, handleable scale, ceramic or carved objects ď art that, if you close your eyes, or cannot see anyway, can give you tactile stimulus too.

Yes, I know, I know. I’m skimming very lightly over a vast subject, but to continue: then there’s beauty found in the human form – small, big-eyed children or, equally, the subtle, more profound, beauty in an old lady’s smile. And not forgetting beauty in the animal world either; not only cuddly baby ones but grown-ups too such as graceful antelopes or swans, or magnificent creatures like, say, elephants or eagles.

And then there’s the beauty of sound (as opposed to mere decibel level): the pure liquid tones of (an expertly played) violin or a gorgeously mellow cello; or an electric guitar or even a synthesizer. Or, by contrast again, the sounds of nature: wind soughing in trees; rain falling gentle, pitter-patter, on a pavement; waves crashing languidly on a beach.

Or beauty can be evoked rather than directly experienced, through the mental pictures painted by well-chosen words in poetry written down or recited. Or expertly, perhaps movingly, crafted in prose; the viewer’s pleasure enhanced when they’re printed in a visually beautiful book (or, okay, I’ll concede, displayed on screen on a well-designed web page ).

Speaking of mutually complementary combinations, there’s another of which, as a former typographic designer, I’m particularly fond: that’s fine words executed in beautiful calligraphy or incised monumental lettering. Other combinations might be filmic images enhanced by sympathetic music or ‘still’ photography dovetailed with songs, either sung or rendered in written or typed lyrics.

Yes, beauty comes in many forms.

Is there a neurological aspect to the aesthetic sense in humans? Is there a part of the brain which if absent, under-developed or damaged would deny us the appreciation of beauty? If there is such a region, it seems to produce a highly-developed sensibility in some people, but in others, decidedly not so much. And is this variability a cultural thing or a matter of upbringing, or the particular brain physiology we’ve drawn in the genetic lottery? Is it a case of nature or nurture?

In a paper published in 2011, Canadian researchers Steven Brown and Xiaoqing Gao suggested that there’s no specific part of the brain devoted exclusively to aesthetic response. But what they showed, rather, was that there seemed to be a shared function with areas that have evolved to perceive important things for survival such as whether food is all right to eat (a foul taste would suggest it wasn’t) or the attractiveness and vitality of a potential mate, the coupling with whom would tend to result in vigorous offspring and thus ensure continuance of the species.

Looking at many neuro-imaging studies, they found that the most important area with this seemingly dual function was the anterior insula in the cerebral cortex. This rather surprised them, as that area is known mainly for its registering of disgusting (and therefore dangerous) food and the perception of also danger-signalling pain. So why would that area also be involved in appreciating beauty? It didn’t seem to make sense.

They suggested an interesting hypothesis: perhaps the anterior insula evolved first as a defensive mechanism for warning of dangerous or undesirable things and for choosing the desirable, but later evolved (perhaps – and this is just my amateur theory – from visual appraisal of the desirability or otherwise of potential mates) into a means of appreciating higher things like art.

Although, speaking of beauty as sexual attraction, of course, in our modern, mostly fairly liberal society (there are exceptions) most thoughtful, mature and well-adjusted people recognise that superficial beauty is by no means the be-all-and-end-all in the quest for love (and, generally, procreation of mankind). That sort of beauty really is only skin deep. We like to think as grown-up adults that we’re at least as much attracted by good character qualities and things like shared outlook and interests in potential partners. Some studies show that that seems to be particularly so of women choosing men.

Nevertheless, as any teenager knows only too painfully, physical attractiveness (and therefore positive self-image) is only too real an issue. It’s a deeply ingrained, instinctual and ancient concern. And there are a lot of pressures from Hollywood, social media and peer pressure generally that insidiously suggest conventional standards of human beauty as a desirable and necessary thing for acceptance and happiness. But, although many young people nowadays are troubled by these pressures, they are facile. True, intrinsic beauty does of course reside deep down.

Leaving beauty associated with sexual attraction aside though, just why a higher aesthetic sensibility, just for its own sake, should have developed in humans alone isn’t clear. But whatever the reason, it obviously did. Like religion, the human need for art evolved very early on. Think the Palaeolithic period and the famous wall paintings of animals in the Lascaux caves in France. They’re reckoned to date from 17,000 years BC. They seem to have served no practical survival purpose whatsoever; as far as we can tell, they were done purely for the joy of creativity by the artist and (presumably) the pleasure of the viewer.

I started this post with the premise that beauty is mainly visual. Well, not from a blind person’s point of view, it isn’t. Here to finish are some definitions by blind people from the BuzzFeed website:

‘I have three kids and to me they are all beautiful. I don’t even know what they look like. They’re beautiful on the inside. They’re me.’

‘I think beauty is experience. The smell of warm, baked cookies. The warm breeze against your skin. The feeling of grass beneath your [bare] feet.’

‘I don’t need my eyes to see beauty . . . just imagining what the ocean looks like and what the sky looks like. That’s beauty for me.’

Yes, indeed.

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B is for banker

Banker n. A person who manages or owns a bank or group of banks

Like prostitution and entrepreneurialism (although I’m not necessarily conflating the two), banking has been around for a very long time. As has trade. With the advent of agriculture, early hunter-gatherer humans moved on from a subsistence-level means of staying alive to a simple barter system of exchanging surplus agricultural produce or goods for other goods or services they couldn’t produce themselves. That led to more sophisticated means of trade using tokens to represent value, and then coinage.

Along with this there also evolved quick-brained characters with a sharp eye for profit ready to lend money to those currently lacking the wherewithal to buy what they desired or needed – for an appropriate fee, of course. These early capitalists quickly realised that there was good money to be made out of other people’s debt.

Simply dealing in money – banking – is thought to have begun around 2000 BC in Assyria and Sumeria, was then practised in ancient Greece followed by the Roman Empire, and subsequently found its way to China and India. But banking as we know it today really took off in medieval Italy, with institutions such as the Medici Bank being established in 1397. The oldest bank in the world still operating is the Banco Monte dei Paschi di Siena. It was also founded in Italy, in 1472, as a ‘mount of piety’: an altruistic sort of pawnbroker, a charity enabling the poor to get cheap credit.

Mind you, banking has sometimes been far from ethical. Remember the Bible story about Jesus, in an uncharacteristic show of violence, throwing the moneylenders out of the temple? If he had been made human flesh today, I don’t think he would have taken too kindly to the ‘payday’ lenders and other loan sharks we have now. Except perhaps in times of economic calamity, making money out of money (as it were) has usually been highly lucrative (why else, after all, would finance companies buy debt from other finance companies?). A career in banking, money market trading and financial services generally has oft been many an ambitious young man or woman’s dream.

That’s not to suggest that all banking is necessarily sleazy or corrupt, of course. There are still altruistically-motivated banks and other institutions, like the Cooperative Bank (although it’s now owned by an American hedge fund firm),the Ecology Building Society, which lends for building and retrofitting sustainable houses, and non-profit credit unions, all of which avoid the worst excesses of capitalism and try to work for the common good.

But many if not all conventional retail and investment banks make no bones about it: they exist only to make handsome profits financing industry (which is fine if the terms are fair) but also feed the desire of many people, many consumers (that’s a key word) to buy stuff now, today (and increasingly online to swell the coffers of the Jeff Bozoses of this world) without deferring the gratification.

Of course, most of us have to go into debt to some extent, usually to buy a home as a better alternative to paying a large chunk of income for ever more to a private landlord. (Few people would be willing or able to do what I did to achieve mortgage-less house ownership: buy a ruin on a small mortgage, do it up, sell it much improved a few years later when the market had risen, thereby making enough to repay the mortgage and buy another ruin, this time outright, for another renovation).

But necessary debt to put a roof over one’s head is one thing, whereas debt (except for buying essentials when you really are too poor to be able to buy outright ) for other, relatively frivolous things, is another. According to the Money Charity, total personal debt (including mortgages) in the UK last year was a staggering £1,562 trillion. No wonder the lenders were laughing all the way to the, er, bank. That’s an awful lot of interest being charged and an awful lot of profit.

This little essay isn’t really about the rights or wrongs of debt though or whether consumer indebtedness is actually necessary to fuel a capitalist economy. Let’s stay with banks and bankers.

Since those far-off days in medieval and Renaissance Italy, and particularly since the Industrial Revolution, banking has prospered. Because its very raison d’ être is to deal in money, mountains of it, bankers only need to skim a very slender layer of cream off the top to make vast corporate and personal profits and fortunes. And, inevitably, with all that money involved, the temptations of shady or reckless practice – not to mention corruption sometimes – have sometimes been too great.

Of course, greedy bankers aren’t the only villains. There are the speculators – gamblers with other people’s money – of the stock market too and there have been huge peaks and deep troughs of economic boom and bust sometimes caused by their selfish and greedy shenanigans. The most devastating failure of the stock market in its effect on millions of people was the Wall Street Crash of 1929, which triggered the Great Depression of the 1930s.Stock prices and general wealth would not recover until 1954.

But the next major upheaval could be blamed fairly and squarely on the banking sector, with the financial which began in 2007. It too began in America with reckless lending of ‘subprime’ mortgages to people who simply couldn’t afford them, followed by excessive risk-taking by banks such as Lehman Brothers, which paid the ultimate price. And we all know what happened next: a global financial collapse; another Great Depression. For a few anxious hours it looked as though there might be complete global financial breakdown. Because they were considered to important for the economy to fail, many banks were bailed out with eye-wateringly huge amounts of taxpayer money and quantitative easing.

Few of the big beasts of banking, apart from Fred Goodwin, the boss of Royal Bank of Scotland, paid for their recklessness with their jobs (although even he got an extremely generous redundancy package) but many of the minions did.

But the real losers, the ones who always pay the highest price for bungles at the top of industry and high finance, were of course the ordinary folk. In Britain, Labour lost the 2010 general election, having been blamed rather unfairly by the electorate and hypocritically by the Conservatives (who were fully supportive of the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s ‘light touch’ banking regulation when in opposition) for a worldwide economic crash that had been precipitated in America.

And when the resultant Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition government came in, what did it do? It imposed swingeing austerity measures in an effort to rebalance the books after the enormous cost of the banker folly. In the tenth year since that near-catastrophe, austerity is still with us. Public services, not to mention the NHS, have been cut to the bone with no end to this ‘belt tightening’ in sight. And the people who most rely on help from the welfare state have suffered disproportionally.

But have the bankers, whose greed and incompetence caused the crisis in 2007/8 felt the pinch? No, of course not. Have their wages stagnated since then? Au contraire. Figures for 2015 showed that more than 4,000 city and senior bank employees in Europe (the vast majority of whom worked in London) were paid, including their lavish bonuses, more than one million euros – including one fund manager who got a cool 35 million.

So, no matter how much havoc, how much hardship their ‘misjudgements’ (to put it kindly) cause to ordinary people, bankers continue to do very nicely, thank you.

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